Menu Close

Tag: Montpelier Baptist Church Montpelier

How Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Churches Deal with Unwed Mothers

fornication is a sin

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

If you are unfamiliar with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, please read the following posts:

The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook

What is an IFB Church?

Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Lingo, A Guide to IFB Speak

The IFB River Called Denial

An Independent Baptist Hate List

Let’s Go Camping: Understanding Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Camps

How to Start an Independent Baptist Church

Tony Soprano Would Make a Good Independent Baptist Preacher

If I were to ask you what Independent Fundamentalist Baptists value most, many of you would say things such as: Jesus, the B-I-B-L-E, hard preaching, and potlucks. However, these four articles of the IFB faith pale in comparison to the one thing valued above all others: the virginity of teen girls and never-married women. Valued above Jesus? Yes, even above Jesus. Intact hymens are the holy grail of the IFB church movement. This fact is best illustrated by a dating couple who came to an IFB pastor and asked if they only had “butt sex” would that mean the woman was still a virgin? The pastor, of course, told them that anal sex was the same as vaginal sex. But why would this question even be asked? Why would anyone think that anal sex (or oral) was not “real” sex? Because in IFB churches, the only hole God made for sex is judiciously protected against the insertion of anything besides tampons. No penises, fingers, vegetables, or battery-operated devices are allowed. (And on the extreme end of the IFB church movement, some pastors believe that married couples should only engage in vaginal sex — missionary position — while thinking how wonderful it would be if Bro. Billy Bob’s sperm hooked up with Sister Mary Lou’s eggs.)

abstinence

From their teen years forward, IFB girls hear repeated warnings about having premarital sex and losing their virginity. These girls are told that only whores have premarital sex and that those who let boys score with them are like dirty rags fit for the trash. I have heard countless sermons — and preached a few myself — that focused solely on causing teen girls and unmarried women fear, guilt, and shame. While the young horn dogs of IFB churches, along with their wandering-eyed fathers, hear purity sermons from time to time, most of such sermons are directed at what IFB churches believe is the weaker sex. Women are reminded that they are the gatekeepers. It is up to them to protect not only their own holy virginity, but that of the boys and men. This is why there are so many rules about how women dress. The goal is to destroy their visage and beauty, those things that cause teenage boys to have wandering thoughts about youth group girls instead of their pastor’s weekly Biblical tirade.

Despite the Baptist burkas, hot-and-heavy sermons, and puritanical rules governing dating and male/female interaction and physical contact (there are no gays in IFB churches), unmarrieds do have sex. And thanks to Just Say No sex education, some girls do become pregnant.

In IFB churches, there’s nothing worse than one of the church girls getting pregnant (especially the preacher’s daughter). Whether the girl is fourteen or twenty-three, it matters not. Becoming pregnant without the benefit of marriage is a deep black stain on the mother-to-be and the church, the girl’s parents, and her pastor. By spreading her legs before marriage and “allowing” Deacon Noah’s son to plant his seed, she has repudiated everything her church, parents, and pastor believe about the sanctity of sex.

With such extreme thinking, wouldn’t it be best for all sexually aware IFB girls to be put on the pill? That way, the threat of embarrassment and scandal for IFB churches, pastors, and parents is eliminated. Makes sense, right? Why not take preventive measures, especially since any honest IFB preacher knows that more unmarrieds than not will eventually do the “dirty” deed. When I was asked this very question years ago, I told the questioner that allowing girls to use birth control was akin to saying that it was okay to have sex. This same logic was used for drinking alcohol, using drugs, and other behaviors deemed sins. JUST SAY NO was the only proper response to temptation and sin. It didn’t matter that most married adult IFB church members failed to just say no when they were single. (Ask your pastor or his wife if they were virgins on their wedding day.) All that mattered was maintaining the virginal illusion that when young IFB couples walked down the aisle, their lives were living testimonies to the rightness of IFB doctrine and practice.

I want to conclude this post with several anecdotal stories from my days as a student at Midwestern Baptist College and as a young IFB pastor.

