Tag Archive: Opting Out of Social Security

What is Life?

life

I recently celebrated my sixty-second birthday. Next month, I will draw my first Social Security check. The following month, my wife and I will celebrate our forty-first wedding anniversary. And early next year, grandchild number thirteen will arrive on the scene. I am now, without question, an old man, a cranky curmudgeon. I have seen a few things and experienced a lot of this thing we humans call life. As I comb through my past, I have come to the conclusion that life is the sum of our choices, held together by the mortar of luck and circumstance. As I carefully examine my life, I can see how certain decisions I made in the past materially affect my life today. For example, as a married, full-of-life, physically fit young preacher, I decided to opt out of Social Security. For the next seventeen years, I paid no social security/Medicare taxes on my ministry-related income. I leveraged the clergy housing allowance and other legal tax avoidance schemes in such a way that I often ended up showing no personal income on my tax return and paid zero taxes for the year. This went on for years. Not bad, right? My motivation was simple: as a die-hard right-wing Republican, I believed that the government didn’t deserve my money. In my mind, the less money local, state, and federal agencies had, the better. I thought, at the time, “Why should I pay real estate taxes? My children attend a private Christian school or are homeschooled. Why should I pay for the world’s children to be educated?”  When I bought automobiles, I purchased them through the church, thus avoiding paying sales tax. I expensed everything I could, with the goal in mind that I was economically starving the government.

In the late 1990s, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized, for the first time, that I was one day going to be where I am now, and that I would need some sort of retirement income. I also started having niggling health problems, and in 1997, after months and months of unexplained fatigue and pain, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. At that moment, Bruce-with-a-big-S-on-his-chest learned that he was not invincible; that life was a kryptonite of sorts that will, in the end, lead to my demise.

I opted back into Social Security and started paying taxes again, but this was too little too late. Fortunately, over the course of my work career — from age fourteen to today — I worked numerous “secular” jobs:

janitor, gas station attendant, short order cook, newspaper motor route, life insurance salesman, sweeper salesman, restaurant general manager, network manager, durable medical equipment supply office manager, dairy department manager, grocery stock clerk, workfare/court offender program manager, litter control manager/officer, building code enforcement officer, grant manager, real estate updater for an auditor’s office, farm worker, auto mechanic, cable box repairman, shipping and receiving, turret lathe operator, and numerous general laborer jobs in factories

These jobs provided enough work quarters for me to qualify for a nominal monthly social security payment of about $700. While this is not a large amount of money, retirement-wise, it will make a meaningful difference for us. Neither of my parents lived long enough to collect social security, so I have outlived them and will win the prize. Woo-hoo! However, I can’t help but think about how much better off I would be as a disabled, retired man had I paid social security/Medicare taxes on my ministerial income. The difference would be significant, but due to a singular decision made long before I ever had a thought about getting old, I am forced to live with the consequences of that decision.

I always made more money working secular jobs than I did working for God. The most I ever made income-wise as a pastor was $24,000. Most years, I made $8,000-$20,000 (including housing) pastoring churches. If it hadn’t been for secular work, government assistance, and Medicaid insurance, we would have been destitute. As it was, we were dirt poor for most of the years I spent in the ministry. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that things improved for us. Polly started working for Sauder Woodworking (she just celebrated her twentieth anniversary there) and our oldest sons started working jobs of their own.

It’s unfortunate, though, that I had decided as a young husband and young father to let “God” take care of our wants and needs. As anyone who has ever done this has learned, “God” loves keeping his followers in the poor house. Why, if “God” had backed up a Brink’s truck to our home and unloaded some of the “treasure” he supposedly has, we wouldn’t have “needed” him any longer. So, “God” kept us on our knees, ever begging for divine assistance. I sincerely believed that “God” would meet our needs and even throw in a few wants from time to time, so I accepted that our poverty was God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will for our lives (Romans 12:1,2). (Of course, I never asked Polly or our children what they thought of this arrangement I had with God. I was the family patriarch. End of discussion.) I wonder how different our lives might have been had I put the financial and material welfare of my wife and children first; had I built a career managing restaurants or working in government alongside my work as a pastor? Would we have been better off? Probably. But, who really knows for sure?

