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Tag: Pastor James Dennis

He’s a Woman Now!

gay pride flag

Seven years ago, I wrote a post titled The Jonathan Nichols Story: Growing Up Gay in the IFB Church about a young gay man who was a member of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) in Newark, Ohio pastored, at the time, by my wife’s uncle, James Dennis (please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis). Jonathan’s parents, along with Polly’s mother, are active members of the Newark Baptist Temple. Polly and I attended the Baptist Temple for a year or so in the early 1980s.

Jonathan wrote a two-part story about his life on BJ [Bob Jones University]Unity website. Here’s an excerpt from what he had to say:

I grew up in Newark, Ohio and attended an independent fundamental Baptist church since I was born. That church was more conservative than Bob Jones, and my parents were more conservative than the church. My mom, the church pianist and school music teacher, was forever busy taking the “sensual” triplets out of songs like “Some Trust in Chariots” and campaigning against songs like “As The Deer” and “Bow the Knee.” As you can probably deduce from that, practically no modern music was allowed in our household either. I grew up on classical music and only classical music and quickly learned that there was no such thing as likes and dislikes when it came to music. There was just good and bad. You are to listen to good music and not to listen to bad music. What music you “like” has nothing to do with anything.

That mentality was carried into every area of life.

I suppose being the music teacher’s son allowed me to be a little gay boy without thinking anything of it or being called out about it. I was totally into music and art and pretty things, and nothing was weird. I would play with scarves without feeling odd. Well, without feeling too odd. I knew that none of the other guys my age were playing with scarves. Fortunately, I didn’t think about it too much.

Ok, so I can’t really credit my discretion for keeping me in the closet for eighteen years… Like I said, I played with scarves and wasn’t careful about making it known that I was a musician and not like those “other” guys. The atmosphere was so anti-gay that no one even bothered to think that there could be a gay kid growing up there, regardless of how obvious I made it. Besides, I was still a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant to be gay. Heck, I didn’t even know that it meant anything besides “happy.” So in the minds of the church and my parents, there was no way I could have chosen to be gay yet. And since being gay is a choice, that meant that I was a good, straight little boy. Just like God intended. Right? Totally.

When I said I didn’t know what “gay” meant, I wasn’t exaggerating. It wasn’t until I was in 7th or 8th grade that I figured out that the word referred to two men or two women together in a romantic or sexual relationship. Of course, I still didn’t know about the romantic side of it. Gay relationships were all about sex. They weren’t meaningful.

Sometime in my junior-high or early high-school years, I had a direct brush with a self-proclaimed gay person. A former classmate visited my youth group at church one Wednesday night and brought her friend. Her friend made no qualms about the fact that he was gay. He was totally fine with it and evidently was from an accepting family. Looking back on that, my heart goes out to that boy. He would have been my age: a young teenager just starting to figure life out—just starting to find himself and truly live his life. I couldn’t help but stare at him. I thought he was beautiful. Of course, I would never have admitted that to myself. I was too busy judging him for his sin. I don’t remember much about that sermon, but I remember enough to know what it must have been like for him. Pastor Overton made direct references several times to the “abomination of homosexuality,” even though it had really nothing to do with his chosen topic. It was obvious even to me that he was going out of his way to make the poor boy uncomfortable—to “draw him to Christ” by any means necessary. In this case, the “necessary means” was to rant about how all gays are going to hell because they’ve chosen an abomination over the love and grace of God. It’s sad, but I believed every word of it. I painfully remember the time after the meeting. Pastor Overton talked with the boy alone, no doubt reinforcing in his young mind that the theoretical “he” was loved incredibly much by God, but as a person, God hated everything about him. I don’t know how things worked out with him. I do remember, though, my former classmate sobbing and repeating “I’m scared _________ will go to hell because he’s gay. . . .” I’m ashamed to say it, but in my mind I was replying “Well, yes. He will. Because if he were a Christian, he wouldn’t be gay. And non-Christians go straight to hell.”

The boy never came back to the Newark Baptist Temple. I’m glad. I hope he found real love away from judgment. I hope he’s now going to college as a proud gay man, trying to make the world a better place. I hope he has found happiness instead of hate.

I must continue with my story, though, since I don’t know his. My parents were of the opinion that dating was to be used only for finding a wife or husband, so they strongly discouraged it in my life. I resented that. While I was never sexually attracted to women, I was an incurable romantic and longed for a lady to be chivalrous to. There was one time, however, that I went behind my parents’ backs and “dated” a girl at church. We saw each other twice a week, at the most, and always with many other people around. We kissed once, and I remember thinking after that that kissing is terribly overrated. That was it. A little later, there was a girl at school that had a crush on me, and I had a crush on her. We never were officially “together,” though.

I guess I should clarify something here. . . When I say I had a “crush” on someone, which I did fairly regularly, I don’t mean in the typical high-school want-to-get-together type way. I was a reader, and I could simply imagine myself as their knight in shining armor. Just like I was supposed to be. My personal desires didn’t come into play. . . They were girls that I wanted to see happy, and I was nice and would try to make them happy. The end. Until my senior year.

Every year, my school would send groups to BJU for two weeks, once in November for the BJU Fine Arts Festival, and the other in April for the AACS National Competition, the national tier competition for winners of their state fine arts competitions. I went to Festival every year I was in high school and made it to AACS my first three years. Thursday night at Festival my senior year, I met someone that I had seen from afar years before. Let’s call him Ryan. I had seen him some years before at a BJU summer music camp. I thought he was beautiful. Just absolutely gorgeous. Not that I admitted it or anything, but still. Here he was, talking to a friend of mine right after the final concert. She introduced us officially, and we started talking. He was now a freshman at BJU. We all were going to grab coffee and our friend had to get ready, so Ryan and I waited outside her dorm for her. We got to talking. I felt so free around him– like I could be totally myself and not have to try to make him like me or be scared of saying the wrong thing. We all got coffee, then headed back to our rooms. His turned out to be on the same hall that I was staying on, just a few doors down. We talked until midnight, when we were both shooed into our rooms. Right before he went into his room, he turned around and hugged me. That was the most electrifying moment of my life up to that point. I can’t begin to describe the mental sensation of that second. I wasn’t any closer to admitting anything to myself, but I couldn’t sleep for awhile – the only thought running through my head was “He hugged me!” I now had my first real crush.

….

I wanted so much to be able to be honest with someone that I was actually in contact with. I hinted to my closest friend that my friendship with Ryan wasn’t just a friendship. She was, naturally for someone in our atmosphere, worried for me. So, despite her promises that she would trust me to do what I felt was right, she went to my youth pastor for help. He promptly told the senior pastor, who is superintendent of the school. The next day, I was called into Pastor Dennis’s office for questioning. Pastor Overton was also in the room, sitting to my left with a legal pad and a pen, taking notes. Dennis tried to start off nice enough, but it was obvious that they found out. I decided that a clean breast of the issue would be best, and went into my research on the matter, hoping at least to get an opposing rebuttal and at best to convince them. How naive I was. . . I don’t remember much of that conversation, but one thing rings vividly in my mind. I mentioned that the Greek word malakoi in I Cor. 6:9 was never elsewhere, in the whole of Greek literary writings, translated “effeminate.” It carried a whole different connotation. His response? He turned around, pulled his Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance off the shelf, looked up the word, and pointed to the definition. He never for one second imagined that Dr. James Strong was not infallible and that his concordance was not holy writ. In those several hours, my pastor beat me down. Hard. I was totally conquered, save in one regard. I would not tell him who I was “dating.” I did not see that it was my place to get someone else, especially someone I loved, in trouble like this. Dennis found out anyways. He had me break up with Ryan. I cried all night.

The next day, I woke up to the realization that Ryan blocked me on Facebook and wasn’t responding to texts. I was devastated. Then I was called into the church office again. Pastor Dennis, Pastor Overton, the principal, vice-principal, and my mom were there. I was curtly informed that I was being expelled. I was to call Ryan and tell him that he had an hour to turn himself in or Dennis would call BJU administration and get him expelled. After that, I wasn’t to have any contact with him. My mom was placed on paid leave to homeschool me for the remaining two and a half months.

