Tag Archive: Perry County Ohio

Tales From the Appalachian Foothills — Do You Want Some “Rose of Sheridan?”

somerset baptist church 1989

In July, 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

From time to time, I want to share a few short stories from the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Today’s story is titled, Do You Want Some “Rose of Sheridan?”

One spring, a woman who attended our church with her husband and three children asked Polly is she would like some “Rose of Sheridan.” The year before, we had moved a 12’x60′ trailer on to the church property, parking it fifty feet from the main church building. The first thing we did was put a chain link fence around our small yard so Bethany couldn’t wander away and get hit by a car in the parking lot or fall down the cement stairs to what was commonly a called the basement building. After the fence was installed — we paid $400 for the fence out of our income tax refund — we set out to beautify our yard as best we could. Knowing this, Mrs. M made the offering of the “Rose of Sheridan.” We had no idea about what “Rose of Sheridan” was. All we knew is that we wanted “stuff” to plant in our newly fenced yard.

Several days later, Mrs. M brought us three “Rose of Sheridan” bushes. We planted them on the northeast corner where our yard met the basement building. The bushes didn’t bloom that much the first year, but the next summer they were in full bloom. Another church member asked Polly what the bushes were and she replied, “Rose of Sheridan.” The church member got a quizzical look on her face and said, you mean “Rose of SHARON,” right? You see, what Mrs. M gave us was Rose of Sharon and not “Rose of Sheridan.”

phil sheridan somerset ohio

How did Mrs. M confuse the name? Oh, that was easy. You see, nearby Somerset was home to Civil War general Phil Sheridan when he was a child. His boyhood home sits on the south edge of town on State Highway 13. A statute of Sheridan on a horse — the only equestrian Civil War monument in Ohio — adorns the center of town where two state highways meet. The local high school was named Sheridan High School. In Mrs. M’s mind, she confused Sharon with Sheridan, so that’s why the bushes she gave us the spring of 1990 were called “Rose of Sheridan.”

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

Tales From the Appalachian Foothills — A Perry County Septic Tank

somerset baptist church 1989

In July, 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

From time to time, I want to share a few short stories from the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Today’s story is titled, A Perry County Septic Tank.

Perry County was coal mining country. Several large underground mines were in operation during my years at Somerset Baptist. Also scattered across the county were open-pit (strip) mines. These mines, in particular, caused great harm to the beautiful rolling hills of Perry County. Companies were required to “reclaim” land used for mining, but their reclamation efforts often left denuded landscapes and polluted streams. This land was practically worthless except for recreational use. A southern man by the name of Sidney Hurdle — a lawyer by trade — found a way to monetize this land by selling it on land contract to poor people looking to own a place of their own. Sectioned off in five-, ten-, and twenty-acre lots, Hurdle sold former strip ground land (and non-strip ground land) for $395 down and low payments over the next twenty to thirty years. Sidney Hurdle died a few years back. His son, I believe, continues to sell land as his father did before him:

For nearly half a century Hurdle Land & Realty has conducted business with the philosophy that owning your own property is an essential part of the American Dream. That is why three generations of Hurdles have enabled thousands of people just like you to purchase land hassle free.

….

We do things a bit differently than a traditional lender. We promise to finance you, if you promise to pay us. We believe in a hand shake. We take a man for his word. We feel too many people have lost this type of service. If one of us ends up not living up to our agreement, then there are practices in place to resolve that. But in the beginning, we trust our customer. Besides, this saves you money overall, eliminates the complicated process of securing a mortgage from a bank and it all works with just a small amount of cash up front.

When purchasing real estate there are costs involved that are above the cost of the property itself. You have probably heard terms regarding these fees like document prep, attorney cost, title service, deed stamps, survey, application fees, points, commissions and the list goes on. However, when you buy from us, we cover all associated fees with the transaction for you. We will NEVER ask you to pay for any of these fees before or after the sale!

Here is how it works: You pay a total down payment of $295. We currently have a set fixed interest rate of 7.9%. We are flexible with the term of the loan. We will finance to you for as short as 12 months or extend it as long as 360 months–whatever fits your budget! Our office will prepare all the necessary closing documents for you to sign . . .

The website for Hurdle’s Ohio land for sale can be accessed here.

Some people took issue with Hurdle selling reclaimed land to poor people, profiting from their poverty. While I once thought that too, I came to see that Hurdle enabled the working poor to own that which they would never be able to own otherwise. Several congregants owned Hurdle Land, as it was commonly called. One family owned a twenty-acre parcel. Most of the families purchasing Hurdle Land couldn’t afford to build a home, so they bought mobile homes instead. On several lots sat school buses that were converted to year-round homes.