Have you ever thought about certain decisions you have made in your life and wondered how things might have turned out differently? I call this the what-if or would-of, could-of, should-of game. While we like to think that life would have been different if we had only made this or that decision, there are too many variables for us to know for sure how things might have turned out. For example, at age eighteen, I was madly in love with a twenty-year-old college girl named Anita Farr. For much of 1975, we had a torrid relationship — as no-sex-before-marriage Baptist relationships went, anyway. I was sure she was the one. However, our relationship didn’t last, and in late ’75, I packed up my meager belongings, hopped a Greyhound bus, and returned to Ohio. As I look back at this time in my life, I see two people who had similar personalities and dispositions. Both of us were quite outgoing, personable, and temperamental. I told Polly a while back, as we were talking about past choices, “If I had married Anita, one of us would have murdered the other and ended up in prison.” Our relationship was very much one of a lit match and gasoline. A year later, I enrolled in ministerial classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. My game plan, girl-wise, was to play the field. I thought at the time, “what a blessing from God, a dormitory filled with fine Baptist women!” Sure enough, I started dating a girl by the name of Peggie. After a few weeks, our casual relationship petered out and we moved on to other people. Next up for me was a seventeen-year-old dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. She was (and is) a beauty, but I had no thoughts at the time that she was a woman I was ready to settle down with. It was not long, however, before Bruce, the player, was smitten and in love. On Valentine’s Day in 1976, I proposed and Polly said “yes.” So much for playing the field!

Choosing to marry Polly — a choice I would make again — certainly changed the course of my life. On a hot day in July in 1978 at the Newark Baptist Temple, we stood before our family and friends (and God, or so we thought at the time) and pledged our lives to one another. We were two mutually infatuated children, ill-prepared for the pressures and challenges of married life. Six weeks after we married, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. Six months after that I was laid off from my job. This forced us to leave school and move to the home of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. So much for our “plans,” or God’s, for that matter. From there, my ministerial career and our married life took a completely different path.

I have written this trip down memory lane — one that will receive the voluminous treatment it deserves in my book — to illustrate how the many choices we make, along with external influences, materially and permanently affect our lives. I don’t believe in soul-mates. I don’t think for a moment that Polly is the only suitable woman on planet earth for me. She is, however, the woman I chose to love and marry, and together we have made a good life for ourselves. We have made a hell of a lot of bad decisions and wish we could have a do-over on more than a few things. But, on balance we’ve had a good life. The sum of our choices has led to where we are today. Hopefully, we have learned a thing or two over the past forty years, but I am confident that we still have a few fuck-ups left in our lives. Live and learn, right? Or, well, live anyway . . .

Do you ponder the decisions you have made in your life and how things have turned out for you? Do you wonder about how different life might have been for you had you made different decisions? Do you have a simple philosophy by which you govern your life? Please share your erudite thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

How American Taxpayers Subsidize Churches and Ministers

free-money-for-pastor-waltRight-wing Christian Republicans love to talk about the importance of religious freedom, and how liberals and atheists are hell-bent on destroying this freedom. Listen to Evangelical talking heads and you would think that the martyrdom of American Christians is just around the corner; that if atheists have their way, Christians will be rounded up and imprisoned in WWII-type internment camps. Of course, none of these things is true. Christians are free to worship Gods where they wish, in any manner they wish, without government intrusion. Christians are free to stand on street corners and preach their versions of the gospel. Christians are free to start new churches, proselytize, and do any of the things they have done for the past two hundred years. Similar to the cheesy bread in the Domino’s commercial, you’re FREE Christians, you’re FREE.

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What HAS changed is that Christianity is no longer given a seat at the head of the American culture table. Evangelicals, along with conservative Catholics, are butt-hurt over their loss of influence and power. In a last-ditch attempt to regain their glory days, many Christians have turned to politics. Now spiritually bankrupt, Evangelicals have abandoned Jesus and turned to their true God: Republican politics. Eighty-two percent of voting Evangelicals voted for pussy-grabber-in-chief Donald Trump. Without their vote, Hillary Clinton would be president. Worse yet, Evangelicals have spent the last two years defending and supporting a man who can only be described as a sociopathic, narcissistic liar. But, hey, he’s a “baby” Christian, right?

Secularism and religious indifference are on the rise in the United States, and young Americans are fleeing organized religion in droves. Evangelicals feel their power slipping away, and they don’t know what do. So, much as did Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Evangelicals see demons — and liberals, socialists, communists, and atheists — under every bed. What they, in fact, see are delusions cooked up in the minds of Evangelical preachers. The fall of American Christianity rests on Christians themselves, not secularists or atheists. Certainly, we are enjoying the bonfire, but it’s Evangelicals who gathered the wood and set it on fire. How about some hot dogs or marshmallows?

Secular legal groups have now set their sights on how government unconstitutionally subsidizes Christian churches, pastors, and educational institutions with taxpayer money. That’s right, atheists and Fundamentalist Christians alike help support Christian churches through their payment of taxes. I, for one, am tired of financially supporting religious institutions. It’s time for churches, parachurch groups, Christian colleges, and other religious institutions to pay their own freight.