This all happened the day before my state fine arts competition. All of my prepared speeches and music entries were now worthless, and my mom, who, by the way, fully supported the school’s decision, needed to carry on for two stressful days as if nothing had happened. Dennis told me to tell no one about why I had been expelled. He said it was for my own good. Like a fool, I believed him. If I had gone looking for help or support then, I might have been better off. It would have exposed some of the underhandedness, at least. At the time, though, I was far too scared to do anything like that. I was totally beat down, and reverted back to being as much of a non-person as I could. That worked for about a month. At that point, I realized that they had never provided refutations to any of my points. They had simply refused to consider them. They had used their position of power to crush me. I had never been on the wrong side of any authority figures before then, and I was quickly cowed. I also realized that I had been more fulfilled in my time with Ryan than any other time in my life, especially that month. I decided then that I would go with what I had researched rather than blindly follow the men that cared only to see me bent to their will. I decided, furthermore, that even if I was wrong, any god sadistic enough to make me who I am and then hate every ounce of it did not deserve my worship. I would rather live in eternal torment knowing that I lived by love towards all than spend paradise with the being of hatred who is infuriated by my just being me.

I messaged Ryan and asked him if he would have me back. He said yes. By now, attending BJU was out of the question for me. I had no idea when I would see Ryan next. He mentioned, though, that he would be staying on campus over the summer to work. I immediately determined that I would be there for the two summer music camps, as no one else knew that he would be there. I managed to convince my parents to let me drive myself there, so we would have a car at our disposal. All that was soon to change. Two events left me devastated. Late at night on July 3rd, Ryan ended our relationship. He needed someone who could actually be there with him, and I couldn’t do that. July 4th, 2011, was probably the worst day of my life. Everything was closed and everyone was doing something. I had no distractions from the fact that the one person in the whole world that I most wanted to be with didn’t want to be with me anymore. I made it through, though. I was still going to go down to the camps, though. He still had, and still has, a special place in my heart. If it weren’t for him, I would not yet have come to grips with reality. He helped find me, and I am eternally grateful for that.

Well, camp time came. I drove down from Ohio to South Carolina, and things were going wonderfully. Despite the emotional wounds, I was happy to be with him. Then, on Tuesday night, my mom called. She had decided to do me a favor and clean my room for me, which evidently included rifling through the papers in the bottom of my desk. There, she found a note I had written to myself shortly after July 4th as a way to get some of my feelings somewhere, anywhere, outside of my head. She now knew that Ryan was on campus and I was seeing him. She called the camp director, and he had us separated with the threat that I would be sent home if I tried to contact him again. At the end of the week, my mom flew down to Greenville to accompany me back. After this, though, I wasn’t having any more. I knew that I couldn’t change again. I tried it, and it didn’t work. I had spent sleepless nights crying to God for help. No change. Either God was (1) fine with me being me, (2) powerless to change anything, or (3) sadistically watching me flounder in my sin. Under none of those possibilities did I feel obligated to try to change this second time.

The above story was excerpted from Part One and Part Two of Jonathan’s story (links no longer active).

Years later, I still weep as I read Jonathan’s story. No one should have to go through the abuse Jonathan did at the hands of Jim Dennis, Jamie Overton (Polly’s cousin), and his parents. Jonathan’s story is a reminder that Fundamentalism harms everything it touches.

Polly talks to her mother every Sunday evening at exactly 10:00 pm for one hour, unless providentially hindered. 🙂 Yesterday, Mom mentioned that Jonathan’s dad is seriously ill, in the hospital, and possibly dying. And then, out of the blue, she mentioned Jonathan, saying, He’s a woman now! That’s it, he’s a woman now! Evidently, Jonathan has transitioned since the publishing of the story mentioned above. I chuckled a bit when I heard Mom say this, thinking she likely finds it impossible to wrap her mind around the fact that a boy who was raised in her church is now a woman. This does not compute in her world. 🙂

In IFB churches, there’s no such thing as LGBTQ people. Oh, they exist, but such people are never free to be themselves, never free to be at peace with who and what they are. Imagine going to church on Sundays, knowing you are going to be the target of homophobic sermons from your pastor, youth pastor, and guest preachers; and that if the “truth” ever got out you would be immediately excommunicated from not only your church, but your family. I can only imagine the pain men and women such as Jonathan have suffered in their lives, all because they are “different.”

Polly’s mom, nor her fellow church members at the Baptist Temple, will ever accept Jonathan for who he is (I don’t know if he has changed his name and pronouns, so I continue to say “he”). As the Jonathans of the world learn, they must go outside of the church to find love and acceptance.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

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Short Stories: 1976: My First Christmas with Polly

bruce polly gerencser midwestern baptist college 1977
Bruce Gerencser, Polly Shope 1977

In August of 1976, I packed my meager belongings into my dilapidated, rust-bucket of a car and moved two hours northeast to the Midwestern Baptist College dormitory. Midwestern, located in Pontiac, Michigan, was a small, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college. I planned to study for the ministry. Well, that, and chase girls. I thought, at the time, that Midwestern would provide me an ample supply of Baptist girls to date. Playing the field, was my goal. However, “God” had different plans. By the end of September, I was in a serious relationship with a beautiful dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. To say that I was smitten is a gross understatement. In February of 1977, we became engaged, and in July 1978, we tied the knot at the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio.

Forty-five years ago, I met a young woman who altered the course of my life. How we got to where we are today requires a book-length telling, but for today, let me share with you the story of our first Christmas.

Polly’s family gathered for Christmas on Christmas Eve. On a snowy Christmas Eve afternoon, I left my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio, and traveled four hours south to Newark, Ohio — the home of Polly’s parents and aunt and uncle. The family gathering that year was held at the home of Jim and Linda Dennis (both deceased). Jim, married to Polly’s mom’s younger sister, was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple — an IFB congregation. Both Jim and Polly’s father were graduates of Midwestern Baptist College.

Prior to the family gathering, a short, dutiful Christmas Eve service was held at the Baptist Temple. Jim, ever the jokester, pointed out to the congregation that his niece, Polly, had a guest with her. “They have a shirttail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirttail is.” Polly and I were thoroughly embarrassed. No one in Polly’s family, at the time, thought our relationship would last. I was Polly’s first boyfriend, so her family thought I was just a fad that would quickly pass.

After church, we drove to the Dennis’ home. Polly’s mom had her sister and cousin ride with us, just in case we did something nefarious; you know like hold hands or kiss. We safely arrived to the Dennis’ home with our virginity intact.

Until my arrival in Newark, Polly and I had never kissed. That’s right, we had been dating for four months and had not yet kissed each other. The reason for this was simple. Midwestern banned, under threat of immediate expulsion, all physical contact between unmarried dating couples. Called the six-inch rule, this ban caused all sorts of psychological trauma for dating couples. You see, it is normal for couples to desire and have physical contact with each other. “Normal” at Midwestern, however, was determined by the Bible, sexually frustrated preachers, and arcane rules imported from Bob Jones University — the college where the founder of Midwestern, Tom Malone, received his ministerial training.

Getting caught touching a member of the opposite sex was a sure way to get yourself “campused” (grounded from all outside activities, including dating). Repeat offenders were “shipped” (expelled). Polly and I both received demerits for breaking the six-inch rule. Our sin? I played on the college basketball team (not a big feat — think intramural basketball). One day at practice, I slapped at a basketball, severely dislocating a finger. I went to the local ER and oh-so-painfully had the finger put back in place. It remains crooked to this day. I had to wear a finger splint for several weeks. Male students were required to wear ties to classes. The splint hindered my ability to tie my tie, so one morning I asked Polly to do it for me. Keep in mind we were standing in the middle of dorm common area when Polly tied my tie. If we had plans to break the six-inch rule, this would not have been the place we would have done so. Unfortunately, a couple sitting nearby turned us into the disciplinary committee. The next week, we appeared before the committee and were shamed for our licentious, immoral behavior. I suspect the only reason we weren’t punished more severely was because of who Polly’s uncle and father were (Jim Dennis was a college trustee at the time).

As you might imagine, by Christmas, our hormones were raging. We looked forward to getting away from the college and its rules so we could privately and intimately express our love to one another. College administrators warned unmarried students that the six-inch rule still applied while they were home for Christmas break. I thought, at the time, “yeah, right. Catch us if you can.”

Polly’s parents lived in an upstairs apartment on Union Street. I spent a total of twenty-four hours with Polly that first Christmas. Our first kiss came when Polly’s mom asked her to go to the apartment complex’s laundry room to do some laundry. Seeing an opportunity for some old-fashioned necking, I went along, and it was there we had our first kiss. We did a lot of laundry that day. 🙂

Come Christmas Day, it was time for me to go home. Polly begged her mom to let me stay one more day, but she refused. Polly’s mom would spend the next fifteen months doing all she could to destroy our relationship — including forbidding us to marry — which we ignored, telling her we were getting married with or without their blessing. Needless to say, she and I have had an on-and-off-contentious relationship for 45 years. Our relationship has improved in recent years. Polly’s dad died last year, but I suspect Mom will always believe “Polly could have done better.”