As many of you know, the college I attended in the 1970s had (and still has) a strict no-contact-with-the-opposite-sex policy. If you are not familiar with this policy, please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule. While an infinitesimally small number (I knew of four) of unmarried students kept the six-inch rule, the rest of us broke the rule with gusto. While some students could keep their virginity intact, other students scampered around the bases and slid into home. Those caught breaking the six-inch rule were usually campused (not permitted to leave campus) on a first offense. Further offenses, pregnancy, or whispers of sexual romps in cars, motel rooms, or the dormitory laundry room were harshly met with immediate expulsion. Not only were offenders shamed in front of their fellow students, many of whom were guilty of the very same sexual “crimes,” they were shipped home to their IFB churches, parents, and pastors to face further humiliation.

fornication

My first ministerial position post-college was as the assistant pastor of a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) congregation in Montpelier, Ohio. During my seven-month stay at Montpelier Baptist Church, one of the girls in the church became pregnant. The pastor decreed that she and the father of the baby were to wed immediately. (My sister went through a similar circumstance, marrying at the age of fifteen.) Not only were they to promptly wed, but only immediate family could attend the wedding, and the girl would not be permitted to wear a white dress. The pastor told the pregnant girl that the color white was reserved for girls who were virgins on their wedding days. Her mistake was confessing her sin. Had she quickly and quietly run to the altar as other church women had done, she could have worn white and maintained the virginity illusion.

Years later, I attended a church service where a “loose” pregnant teen was brought before the church congregation and made to profess her wickedness publicly. Once she was sufficiently shamed, church members came to the weeping, shaking girl and embraced her, praising God for cleansing the girl from her sin. I do not doubt that many of these hugging super saints were guilty of the very same sin years ago. Sufficiently distanced from their own mortal sins, these holy saints of God likely felt no irony or guilt as they continued the shaming ritual.

Some IFB churches choose to make pregnant teens disappear. IFB parents who find out their daughters are pregnant will usually immediately (and frantically) contact their pastors to find out what they should do. Knowing that their daughters’ “sins” will sully their churches’ testimonies (and abortion is not an option), parents often choose to ship their pregnant teens to IFB group homes. These homes, which are frequently little more than prisons or reeducation camps, purportedly turned whores, sluts, and fornicators into blood-washed, white-as-the-driven-snow lovers of Jesus, the King James Bible, and the IFB way. Often, their babies are given up for adoption.

I hope readers raised in IFB churches will share their own experiences in the comment section. I have written here sounds out of this world to many people, but these stories and practices are repeated daily in countless IFB schools, colleges, churches, and homes. Since the IFB church movement prides itself on being the same today, yesterday, and forever (if it was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it’s good enough for me), the shaming rituals and abuse of years ago are often practiced today.  As long as church teenagers keep having sex, there will be bastard children and women to ritually humiliate. Indeed, the IFB deity is an awesome God.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Short Stories: Tar and Feather the Bus Pastor

montpelier baptist church 1979
Montpelier Baptist Church bus, Montpelier, Ohio

In February of 1979, Polly and I moved from Pontiac, Michigan to Bryan, Ohio. Polly was six months pregnant. For a short time, we lived with my sister. Once I found suitable employment, we rented a place of our own. Bryan is the city of my birth. When I moved away in 1976 to study for the ministry at Midwestern Baptist College, I planned to never return to Bryan. However, marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, and job loss turned my “never” on its head. Over the years, we have lived in or near Bryan several times, and in 2007 we bought our current home in Ney, a small village five miles south of Bryan. Try as I might to get away from Bryan and the flat lands of rural northwest Ohio, I keep returning home. I have now resigned myself to the fact that this where I will live out my life.