Here are some of the ways ALL of us currently support Christian churches, pastors, and religious schools:

  • Churches are, by default, tax exempt. There are no forms to file or reports to be sent in to the IRS. Any group of people can gather together, call themselves a church, and the IRS will consider them tax exempt. Churches are, by default, EXEMPT from all filing requirements. A church is a church because it is a church. End of discussion. Or so says current tax law.
  • Churches in most states are exempt from paying real estate and sales taxes.
  • Monetary or in-kind donations to churches are tax exempt.
  • Pastors can claim what’s called a housing allowance. This allowance allows churches to designate their pastors’ rent/mortgage, utilities, home repairs, and other housing expenses as part of their housing allowances. Claiming a housing allowance allows pastors to drastically reduce their taxable income. Some pastors claim ALL their income as housing allowance, thus reducing their taxable income to ZERO.
  • Pastors can also opt out of Social Security. That’s right. Pastors can pay little or no income tax and no social security tax. Jesus F. Christ, what an awesome deal!
  • Pastors can buy cars through their churches, and have their churches pay all the expenses, further lowering their taxable income. Other expenses such as book and computer purchases can be made through the church, lowering a pastor’s taxable income. The goal is to give the evil government as little money as possible. Zero taxes paid and a big fat Earned Income Credit refund is the wet dream of countless Evangelical preachers.

I was a pastor for twenty-five years, and I can tell you this: any pastor who is paying income tax needs to get a better accountant. The U.S. Tax Code provided numerous ways for churches and clergy to avoid paying taxes.

It is time for us to end all tax subsidies for churches and clergymen. Churches should be forced to PROVE they are charitable organizations before receiving tax-exempt status. Good luck with that, churches. Churches should be required file the same tax forms and pay the same taxes as businesses. No more hiding the truth about the golden calf of American Christianity. And while we are at it, it is time for pastors to pay the same taxes as everyone else. Both churches and pastors should pay their fair share. The United States is a secular country, and as such, we should stop supporting Christian churches, pastors, and educational institutions with tax money.

Evangelicals clamor for religious freedom, and I am all for giving it to them. The government has no business subsidizing religious institutions and their leaders. It’s time to set the cheesy bread free!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

I Thought Jesus Would Take Care of Me When I Got Old

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I started preaching at age fifteen, enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College to study for the ministry at nineteen, married my wife at age twenty-one, and took my first church job a few months before I turned twenty-two. I was young, full of life, and raring to go for Jesus. I also was clueless about what awaited me in the ministry. Little did I know, that life would not turn out as Polly and I envisioned; that our fairy tale would not be one of love, peace, and potluck dinners; that our vision of a future with a white two-story home with a boy named Jason, a girl named Bethany, and a white picket fence would turn into a 12’x60′ trailer, six children, food stamps, and a $200 station wagon.

It’s common for young marrieds to have all sorts of hopes and dreams. Polly and I thought that God would surely use us in a mighty way to bring countless people to Christ; that we would be respected and rewarded for our hard work; that our children would grow up, get married, and follow in our footsteps. As a young man, I believed Jesus would always take care of me. He, after all, gave me a wonderful wife, blessed us with children, and favored the work we accomplished in his vineyard. Though Jesus never personally appeared to me, I saw all my ministerial success as coming directly from him. Boy, was I wrong!

One Tuesday in the early 1980s, I attended a Buckeye Baptist Fellowship Meeting at High Street Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio. I thoroughly enjoyed the monthly pastors’ fellowships I attended at various Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches. These meetings were a time for me to shoot the breeze with my ministerial colleagues and listen to what I considered, then, to be great preaching. On this particular Tuesday, one of the speakers was Charles Mainous, the pastor at High Street. Mainous was known for his virulent anti-government sermons. At the time, the steeple of his church was red, white and blue, church members carried firearms, and posted warnings on the doors warned government agents of this fact. I had heard him several times before, so I knew what to expect. During his harangue, Mainous said that it was a sin for pastors to pay into Social Security; that it was up to God to take care of his preachers, not the government. If Catholic priests could take a vow of poverty and be tax exempt, so should Baptist preachers. I thought, “he’s right. God called me, God leads me, God talks to me, and God gives me my sermons to preach. Surely, God can take care of me when I get old.” And so, following Mainous’ advice, I filed for exemption from paying social security taxes on my ministerial income (and housing) (IRS Form 4361). I was twenty-five years old. Still physically fit, playing competitive basketball in the winter and softball in the summer, I looked good, felt good, and thought of myself as downright invincible. Jesus and Bruce were ready to take on the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world!

I thought that I would one day set up a retirement plan and the churches I pastored would pay into it, providing for my care when I retired. Not that I ever planned on retiring. My goal was to keep preaching until I died. I even thought it would be an awesome sermon illustration if my appointed time to die (Hebrews 9:27) was right at the end of one of my sermons. What a way to punctuate my message, right?

I am, however, still here, and the only thing that died was my relationship with Jesus. What did change was that the youthful preacher named Bruce Gerencser came down with mononucleosis in 1991 and almost died. For the first time, there was a chink in my supposedly invincible armor. I was sidelined from preaching for over a month, and mono left me with physical problems that I deal with to this day.

In 1997, after a year of unexplained fatigue and muscle pain, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. This forced me to reconsider the naïve notion that Jesus was going to take care of me. In 2000, I decided to opt back into Social Security. Unfortunately, the paltry wages I received from this point to 2005 when I left the ministry didn’t do much to improve the level of social security I would receive at retirement. My health continued to decline, and by 2005 I was totally disabled, unable to find meaningful, paying work that meshed with my disability. Since that time, we have been a one-wage-earner family.

I looked in vain for Jesus. He was there when I was healthy, but nowhere to be found when I was sick. Of course, he was just a figment of my imagination, but I really did believe he was a friend who would stick closer to me than a brother; a supernatural being that would take care of me no matter what I faced in life. You see, religious beliefs are not benign. They can and do have consequences; they can and do cause psychological and physical harm; they can and do make a mess of your life. At least, that was the case for me. Thanks to not paying Social Security for twenty years, the only retirement income I’ll have will be based on the secular work I did on and off while pastoring churches.

In seventeen days, I will file for early Social Security. Come June, I will draw my first check for about $600. I sent a message to Jesus, asking him to make up the difference, but he did not respond. “I know I am an atheist and all that now, but come on Jesus, I worked seven days a week for you, month in and month out for over two decades. Surely the laborer is worthy of his hire, as the Bible you wrote says!”

Jesus is too busy building imaginary mansions in Heaven (John 14:1-6) to be bothered with my needs. He owes me, as he owes billions of people before me, but he’s never paid on his promises. He promised, at least in my IFB-addled mind, to take care of me, and to be my BFF. Instead, as he is wont to do, Jesus left me to fend for myself. And that, my friend, is the point of this post. Each of us is responsible for our own lives. Deep down, at some level, I knew that, but I convinced myself that Jesus would come through for me in the end. The responsible thing for me to have done was to pay into Social Security. The responsible thing for me to have done was to demand the churches I worked for do a better job at providing for my future needs, and those of my family. Of course, I was Head Cheese® at most of the churches I pastored, so to some degree I am to blame for them not taking care of me. I allowed myself to become a cheap whore for Jesus. I allowed myself to be paid poverty wages with no promises for tomorrow.

During my time at Somerset Baptist Church, a man who had pastored a nearby church for decades died. He and his wife (and children), had lived in the church’s parsonage for thirty years. There was an unspoken promise — an assumption — made to the pastor’s wife: “we will take care of you.” Much to her horror, “we will take care of you” meant “you can live in the parsonage for two months and then you will have to move. Our nice, new, shiny young pastor will need the parsonage for him and his wife and children,” And just like that the aged preacher’s wife was out on the street, forced to move in with one of her children. I thought, at the time, “how awful,” but I never considered why she was in that position. Her husband was a church slave. He worked for paltry wages, supplementing his income with side hustles. Living in the church parsonage allowed him and his family to live frugally, yet keep working in God’s coal mine for slave wages. I am sure they had no thoughts of retirement. Jesus promised to care for them too. Imagine the dead preacher’s wife’s surprise when she found out that the people they had labored with and cared for had no interest in reciprocation. “Our pastor is dead. Time for a new one!” End of story.

Over the years, I have given numerous young preachers advice. I tell every one of them the same thing: be bivocational. Get a “real” job, one that allows you to adequately provide for your family’s needs. Don’t let paltry wages from the church keep you on the bread line. Expect the church to pay you a decent salary and provide the same benefits you would have in the secular world. If a church won’t pay you, then don’t pastor that church. (In retrospect, I should have been far pickier about the churches I pastored.) If a church can’t pay you as much as you need due to its size, then get a job and pastor the church part-time. And above all, DON’T let anyone convince you to opt out of Social Security. The government is NOT your enemy!

If I had it to do all over again, I would have been a bivocational pastor. I would have worked jobs that adequately provided income for my family. I would have put my wife and children first, not God. It’s not God who suffers when there’s no money. It’s not Jesus who suffers when the cupboards are bare and your children are wearing bread bags on their feet to keep them from getting wet in the winter. And don’t even get me started on the Holy Spirit. Why that dumb ass “led” me to do all sorts of stupid things, things that caused harm to my health and the financial well-being of my family. I should have listened for the beep-beep-beep of a Brink’s truck backing up to my house instead of just, with a wing and a prayer, “trusting” the triune God of Evangelicalism to take care of me.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.