Many kisses would follow that first kiss on Christmas Eve, 1976. After our return to Midwestern after the break, Polly and I had a real problem on our hands. You see, we had crossed a physical line, and once that line was crossed there was no going back. We spent the next nineteen months breaking the six-inch rule, only double-dating with dorm couples who had the same “moral” standards we had. Summer breaks allowed us the freedom to act “normally,” but while classes were in session, we had to sneak around to just kiss one another. While we both were virgins on our wedding day, we both knew that if we waited much longer to get married, we would likely have given in to our passions. A week or so before our wedding, Polly’s mom let us go to The Dawes Arboretum south of Newark without a chaperone. We spent several hours enjoying one another’s embrace, coming oh-so-close to rounding third and sliding into home. As it was, Polly was on a strict curfew, and we were late. Boy, did we get a lecture when we arrived home. Here we were, 19 and 21, getting married in a matter of days, and we were being treated like children.

One memory about our first Christmas stands tall in my mind. Polly and I were sitting on the couch, close enough to touch one another, but not so close as to arouse her eagle-eye mom’s attention, watching a TV special starring Captain & Tennille. One of the songs they sang was their 1975 number one hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together.

Video Link

Forty-five years later, that song is still true. Love, indeed, has kept us together.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas? 

bruce and polly gerencser christmas 2015
Santa and his favorite elf.

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

Growing up in an Evangelical home, I knew that Christmas was all about the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Gifts were sparse, often just two or three packages, but never far from view was the most wondrous gift of all: salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The churches I attended spent significant time each holiday season reminding congregants that Jesus was the reason for the season. Sermons against Santa Claus, consumerism, and idolatry were common, as were pleas for money to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Polly and I started dating in September 1976. On Christmas Eve of that year, I drove from my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio to Newark to meet Polly’s parents and attend her family’s Christmas gathering. This was the first time I had the opportunity to be alone with Polly, and we took advantage of it, using trips to the apartment complex’s laundry room to get as much kissing in as possible before returning to Midwestern Baptist College and its thou-shalt-not-touch six-inch rule. The family gathering was held at the home of Polly’s aunt and uncle, Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Prior to gathering at their house, we dutifully attended the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Temple. During the service, Polly’s uncle decided to thoroughly embarrass both of us by pointing out that Polly had a special visitor with her. He then said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirt tail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirt tail is.” I can imagine Polly’s Mom saying to herself, not very long if I have anything to do with it.

After Christmas Eve service, we drove over to the Dennis’ home. As I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but notice the largest pile of Christmas gifts I had ever seen in my life. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but it was quite evident that receiving a lot of gifts came in a close second. Prior to the gift-giving orgy, someone — I can’t remember who — gave a quick devotional, reminding all of us, yet again — as if we haven’t heard before — that Christmas was all about Jesus, his virgin birth, death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead. Once the Sermonette for Christianettes® was duly delivered, it was time for the gifts to be distributed. Polly and I had already traded gifts, so I didn’t expect anything for myself. I was surprised (and embarrassed), then, to receive a gift from Polly’s parents — a leather belt.

After Polly and I married, we settled into a holiday routine that had us celebrating Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas Day with mine. Things continue this way until the late 1980s. I had stumbled upon material that purported to reveal the pagan history and true meaning of Christmas. Wanting to be obedient to Christ and untainted by the world, I decided, as the head of the home, that we would no longer practice Christmas. I can only imagine how heartbroken Polly was when I gathered up all of her Christmas decorations and donated them to Goodwill. I did make an allowance for us attending family Christmas gatherings. We bought no gifts for our children, treating Christmas as if it were just another day. For several years, our family drove to the Charity Rescue Mission in Columbus on Christmas Day to help serve food to the homeless. Several families from the church I was pastoring at the time — Somerset Baptist Church — went with us. While I deeply regret becoming the Grinch that stole Christmas, feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective for the Gerencser family.

Somewhere in the 1990s, I realized that you could make Christmas into whatever you wanted it to be. Much to the surprise and delight of our children, we bought a Christmas tree and decorations. We also allowed for limited gift-giving. As I look back on this, I realize that I did with Christmas exactly what the Catholics did when they took pagan practices and repurposed them for Christian use. Yes, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, as were many of the practices associated with it, but I believed that such things could be used to further the gospel of Christ and give witness to Jesus. From that point forward, in the churches I pastored I allowed Christmas decorations to be put in the church auditorium. For the next decade, our home and the churches I pastored celebrated Christmas as most other American families and churches did. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but gift-giving was a close second. To assuage the lingering guilt I had over consumer-driven gift-giving, I made sure our family and the churches I pastored gave liberally to missionaries and the poor.

Twelve years ago, on the last Sunday in November, Polly and I attended church for the last time. For the longest time, we found it impossible to attend anything remotely associated with religion. We had just gone through a nasty divorce with God, and we didn’t want to go anywhere that would remind us of our ex. After a few years, the distance between deconversion and the present was sufficient that we were able to attend Christmas programs and concerts without wanting to commit homicide. Our first foray back into the religious world was attending the production of Handel’s Messiah at a nearby church. That same year, we attended a Christmas concert put on by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band — Siberian Solstice. One of the mainstays of the group is my counselor.

Evangelicals often deride me for practicing Christmas. How can an atheist practice a religious holiday? they ask. Christmas is all about Jesus, and aren’t you being hypocritical if you celebrate a holiday set aside to worship a God you don’t believe in? I suppose that this would be a valid question if the evidence at hand showed me that, indeed, Christmas was all about Jesus and his alleged virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving, with Jesus often being a cursory add-on — even for Evangelicals. While many Evangelical churches will attempt to put Christ back in Christmas, most church families will practice Christmas in the same manner as their non-Evangelical neighbors. While Polly’s family still practices Christmas just as they did 45 years ago, it is now evident that the obligatory attendance at the Christmas Eve service and the devotional before presents can be opened are mere formalities — things to be endured until the real reason for Christmas begins.

As atheists, we can enjoy the holiday season, sans Jesus. In fact, Polly and I both say that Christmas is far more enjoyable now than it was when I was pastoring churches. Quite frankly, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were so busy that we had little time to enjoy the holidays. Like many Christian churches, who once a year want to show the poor and disadvantaged that they really, really, really care, we put together several food baskets and delivered them to the poor. (Isn’t it amazing that the poor only need food and help during the holidays?) Not only did we have to do obligatory alms to the poor, we also had to prepare for special services such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the time the new year rolled in, Polly and I were quite glad the holidays were over.

These days, we are free to enjoy Christmas without worrying about whether we are giving Jesus his just dues. For Polly and me, Christmas is all about family. We eat lots of food with no worries about waistlines. Polly loves to bake and I love to eat (in normal years, but not 2020 thanks to bowel problems) what she bakes, as do our children and grandchildren. For the next month, Christmas songs will waft through the air of our home — yes, even religious ones. You might be surprised if you stop by to hear us singing Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, or many of the other religious songs associated with Christmas. The lyrics of the songs are reminders of our cultural heritage, not declarations of faith. This is why you will also find us singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For us, family and not Jesus is the reason for the season. If Christians want to focus on Jesus during Christmas, that is certainly their right to do so. However, I refuse to let them ignorantly suggest that Christmas is a Christian-only holiday. When confronted with such historical ignorance, I remind them that Christmas means different things to different people. It is a holiday that should bind all of us together, reminding us of the blessings of family and our common heritage. Evangelicals who stupidly say that there is a war against Christmas deserve a double-barrel gun salute. There is no war against Christmas, and no matter how many times Sean Hannity says that there is, the fact remains that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday. Christians are free to worship the baby Jesus — cue Ricky Bobby and Talledega Nights — and sing praises to his name, and the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious baggage.

How do you practice Christmas now that you are no longer a Christian? Are the holidays stressful for you? Do you still attend Christmas services? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

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1957-2020: Christmas Memories

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Our Christmas Tree, 1984, New Lexington, Ohio

Christmas has played a part in my life ever since I entered the world in June of 1957. In this post, I want to detail some of my memories about Christmas.

As a child, Christmas at the Gerencser home was a typical American Christmas. Family, food, and gifts. While there were never many gifts, my siblings and I always received several presents from our parents. My Dad filmed many Christmases with his 8mm movie camera. Sadly, after Dad died in 1985, the movies were either lost or destroyed.