Not long after we first moved to Bryan, Polly and I began attending my sister’s church, Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, a community ten minutes north of Bryan. Jay Stuckey was the pastor, and after a few weeks Jay asked if I would be interested in becoming the church’s assistant pastor (an unpaid position). I quickly told Jay yes! In a post titled, Bruce, Were You Happy in the Ministry? Part One, I detailed our time at Montpelier Baptist Church:

In February of 1979, we moved to Bryan, Ohio, the place of my birth and the home of my sister Robin. After living with my sister for a short while, we found a house to rent on Hamilton Street. I began working at ARO, a large local manufacturer of pumps and air tools. ARO paid well, but I still desired to be a pastor. As with every job, I viewed secular work as just a means to an end — me pastoring a church. My sister attended the Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, Ohio. When we first moved to Bryan, we thought that we would attend First Baptist Church, the church I had attended before enrolling at Midwestern. Though I knew everyone at First Baptist, we decided to go to Montpelier Baptist, a young, growing GARBC church pastored by Jay Stuckey. This decision did not sit well with the people at First Baptist. One of the matriarchs of the church told me, “Bruce you know you belong at First Baptist!”  At the time, First Baptist was pastored by Jack Bennett. Jack was married to my uncle’s sister Creta.

I had previously preached at Montpelier Baptist, so I knew a bit about Stuckey and his ministry philosophy. Stuckey was a graduate of Toledo Bible College, which later moved to Newburgh, Indiana and became Trinity Theological Seminary.  After we attended the church for a few weeks, Stuckey asked me to help him at the church by becoming the bus pastor and helping with church visitation.

The church had one bus route. It brought in a handful of children every week and little was being done to increase ridership numbers. Enter hot-shot, get–it-done, Bruce Gerencser. In less than a month, on Easter Sunday, the bus was jammed with eighty-eight riders. I vividly remember arriving at the church with all these kids and the junior church director running out to the bus and frantically asking me what I expected him to do with all the children. I replied, that’s your problem, I just bring them in. Needless to say, this man was never very fond of me.

A short time later, the church bought a second bus. I recruited bus workers to run the new route and before long this bus was also filled with riders. On the first Sunday in October, 1979, Montpelier Baptist held its morning service at the Williams County Fairground. A quartet provided special music and Ron English from the Sword of Lord preached the sermon. Five hundred people attended this service and about 150 of them had come in on the buses. Less than two weeks later, I was gone. Polly and I, along with our newborn son Jason, packed up our meager household goods and moved to Newark, Ohio.

As mentioned in the above excerpt, I quickly went to work building up the church’s bus ministry. Using the skills and gimmicks I had learned while working in the bus ministry as a teenager and at college, I rapidly grew the bus ministry, and bus ridership numbers exploded. Key to increased ridership numbers was a system of regular bus promotions. Every Saturday, bus workers would meet at the church and I would motivate them to, as Luke 14:23 says: go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. Like the Apostle Paul who said, I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some, I was willing to use whatever means necessary to entice children to ride our buses. The goal, of course, was for them to hear the gospel and be saved.

One such promotion was Tar and Feather Pastor Bruce. I told the bus workers that if the total bus attendance was such and such a number, I would let bus riders cover me with Karo syrup and goose feathers. Sure enough, bus workers scoured the area looking for new riders, and in a few weeks, they exceeded the attendance goal.

Here’s what happened the following Sunday after the morning service:

montpelier baptist church 1979

Yep, that is me. Stupid, stupid me. It took me an hour, in a steaming hot shower, to get all the syrup and feathers off my skin. Needless to say, I never did this promotion again!

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

How the IFB Church Turned My Wife Into a Martyr

polly gerencser late 1990s
Polly Gerencser, late 1990s, carrying water from the creek to flush the toilets. An ice storm had knocked out the power.

My wife, Polly, and I were raised by parents who believed Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches preached the true gospel and adhered to the right doctrinal beliefs. Both of us spent our preschool years in non-Baptist churches, but neither of us remembers anything about these congregations. Our earliest religious experiences were with IFB churches. Both of us made our first professions of faith as kindergartners. I asked Jesus into my heart during junior church at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego, California. Polly gave her heart to Jesus by her mom’s bedside. As teenagers, both of us “really” got saved and/or committed our lives to Jesus. I also believed that God was calling me to be a preacher, and Polly believed her calling in life was to be a preacher’s wife.

During our high school years, I attended a large public high school in Findlay, Ohio — dropping out of school after my eleventh-grade year. Polly, at the time, lived in Bay City, Michigan. At the age of thirty-five, her father felt called to preach and moved his family to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College.  During her father’s four years at Midwestern, Polly attended Oakland Christian School — a large Fundamentalist high school. Polly’s father graduated from Midwestern in May 1976. He then moved his family to Newark, Ohio, to become the assistant pastor for the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple — as it is commonly called — was an IFB church pastored by Jim Dennis, Polly’s uncle. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.)