The church family with the twenty-acre plot bought a dilapidated trailer and had it towed up to the top of their hill.  Drinking water was provided by a spring at the bottom of the hill. Sewage was handled by what was called a Perry County Septic Tank. There was no zoning, and locals routinely ignored licensing and permitting requirements. Perry County had septic tank regulations, but many of the people buying Hurdle Land couldn’t afford to have a commercial septic system — complete with tank and leech bed — installed, so they installed a makeshift septic tank instead. A Perry County Septic Tank consisted of running plastic pipe from the mobile home to a fifty-five-gallon oil drum buried downhill in the ground. The drum had two holes, one where the sewage entered and the other where the liquids (gray water) exited and ran down the hill. Yes, down the hill where the spring was! (There was no leech bed) On more than one occasion I expressed my concern that sewage run off might contaminate the spring. I was told, Oh, preacher, don’t worry, we will be fine. Over time, the oil drum would fill up with solids. This, of course, posed quite a problem. The tank either had to be emptied, or raw sewage would run down the hill. Far too often, the drum overflowed, and down the hill went raw sewage. In time, the tank would get emptied by bailing out the drum with a rope attached to a five-gallon bucket. The sewage would be dumped on the back side of the property — out of sight out of mind.

The eleven years I spent in Perry County taught me a lot about the struggles of the poor, the working class; of their desires to have and own just like their more affluent brethren. The family in this story could proudly say they owned twenty-acres of land and a mobile home; an achievement, to be sure. Their children learned from these hardships, went to college, and built their middle class lives upon the memories of Hurdle Land, a ramshackle mobile home, and a Perry County Septic Tank.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

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

Tales From the Appalachian Foothills — The Church Christmas Tree

somerset baptist church 1989

In July, 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

From time to time, I want to share a few short stories from the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Today’s story is titled, The Church Christmas Tree.

In 1985, the congregation bought an abandoned Methodist church building five miles east of Somerset on top of Sego Hill. After months of remodeling, the sanctuary was ready to use. Built in the 1830s, the church had oak floors, colored glass windows, and a 25-foot vaulted ceiling. The building was classic for its era, one of the oldest church buildings in the county. Purchased for $5,000, the sanctuary and annex required $15,000 in improvements, including two gas furnaces to replace the coal-converted-to-propane monster in the basement. We would later install a wood/coal furnace after propane costs skyrocketed one year.

December, 1985, was our first Christmas in the new building. I decided that we would purchase a Christmas tree and put it in the back of the sanctuary. After discussing with several congregants whether to get an artificial or real tree, one man spoke up and said, “preacher, I can get us a real Christmas tree and it won’t cost us anything.” I replied, “that would be great.”

A few days later, the man showed up at the church with a huge Christmas tree in the back of his 1960s Ford pickup. The man unloaded the tree, carried it into the church, and propped up in the back corner. Proudly, he asked, “preacher, what do you think?” I looked at scrawny pine tree — 12 feet in height. I thought, “man, this tree sure is scrawny. I wonder where he bought it?” I told the man, “looks great! — a lie to be sure, but better than wounding the man’s spirit. He was so proud of doing this for me that I didn’t want to discourage him. It’s just a tree, I told myself. No big deal. “Where did you get this tree?” I asked. The man replied, “oh I went up on Route 13 and cut down one of the trees growing along the highway.” You WHAT? I alarmingly replied. “You do know that those trees are government property?” The man genuinely seemed clueless about the ownership question.  And then, without missing a beat, he replied, “well, preacher, those trees belong to God!”

This tree would be the first and last Christmas tree in the sanctuary. Two years later, I came out against Christmas and its excesses, putting an end to any sort of tree or decorations in the sanctuary. In their place, the sanctuary rang with sermons against Christmas and the excesses of the season. I am sure, compared to my guilt-inducing sermons, congregants missed the scrawny Christmas tree, regardless of its provenance.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

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

Tales From the Appalachian Foothills — Bruce Goes to a Faith Healing Service

somerset baptist church 1989

In July 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

From time to time, I want to share a few short stories from the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Today’s story is titled, Bruce Goes to a Faith Healing Service.

I grew up in a religious monoculture. The only churches I attended were Evangelical/Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) congregations. I attended a Methodist church one time, but that’s only because I was chasing a girl who went to that church. I was twenty-six years old before I attended the services of any other church beside a Bible-preaching Evangelical church.

One of my responsibilities as an IFB pastor was to preach against false pastors and teachings. On Sundays, I would preach against Catholics, Southern Baptists, Charismatics, Mainline churches, and any other sect I deemed heterodox or heretical. As a fully certified, circumcised, and lobotomized IFB preacher, I had a long list of things I was against. The goal, of course, was to make sure that congregants didn’t stray. They were members of the “best” church in town. Why go elsewhere, right? I saw myself as a gatekeeper, a divinely called man given the responsibility to protect people from false teaching. And protect them I did — from every false, harmful teaching but my own.