In the 1960s Christmas at our home changed, and not for the best. My grandfather on my Mom’s side remarried. My grandmother remarried several times, but was divorced by the late 1960s. My grandparents on my Dad’s side died in 1963. Grandpa Gerencser died February 1, 1963 and Grandma Gerencser died a month later on March 5. I was left with Grandpa and Grandma Tieken and Grandma Rausch for Christmas, and they didn’t get along.

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Christmas, Dad with his 8 mm Movie Camera

In the 1940s, Grandpa Tieken and Grandma Rausch went through an acrimonious divorce — a divorce that resulted in neither parent being deemed fit to raise their children. They had two children, my mother Barbara and her brother Steve. Their hateful acrimony was on full display in the 1960s when Bob and Barbara Gerencser gathered for Christmas with their three children — Butch (that’s me), Bobby, and Robin. Into our family gathering would come the grandparents, teeth bared, hateful towards each other — likely fueled by alcohol. The fighting got so bad that it became necessary for us to have two Christmas gatherings, one for each grandparent.

In the summer of 1970, we moved from Deshler, Ohio to Findlay, Ohio. In the spring of 1972, my parents divorced. Dad would marry a 19-year-old girl a few months later, and Mom would marry her first cousin — a recent Texas prison parolee. From this point forward until I entered college, I have no recollections of Christmas. I am sure we celebrated Christmas. I am sure we had a tree, perhaps gave gifts, etc., but I have no recollection of it.

In the fall of 1976, I left Bryan, Ohio, and moved to Pontiac, Michigan to enroll at Midwestern Baptist College, a Fundamentalist Christian college noted for training men for the ministry. In September of 1976, I began dating a beautiful 17-year-old freshman girl named Polly. She would be the last girl I dated, and two years later, in July of 1978, we married.

My first Christmas with Polly was in 1976. I drove from Bryan, Ohio, to Polly’s parent’s home in Newark, Ohio. Polly’s Dad, the late Lee Shope , was the assistant pastor at the Newark Baptist Temple, an IFB church pastored by her uncle Jim Dennis. The Shope/Robinson/Dennis family Christmas was a multifamily affair, with two sisters joining together to have the celebration. Christmas of 1976 was held at the home of Jim and Linda Dennis.

Being Polly’s boyfriend, I was a topic of discussion and inspection. Needless to say, I failed the inspection, and I am still the topic of discussion all these years later. I vividly remember Polly’s uncle letting the whole church know that I was there visiting Polly. He said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirttail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirttail is.” While I have no doubt Jim was trying to be funny, Polly and I were thoroughly embarrassed. This coming year we will celebrate 43 years of marriage –so the shirttail has proven to be quite long and resilient.

As I entered the Dennis home, I was taken aback by how many gifts there were. Underneath the tree and flowing out from its trunk were countless gifts, more gifts than my siblings and I received our entire childhood. The number of gifts– what I would later label an “orgy to consumerism” — continued unabated for many Christmases.

Polly’s family was littered with Fundamentalist preachers — her Dad, Uncle, and Grandfather, and later others. They made sure they put a good word in for Jesus before the gift opening commenced. Every Christmas, one of the preachers, which later included Polly’s cousins and nephew, gave a short devotional reminding everyone that the birth of Jesus was the real meaning of Christmas. Interestingly, even though I was an Evangelical pastor for 25 years, I was never asked to give the devotional. Make of that what you will.

After Polly and I married in 1978, we began to develop our own Christmas traditions. We spent Christmas Eve with Polly’s parents and Christmas Day with either my family in Bryan, Ohio, or with my Mom at her home in Rochester, Indiana, and later Columbus, Ohio. Polly’s family Christmas continued to be marked by the gift-giving orgy and lots of great food. Christmas with my Mom and family was a much more measured affair. Mom made sure her grandkids got several gifts, as did my grandparents and Aunt Marijene. Christmas at Mom’s house continued until around 1990 when she and her husband Michael moved to Michigan. The move was sudden and unexpected, and I came to understand later that they likely moved due to Michael’s shady business dealings with people who threatened to kill him.  Mom would commit suicide in April 1992, while living near my sister in Quincy, Michigan. Please see Barbara.)

Christmas 1983. Polly and I decided to have Christmas with my extended family at our home in Glenford, Ohio. I only remember two things from this Christmas: Grandpa and Grandma Tieken being their usual judgmental, pushy selves and Mom being upset with me because I made her go outside to smoke. This would be the first and last time my extended family came to our home. For the next decade, not one member of my extended family came to our home, save several visits by the Tiekens — whose visits were excruciatingly unpleasant and psychologically harmful. (Please see Dear Ann and John.)

Over time, I drifted away from my extended family. I began to see them as outsiders — people in need of salvation. I regret distancing myself from my family, but as with everything in the past, there are no do-overs. We continued going to my Mom’s for Christmas until she moved to Michigan. We continued going to Polly’s parents’ home for Christmas until circumstances forced us to stop going. I will detail those circumstances in a moment.

In the late 1980s, I came to the conclusion that Christmas was a pagan holiday, a holiday that no sold-out, on-fire Christian should ever celebrate. I unilaterally gave away all our Christmas decorations and we stopped giving our children gifts for Christmas. It’s not that we didn’t buy our children anything, we did. Our children, to this day, will joke that Christmas for them came when the income tax refund check showed up. Living in poverty with six children resulted in us, thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit, receiving a large income tax refund. When the check arrived — an annual large infusion of cash into our bank account — we bought our children everything they needed — with “needed” being the operative word. While we bought our children clothes, shoes, underwear, and the like, we bought them very few toys. We left it to grandparents to buy those. We did make sure they had bicycles, BB guns, and firearms, but very few toys. Living as we did, 8 people in a 720-square-foot, battered, old trailer, required our children to spend a significant amount of time outside. Toys became whatever the kids picked up in the yard or woods. I have often wondered, looking at the wealth of toys our grandchildren have, if our children are not compensating for their childhood. I know, as we buy for our grandchildren, that we are.

During my “Christmas is a Pagan Holiday” years, I routinely disparaged the gift orgy that went on at Polly’s parent’s home.  At the time, I thought the money being spent on gifts could be better spent on evangelizing the lost. While I would later move away from the view that Christmas is a pagan holiday, I never lost the belief that many Christians are quite hypocritical when it comes to Christmas. Jesus is the Reason for the Season and Wise Men Still Seek Him, devout Christians tell us, but their orgiastic celebration of the true meaning of Christmas — consumerism — betrays what they really believe. After all, conduct reveals what we truly believe, right?

Over time, I allowed — remember, we were patriarchal in family structure — Polly to resume a low-key celebration of Christmas in our home. We had to buy new decorations because I gave all away our old antique decorations given to us by our mothers. For a time, we had an artificial Christmas tree. Since we moved back to rural Northwest Ohio in 2005, we have bought our tree each Christmas from the Lion’s Club in Bryan.

With my parents being dead, we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Polly’s parents. This abruptly changed in 2010. I left the ministry in 2003 and we abandoned Christianity in November 2008. In early 2009, I sent out my family-shattering letter, Dear Family Friends, and Former Parishioners. This letter fundamentally changed our relationship with Polly’s IFB family.

Christmas of 2009 was best remembered by a huge elephant in the middle of the room; that elephant being Polly and me and the letter I sent the family. No one said anything, but the tension was quite noticeable.

2010 found us, just like every year since 1978, at Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. This would be the last Christmas we would spend with Polly’s parents and her extended family. We decided to blend into the background, and besides short pleasantries, no one talked to us. Not that they didn’t want to. We found out later from one of our children that Polly’s uncle wanted to confront me about our defection from Christianity. Polly Mom’s put a kibosh on that, telling her brother-in-law that she had already lost one daughter and she was not going to lose another (Polly’s sister was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005. Please see If One Soul Gets Saved It’s Worth It All.)

I appreciate Polly’s mom being willing to stand up to the man who is generally viewed as the spiritual head of the family (and a bully). I am glad she put family first. If Polly’s uncle had confronted me there surely would have been an ugly fight. Whatever our differences may be, I deeply respect Polly’s parents. They are kind, loving people, and I couldn’t ask for better in-laws.

Christmas of 2010 was two years after President Obama was elected to his first term. Polly’s family didn’t vote for him, and throughout the night they made known their hatred for the man, Democrats and liberals in general. Polly and I, along with many of our children, voted for Obama, so the anti-Obama talk and the subtle racism behind it made for an uncomfortable evening.

Most years, a gag gift is given to someone. This particular year, the gag gift, given to Polly’s uncle, was an Obama commemorative plate one of our nephews had bought on the cheap at Big Lots. One of Polly’s uncle’s grandchildren asked him what the plate was for. He replied, “to go poo-poo on” — poo-poo being the Fundamentalist word for shit. This was the last straw for us. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life with James Dennis.)