In August of 1976, a full-of-life redheaded boy packed his meager belongings into his beater Dodge Dart and made his way north to enroll for classes at Midwestern. A beautiful dark-haired girl would do the same, making the five-hour trip north in a six-year-old AMC Hornet. God’s perfect will was aligning for both of us, and we soon began dating. It was not long before we both were smitten with the other. Six months later, on Valentine’s Day, I asked Polly to marry me. She said yes, and I put on her ring finger the $225 quarter-caret diamond ring I had recently purchased for her at Sears and Roebuck. We then wonderfully broke Midwestern’s rules forbidding physical contact between unmarrieds. (Please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule.)

Polly and I threw ourselves into our studies, knowing that we couldn’t — thanks to a college rule forbidding marriage as freshmen — get married until the summer of 1978. Polly’s mom used the intervening eighteen months to try to derail our marriage plans. In February of 1978, Polly’s mom let her know that she could not marry me. End of that, I am sure Mom thought. Little did she know that full-of-life Bruce had rubbed off a bit on quiet, reserved Polly. After giving serious thought to eloping, we decided to get married with or without her parents’ blessing. Polly told her mom that she wanted their blessing and very much wanted to have the wedding at the Baptist Temple, but if not, she was marrying her red-headed bad boy anyway. This was the first time that Polly ever stood up to her mom.

In July of 1978, we tied the knot at the Baptist Temple on a ninety-five-degree July day (the church did not have air conditioning). Polly’s dad and uncle performed the wedding. Our wedding entourage was made up of friends from college, close friends, and family members. It was very much an IFB affair, with one exception, anyway. The soloist for our wedding was a college friend of ours. Two of the songs we asked him to sing were We’ve Only Just Begun by the Carpenters and The Wedding Song (There is Love) by Peter, Paul, and Mary. These were the FIRST secular pop songs ever sung at a Baptist Temple wedding, and they were most certainly the last. For the past forty-two years, thanks to us using secular songs in our wedding, Baptist Temple couples must have their wedding music approved before it can be used. We truly made a “mark” on the church.

After our honeymoon in French Lick, Indiana, we returned to Pontiac to begin our junior year of college. The first week of classes, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. How could that be possible? We were using contraception! Of course, we never had any premarital counseling or instruction about birth control. We were just two dumb, naïve young adults who thought reading Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye’s 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, was comprehensive sex education.

Polly was quite sick during her pregnancy. Her obstetrician was a country doctor who thought it was good for her to gain as much weight as she wanted. All told, she gained sixty-eight pounds, some of which is still with her today. Polly’s health problems forced her to reduce her class load. I maintained a full class schedule while also working a second shift job at a Detroit-area machine shop — Deco Grande. In January of 1979, I lost my job, and we were immediately plunged into a financial crisis. Polly and I sought counsel from the college dean, Levi Corey, thinking that it might be best for us to drop out of school for a semester. The dean told us that it was God who led us to Midwestern, and he never uses quitters. We would hear the “God never uses quitters” mantra many times during the next few weeks. He suggested we borrow money to pay our tuition bill. We did, but that only staved off destitution for a short while. In February 1979, we dropped out of college, packed up our belongings in a small U-Haul, and towed them with a 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. I was twenty-one, and Polly was twenty.

Our experiences at Midwestern generally reinforced what we had been taught as youths. We were taught a John R. RiceThe Home: Courtship, Marriage, and Children patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. The Sword of the Lord website describes Rice’s book this way: 

Too long have people had to depend on lewd and crude books, written by ungodly men or women, people who think more of the body than of the soul, writers who study more to excite human passions than to make godly homes. This book shows the normal plan of God about marriage, about children and the Christian principles of a happy home.