One Sunday afternoon, I decided to attend a Charismatic faith healing service at the Somerset Elementary School gymnasium. I thought, “if I am doing to preach that Charismaticism is from the pit of Hell, I’d better at least experience one of their services.”

I arrived at the service about fifteen minutes early. I brought one of the “mature” men of the church with me, a man who wouldn’t be swayed by the false teachings we were going to hear. There were 50 or so people in attendance. Songs were sung, a sermon was preached, and an offering was collected. Pretty standard Baptist stuff. But then it came time for people have the pastor lay hands on them and deliver them from sickness and demonic possession. People started speaking in tongues as the preacher walked down the front row “healing” people. According to the preacher, numerous people were being healed, though I saw no outward evidence of this. This so-called man of God would stand in front of people, ask them their needs, lay his hand on their heads, and pray for them. And just like that, they were “healed.”

Near me was sitting a dirty, scraggly woman. Her black hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. It had a sheen that said, “last washed with used motor oil.”  When it came time for the preacher to lay his hand on top of woman’s head, he refused to touch her greasy, dirty head. Instead, he held his “healing” hand just above her head, prayed for her, and quickly moved on to the next mark. I thought, “what a fraud. Why not put your hand on this woman’s head? What’s a little grease on your hands?

I attended other Charismatic services during my eleven years as pastor of Somerset Baptist, but there’s nothing like your first one, right?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

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

Tales From the Appalachian Foothills — The Perry County Dump

somerset baptist church 1989

In July 1983, I started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Somerset, Ohio. I would remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until March 1994. Somerset was a community of 1,400 people located in Perry County — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a pastor; to truly involve yourself in the lives of others.

The membership of Somerset Baptist was primarily made up of poor working-class people. Most church families received some form of government assistance — mostly food stamps and Medicaid. In many ways, these were my kind of people. Having grown up poor myself, I knew a good bit about their struggles. I deeply loved them, and they, in return, bestowed their love on me.

From time to time, I want to share a few short stories from the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist. I hope you’ll enjoy them. Today’s story is titled, The Perry County Dump.

In 1985, we bought an old abandoned brick Methodist church building five miles east of Somerset. Built in 1831 and located on the top of Sego Hill, the building had been abandoned years earlier. Purchased for $5,000, the building needed extensive repairs. One of the first things we had to do was haul away truckloads of junk that had been left behind by the Methodists and debris that had accumulated from the years of being left open to the elements.

Being fairly new to the area, I asked one member where the landfill was. He told me, I’ll haul everything to the “Perry County Dump” and it won’t cost anything!” I thought, “great!” Over the next several weeks, this man — who later would drive one of our bus routes — dutifully hauled numerous pickup truck loads of junk to the dump. Finally, the last load was delivered to the dump. I thanked the man for hauling everything away, and then moved on to helping another congregant level the floor in the main building.

Later that year, I was tooling down a gravel/dirt road south of the church and came upon a ravine where someone had been illegally dumping junk and refuse. As I looked more closely at the littered ravine, I noticed several items that looked just like the junk hauled from the church. Sure enough, what the man had call the “Perry County Dump” was actually an illegal dumping site. This man didn’t think twice about doing this. It’s what he had always done, and “no one ever said anything,” he told me! Needless to say, I said something, telling him that it was NOT okay to dump junk at the “Perry County Dump”; that in the future anything hauled for the church would have to be taken to the real landfill. The man never understood “why” he couldn’t use the “Perry County Dump,” but he agreed to use the landfill in the future.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

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

Reliving the “Good Old Days”: Do You Have Any Change?

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2

Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us.

Several weeks ago, Polly and I were reliving what we call the “good old days.” The “good old days” span the first seventeen years of our marriage, including the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. Somerset Baptist, for a few years, was a fast-growing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist congregation, developing from a handful of attendees to over two hundred in attendance. Located in rural Southeast Ohio, in the northernmost county of the Appalachian region, Somerset Baptist was made up primarily of poor blue-collar workers or people who were on public assistance (it was not uncommon to find food stamp coupons in the offering plate). The highest total annual offering was $40,000. Most years, the offerings were in the $25,000 range. I pastored Somerset Baptist full-time, receiving what meager salary the church could provide, supplementing my income with jobs pumping gas, delivering newspapers, selling insurance, and taking in foster children. We literally lived from hand to mouth, rarely having two nickels to rub together.