On our way home the next day, I told Polly that I couldn’t do it anymore and she said neither could she. We decided to stop going to Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. We do try to see her parents during the holiday season, but we no longer attend the family gathering on Christmas Eve. Making this decision saddened us, but we knew we had to make it. (By the way, our children still attend the Christmas Eve gathering.)

We moved back to Northwest Ohio in July of 2005. Since then, our family has gathered for Christmas at our home on the Sunday before Christmas. Doing this allows our children to avoid conflicts with their spouses’ family plans for Christmas.

These days, Christmas for Polly and me is all about family, especially the grand kids. For us, Christmas has become a celebration of love, a celebration of the gift of a wonderful family. While we do not believe in the Christian God, we still enjoy Christmas music and all the other trappings of the Christmas season. It’s a cultural thing — no need to complicate things with religious demands and obligations. When twenty-three people pile into our grossly undersized living room to open presents, we are reminded of how good we have it.

This Christmas, thanks to a raging pandemic, our children and grandchildren will not be at our home celebrating with us. We have all our shopping done, and we plan on Christmas Eve to deliver our grandchildren’s gifts to their homes. Well, their driveways, anyway. It’s hard not to feel lonely this holiday season, but I hope by next Christmas COVID-19 will be behind us.

How about you? How has the way you celebrate Christmas changed over the years? If you are now a non-Christian, how do you handle your Christian family? Please leave your experiences in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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An IFB Funeral: Fundamentalist Christianity Poisons Everything

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, in front of first apartment in Pontiac, Michigan, Fall 1978 with Polly’s Grandfather and Parents

In 2007, the atheist firebrand Christopher Hitchens wrote a book titled, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. While I think Hitch painted with too broad a brush, I can say Fundamentalist Christianity does, indeed, poison everything — especially the stench of Fundamentalism found in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Polly’s IFB preacher father died on Sunday. Polly’s parents have attended the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark Ohio for the past forty-five years. Dad left to start a church in Buckeye Lake for eight years, but returned after the church shut its doors. Mom and Dad have remained loyal members of the church ever since.

The Baptist Temple was pastored by James (Jim) Dennis for over four decades. Both Dad and Jim graduated from Midwestern Baptist College, the IFB institution Polly and I attended in the 1970s. Jim retired from the ministry in 2017 and died from complications of myasthenia gravis in 2018. Mark Falls is currently the pastor of the Baptist Temple.

Jim Dennis and I, for more reasons than I will ever publicly share, had an adversarial relationship. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.) Jim was a typical IFB preacher: always right, arrogant, and self-righteous. I wasn’t much different back in my IFB preaching days.

Ten years ago, Polly and I decided to stop attending family holiday events in Newark. Polly’s family is littered with IFB pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, and their families. Imagine being the only out unbelievers in a room full of IFB preachers and their families. Not fun, to say the least.

We decided that we would only attend weddings and funerals, especially if they were held at the Newark Baptist Temple. I told one of my sons this: imagine if you were abused as a child, yet you are expected as an adult to return to the house where you were abused for family events; that your abuser still lives in the house. That’s how my wife and I view the Newark Baptist Temple and some of its leaders and members. We refuse to put ourselves in positions where we have to come in contact with our abusers. Behaviors have consequences, and unlike Pastor Mark Falls and the fine folk at the Newark Baptist Temple, we don’t have to forgive or forget. Forgiveness comes only when there is accountability for past bad behavior; admissions that the “saints” so revered by the congregation were/are anything but.

We have moved on, but we haven’t forgotten, and in moving on, Polly and I have decided to not put ourselves in positions that dredge up bad memories and experiences. That is, until Polly’s father died.

Earlier this year, I took Mark Falls and the Baptist Temple to task for their refusal to cancel services in light of COVID-19. (Please see IFB Pastor Mark Falls Tries to Use Bible Verses to Guilt People into Attending Church during Coronavirus Pandemic and No Need to Wear a Face Mask: When it’s My Time to Die, I’m Ready to Go.) Polly and I were, and still are, worried about her parents contracting COVID-19 and dying. We learned not long ago, that Polly’s mom had lied to us — for obvious reasons — about attending in-person services and Christian school events. The Baptist Temple has had members contract the virus, including the pastor and his family. Yet, services continue as if everything is normal. No pandemic to see here, praise Jesus. Our God is still on the throne.

One young family member, who faithfully attends the Baptist Temple with his family, told one of my sons that Falls and the church really do take COVID-19 seriously. Just to make sure that I was not operating on outdated information, I viewed hours of videotaped church services and school events — fast forwarded, of course. My original assessment of the Baptist Temple stands. From choir members spitting out for the glory of God, to unmasked staff members and congregants in the first six rows, I saw little evidence for the church doing all they can to keep people from getting infected. I saw the same behavior as I did in March. Ten months of knowledge about COVID-19, but all that matters is Jesus.

Mark Falls was wearing a mask, so kudos to him for doing the right thing. But, as the CEO, boss, and pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple, he refuses to require church members to wear masks. I assume he knows studies conclusively show church services are super-spreader events. And choirs and choir practices? Some of the worst virus spreaders of all. By not putting an end to such practices and by refusing to demand congregants wear masks, he’s shown that he doesn’t take the virus seriously; that as the Libertarian that he is, he values personal freedom over social responsibility; that he puts little value on the health and safety of not only his congregation, but his community.

And that brings us to Dad’s death and the funeral on Saturday. As you might expect, Mom is having a full-blown give-Jesus-the-glory funeral for her husband at the Baptist Temple. I believe there will be meal of some sort afterward. And then, there will be a outdoor, family-only graveside service.

Before Polly first talked to her Mom after her father died, our nephew called to talk to us about the funeral — assuming that we were on board with a church funeral. He quickly learned that, no, we aren’t fine with group gatherings, we are not fine with public visitation, and we are not fine with masks not being required. We told him that we informed Mom months ago, that due to our own serious health problems, we would not attend any group gatherings — including funerals. At the time, speaking of her own funeral, she haughtily replied, “I don’t care, I’ll be dead.” Months later, and now the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

We made it clear that we wouldn’t be attending the funeral, visitation, or meal; that we would attend the outside graveside service as long as it was family-only. Our nephew passed this on to Mom, and when Polly called her, she refused to talk to Polly about the funeral plans. The next afternoon, Polly’s mom called to let her know what the plans were. Since then, some of my sons who take seriously the virus and hadn’t planned on attending the funeral were guilted into being pallbearers. I understand this, I really do. They love their grandparents dearly, so it is hard to say no. Polly and I, however, love life more than we do her parents. I apologize if that seems callous and blunt, but we are not willing to sacrifice our future with our children and grandchildren for a church funeral.

Our relationship with Polly’s parents has been hanging by a thread for years. We walked away from Christianity twelve years ago. Since then, Polly’s parents have had not one meaningful conversation with us about why we left the ministry and later left Christianity. All we get from them are thoughts and prayers. Everyone, of course, at their church knows that we are unbelievers. Mom told Polly that “people” were praying for us. Well, you know what THAT means. IFB funerals are never about the deceased. It’s all about Jesus and evangelizing the heathens — the Gerencsers — who will be in attendance. I am sure Baptist Temple members, its pastor, and Fundamentalist family members think that maybe, just maybe, Polly and Bruce will gloriously come back to Jesus and the one truth faith. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened on the day of Polly’s father’s funeral? Way to go, Pastor Falls, uh, I mean Jesus. You reached those atheists for God! That ain’t going to happen, and even if we were so inclined, we wouldn’t recommit to Jesus at the Newark Baptist Temple.

On Memorial Day, 2005, Polly’s sister was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. Here is what I wrote about Kathy and her funeral:

It’s a sunny, spring day, Memorial Day weekend.

Utica, Ohio is having its annual ice cream festival. A woman and her husband decide to attend the festival. Hopping on their Harley, off they drive to Utica.

The traffic is busy, and the husband knows he had better be careful.

But off in the distance, a woman grows impatient with traffic. She’s in a hurry, wanting to get home. She makes a decision that will have catastrophic consequences a few seconds later. She quickly makes a u-turn, and much to her horror there is a motorcycle coming right at her.

It’s already too late. The husband does what he can to avoid the oncoming car, but his wife, the mother of his three children, is thrown from the Harley and her head hits the pavement.

And just like that, she’s dead.

Every dream, every hope, and every opportunity of tomorrow is now gone.