I was the head of the home, and all decisions were to be made by me. Polly’s role was to care for our home and children. A greater burden was placed on Polly because she was taught that since her husband was a pastor, she and her children would always come second to the church. Polly was often reminded, both in classes and from the pulpit, that she would have to make great sacrifices for the sake of the ministry; that she must never complain about her preacher husband’s tireless service to Jesus; that men greatly used by God always had wives who understood their husbands’ supernatural calling; that if she would humbly walk in her husband’s shadow, that God would greatly reward her after death. Being naturally passive and reserved, Polly adapted well to her calling, as did I, an outspoken, passionate, quick-to-make-decisions pastor. These teachings would, over time, turn Polly into a martyr.

After leaving college and moving to Bryan, we lived with my sister and her husband for a few weeks while I secured employment and found us suitable housing. Polly, at the time, was six months pregnant with our first child.

As hardcore Fundamentalist Baptists, our first order of business was to find a church to attend. We had been taught that missing church was a grievous sin, a transgression that brought swift judgment from God. Family and friends thought that we would attend First Baptist Church. After all, it was the church I attended before college, and it was pastored by a distant relative, Jack Bennett. My sister and her husband were attending Montpelier Baptist Church, pastored by Jay Stuckey. Polly thought First Baptist was an aging, dead church, with little to offer a young family such as ours. My feelings were a bit more conflicted because I knew many of the people at First Baptist, but I knew Polly was right. So, instead of going where everyone expected us to go, we started attending Montpelier Baptist Church.

Montpelier Baptist was a young church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). The church’s pastor and his wife were a few years older than we, and many of the congregants were young adults. The nursery teemed with newborns, and there was an excitement in the air as, week after week, the church continued to grow. Pastor Stuckey was what I would now call a newspaper-headlines-preacher. He preached sermons about the end times, the rapture, and the Illuminati — the things you find in Chick Tracts.  For those who were interested in prophecy and evangelism, Montpelier Baptist was the place to be.

Several weeks after we started attending the church, Jay asked me to be his assistant, working with the bus ministry and the church’s evangelistic efforts. The position paid me exactly zero dollars and zero cents, even though I would, in a few weeks, find myself working at the church over thirty hours a week. Fortunately, I had secured a union job working at ARO in the shipping and receiving department, so money was not a concern.

Between the church and ARO, I was gone from home almost eighty hours a week. Polly was left alone most days, rarely seeing me until late in the evening or at church. I quickly became consumed with the work of the ministry, neglecting my wife for the sake of the supernatural call God had on my life. Polly saw my devotion to the church as the way pastors were supposed to be — sold out, on fire for Jesus. As my wife, Polly knew that God, ministry, and church came before her.

No matter how many hours I worked or how long I was away from home, Polly never said a word. She could see that God was blessing my work at the church. Thanks to my labor with the bus ministry and the church’s visitation program, church attendance grew rapidly. We were bringing so many children in on the buses that they had to sit on the floor at the front of the church. The crowded pews lent themselves to the congregation’s belief that God was doing something great at Montpelier Baptist Church. In October 1979, nine months after I started working with Jay, the church had a record attendance of five hundred. 

Three weeks later, Polly and I, along with our newborn son, would again pack up our belongings, this time so we could move to Newark, Ohio. During our time at Montpelier Baptist, it became clear that I was a workaholic; that I was unable to rest and relax when there was work to do for God. Shortly after our record attendance, I started having health problems that landed me in the hospital for several days. The doctor determined that my problems were stress-related.  During my hospital stay, Jay never came to see me. He never bothered to ask how I was doing. It was during this time that I was also facing a layoff at work. I went to talk to Jay about the difficulties we were having financially — thinking that the church might help us a bit since I was devoting so much of my time to its ministries — and he suggested I apply for welfare. Jay’s indifference towards us was quite hurtful, and later that day, Polly and I decided we would move to Newark. We went over to Jay’s home to tell him, thinking he would understand. He didn’t. Jay became quite belligerent (as did his wife), laying a guilt trip on me for wanting to leave. He so shamed me that I changed my mind about leaving.

A week or so later, it became clear that we were going to have to move. I went to Jay’s office to tell him we were moving, and he looked up from his desk and basically said to me, see ya later, and then went back to whatever it was he was doing.  By the end of the week, we had packed up our belongings and moved to Newark to live temporarily with Polly’s parents until I found a job.