We mostly drove cheap cars. I did all my own repair work, so I would buy junk cars, repair them, and keep them running until they were worn out. During the “good” years, we bought a new car — a 1984 Plymouth Horizon ($6,000) This car has a story unto itself, which I will tell at a later date. I drove the car for two years, putting 102,000 miles on the car. That’s right at 50,000 miles a year. By the end of second year of the loan, the car was worn out.

Thanks to us having a large family, we were eligible for food stamps and energy assistance. This fact thoroughly embarrassed us. We would drive to Columbus, where no one knew us, to do our grocery shopping. When the government offered free cheese or peanut butter to welfare recipients, I couldn’t bear to stand in line to get it (the “why” is yet another story for another day). Polly was embarrassed too, but she really loved what she called “welfare cheese,” so she would swallow her pride and stand in line with the other poor people.

somerset baptist church 1983-1994

Our son Jaime, and our two girls, Bethany and Laura.

I had grown up poor so I knew a good bit about poverty. Polly, on the other hand, was raised in a middle-class home where new cars, home ownership, money in the bank, and annual vacations were common. Polly’s dad worked for the railroad, and when he got the itch to go to college to study for the ministry at age thirty-five, he found a well- paying job at General Motors’ Pontiac Truck and Coach plant which enabled him to study without depriving his family. Neither of us knew the first thing about handling money responsibly. Both of us thought a life of poverty was God’s will for us, so we hunkered down and endured. Boy, did we endure!

Polly and I had six children during our years in Southeast Ohio. The first child’s birth was covered in full by insurance. The next five children were covered by state medical insurance. All told, we had private health insurance three of the first seventeen years of our marriage. The rest of the time, we either did without — thank you, oh Great Physician — or were covered by state medical insurance.

In 1989, we purchased an old, beat up 12×60-foot trailer and parked it fifty feet from the church building on the far end of the church parking lot. By then, the church had stopped running its four bus routes and attendance was less than one hundred. There were eight Gerencsers by then, so try to imagine us all living in 720 square feet. Try to picture the amount of laundry and pails of soiled cloth diapers Polly washed. Polly and I had one bedroom, the three oldest boys had another bedroom, and our daughters and youngest son had a bedroom the size of a large closet. Playing, for the children, meant going outside. Our children were four-season players, complete with bread bags on their feet in the winter so their feet didn’t get wet. Somehow we survived. That’s what Polly and Bruce Gerencser and munchkins did — we survived.

Our youngest children have very few, if any, memories of our “Somerset days.” Our oldest sons, however, have lots of memories. They, themselves, could write a book about their experiences as the pastor’s children living in the poverty-sicken hills of Perry County. To this day, my oldest sons remind me that Christmas comes in March. As children, they got very few gifts for Christmas, and most of the gifts they received were courtesy of their grandparents — my father excepted, who never sent one card or gift, ever. Christmas, then, was when we received our federal income tax return. Thanks to the earned income credit, we yearly received a large tax refund. We used this money to pay bills and buy our children clothing, shoes, underwear, and a few non-essential gifts. This was the one time of the year we had a large sum of cash. The rest of the year was spent raiding change jars and searching cars for spare coins. Ah, the good old years.

Several weeks ago, we had one of those oh-so-rare occasions where we were very low on money. Polly often laughs and tells me that I have a knack for pulling money out of my ass! On this particular day, my ass was broke. We needed bread and I had a hankering for a grilled steak. The checkbook was empty and I had $6.00 to my name. Off to Bryan we drove, stopping at Chief — a local grocery company — to see what we could get for $6.00. Polly dug through her cavernous purse and checked places were change collects in the car. She scraped up $1.48, giving us a grand total of $7.48. This gave us just enough money to buy one loaf of cheap bread and a one-pound sirloin steak (split three ways). Woo Hoo!

somerset baptist church 1985

Somerset Baptist Church, Mt Perry, Ohio, Bruce and Polly Gerencser and kids, 1985

As we got back in the car, both of us laughed about our change-fueled forage, reminding us of our days in Southeast Ohio. The good old days, we both said. I added, yeah except for the fact we are driving home in a $30,000 automobile, a car that cost more than most of our other cars combined.

The “good old days” certainly helped to make us into the people we are today, but neither of us has any desire to relive them. We are grateful for Polly’s job and its benefits. Above all, we are thankful that our children escaped the poverty of their youth and have solid, well-paying middle-class jobs. Some of them are in management positions, and all of them, save one, own homes without wheels. They, too, have fond memories of their days living as sardines in a 12×60-foot trailer, but they have no hankering to relive those days. Instead, they regale their children with stories that almost sound unbelievable — that is, except to we who lived them.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

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

Did My Philosophy of Ministry Change Over the Years I Spent in the Ministry?

bruce and polly gerencser 1978

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, May 1978

My editor recently asked me a question about how my philosophy of ministry had changed from when I first began preaching in 1976 until I left the ministry in 2005. I thought her question would make for an excellent blog post.

I typically date my entrance into the ministry from when I enrolled for classes at Midwestern Baptist College in the fall of 1976. I actually preached my first sermon at age 15, not long after I went forward during an evening service at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, and publicly declared to my church family that God was calling me into the ministry. My public affirmation of God’s call was the fulfillment of the desire I expressed as a five-year-old boy when someone asked me: what do you want to be when you grow up? My response was, I want to be a preacher. Unlike many people, I never had any doubts about what I wanted to do with my life. While I’m unsure as to why this is so, all I know is this: I always wanted to be a preacher.

Trinity Baptist Church was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church, affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). From my preschool years forward, every church I attended was either an IFB church or a generic Evangelical congregation. When I entered Midwestern in 1976, all that I knew about the Bible, the ministry, and life itself was a result of the preaching, teaching, and experiences I had at the churches I was part of. These churches, along with my training at Midwestern, profoundly affected my life, filling my mind with theological, political, and social beliefs that shaped my worldview. These things, then, became the foundation of my philosophy of ministry.

The fact that I grew up in a dysfunctional home also played a big part in the development of my ministerial philosophy. During my elementary and high school years, I attended numerous schools. The longest spell at one school was the two and a half years I spent at Central Junior High School and Findlay High School in Findlay Ohio. All told, I attended four high schools, two junior high schools, and five elementary schools. Someone asked me years ago if I went to a lot different schools because my dad got transferred a lot. I laughed, and replied, no, dad just never paid the rent. While my father was always gainfully employed, the Gerencser family was never far from the poorhouse, thanks to nefarious financial deals and money mismanagement. I quickly figured out that if I wanted clothing, spending money, and, at times, lunch money, it was up to me to find a way to get the money to pay for these things. There were times that I sneaked into my dad’s bedroom and stole money from his wallet so I could pay for my school lunches. Dad thought that the local Rink’s Bargain City — which I called Bargain Shitty — was the place to buy clothing for his children. I learned that if I wanted to look like my peers that I was going to have to find a way to get enough money to pay for things such as Converse tennis shoes, platform shoes, and Levi jeans. In my early junior high years, I turned to shoplifting for my clothing needs. From ninth grade forward, I had a job, whether it was mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow, or holding down a job at the local Bill Knapp’s restaurant. I also worked at my dad’s hobby shop, for which he paid me twenty-five cents an hour, minus whatever I spent for soda from the pop machine.

My mother, sexually molested by her father as a child and later raped by her brother-in-law, spent most of her adult life battling mental illness. Mom was incarcerated against her will several times at the Toledo State Mental Hospital. She attempted suicide numerous times, using everything from automobiles, pills, and razor blades to bring about her demise. One such attempt when I was in fifth grade left an indelible mark, one that I can still, to this day, vividly remember. I rode the bus to school. One day, after arriving home, I entered the house and found my mom laying in a pool blood on the kitchen floor. She had slit her wrists. Fortunately, she survived, but suicide was never far from her mind. At the age of fifty-four, mom turned a .357 Magnum Ruger revolver towards her heart and pulled the trigger. She bled out on the bathroom floor.

It is fair to say that we humans are the sum of our experiences, and that our beliefs are molded and shaped by the things we experience in life. I know my life certainly was. As I reflect on my philosophy of ministry, I can see how these things affected how I ministered to others. The remainder of this post will detail that philosophy and how it changed over the course of my life.

When I entered the ministry, my philosophy was quite simple: preach the gospel and win souls to Christ. Jesus was the solution to every problem, and if people would just get saved, all would be well. I find it interesting that this Jesus-centric/gospel-centric philosophy was pretty much a denial of what I had, up until that point, experienced in life. While the churches I attended certainly preached this philosophy, my real-life experiences told me that Jesus and salvation, while great, did not change people as much as preachers said they did. But, that’s the philosophy I was taught, so I entered the ministry with a burning desire to win as many souls as possible, believing that if I did so it would have a profound effect on the people I ministered to.

I also believed that poor people (and blacks) were lazy, and if they would just get jobs and work really, really hard, they would have successful lives. I would quickly learn as a young married man that life was more complex than I first thought, and that countless Americans went to work every day, worked hard, did all they could to become part of the American middle class, yet they never experienced the American dream. I also learned that two people can be given the same opportunities in life and end up with vastly different lives. In other words, I learned that we humans are complex beings, and there’s nothing simple about life on planet earth. I also learned that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. I would much later in life conclude that life is pretty much a crapshoot.

In 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio. Somerset Baptist was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. I pastored this church for almost twelve years. During this time, the church grew from a first service attendance of sixteen to an average attendance over two hundred. The church also experienced a decline in membership over time, with fifty or so people attending the last service of the church. Somerset Baptist was located in Perry County, the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. Coal mines and stripper oil wells dotted the landscape. Unemployment was high. In the 1980s, unemployment exceeded twenty percent. It should come as no surprise then, that most of the members of Somerset Baptist were poor. Thanks in part to my preaching of the Calvinistic work ethic (also known as the shaming of people who don’t have jobs), all the men of the church were gainfully employed, albeit most families were receiving food stamps and other government assistance. During the years I spent at this church, I received a world-class education concerning systemic poverty. I learned that people can work hard and still not get ahead. I also learned that family dysfunction, which included everything from drug/alcohol addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, and even incest, often was generational; that people were the way they were, with or without Jesus, because that’s all they knew. I pastored families that had never been more than fifty miles from their homes. At one point, some members of our church took a church auto trip to Virginia, and I recall how emotional some members were when they crossed the bridge from Ohio into West Virginia. It was the years I spent in Somerset Ohio that dramatically changed how I viewed the world. This, of course, led to an evolving philosophy of ministry.

bruce gerencser 1990's

Bruce Gerencser, Somerset Baptist Church, Early 1990’s

While I never lost my zeal to win souls for Christ, my preaching, over time, took on a more comprehensive, holistic approach. Instead of preaching, get right with God and all would be well, I began to teach congregants how to apply the Bible to every aspect of their lives. I stop preaching textual and topical sermons, choosing instead to preach expositionally through various books of the Bible. I also realized that one way I could help the children of the church was to provide a quality education for them. Sure, religious indoctrination was a part of the plan, but I realized that if the children of the church were ever going to rise above their parents, they were going to have to be better educated. For my last five years at Somerset Baptist, I was the administrator and a teacher at Somerset Baptist Academy — a private, tuition-free school for church children. My wife and I, along with several other adults in the church, were the primary teachers. Our focus was on the basics: reading, English, writing, and arithmetic. Some of the students were years behind in their education. We used a one-room schoolhouse approach, and there were several instances of high school students doing math with third-grade students. We educated children where they were, regardless of their grade. Polly taught the younger students, and was instrumental in many of them learning to read. Most of the students, who are now in their thirties and forties, have fond memories of Polly teaching them reading and English. Their memories are not as fond of Preacher, the stern taskmaster.

During the five years we operated the school, I spent hours every day with the church’s children. I learned much about their home lives and how poverty and dysfunction affected them. Their experiences seem so similar to my own, and over time I began to realize that part of my ministerial responsibility was to minister to the temporal social needs of the people I came in contact with. This change of ministry philosophy would, over time, be shaped and strengthened by changing political and theological beliefs.

In 1995, I started a new church in West Unity, Ohio called Grace Baptist Church. The church would later change its name to Our Father’s House — reflecting my increasing ecumenicalism. During the seven years I spent in West Unity, my preaching moved leftward, so much so that a man who had known me in my younger years told me I was preaching another gospel — the social gospel. My theology moved from fundamentalist Calvinism to theological beliefs focused on good works. I came to believe that true Christian faith rested not on right beliefs. but good works; that faith without works was dead; that someday Jesus would judge us, not according to our beliefs, but by our works. While at Our Father’s House, I started a number of ministries which were no-strings-attached social outreaches to the poor. The church never grew to more than fifty or sixty people, but if I had to pick one church that was my favorite it would be this one. Outside of one kerfuffle where a handful of families left the church, my time at Our Father’s House was peaceful. For the most part, I pastored a great bunch of people who sincerely loved others and wanted to help them in any way they could.

bruce polly gerencser our fathers house west unity

Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio Circa 2000

In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush. He would be the last Republican I voted for. As my theology became more liberal, so did my politics, and by the time I left the ministry in 2005, I was politically far from the right-wing Republicanism of my early years in the ministry. Today, I am as liberal as they come. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the last presidential primary election. Politically, I am a Democratic Socialist. To some people, depending on where they met me in life, my liberal beliefs are shocking. One man was so bothered by not only my politics, but my loss of faith, that he told me he could no longer be friends with me; that he found my changing beliefs and practices too psychologically unsettling.

I’m now sixty years old, and come July, I will be married to my beautiful bride for forty years. Much has changed in my life, particularly in the last decade, but one constant remains: I genuinely love people and want to help them. This is why some people think I am still a pastor, albeit an atheist one. I suspect had I been born into a liberal Christian home I might have become a professor or a social worker, and if I had to do it all over again I probably would have pursued these types of careers, choosing to be a bi-vocational pastor instead of a full-time one. But, I didn’t, and my life story is what it is. Perhaps when I am reincarnated, I will get an opportunity to walk a different path. But, then again, who knows where that path might take me. As I stated previously, we humans are complex beings, and our lives are the sum of our experiences. Change the experiences, change the man.

I hope that I’ve adequately answered my editor’s question. This post turned out to be much longer than I thought it would be, much like my sermons years ago.

bruce and polly gerencser 2017

Bruce and Polly Gerencser 2017

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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

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

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

Helping the Least of These

bruce gerencser 1971

Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade, 1971

Suzanne asked:

Bruce, I would be curious to hear how your old church handled this issue. It really seems to be a bedrock sticky wicket that says more about the pastor of the church than anything else. I am going to a Methodist church now where they will pay your electric bill or give you a grocery store gift card but will not hand over cash. Seems sort of mean even if it’s likely a better idea.

I grew up in a home where money was hard to come by. Dad always had a job, but never seemed to have enough money to pay the bills. This is why, as a youth, Dad moved us from town to town and school to school. When people learn about my well-traveled upbringing, they often ask, did you move a lot because of your father’s work? No, we moved a lot because Dad didn’t pay the rent (my parents never owned a home).  Clothing, lunch money, and spending money were hard to come by, and when Dad did buy me clothes, they were often cheap Rink’s Bargain City (Bargain Shitty) knock-offs. My first pair of Levi’s came not from my Dad, but courtesy of a five-fingered discount at a local clothing store. This would not be the last time I shoplifted.

Medical and dental care were almost nonexistent. I can count on one hand the times I went to the doctor growing up. It was only after my parents divorced and Mom signed up for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Medicaid that I received regular medical and dental care. To this day, I remember going to the dentist as a sixteen-year-old boy, only to be told, yes, your teeth need work. And once your Dad pays his bill, I will be glad to fix them. Talk about embarrassing.

Early on, I realized that if I wanted money of my own that I was going to have to work for it. My first jobs were raking leaves, shoveling snow, and mowing yards. My first “official” job — at age fourteen — was daily emptying the trash at a local nursing home. As a teenager, I worked all sorts of minimum wage jobs. Once I had my own money, I was then able to buy my own clothes, pay for school lunches, and fund my social activities.

I have said all this to emphasize that growing up poor deeply affected how I dealt with people as a pastor. Having suffered the embarrassment of using food stamps and the indignity of being forced to wear welfare glasses (see photograph above), I knew firsthand the struggles of the poor. These experiences made me compassionate to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.”

In what follows, I will detail how I interacted with the poor in the churches I pastored; what ministries I started that specifically ministered to the disadvantaged and marginalized. During the twenty-five years I spent in the pastorate, I had the privilege of ministering to countless people who were down on their luck. Yes, I met more than a few con-artists, grifters, and lazier-than-a-coon-dog-on-a-cold-winter’s-night users and abusers. I am sure that my kindness was taken advantage of. I took the approach that my job was to help; it was God’s job to sort out motives. Now, this doesn’t mean that I was an easy mark. I wasn’t. I rarely gave money to people, knowing that doing so often fed drug or alcohol addictions. If someone needed gas I took them to the gas station and paid for the gas. When homeless people asked for money, I offered them a meal at a nearby diner. When people needed help with their utilities, I directly contacted the utility and paid the bill. Of course, I couldn’t have done any of these things without the gracious financial support of church members.

Over the years, the churches I pastored had food pantries and clothing rooms that were open to the public. Having suffered the indignity of being singled out for being poor, I made sure that we never embarrassed the poor. If someone said they needed help, we helped them (within the limits of our finances). While I certainly wanted to see people saved, I never made helping poor people contingent on them attending church. I took the approach, freely received, freely given. Unlike many holier-than-thou, self-righteous Baptist preachers, I never had a problem encouraging people to avail themselves of services and benefits offered by the state welfare department and federal food banks.

For eleven years, I pastored a Baptist church in Perry County, Ohio — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was there I saw abject and generational poverty. Good jobs were hard to come by, and once the coal mines closed, those who had well-paying mining jobs were forced to work jobs that often paid minimum wage. The unemployment rate was double-digit, ranging from ten to nineteen percent. As is now the case, the number of unemployed was much higher than the official numbers suggested. Once unemployed workers stopped receiving unemployment benefits, they were no longer counted. These unemployed workers turned to the welfare department for help, trying to eke out an existence on meager government checks and food stamps. Some worked jobs that paid cash or turned to growing marijuana.

The majority of church members were on some sort of government assistance — usually food stamps and Medicaid. Most church families had at least one member gainfully employed. The highest paid man in the church made $21,000 a year (except for a year or so when a nearby church had a split and a number of their middle-class members attended the church — they later left, taking their money with them). Annual church offerings peaked at $40,000 a year, when attendance averages neared 200. Most years, the total offerings were in the $20,000 range. My largest annual salary during this time was $12,000. Five of our six children’s births were paid for by Medicaid, and for several years we received food stamps. Now, this doesn’t mean we didn’t try to improve our lot — we did. I pumped gas and worked as a mechanic at a local gas station, sold insurance, worked in restaurants, and delivered newspapers. I believed then, and still do, that there is no shame in being poor. Work hard, do what you can, and live on the results. (In retrospect, I certainly would have done many things differently, but I, to this day, believe all work is honorable and has value, regardless of its pay.)

During my eleven-year stint as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I spent a significant amount of time helping the poor, both in the community at large and in the church. When a man said he would come to church if only he had shoes, I gave him a pair of mine. When members needed money, I loaned it to them or paid their bills. I sold cars to several church members, no money down, pay me when you can. One church member took advantage of my generosity, buying a car from me and never paying for it. This person sat on the front row on Sundays. I often found it hard to look at him without thinking, hey deadbeat, pay me for the car. But then I would think of Jesus and the Sermon of the Mount or remember my own poverty-filled upbringing. I knew this person’s family history — how he grew up in abject poverty, dropping out of high school and becoming a drug addict. I knew he had spent time in jail and hadn’t had a driver’s license in years. (I helped him get his license reinstated.) As Jesus did for the poor of his day, I had compassion for him, even if he, at times, irritated the heaven out of me. (He was, despite these failings, one of the kindest, most helpful men I have ever known. If I needed help with something, I knew I could call on him.)

For several years, Polly and I took in foster children, mostly court-referred teenagers. The county paid us a stipend for giving these teens a home. I have plenty of stories I could share about our foster children, but I will just share one for now. We had two teen boys living with us who decided that they wanted a bit of freedom. They stole our car (a dealer loaner, as our car was in the shop having a new motor installed), checkbook, and credit card, and took a joy ride to New Jersey. They ran a red light in Jersey and were pulled over by the police. After finding out there was a warrant out for their arrest, they were arrested and returned to Ohio for prosecution. Prior to their court appearance for felony theft, the judge called me and asked me to come to his office for a visit. He asked me what punishment I thought he should mete out to these boys. I told him that I felt that they should be punished, but that I didn’t want to see them go to prison. He (we) decided that he would give them the maximum sentence at a youth detention center, but release them after thirty days. Needless to say, they learned their lesson. One of the boys lived with us again. We forgave him, believing that this is what Jesus would have us do. More than a few people thought we were crazy (and maybe we were).

From giving homeless people a place to stay at the church to feeding the homeless men who frequented the streets of Zanesville, Polly and I, along with the church, tried our best to minister to those in need. As a pastor, I had many shortcomings and faults. I deeply regret my Fundamentalist Baptist preaching and its emphasis on sin instead of grace. I wish I could have seen the disconnect between my hellfire and brimstone preaching on Sundays and my compassionate, patient help of the poor the rest of the week. If I had been the bleeding-heart liberal that I am today back in my Perry County days, I suspect the church would have been known above all else as a place of love and safety for the disenfranchised. I could easily have been a Steven Anderson (please see Christians Say the Darnedest Things: Lazy Bums Want Us to Act Like Compassionate Christians by Steven Anderson), propping up hate of the poor with Bible verses, but fortunately my life experiences softened my heart, and as Jesus did, when he looked at the poor I had compassion on them.

Several years ago, after finding out that I had helped someone with a particular need, my mother-in-law told me, Bruce, why you’d give the last shirt off your back if someone needed it. (Polly grew up in a middle-class home — new cars, vacations, home ownership.) She then said — perhaps thinking of what the Bible said about helping others — well, I guess that is not a bad problem to have. In retrospect, I can see how some of my liberal giving caused her to be concerned. Here we were barely keeping our heads above water and I was giving money, food, clothing, and other things to the poor. If I had to do it all over again, I would have certainly provided a better life for Polly and our children, but I would never have wanted to lose my compassion for others, especially those at the bottom of the economic scale.  While my children did without while Dad was sacrificially helping others (and if they hated me for doing so I would understand), all of them — especially the oldest three — have told me that these experiences helped to make them into the hardworking people they are today (Our family has what we call the Gerencser Work Ethic®: work hard, do your job, don’t miss work; be the best employee you can be.)

As I re-read this post, I am uncomfortable with its personal focus. I am not the type of person who, after helping someone, publicizes my largess. Works of charity ought to be done in secret — without fanfare or applause. No need to let everyone on social media know that I did this or that for someone. The good feeling I receive from helping others is enough. Paying it forward is a good way to live, and even if there is no karmic justice, I want to be known as a man who loved and cared for others.

[signoff]