Being a Christian family, we turn to our God and ask why. We pray for strength and understanding. The heavens are silent, and they remain so even to this day.

In a moment of anguished religious passion, someone says, if one soul gets saved through this, it is worth it all.

No, it’s not. How dare we reduce the worth of a life, this one precious life, to that which God can use for his purpose. A husband has lost his wife and his children are motherless. Her grandchildren will never know the warmth of her love. Her sister and parents are left with memories that abruptly stopped the moment their sister and daughter hit the pavement.

No, I say to myself, I’m not willing to trade her life for anyone’s salvation. Let them all go to hell. Give us one more day when the joy and laughter of family can be heard and the family is whole. One more day to enjoy the love and complexity she brought into our life.

One more day.

Polly’s mom let her know that we shouldn’t expect her (and the Newark family) to ignore Dad’s love for Jesus, the church (though I could tell stories about his “love” for the Baptist Temple — but I won’t), the Bible, and witnessing. We would, of course, never expect her to do so. This is how she has translated our willingness to attend the funeral. It’s our atheism and agnosticism that’s the problem. I wonder who put that idea in her head?

I should the note that her pastor has been front and center in all of the funeral preparations. Mom, fearing that we would not respect her funeral wishes — again, where’s that shit coming from? — typed out exactly what she wanted funeral-wise for her funeral and Dad’s. She sent us a copy and filed a copy for safekeeping with her pastor. Read into that what you will.

Several years ago, when Mom and Dad started having serious medical and financial troubles, we gently suggested they move to rural northwest Ohio and let us care for them. We thought this would also give them a better opportunity to know our grown children and grandchildren. Our offer was rebuffed, just as it was in 2005 when we told Mom and Dad we would stay in Newark if they asked us to, putting aside the fact that all of our children and grandchildren lived hours away. Mom and Dad pridefully said no, telling us to do what we wanted. Fine — weeks later we returned to northwest Ohio, bought a home, and have spent the past fifteen years enjoying the lives of our six children and thirteen grandchildren — and preparing to die.

During Polly’s discussion with her mom about moving here, Mom told her in no uncertain terms that her church mattered to her more than her only living daughter. These words crushed Polly, unlike anything in our forty-two years of marriage. To Mom (and Dad) Jesus and the Baptist Temple were what really mattered to them. They had their “saved” family near them, and got to see them see them every Sunday. Those Gerencsers are atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and the like — nothing like the saved, sanctified sister, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in Newark. My God, the Gerencsers curse, drink beer, wear pants, attend public schools, and watch mature-rated TV. Worse yet, several of those Gerencser boys have been divorced. That’s what happens when you leave the one true faith.

It is evident, at least to Polly and me, that Mom and Dad — mainly Mom, Dad said very little — treated our family very different from that of their IFB/Evangelical family. We came to accept that this is just how it is. I know that Mom never wanted me to marry Polly, that she blames me for every bad thing that has happened in our lives. I have helped Mom and Dad numerous times over the years — personal matters I am not comfortable sharing. And when things didn’t turn out as expected? I was blamed.

You would think that things would have gotten better after Polly defied her Mom and married me anyway; that the good life we have made over the past forty-two years would merit a bit of praise or recognition that we have done well. Instead, I am the man who ruined Polly’s life. This was made crystal clear, yet again, when Polly was talking to her Mom about WHY we couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t attend ANY group gatherings, including the funeral. Mom replied, “well, if Bruce didn’t come to the funeral, you could come, right?” Polly retorted, “absolutely not.”

The running belief in Polly’s patriarchal IFB family is that she is a lemming, a follower; that I am the head of the home and she only does what I tell her to do; that she doesn’t think for herself; that she doesn’t make her own decisions. That “may” have been true thirty or so years ago, back in the days when I was an Evangelical preacher, but those days are long gone.

Yes, I am an outspoken, strong-willed, passionate man, but these character traits should not be translated into me dominating and controlling Polly’s life. These days, our marriage is quite egalitarian — look the word up Fundamentalist family members who are reading this post. Sure, we still have somewhat of a “traditional” marriage –whatever the Hell that means. We are children of the 1950s. However, Polly is her own person. After we left Christianity, Polly went back to college and got a degree. She has been a supervisor at work for years. She is, in every way, a modern woman who still dotes on her husband and children. She’s quiet and unassuming, but don’t think for a moment that she doesn’t have her own opinions. I didn’t force her to leave Christianity, she left of her own accord. In fact, Polly is more hostile towards Evangelical Christianity than I am. Learning about how she viewed our years in the ministry and her role as the pastor’s wife, has been a real eyeopener for me. Her perspective is very different from that of a man who was beloved by congregants and the center of attention.

Fifteen years ago, Polly had a frank discussion with her mom — one of few such discussions. There had been a huge blow-up at our home on Thanksgiving Day. Afterward, Mom called and told me that I needed “help,” that they always knew I was “different,” and that they always “accepted” me. Polly told her mom, “don’t force me to choose between you and Bruce. If you do, I will choose Bruce. I will always choose Bruce.” This blow-up greatly improved our relationship with Mom and Dad. Mom realized she had crossed a line that she better never cross again. Sadly, Dad’s death has reopened ugly wounds, and pushed our relationship up to that invisible line once again. It would be so easy to walk away. We won’t, of course, because we deeply love Polly’s mom.

I told my son that the hold the Newark Baptist Temple has over Polly and I will soon be broken. One death down, and one to go. We will, of course, honor Polly’s Mom’s last wishes, settle the estate if Polly is still the executor by then, and then wash our hands of Baptist Temple. It will be a glorious day when we no longer have to concern ourselves with the Baptist Temple. While, in different times, I would love to share my feelings about my father-in-law at the funeral, I suspect my words are unwanted. You see, I actually knew the man. We worked together, both at the church we started and doing construction projects. Man, do I have a lot of funny stories to tell, stories that would horrify our Fundamentalist family. Dad and I had open, frank discussions about life, about marriage, about his days on the railroad, his tenure as assistant pastor at the Baptist Temple. I shall not tell these stories. They are not mine to tell. These stories go to the grave with Cecil “Lee” Shope, a man I dearly loved and will miss the remaining days of my life.

Dad’s Obituary:

A funeral service for Rev. Cecil “Lee” Shope, 84, of Newark, will be held at 10:00 a.m. Saturday at Newark Baptist Temple, with Pastor Mark Falls officiating.  Burial will follow at Wilson Cemetery.  Family will receive friends from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the church, 81 Licking View Dr., Heath, Ohio 43056.

Lee passed away November 8, 2020, at Licking Memorial Hospital.  He was born September 21, 1936, in Sebewaing, MI, to the late George Washington and Luisa (DeLawder) Shope.  

Lee was an Army National Guard veteran, and a member of Newark Baptist Temple.  He loved his family, enjoyed reading the Bible, crossword puzzles, woodworking, sharing the gospel, nursing home ministry, and pastored Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Bonnie Elenora (Robinson) Shope, whom he married on September 1, 1957; daughter, Pauline (Bruce) Gerencser of Ney, OH; son-in-law, James Hughes of St. Louisville; sister, Dorothy Heider; grandchildren, Jason, Nathan, Jaime, Bethany, Laura, Josiah, Cyle, Christopher, and Adam; and 22 great-grandchildren.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his daughter, Katherine Hughes, and brothers, Earl, Elmer, and Frank, and sister Bertha Dorsch. 

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

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The Day My Wife was Sued for $2.6 Million

newark baptist temple heath ohio

My wife taught one year of third grade at Licking County Christian Academy in Newark, Ohio — 1980-1981. The unaccredited school was operated by the Newark Baptist Temple — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist congregation pastored by Polly’s uncle, the late James (Jim) Dennis. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.)

As Polly will admit, she was grossly unprepared and unqualified to teach school, but LCCA needed a teacher and we needed the money, so Polly dutifully tried to manage a class of third graders.

After Polly left LCCA, we helped her father start an IFB church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. In the spring of 1983, Polly learned that a student of hers, Eddie Linders was alleging that he had suffered serious physical injuries after being beaten up by fellow student, Stan Toomey. Linders’ parents sued LCCA, the Baptist Temple, Toomey’s parents, and Polly — as the boys’ teacher.

The 1983 lawsuit was dismissed. I was unable to find any news report on the original suit. The lawsuit was refiled in 1985.

The Newark Advocate reported on April 5, 1985 (behind paywall):

Lawsuit seeks $2.6 Million in Damages

A former Licking Countian has filed a $2.6 million suit in Common Pleas Court, seeking damages from the family of a boy she claims beat her son several times during April and May of 1981. Patricia Nelson, of Brooksville. Fla., filed suit Thursday on behalf of her 14-year-old son, Edwin. Ms. Nelson alleges Stan Toomey of Alexandria beat her son up while they were both students of the Licking County Christian Academy, run by the Newark Baptist Temple. She filed an earlier version of the suit in 1983, but it was dismissed March 15 of this year. Ms. Nelson seeks $1.6 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive, damages from the Toomey youth and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Earl Toomey, of 4472 Lobdell Road, Alexandria, and Polly Gerencser, of the Emanuel Baptist Church, Buckeye Lake. Ms. Gerencser was a teacher at the school at the time of the alleged incidents and should have controlled Toomey’s behavior, Ms. Nelson said. She also seeks to hold his parents responsible While Thursday’s suit does not enumerate Linders’ injuries, the first claim said he suffered from dislocation of the vertebra, swollen legs, bruises and head injuries. Ms. Nelson seeks a jury trial.

This suit was also tossed out of court. According to Polly, she wasn’t even in the classroom when the alleged assaults occurred, and best she can remember, all the Toomey boy had was a bloody nose. Besides being sued for $2.6 million, what was most irritating about this lawsuit was the fact that Pastor Dennis — remember, he’s Polly’s uncle — didn’t bother to tell us about the suit. We read about it in the newspaper. Needless to say, we weren’t happy.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

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IFB Standards for Staff and Church Workers

ifb

Many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches have what are commonly called staff or worker standards. These rules strictly regulate what church staff and church workers wear, how they look, and how they behave. Some churches even require staff members and workers to sign their names to these rules, thus signifying an agreement between them and the church. Not abiding by these rules usually results in loss of employment or loss of ministry opportunities. All too often the offender is labeled rebellious or a backslider and run out of the church.

In the fall of 1979, I resigned from Montpelier Baptist Church in rural northwest Ohio and moved to the central Ohio community of Newark with my wife and newborn child. Polly’s maternal uncle, the late James (Jim) Dennis, pastored the Newark Baptist Temple — a hardcore IFB institution. Polly’s father, Lee, was the church’s assistant pastor. We planned to join the Baptist Temple and serve the Lord there while waiting on God to direct us to our next ministry opportunity. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.)

The church needed someone to oversee its bus ministry (unpaid). I thought, at the time, that doing this would be a perfect opportunity to put my Bible college training and skills to work. Instead, Pastor Dennis told me that he couldn’t give the position to me because it would like he was playing favorites with family. Later behavior would suggest that his real problem was with me personally. Numerous other family members would work for the Baptist Temple, just not Bruce Gerencser. This initial bit of conflict between us led to four decades of what can best be described as an adversarial relationship. I suspect that the root of the problem traces back to the fact that Pastor Dennis did not want Polly to marry me, and neither did Jim’s wife nor Polly’s mother. Yet, here we are, 42 years later.

Granted, I was a contrarian, not afraid to speak my mind. This put me in the doghouse more than a few times. Let me give you a couple of examples related to church staff and church worker standards. I taught Sunday School, drove a bus on Sunday, and helped do mechanical work on the busses during the week. Polly worked in the nursery, sang in the choir, and worked for the church’s non-licensed daycare. She later taught one year of third grade for the church’s non-accredited school, Licking County Christian Academy. At the time, I was a general manager for Arthur Treacher’s in Reynoldsburg, and later part of a new store management team that opened stores for Long John Silver’s in Zanesville, Heath, and Westerville

As workers at the Baptist Temple, we were required annually to read and sign the church’s standards. Polly quickly signed, but I refused to do so. I thought then, and still do, that it was manipulative (and stupid) to demand people sign the standards; that the only person I was accountable to was God. My “rebellion,” of course, caused quite a stir in the church. “Poor Polly,” people thought. “Bruce needs to get right with God!” The real issue wasn’t my “heart,” as much as it was my refusal to play by Pastor Dennis’ rules.

Pastor Dennis’ church standard regulated everything from length of hair, facial hair, what women and men could wear clothing-wise, and what entertainments people could participate in. The spouses and children of staff and church workers were expected to obey these rules too.

Refusing to sign caused a huge rift between Pastor Dennis and me, one that never healed. Because I refused to sign, I was removed as a Sunday School teacher. Ironically, I was still allowed to drive busses and repair them during the week. Nothing changed for Polly. I suspect this was due to the fact that Polly was so quiet and passive, and I was so outgoing and outspoken, that people saw me as Polly’s overlord Polly as a wife who dutifully followed her husband’s edicts. To this day, some family members refuse to see that Polly has come into her own; that the only “boss” in her life is herself. Some ill-informed Evangelical family and friends think that Polly is an unbeliever only because I am; that once I die, she will come running back to Jesus and the IFB church movement. Boy, are they in for a big surprise.

During our time in Newark, I played recreational basketball at least three times a week. During the winter, I would play basketball at the YMCA or join other church men for games at local school gymnasiums. During the summer, I would, after work, join my fellow manager, Neal Ball, at local playgrounds for pick-up basketball games (I also played softball). One day, I drove over to the Baptist Temple to pick Polly up from work. She was working for the church’s daycare, Temple Tots, at the time. I was wearing gym shorts — remember the short shorts of that era — a ratty tee-shirt, white socks, and Converse tennis shoes. As I walked into the church building, Pastor Dennis saw me. Like a bull charging a red cape, Jim came towards me, letting me know that I couldn’t enter the building dressed as I was. He was livid, and so was I. How dare he respond to me like this. I was just there to pick up my wife. He stomped off, as did I. He later let Polly know that I was not allowed to enter the building again unless I was dressed properly.

One night, we were at Polly’s parents’ home when Pastor Dennis stopped over for some reason. Polly’s dad was still the church’s assistant pastor, though they had cut his pay and forced him to work a factory job to make ends meet. (The Baptist Temple was notorious for paying poor wages, including paying married women less than men.) Polly’s sister was living at home at the time. She worked for a nearby nursing home. Kathy, dressed for work, came down the stairs while Pastor Dennis was standing at the front door. He looked up, and much to his horror, saw that Kathy was wearing pants! OMG, right? The good pastor quickly became angry, and with a loud voice lectured Kathy and her mom and dad over the evils of women wearing pants, and that Kathy, as the daughter of the church’s assistant pastor, was required to obey the church’s standard. According to Jim, this was to be the first and last time Kathy wore pants. It wasn’t.

The standards haven’t changed much at the Newark Baptist Temple. Men can now have hair that is a bit longer and are permitted to have facial hair, but the dress standard for staff and church workers remains as rigid and legalistic as ever.

While the Baptist Temple seems extreme to the uninitiated, such rules are not uncommon in IFB churches and colleges. The standards at the Baptist Temple were similar to the rules at the IFB college Polly and I attended — Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Pastor Dennis was a 1960s graduate of Midwestern and was later given an honorary doctorate by the college. It should come as no surprise that his rigid legalism matched that of Tom Malone and his alma mater. Polly’s father was also a Midwestern alum.

Yesterday, someone posted the male platform standard for the North Platte Baptist Church in North Platte, Nebraska. The church is pastored by William Reeves. (Three of six church staff positions are held by Reeves’ children — nepotism at its best.) I have written about Reeves and his church before:

If a man wants to be on the platform — the dog and pony show stage — at North Platte Baptist, he is required to dress and look a certain way:

platform standard north platte baptist church

I don’t know the context of the Twitter exchange between pastors William Reeves and Andrew Sluder — pastor of Bible Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina. Both men are arrogant, self-righteous pastors who are proud that their IFB dicks are bigger than those of other preachers. What I want to bring attention to is not dick size, but the requirements at North Platte Baptist for any man appearing on the church’s stage.

All men must:

  • wear a suit, a tie, and a white shirt
  • wear polished, clean dress shoes
  • be clean-shaven

Men are not permitted to wear necklaces or bracelets, nor are they to have a beard or mustache of any kind.

Sound crazy or bizarre? Trust me, in the IFB church movement, such standards are quite common.

Keep in mind that these are Pastor Reeves’ rules. He is the CEO, king, and potentate of North Platte Baptist. His word is the law, and those who refuse to play by his rules aren’t welcome.

charles spurgeon

I find it interesting that the church’s platform standard says that men who have facial hair are not trustworthy and lacking in personal character. Wow! I wonder if they realize that Jesus, the apostles, and the Apostle Paul all likely had facial hair, and that some of the preachers revered by IFB pastors, say Charles Spurgeon, had facial hair. Even God has a beard. I have seen his picture.

And here’s the thing, North Platte Baptist and other IFB churches have lots and lots of rules and regulations governing congregant/staff dress, appearance, and behavior. Rarely are these standards made known to new attendees. Better to hook them first with fake “love and kindness” before letting unwary attendees know, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”

Did you attend an IFB church? Did the church have specific requirements for staff and workers? Did the church have a platform standard? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

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Is it Possible to Reform the IFB Church Movement?

for sale sign midwestern baptist college
For Sale Sign in Front of Midwestern Baptist College

I was interviewed recently for the Preacher Boys podcast by Eric Skwarczynski. The primary purpose of Eric’s podcast is to expose abuse within the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Eric is a Christian, but we share a common purpose when it comes to sexual abuse and clergy misconduct in IFB churches, so I was more than happy to lend my voice to his noble cause. The podcast will be available soon. I hope readers of this blog will find our discussion insightful and helpful.

At the end of the show, Eric asked me whether I thought the IFB church movement could be reformed. I told him I didn’t think it could be reformed and that I hoped to be alive when the IFB church drew its last breath. I want to be the person standing bedside with pillow in hand, smothering the last breath out of a religious movement that has caused incalculable harm. I have seen first-hand (and participated in) the carnage caused by IFB churches, colleges, and pastors. I have talked to and corresponded with countless people whose marriages, families, and personal lives were ruined in the name of the IFB God. The psychological wounds and scars run deep. The widening exposure of abuse within the IFB church movement is a sign that people are no longer willing to be cowed into silence by men who value protecting their reputations and their ministries more than they do victims. This exposure is in its infancy, so we can expect to see more and more abuse stories come forth in the days, months, and years ahead.

While it is certainly true that some IFB churches and pastors have “reformed,” I have found that the changes that they have made are largely cosmetic in nature. I don’t know of an IFB church that embraces progressive theology, liberal social values, or inclusivism. Big change in “reformed” IFB churches usually means they use translations other than the KJV, use drums, have praise and worship teams, allow women to wear pants, and permit men to have hair over their ears. Real “reformists” now let congregants go to movie theaters, drink beer from time to time, or read books not published by the Sword of the Lord or Bob Jones Press. Why, some IFB churches are so liberal that high school graduates are now permitted to attend colleges other than the ones attended by their pastors. Talk about unholy ecumenism! Such changes, however, are window dressings meant to give the appearance of a new, improved IFB. Once in the store, people find the same authoritarian practices and exclusionary doctrines. The fundamental problem with the IFB church movement is their beliefs and practices. These things will never change. They can’t. The very foundation of the IFB church movement is the notion of certainty and right belief. Countless IFB churches and pastors believe that they alone have the truth; that they alone are God’s voice and God’s chosen people in their communities. The IFB church movement has always been separatist in nature. I haven’t seen anything in recent years that suggests this has changed.

gary keen bruce mike fox greg wilson midwestern baptist college 1978
Gary Keen, Bruce Gerencser, Mike Fox, Greg Wilson, Midwestern Baptist College, 1978

The only cure for the IFB church movement is death. And the good news is this: IFB churches, colleges, mission agencies, and parachurch organizations are in numerical and economic decline. The heyday of the IFB church movement was 40 years ago. In the 1970s, many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB churches. Today, many of these same churches are either closed or shells of what they once were. From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan — an IFB institution started by Dr. Tom Malone in 1954. Midwestern was never a big college, but today it roughly has ten percent of the students it had in the 1970s. Its website is outdated, and current information about the college hasn’t been posted in ages. The spacious 32-acre college campus has long since been abandoned and, I believe, sold. Midwestern is now an ancillary ministry of Shalom Baptist Church in Orion, Michigan. Its president, David Carr, like his father Harry Carr, is a Midwestern grad. I predict that there is coming a day when I will hear that the college has closed its doors.

Dr. Malone was the pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. A product of Bob Jones College, Malone started Emmanuel in 1942 after becoming increasingly troubled over what he perceived was liberalism in the Southern and American Baptist conventions. In the uber-sanitized authorized biography Tom Malone: The Preacher from Pontiac, Joyce Vick shares the following apocryphal story:

People ask me all the time, “Brother Tom, to what group do you belong? Of what association are you a member?”

I answer, “None.”

They ask, “Are you a Missionary Baptist?”

“Yes, I am.”

It may sound like a lie, but they do want to know what I am. “Are you a Southern Baptist?”

I say, “I am Southern and I am a Baptist.”

“Are you a Conservative Baptist?”

“Sure, I am conservative.”

“In what association book does Emmanuel Baptist Church appear?”

“Don’t have any.”

“Where are your headquarters?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You mean you don’t belong to anything?”

“No, I belong to the same thing to which the church at Antioch belongs. There is only one tie between New Testament churches, and that is the tie of fellowship. Each church is a local, autonomous church within itself. We have God, El Shaddai, and that’s enough.”

I have never felt I was called to preach for anybody, but I have felt I was caused to preach to everybody. I am not preaching for anybody but Jesus. There is nothing so wonderful, nothing so wholesome, as for a preacher to know there are no strings attached.

Thank God, I don’t have to fit into a denominational program. Thank God, I don’t have to get my orders from some national headquarters. Oh, thank God for the privilege of going to God for my directions! (pages 303, 304)

for sale sign emmanuel baptist church pontiac
For Sale Sign in Main Entrance Door, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Pontiac, Michigan

Emmanuel would be a new kind of Baptist church: an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist congregation. In the 1970s, Emmanuel had over 7,000 active members, and had attendances on special days over 5,000. Today? The doors of the church are shuttered, and its few remaining members scattered to other Fundamentalist churches in the area. The same story could be said of countless other IFB churches. Even First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, pastored by the late Jack Hyles and once arguably the largest church in the United States, is a shell of what it once was. Sure, you can find growing IFB churches here and there, but most of them are dying. Oh, they will still brag about the number of souls saved, but actual attendance numbers don’t lie.

My wife’s uncle, the late James Dennis, graduated from Midwestern in the 1960s. After pastoring a church in Bay City, Michigan, Jim moved to Newark, Ohio in 1968 to assume the pastorate of the Newark Baptist Temple. A church plant by the Akron Baptist Temple (started by Charles Vaden), the Baptist Temple, as it is commonly called, would see exciting numeric growth in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, by the time Jim died, after serving the Baptist Temple for forty-two years, the church was a shell of what it once was. Its one-time large Christian school was forced to drastically reduce its staff. Licking County Christian Academy (LCCA) at its inception was an Accelerated Christian School (A.C.E.) institution. It would later morph into an unaccredited traditional K-12 school. Today, a skeleton crew of staff use prerecorded Abeka videos to instruct students. Some of our relatives currently attend LCCA, as did our three oldest children for a short time.

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Emmanuel Baptist Church, Buckeye Lake, Ohio, Bruce Gerencser’s ordination April 1983

Polly and I attended the Baptist Temple for a short time decades ago. I could write for hours about our experiences there — good and bad. We left the Baptist Temple in early 1981 to help Polly’s father, a 1976 graduate of Midwestern and Jim Dennis’ pastoral assistant, to plant a new church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. I continued to have interaction with Jim and the Baptist Temple into the early 2000s. When our family briefly relocated to nearby Frazeyburg, Ohio in late 1994, people were shocked that we decided to NOT join the Baptist Temple, choosing instead to join the Fallsburg Baptist Church, an IFB congregation pastored by my former best friend Keith Troyer.

Over the years, I have watched the Baptist Temple “evolve.” While the church and its leaders are no longer as dogmatic as they once were over “church standards” (extra-Biblical rules used to govern and control the behavior of congregants), they are still a hardcore, right-wing, King James-only authoritarian congregation. When asked what I think has “changed” at the Baptist Temple, I laugh, and reply, “men are allowed to have facial hair now.” I suspect that this is not the kind of “reform” Eric Skwarczynski is talking about.

IFB institutions don’t reform. At best, they pretty themselves up a bit, hoping to attract unsuspecting visitors. Most IFB churches, however, remain committed to what they call “old-fashioned” Baptist beliefs and practices. They are proud to never have changed anything except their underwear. James Dennis was proud of the fact that be believed the same Biblical “truths” when he retired that he believed when graduating from Midwestern years before. No one should wear unchangeability as a badge of honor. “I have never changed my mind on anything. Bless your heart, my beliefs have never changed! Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so am I. Can I get an AMEN?” And it is for this reason alone that I am convinced that it is impossible to reform the IFB church movement. The movement has chosen to die on the twin hills of arrogance and certainty. All any of us can do is to help them swiftly meet their end.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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

Bruce Gerencser