In all of this, Polly was a passive bystander. It was my job to be the head of the home, to make all the decisions. She was taught, and believed, that her God-called preacher husband was led by the Holy Spirit and knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t remember her ever questioning our moves from college to Bryan and from Montpelier to Newark. She was content to follow me wherever I went, and whatever difficulties, burdens, and trials came her way, she would gladly bear them without a word of complaint. As far as patriarchal thinking goes, she was the perfect wife.

These experiences, and many others like them, turned Polly into a martyr. No matter what I said or did, she just smiled and obeyed — the perfect IFB pastor’s wife. Instead of giving her opinion or standing her ground, she quietly followed in my footsteps. It was not until we were in our forties that we realized this was no way to live; Polly was supposed to be my partner, not my slave.

The past 20 years of marriage have been transformational, to say the least. Our decision-making process has changed dramatically, and Polly isn’t afraid to express her opinion or say that this or that is a bad idea. Going back to college and graduating in 2012, and being promoted to second shift supervisor for her department at Sauder Woodworking have allowed Polly to step outside of my shadow, be her own person, and make her own decisions. Deconverting in 2008 helped too. Once freed from an authoritarian God and his rule-book, Polly was free to chart her own course and captain her own ship.

There are times when both of us lapse into our former IFB ways. We are not much different personality-wise from when we got married 42 years ago. Sure, we have mellowed with age and our priorities have changed, but what’s really changed is our values and how we treat each other. Both of us can say that our marriage today is better than it ever has been. We deeply love one another and realize that we are lucky that our marriage survived decades of IFB indoctrination. We are far from perfect, but strive to be a better friend, lover, and spouse to each other every day. Now, if we can just quit fighting over the blanket. 🙂

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

IFB Bullies in the Pulpit

angry preacher

I recently read a blog post on another website that talked about bullies in the pulpit. For those of us raised in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, we are quite aware of so-called men of God bullying church members under the guise of preaching the Word of God or sharing what God laid upon their hearts. Let me share a couple of illustrations I believe will aptly illustrate my point.

In the early 1980s, my wife and I attended the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio. The church’s pastor was James (Jim) Dennis, Polly’s uncle. Jim graduated from Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in the 1960s. Polly’s father would later attend this college, as did Polly and I. Midwestern was known for producing fire-breathing, authoritarian preachers. Tom Malone, the chancellor of Midwestern and pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, took a ” my way or the highway” approach to ministry. Legalistic thinking permeated both the church and the college. Run afoul of Malone, and you were shown the door. I vividly remember someone leaving a church service at Emmanuel and Malone stopping his sermon to address the man leaving. Much to the man’s embarrassment, Malone said, with his Alabamian drawl, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” The only phrase missing was “on the ass.”

Jim Dennis followed in the footsteps of Malone when it came to being a bully. While Jim could have a winsome personality, cross him and he would quickly put you in your place. The Baptist Temple was his church, end of discussion. God had called him to be its pastor, and as God’s chosen oracle, his word was law.

The church was going through a difficult time financially. Jim decided that he would inspect the tithing records to see which church members were giving and how much. Jim was shocked to learn that many of the teachers and staff in the church’s Christian school were not tithing. Never mind that teachers and staff members were paid pathetically low wages and had few, if any, benefits. Polly taught first grade one year at the school. She made $180 a week before taxes. She also worked in the church’s daycare the previous year. Polly’s total gross wages in 1980-81 were $9,111. I made almost three times as much money working for Long John Silver’s (and had full benefits) as Polly did teaching and caring for the church’s children. Worse yet, women were paid less money than men. Why? Because men were breadwinners, not women. Employees were expected to treat their jobs as a ministry of sorts, the equivalent of a Baptist vow of poverty. It should not be surprising then that many teachers and staff members couldn’t afford to tithe and give offerings. When you are in the poorhouse, it is hard to justify giving money to the church.

