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Tag: Poverty

I Did it All for Jesus, My Life of Self-Denial

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.

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

I spent the first fifty years of my life in the Christian church. Having been baptized a Lutheran and later making a public profession of faith in a Baptist church at the age of fifteen, I have been a part of the Christian church most of my life. I preached my first sermon at the age of fifteen, attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college as a young man, married an IFB pastor’s daughter, and pastored churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan.

I never went through the angst many people go through when determining what to do with their lives. At the age of five, I told my mother I wanted to be a preacher when I grew up. From the age of fifteen to the age of fifty, I was a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I had no doubt that God had called me to preach to sinners the unsearchable riches of Christ.

I am an all-in kind of guy. I have little tolerance for doing things halfway. When Jesus called to me and told me to leave my proverbial nets, I did so immediately. I was a devoted, committed, sold-out follower of Jesus Christ. My passion was for God, his church, and the Word of God. For twenty-five years, my life was consumed by the ministry and the work I believed God had called me to do.

Up until I started blogging in 2007, no one had ever doubted that I was saved, that I was a devoted, committed follower of Jesus. A person who years ago knew me quite well, was shocked when she heard that I was no longer a pastor and that I was now an atheist. She said, Butch (my family nickname) was the real deal. If he’s not a Christian, no one is. It is important to understand this point. NO ONE . . . out of the thousands of people I came in contact with, ever expressed doubt about my salvation, my personal relationship with Jesus. Not one teacher, not one deacon, not one evangelist, not one church member, not one fellow pastor, ever expressed doubt that I was a Christian or that I was a God-called preacher.

Those who now contend I was never a Christian or that I was a false teacher make their judgments based not on the evidence of the life I lived, but on their peculiar interpretations of the Bible. For the Baptists, Calvinists, and many Evangelicals, the only way to square my life with their theology is for them to say I never was a Christian, or that I still am a Christian, just backslidden. Arminians have less of a problem explaining my life. While they are “troubled” by my apostasy, they recognize that I once was a Christian. In their eyes, I fell from grace, and I am now no longer a Christian.

I realize that I am a rare bird. While there are many men (and women) who leave the ministry, few leave it as late in life as I did. Many of the notable preacher-turned-atheists apostatized and left the ministry in their twenties and thirties. I left at the age of fifty. This does not make me special in any way, but it does make me an exception to the rule. And this is why Evangelicals have such a hard time understanding how it is possible for a man to be a Christian for most of his life and to pastor churches for twenty-five years, to then just walk away from it all and renounce Jesus.

Those who know me personally have a difficult time wrapping their mind around Pastor Bruce being an atheist. To quote Nicodemus in John 3, how can these things be? But whether they can understand it or not, here I am. I once was a Christian, I once was a man of God, and now I am not.

My life was motivated by the following verses:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:24,25)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1,2)

For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:15,16)

For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. (James 4:14,15)

These verses, along with my commitment to follow every command in the Bible, led me to a life of self-denial and economic simplicity. While most people around me were focused on earning a living, providing for their families, and accumulating material goods, I was focused on making just enough money to keep a roof over my family’s head. I took seriously the command to “learn in whatever state I am to be content.” I practiced a Baptist version of voluntary poverty, and as the head of the home, I led my family to do the same. I figured that whatever money and material goods we had were what God wanted us to have. To desire, require, or want more was a sure sign that I was in love with the things of the world, and not God.

somerset baptist church 1983-1994
Our son Jaime, and our two girls, Bethany and Laura.

Over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry, my family and I were economically at or below the poverty line. For many years, we drove junk cars, and for five years our family of eight lived in a three-bedroom (large closets) 12’x60’ mobile home. I paid $2,800 for the mobile home and parked it next to the church. It was a ratty old mobile home to which I had to do extensive work so we could live in it. As I look back on it now, I see this mobile home as a snapshot of my/our life of self-denial.

Somewhere in the late 1990s, I woke up one day, looked around, and realized that our family was the only one living this way. Everyone else, pastor friends included, were busy building their kingdoms on this earth. Their focus was on their jobs, careers, homes, lands, education, and retirement. My focus was on living a voluntary life of self-denial so that I might preach the gospel. I saw myself as following in the steps of Jesus and Paul. Why wasn’t anyone else living this way?

I still think my interpretation of the Bible was essentially correct. It wasn’t that I took Christianity too seriously, it was that most everyone else didn’t take it seriously enough. After all, did Jesus not say:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (Matthew 6:24, 25)

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19,20)

My heart was squarely focused on Jesus. I treasured the Word of God and preaching the gospel. I saw the world neatly divided into saved and lost. As a saved man, one who believed in a literal Hell, how could I idly sit by while knowing that most people did not know the saving grace of Jesus Christ? I spent most of my married life hustling for Jesus. Preaching, teaching, witnessing, preaching on the street, preaching at nursing homes, visiting prison inmates, knocking on doors, visiting bus routes, handing out tracts, and starting churches. Like the Apostle Paul, I believed, woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!

I took seriously Ezekiel 3:17-19:

Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me, When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

I believed that God would hold me accountable for every soul that went to Hell because I did not witness to them. I felt I was duty-bound to warn sinners of their wicked ways and of the judgment to come. My preaching, methodology, and lifestyle reflected this. Even though I was more committed than anyone else I personally knew, I also knew I was far from perfect, that I was far from being as committed as I could be. I pleaded with God to give me more of his power, more of his Spirit, just as he gave to great preachers like DL MoodyHudson TaylorDavid BrainerdJohn WesleyCharles FinneyAdoniram Judson, and Charles Spurgeon.

I left the ministry in 2005, and I left Christianity in 2008. It is hard for me not to look back on my/our life of self-denial without bitter regret. Yes, I helped a lot of people, and yes, in spite of our poverty, we had a good life. But, a lifetime of self-denial has put my wife and me in an economically difficult place. We are by no means poor. We have more than enough money to pay our bills and live a comfortable life. We still live simply, and outside of a 2020 Ford Edge sitting in the driveway, our home and its furnishings are modest. When we bought our home in 2007, we bought a fixer-upper, and we have been fixing it up and down ever since. Our life is comfortable, dare I say blessed. But I can’t help thinking about where we might now be if I had not been so focused on living a life of self-denial. Last year, I officially “retired.” I draw a minimal social security check because I didn’t pay social security tax for most of the years I was in the ministry. I have no other retirement plan. Polly will likely have to work after she reaches retirement age. I deeply regret this, but decisions have consequences, and because I made a decision years ago to not pay social security tax, and because I thought Jesus and the church would take care of me when I was old, I made no other plans for the future. After all, I planned on dying with my boots on.

Life is one long lesson learned. How about you? Were you a devoted follower of Jesus? Did you take seriously the verses I mentioned in this post? If so, what did your life of self-denial look like then and now? Did you do without for the sake of Jesus and the church? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

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

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

I Love Black People, Said the Local White Man

i'm not racist

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

Several years ago, I followed a discussion among rural northwest Ohio white people about racism. The discussion was quite entertaining. None of them admitted to being racist, and many of them felt that, whatever racism there may have been in the past, it no longer exists (or it is just the product of a few racist outliers).

One man, wanting to show how proud he was not to be a racist, informed everyone that he lived near some black people and they had a really nice house and yard!

As I said, there is no racism around here.

And there’s not, if you think racism=KKK (though the recent rise of local white supremacists groups is starting to change my thinking on this).

What we do have is a latent, subtle racism that shows up in comments like the one I just mentioned. He was surprised that the blacks who lived near him had a nice house and yard. Why? Are blacks somehow predisposed to having trashy houses and yards?

Using this kind of logic, I could make the same statement about white people. Near my ex-daughter-in-law’s home in Defiance, there are four or so homes that WHITE people have thoroughly trashed. All of the houses are rentals, owned by white slum lords who rent to people who don’t care about where they live.

So, what’s up with these white people?

Or, we can stop thinking like this, and realize that some “red, brown, yellow, black, and white, they are precious in his sight” people are pigs (shameless use of Jesus Loves the Little Children). Some landlords are slum lords who don’t care about their communities. Their only objective is to maximize their profits and hope the house burns down in a few years.

I know a good bit about poverty, When I lived with my mom in the 1970s, we were on food stamps and AFDC. I know the shame that comes from using food stamps at the local grocery, or having to get welfare eyeglasses. But, despite the poverty, my Mom kept a clean home — too cluttered for her son with OCPD, but clean, nonetheless. We took care of what little stuff we owned.

These life lessons my Mom taught me, Polly and I taught to our children:

  • There is no shame in being poor
  • Work hard
  • Take care of what you own
  • Keep your bedroom/car/house/yard clean

Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to make your surroundings look like the county landfill. Taking care of what’s yours and showing respect for the property of others are issues of character, not of race.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

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

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

The Green Station Wagon

beater station wagon
$200 beater. Polly HATED this car.

In July of 1983, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher Bruce Gerenser, his wife, Polly, and their two young boys, aged four and two, moved from Buckeye Lake, Ohio to Somerset to start of new IFB church. I would remain pastor of Somerset Baptist Church until we moved to San Antonio, Texas in March 1994 so I could become the co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf. 

Over the course of the eleven years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist, we owned all sorts of automobiles — most of them cheap beaters or cars given to us by congregants. Every one of these cars has a story to tell. (Please see I Did It For You Jesus — Crank Windows and Vinyl Floor Mats.) One such car is the green Ford station wagon in the picture featured above.

John Nelson, a congregant who lived down the hill from the church with his wife and four sons (who later would attend our Christian academy), was what you would call a “wheeler and dealer.” John has been running a perpetual yard sale for decades. His father owned a junkyard in nearby Saltillo. Over the years, I bought or traded for cars from John. One such car was the green wagon. If I remember right, I traded John a Chevy Caprice I had purchased from another church family for the station wagon. Out of the 50+ cars I/we have owned over the years, Polly hated this car the most. I mean really, really, really hated the car. And my three oldest sons hated the car too. Let me explain.

The station wagon was a huge car — common of the “boats” manufactured in the 1970s. Personally, I loved big cars — the bigger the better. Polly, however, did not. Not that what she liked or disliked mattered. I was officially in charge of all things auto related — from purchases to repairs to sales. Polly oh-so-fondly remembers days when I left the house with one car, only to return home later that day with a different one. She never, ever said a word, but I have to think that she more than once thought the Baptist equivalent of “what the fuck” when I drove up with a new rolling wreck.

As you can see from the photo, the station wagon had an ugly green paint job. The car had been repainted by a previous owner, by hand. Its paint really made the car stand out in a parking lot, much to the embarrassment of my family. 

Typically, I looked at prospective automobiles from one of two perspectives: looks and mechanical soundness. This car looked awful, but it was mechanically sound. I drove it all over southeast Ohio (and West Virginia on road trips) until I got bored with the car and traded it for something different.

Polly hated taking the car anywhere. She thought, at the time, that the station wagon was a rolling advertisement for our poverty; not the kind of car a preacher’s wife should be forced to drive. Ever the trooper, she said nothing. 

While Polly disliked driving the car, it was my sons who couldn’t stand the sight of the station wagon. At the time, our two oldest sons were enrolled at Licking County Christian Academy in Heath, Ohio. A ministry of the Newark Baptist Temple — an IFB church pastored by the late Jim Dennis, Polly uncle — LCCA was a non-accredited school populated primarily with children from middle class and affluent Christian families. The Gerencser children were among the poorest students to attend the school. 

LCCA was thirty miles from our home. A Bible church near our home, Maranatha Bible Church, then pastored by Bob Shaw, bussed children to LCCA every day, but my request to let our children ride the bus was denied. I suspected then, and still do today, that the church and its pastor didn’t want our poor munchkins intermingling with theirs. So, we dutifully drove 60 miles a day to Heath to drop off and pick up our children from school. Later, a girl in our church started attended LCCA. We would take children to LCCA in the morning, and her father would pick them up after school on his way home from work. He, too, drove a junker. 

My sons have told me that they were embarrassed to see me pull up in the school parking lot driving the green station wagon. Other parents drove new or late model automobiles. Not their preacher dad. Character building? Perhaps. I know this much. Neither of them drives their children to and from school with autos that look anything like the station wagon. Not going to happen. And these days, we drive a 2020 Ford Edge. No clunkers to be found in our driveway. If I came home with such a car today, why I suspect the top of my head would be sporting an indentation left from a Lodge cast iron skillet. Polly is definitely no longer passive when it comes to making car-buying decisions.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

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

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

Is God No Respecter of Persons?

In Acts 10, we find an interaction between Cornelius, a Roman soldier, and the Apostle Peter. When Cornelius and Peter first met, Cornelius, the Bible says, “fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.” Peter told Cornelius to get up, reminding him that he was just a man, not God. Their interaction drew a crowd, and not wanting to waste an opportunity to evangelize, Peter began to preach. In verse 34, Peter begins his sermon by saying, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” Of course, Peter quickly qualifies his bold declaration of God’s non-preferential love for all by saying, “But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” Peter tells the crowd that God is no respecter of persons IF they fear him and live righteously. Talk about preaching works salvation!

The Message Bible version translates Acts 10:34-36 this way:

Peter fairly exploded with his good news: “It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone.

“God plays no favorites,” The Message says. Really? God plays NO favorites? Does a thorough reading of the Bible really lead one to conclude that God plays no favorites; that he is no respecter of persons? I think not. While Peter modifies his statement, making it clear that God’s respect is conditional, modern Evangelical preachers have ripped “God is no respecter of persons” out of its context, telling saints and sinners alike that “God plays no favorites.” Jesus is an equal opportunity savior. However, as I shall presently demonstrate, God has always played favorites.

Any cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals that God’s favorite people were the Israelites. Called God’s chosen people, the Israelites received the preferential treatment from God when compared to the Canaanites and other population groups deemed heathen by the writers of the Bible.

This preferential treatment of Israel is carried over into the New Testament. Ask Evangelicals who it is Jesus came to earth to save, and they will proudly say, Jesus came to save everyone! However, actually reading the New Testament leads readers to a different conclusion: Jesus came to save the Jews, and it was only after they rejected him that Jesus decided to save the Gentiles — non-Jews. In fact, Jesus was quite bigoted when it came to non-Jews, and it wasn’t until the Apostle Paul entered the Christian narrative that Gentiles were considered savable and part of God’s redemptive plan.

That said, did Paul preach a gospel of universal salvation, irrespective of ethnicity or national identity? Again, I think not. Paul did say in Ephesians 6:9:

And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

However, Paul says in other places that Jesus came to save only the elect — God’s chosen ones. In Ephesians 1:4, Paul states:

According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.

Paul’s writings are littered with statements about election and predestination; that God has a chosen people, and it is they alone whom Jesus saves. So much for God being no respecter of persons.

If God is the creator and every human living and dead owes their existence to him, why is it that God gives some people and countries preferential treatment? Why is the United States a Christian nation, but not Iran, Israel, India, or Japan? Why are there population groups who will live and die without hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ? Why is Christian salvation so dependent on geography? Shouldn’t Jesus be available to everyone, everywhere? Yet, most people live and die without embracing Peter or Paul’s gospels.

It’s clear, at least to me, that the Christian God is indeed a respecter of persons. Of course, said God does not exist, so what this means is that the writers of the Bible were the ones who played favorites; who gave their tribes preferential treatment. One need only look at Evangelical Christianity as a whole to see that Christian churches, pastors, and laypeople generally give preferential treatment to people based on everything from race to income level and beliefs to lifestyle. Christian churches remain the most segregated places in America. More than a few churches use demographics to target certain people for inclusion in their clubs. When is the last time you have seen a new church plant or a megachurch in a poor part of town or a community dominated by people of color? Not very often.

Years ago, I was the assistant pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. I also worked for the village as a grant administrator and program manager. Buckeye Lake was a largely white community, with one of the highest rates of poverty and welfare per capita in Ohio.

Prior to starting Emmanuel Baptist, Buckeye Lake had a grand total of two churches for a population of almost 3,000. One church was Catholic, the other a community church that catered to people of means. Why didn’t Evangelical church planters flock to Buckeye Lake to reach the downtrodden with the gospel? You know the answer to that question — poor welfare recipients don’t make for good tithing church members.

When my father-in-law and I started Emmanuel Baptist in the early 1980s, Polly’s uncle, the late Jim Dennis, pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple — an affluent church in nearby Heath, Ohio — warned us that the church would never become self-sustaining. In other words, “don’t waste your time trying to build a church in Buckeye Lake.” And he was right. The church never became self-sustaining (for a variety of reasons). However, the Baptist Temple and other nearby well-off Evangelical churches could have financially supported the church, but they chose not to. Sour grapes on my part? Nope, just a statement of facts. Unlike my in-laws, who refused to move to the community they were pastoring in, Polly and I moved our young family to a shack of a home in Buckeye Lake so we could minister to the people where they were. (This was not a difficult move for me since I grew up in a poor home. Polly, on the other hand, had some difficulty adjusting to our “spacious” accommodations. I give her a lot of credit for adapting to circumstances that were very foreign to her.) We later left Buckeye Lake and started a new Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church in Perry County — another poverty-stricken area.

Years ago, I started a nondenominational church in West Unity, Ohio. The congregation was made up of primarily working-class people. For many years, the church operated a food bank. One day, the phone rang and it was Creta Bennett, the wife of the pastor of nearby First Baptist Church in Bryan (a church I had attended as a youth). Creta told me about a woman from West Unity who had been attending First Baptist on and off. “Bruce, we think this woman would be a better fit for your church.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but I agreed to visit the woman. People first, right? What I found was a mentally ill woman living in abject poverty. She indeed needed help, but evidently she wasn’t a good “fit” for First Baptist. We did what we could, but she only attended a few services, saying she wanted to attend church in Bryan. She wanted the church, but the church didn’t want her.

The fifty years I spent in the Christian church and the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry taught me that regardless of how God might view people, pastors and churches do, indeed, show preferential treatment.

The Bible is quite contradictory when it comes to God being a respecter of persons. However, when it comes to Christians giving preferential treatment, the Bible is clear: treat everyone equally. In James 2, the Apostle James makes it clear that churches and their leaders should treat everyone equally. James writes:

My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

Evidently, this passage of Scripture is missing in many Bibles. And so is Matthew 24, a passage of Scripture that reminds Christians that their eternal destiny depends on how they treat the poor. Based on the behavior we see from Evangelicals today, will many of them make it to Heaven when they die? I doubt it.

Christian or atheist, it matters not. We are surrounded by people who are hurting and in need. We can talk endlessly about our love, kindness, and compassion towards others, but our behavior is the measure of our truthfulness. We have the power to lessen the hell many people face day-to-day; to bring a bit of heaven into their lives. The choice is ours.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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

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

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

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

isaiah 41 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Bruce Gerencser

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

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

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Bruce Gerencser