One Sunday, an angry Jim Dennis — righteous anger, right?— took to the bully pulpit and savaged his selflessly serving teachers. He demanded that they immediately start tithing, and if they didn’t, he would have their tithes deducted from their paychecks. While I’m sure Polly’s IFB family would wish I didn’t write stories such as this, I think it is important to expose this sort of behavior for what it is: bullying.

Let me share another story before moving on to my own abhorrent behavior. In the 1980s, a fire-breathing Fundamentalist named Mike Lee was the pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, Ohio. Montpelier Baptist was the first church I worked for after leaving Midwestern in 1979. The pastor I worked for, Jay Stucky, later left and Lee became pastor. My sister and her husband were members of the church both while I was there and after Lee took over the helm. After my sister’s marriage fell apart, Lee would have her followed to see what she was up to. Granted, her behavior didn’t measure up to the IFB standard, but deacons following her to the local bar and grill to observe her behavior? My sister, of course, left the church.

Several years later, the good pastor Lee decided to address the burning issue of church teenagers attending their high school prom. In the minds of Fundamentalists like Lee, attending the prom was among the vilest of “sins.” After his sermon was over, Lee told the congregation that he had something he wanted to talk to them about. Wanting to make sure that no one could leave the church auditorium, Lee had the ushers lock the doors. How do I know this happened? A couple who would later join the church I pastored in West Unity were visiting Lee’s church that day. They were scared witless by his behavior. There’s one word to describe this pastor’s behavior: bullying.

These two illustrations likely seem beyond the pale to non-IFB Christians, but trust me, such behavior is quite normal among IFB pastors and churches. Why is that? Most IFB pastors are anti-culture. I suspect most of them voted for Donald Trump in the last election. Authoritarians love other authoritarians. Many IFB pastors run their churches in a fashion similar to the way Trump ran his businesses and the federal government. IFB pastors, to the man, believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Couple this with a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, a belief that pastors are divinely called by God to speak on his behalf, and that their opinions and personal interpretations have the weight of law, is it any surprise that many of them are bullies?

I grew up in IFB churches and attended an IFB college. My pastors, professors, and colleagues in the ministry all modeled bullying behavior to one degree or another. I heard it at pastor’s conferences in the stories preachers told about their churches, and I witnessed it when I visited other IFB churches. People wrongly assume that Steven Anderson, an IFB pastor in Tempe, Arizona, is an outlier, an aberration. He’s not. The same goes for the late-Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church.

It is not surprising, then, that I was an authoritarian and bully as a pastor. I may have been kind, compassionate, and may have gone out of my way to help church members, but I expected congregants to heed my pronouncements. I expected them to recognize and bow what is called in IFB circles “pastoral authority.” This false notion was reinforced in my sermons, private interactions, and church business meetings. Church members were warned that failure to obey the man of God would lead to judgment and chastisement from the Almighty. And surprisingly, hundreds of people bowed to my authority, believing I was in some way or the other chosen by God to be their “shepherd.”

The good news is that I stopped being a bully long before I left the ministry. I came to see that the church didn’t belong to me. It was “our” church, not my personal fiefdom. Did I totally lose my authoritarian bent? Sadly, no. I learned that many church members were quite comfortable with me making all or most of the decisions. They were fine with me telling them what to believe and how to live. I endured countless church business meetings where I would plead with congregants to share their opinions, only to see them stay silent or let me have the final say. This was frustrating, to say the least, but it is hard for me not to conclude that every church I pastored had cultic tendencies.

After leaving the ministry in 2005 and Christianity in 2008, I have repeatedly apologized to former parishioners for my bullying behavior. While I have been forgiven by those I have harmed, it’s hard for me to live with the damage and harm I caused to others. Sure, I was a product of my environment and training. Sure, I did what was modeled to me by my pastors, professors, and other IFB pastors and evangelists. All that is true and makes for a great psych profile, but the fact remains that I was a bully, that I harmed other people, including my wife and children.

Alas, there are no do-overs in life. All I know to do is tell my story and hope that others will be warded off from authoritarian pastors. Not all pastors are bullies, so I suggest potential church members carefully pay attention to how a preacher conducts himself before committing one’s time and money to a particular church. Bullying behavior can be found in other sects too. In general, Evangelicalism has a problem with bullies in the pulpit, men who are engorged with power and control. The only way to end such behavior is to stop giving these bullies an audience. When all the students stay off the playground, the bully has no one to harm. It’s time for Christians to leave authoritarian pastors to their own devices.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

The Making of a Fundamentalist: First Baptist Church, Bryan, Ohio — Part One

first baptist church bryan ohio
First Baptist Church, Bryan, Ohio

MMy memories of Christian Fundamentalism began in the 1960s as a member of First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio. In the early 1960s, my parents moved to San Diego, California. I was five. Dad was chasing the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What he found was more of the same — Ohio, with better weather. Dad ended up selling aluminum awnings and driving a truck — not much different from the jobs he left behind in Bryan, Ohio. Dad’s California dream ended after my second-grade school year with our move back to the rural northwest Ohio community of Bryan — my father’s birthplace. One thing, however, remained: my parent’s newfound Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) faith.

Mom and Dad were nominal Christians before their move to California. Our family attended Episcopal and Lutheran churches in Bryan. Why my parents sought out an IFB church after we moved to San Diego is unknown. Perhaps someone invited them to church. Or maybe, Dad saw an opportunity for sales referrals. Regardless, the Gerencser family started attending Scott Memorial Baptist Church (now Shadow Mountain Community Church) in El Cajon. While there, Mom and Dad made public professions of saving faith and were baptized by immersion. As a kindergartener, I did the same. From this time until my parents divorced in 1972, the Gerencsers attended IFB churches, and were front and center every time the church doors were open.

One such church was First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio. Established in 1954, First Baptist was originally affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but later become an IFB congregation. When my parents returned to Bryan in 1965, the church was located on Alpine Drive, and was pastored by Donald Linz. In 1967, Mom and Dad moved us to Harrod, Ohio, leaving behind the First Baptist congregation. We returned 18 months later. By then the congregation had purchased the old Wesley United Methodist building on the corner of Beech and Butler. Linz had moved on, and in his place was Jack Bennett, a pastor married to the sister (Creta) of two of my uncles. Bennett would pastor First Baptist for thirty-one years. Currently, the church is located on a fifteen-acre plot on the edge of Bryan. Currently, home-grown John MacFarlane is the pastor. MacFarlane has pastored First Baptist since 1999.

letter-from-first-baptist-church-bryan-ohio
A “personal” letter my son who lives in Bryan received from First Baptist Church in October 2016

After starting ninth grade at Ney Junior High School in 1969, my parents moved away yet again, this time to Deshler. One year later, they would load up their earthly belongings and move to Findlay. Dad started selling vacuuAfter I started ninth grade at Ney Junior High School in 1969, my parents moved our family away yet again, this time to Deshler. One year later, we would load up our earthly belongings and move to Findlay. Dad started selling vacuum cleaners for Kirby. After a brief stay at Calvary Baptist Church, Mom and Dad joined Trinity Baptist Church — a fast-growing IFB church pastored by Gene Milioni. I would remain in Findlay for my ninth through eleventh grade school years.

In the spring of 1974, I returned to my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio. I once again joined First Baptist, and would remain an active member there until I left college in 1979. With my pregnant wife by my side, I returned to Bryan, but decided that it was time for me to move on from what I called the “family church.”

My sister and her husband attended Montpelier Baptist Church — an IFB congregation affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) in nearby Montpelier. The pastor at the time was Jay Stuckey. Stuckey asked me to be his assistant, primarily working with the church’s bus ministry and visitation program. Thus ended my connection with First Baptist.

Several months after my defection from the family church, I ran into Mom Daugherty at the grocery store. Mom, along with her husband Pops, were pillars of the church. I believe they were founding members. Mom Daugherty told me, at the time, “Bruce, why are you attending that ‘other’ church? You know where you belong.” I politely and briefly explained to her why I joined Montpelier Baptist. She would have none of that, telling me that she hoped I would return “home.”

This series will focus on my experiences with First Baptist Church and its pastor Jack Bennett. I’m sure daring to tell these stories out loud will upset some current/former members and pastors of the church. How dare I speak ill of the dead — or the living, for that matter? These stories need to be told, and now is the time.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser