Tag Archive: Poverty

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.

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.

Jesus Said: Go Sell All That You Have and Follow Me

go sell everything

 And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? (Luke 18:18-26)

Evangelicals would have us believe that the Christian gospel is mental assent to a set of theological propositions. “BELIEVE these things, and thou shalt live,” Evangelicals say. Believe the right doctrines, pray the right prayer, and bingo! you are saved and headed for Heaven when you die. Evangelicals preach up God’s grace and our inability to save ourselves through good works, yet Jesus, the man, myth, and legend seems to say something very different in the Biblical passage above. Nowhere in Jesus’ sermons/teachings do you find him preaching the gospel preached by modern Evangelicals. It was not until the Apostle Paul that we find a greater emphasis on “right” beliefs, as opposed to “right” living. James, taking issue with the Pauline gospel, said:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:14-20)

Pay close attention to how Evangelicals live and what they believe, and it’s hard not to conclude that they are following after Paul, not Jesus (or James). James was very clear: “faith without works is dead.” “Don’t tell me what you believe,” James said, “show me!”  While Evangelical pastors encourage congregants to do good works, it’s evident that the message is not getting through. The average Evangelical is Christian in name only, and certainly lives in contradiction to what Jesus and James said above. Worse yet, Evangelical preachers aren’t much better. Their time is spent at the golf course, at preachers’ conferences, coddling congregants, and making fat sheep fatter. If good works are the essence of the Christian gospel, is it not true, then, that most Evangelicals are not Christian?

In Luke 18, a ruler came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Evangelicals believe that preparing to meet God after death is THE most important thing any of us can do. Yet, few Evangelicals take the words of Christ seriously and follow in his steps. To the ruler’s question, Jesus replied, “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.” In other words, gaining eternal life was contingent on keeping the law of God. When the ruler said that he had kept the commandments from his youth forward, Jesus replied, “Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” Wow, what a demand! The ruler was quite rich, and selling everything and giving it to the poor probably seemed too much of a buy-in. The Bible says, the rich man went away sorrowful for he had great possessions.

Time and again in the gospels, Jesus demanded of people who wanted to be his disciples that they sell and forsake everything and follow him. This demand wasn’t optional. Inheriting eternal life hung in the balance. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus had few disciples. In the book of Acts we are told that after the death of Jesus, his followers gathered in an upper room to pray. All told, there were about 120 disciples. That’s it, after three years of public ministry. I suspect one reason for this is Jesus’ works-based gospel. Jesus demanded EVERYTHING from those who would follow him.

Two thousand years later, western Christianity has become little more than a cultural religion; one that is called on in times of trouble, and when children are born, young couples marry, and old people die. Imagine if Jesus came to the churches in your community and preached his gospel. Why, churches would empty out overnight. “Sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus? Are you nuts?” I can’t speak to Jesus’ mental state, but I do know he said this about the path to life eternal:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:12-14)

Jesus mentions good works, and then says the path to Heaven is a straight and narrow way, and few people find it. Billions of people claim to be Christians, yet few of them are walking the straight and narrow way. Why is that?

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.

In the late 1980s, I came to the conclusion that good works were essential to salvation. Thinking this, of course, led me to do all sorts of things that caused personal harm and harm to my family. I took Jesus at his word when he said to sell everything and follow after him. Polly and I, along with our six children, lived in poverty for years because I really believed what Jesus said. We lived like the Beverly Hillbillies BEFORE they came to California. Imagine eight people living in a 12’x60′ wreck of a trailer, with one dinky bathroom. Our winter heat came from a Warm Morning Stove in the living room. My oldest sons have oh-so-fond memories of putting wood and coal in the stove. It would get so hot in the living room that we would open the front door and use it as a thermostat of sorts.

During our “poverty years,” I gave away money, cars, clothing, food, and sold countless personal possessions to help fund the church and help others. I so wanted to be a man who followed in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the place of crucifying my flesh for him. Of course, the problem I had with my flesh is that it kept coming back to life. Over and over again I denied self and followed Jesus and his teachings.

The years spent in poverty left a deep and lasting mark on our family. While there were many lifelong lessons learned during this time, none of us has any desire to relive the “good old days.”  Were there “good” days? Sure, we were happy, at least within that paradigm. It was all we knew, so it seems normal and right to us. It was only when we escaped the Evangelical bubble that we were able to see how crazy our lives were; how foolish we were when it came to money and our family. Today, if Jesus came to me and said, “sell everything and become my disciple,” I would reply, “first, you are dead, a figment of my imagination. And second, if you really are alive, why do you need me to fund your work on earth?  Get to work, Jesus! Time  for you to whip out your Hogwarts wand and work some magic. You da man, right?”

I suspect I am not alone when it comes to being deeply affected by Jesus’ gospel. Long before I became an atheist, I was quite estranged from Christianity as a whole. I read passages of Scripture like the ones above, took them seriously, and did my best to implement them in my life. Why is it that most Christians didn’t do the same? Didn’t they want to be True Christians®?  Why was I different from so many other Christians and pastors? That, my friend, I will leave for another day. Suffice it to say, that subject has been a frequent topic of discussion in counseling.

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.

Bruce and the Gremlin

amc gremlin

In February 1979, Polly and I packed up our earthly belongings and moved from Pontiac Michigan — where we were attending classes at Midwestern Baptist College — to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. Polly was six months pregnant. Our first child would be born six weeks before our first wedding anniversary in the same hospital his father had been born in twenty-one years earlier. Polly’s first labor was a long, drawn-out two-day affair. Just prior to Polly giving birth, I had been scouting car lots for a new car; “new” as in whatever used car Beneficial Finance Company would loan us money to purchase. In the 1970s, there were numerous finance companies that offered high-interest loans to people with bad or unestablished credit. As newlyweds, we had no credit to speak of, so we turned to Beneficial to finance our automobile needs.

I was the car buyer of the family. Polly showed no interest in the car shopping process. All that mattered to her was the color of the car. Throughout our marriage, it was not uncommon for me to drive off to work in the morning in one car and to return home that night in another. In the forty years that we have been married, we have owned more than fifty automobiles, ranging in cost from fifty dollars to thirty thousand dollars. I had been looking at a specific automobile at a car lot on the north side of Bryan. They specialized in cheaper cars, the very type that met our needs. Our current automobile at that time was a white 1967 Chevrolet Impala. The car had a red interior with a 327 cid motor. With the birth of a baby drawing nigh, we needed a second car, so I set my sights on an early-1970s rust-colored AMC Gremlin.

Ever the impatient man, I told Polly that since nothing was happening labor-wise, I was going to leave for a few moments so I could buy a new car. I told her I would be back in an hour or so, and since the doctor told us that little Jason was not coming anytime soon, all would be well. I went down to the car lot and purchased the Gremlin for $800. I financed the purchase with a loan from Beneficial. I signed all the necessary papers and proceeded to drive back to the hospital. Three blocks south of the car lot, I stopped for a traffic light. After the light turned green, I began to continue south on Main Street. All the sudden, a car rammed into the side of mine, ripping off the right front fender. An elderly man who had been sitting at the traffic light decided to turn right on red and didn’t see me. Here is our brand-new car, one that Polly had never seen, and I had already wrecked it. I suspect this is a metaphor for much that would come our way in the years ahead.

After the police report was filed, I quickly made my way back to the hospital. Imagine my surprise when I walked in Polly’s room and found her hooked up to all sorts of monitors. I thought, oh my God, Polly is dying. Polly was not, in fact, dying. Dr. Sharrock, Polly’s obstetrician, had given her Pitocin to induce her labor. It was game-on. Hours later, Polly gave birth to Jason. The doctor had to use forceps during the delivery, and this resulted in Jason having what is best described as a cone head. Not only that, his skin was red and scaly. He was indeed a sight to behold. Fortunately, thanks to the soft skulls he and all other babies share, his head quickly returned to its proper shape.

Several days later, I took Polly and our newborn son home from the hospital in our new automobile. This was the first time Polly had seen the car, and it was already missing a fender. Worse yet, the car had a manual transmission and the speedometer that bounced from 30 to 60 mph. Ohio is an at-fault state with respect to automobile accidents, so the man who hit me had to pay for the damages caused to our car. As is a common practice among poor people, we took the insurance settlement and paid bills with it instead of fixing the car. We drove the fenderless Gremlin for another year or so until I sold it for $400, replacing it with a 1970 Mercury Cougar.

Let me tell you about that Cougar….

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.

So, You Love Those Bears More Than You Love Jesus?

teddy angelsMy life as a Christian can best be described as passionate, committed, and devoted, yet at same time be described as wild, chaotic, and ever-moving. Years ago, I read a passage in one of Thomas Merton’s books wherein he talked about how people often judged him based on his past and not on where he was presently. As a devoted follower of Jesus, I often experienced similar judgment. I was an ever-moving target, and people bent on judging me often did so based on the past and not where I was presently. This happens even today. Evangelical critics will zone in on a particular point on the timeline of my life and use my beliefs, practices, and experiences at that point in time to render judgment. This, of course, totally misrepresents my journey and leads to faulty conclusions. In particular, critics will focus on what they consider the AHA! point in my résumé; for example, that I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher. They think they have me right where they want me; however, I reply, yes, but I wasn’t always an IFB pastor. I left the IFB church and moved on to Calvinism, generic Evangelicalism, and then progressive Christianity. Always restless and moving — that best describes my life, even to this day.

I always envied Christians who were steady-eddies; people whose Christian lives never changed or moved. Of course, I couldn’t understand such staid living. Weren’t we to always challenge ourselves with the teachings of the Bible and be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Ghost? Weren’t we supposed to follow the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit? Why did it seem that God was ALWAYS leading me to take up my cross and follow him or sell all that I have and give it to the poor, but he never seemed to be leading my colleagues in the ministry to do the same? Why was I willing to do without to advance the kingdom of God, yet most of the Christians I knew weren’t willing to do the same? I often wondered why I seemed to be on a spiritual wave length different from most Christians, including men who labored in God’s vineyard.

I believed, for many years, that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, and that its words were to be read, meditated over, and obeyed. The Bible wasn’t a book of suggestions. Yes, it was a book that spoke of God’s grace, but it also had hundreds of laws, commands, and precepts Christians were commanded by God to follow. I never viewed these commands as optional. The Bible — at least to me — was clear: Do THIS and thou shalt live. Obedience led to life eternal, and disobedience led to God’s chastisement or Hell. Passage after passage in the Bible talked about the importance of following in Jesus’ steps and keeping his commandments. Solomon, in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, summed up the whole duty of man this way: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Jesus himself summed up the laws of God this way in Matthew 22:36-40:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

These verses described my heart’s desire: love God with all my heart, soul, and mind and love my neighbor as myself. I thought, at the time, these verses are in every Christian’s Bible, yet why do so few Christians take them seriously? By the way, I STILL wonder this to this day. Most Christians live lives indistinguishable from those of atheists, agnostics, humanists, pagans, and the adherents of religions deemed false by Evangelicals. Outside of what they do between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays, there’s very little difference between saints and sinners.

When it came to material things, Jesus said:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)

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. (Matthew 6:24)

These words come from a passage of Scripture (Matthew 5-7) commonly called The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gathered his disciples on a mountain side and taught them what it meant to be his followers; what would be required of them if they were to follow the Lamb of God withersover he goeth. I believed then, and still do, that Christianity and the world would be better served if the followers of Jesus actually read and practiced the teachings found in Christ’s hillside sermon.

I am in no way trying to paint myself as once having been a perfect Christian. As this story will later show, I ended up living a life no different from most Christians. I was far from perfect, daily breaking the commands of Christ in thought, word, and deed. That said, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between how I lived my life and how most other Christians lived theirs.

In the late 1990s I felt convicted over what I perceived was my materialism and that of my family. Hell was hot, souls were lost, and people were dying, and I believed God wanted me to do more to reach the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. Thanks to my oldest to sons, who were living at home at the time and paying rent, along with Polly working at a local manufacturing concern, and me drawing a modest salary from the church, the Gerencser family was starting to take on the look of a typical middle-class midwestern Evangelical family. There were four cars in the drive, a TV in the living room and master bedroom, a computer in the office, and newer furniture in the living room. Polly and I were able to take our first vacation since the 1980s — without the children. We had money to go out on dates, buy clothing/shoes, and enjoy a bit of the American dream. But, thanks to Jesus and his teachings, I became increasingly uncomfortable with our way of living. I thought, how can we live this way when there are billions of people in the world who don’t know Jesus? What kind of example was I to the church and other Christians? These judgmental questions and others began eating at me, and soon I believed that the God want me (us) to embrace simplicity and frugality, giving our excess money to the church, missionaries, and other groups who were engaged in building churches, evangelizing the lost, and ministering to the poor. I began selling off things I thought I didn’t need: firearms, hundreds of books, electronic equipment, and a large collection of political memorabilia from the 1960s and 1970s given to me by my political junkie mother (letters from notable politicians and campaign buttons/literature.) I dutifully and happily sold these goods and gave them to the Lord’s work. I was gladly willing to do without for the sake of gospel. Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last, went the Evangelical mantra. Little did I know that this time, my wife wasn’t willing to join me in suffering for Jesus. (One night, I gathered up all the things I had collected over the years from the various churches I pastored, including sermon notes and tapes, and set them on fire in the back yard. In my mind, this was me setting fire to the past and telling God I was ready to be used by him in any way he saw fit. I sure wish I had these things today!)

polly gerencser late 1990s

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

Polly loves collectible bears. As our finances improved, I started buying Polly Teddy Angel bears for her birthday, our wedding anniversary, and other special days. As my great sell-off continued, I noticed Polly wasn’t joining me in giving a burnt offer to God. We had a few “discussions” — Greek for Bruce talking and Polly listening — about her unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus. I specifically mentioned her bears. One day, after yet another round of eBay listings and nothing given to the cause by Polly, I said to her, “So, you love those bears more than you love Jesus?” “No, I really do love Jesus,” Polly replied. “It’s just that some of these bears have sentimental value.”  I asked, “what bears, then, don’t have sentimental value?” One by one, I picked up the bears and asked, “This one? This one?” I learned that almost every bear had a story: “Mom gave this to me for my birthday, you gave this to me for Valentine’s Day, you gave this to me with a letter that told me you loved me.” In what would be one of the greatest regrets of my married life, I badgered Polly — in Jesus’s name, of course — into selling many of her bears, regaling her with stories about what would be accomplished with the money gained from their sale. With tears in her eyes, Polly gathered up half of her bears and gave them to me to sell. I remember saying, “see that wasn’t so hard!”

Brutal, I know, but if I am going to honestly and openly tell my story, I must tell it, warts and all. Quite honestly, I am embarrassed to even write this post. All I can visualize is the love of my life crying over giving up her bears. She had few things to call her own (as did I) in our married life, yet here I was asking (demanding) that she give up reminders of some of the happy times in her life. Gifts were far and few between for both of us. We didn’t buy each other Christmas gifts, so, for Polly, all the gifts she had from me were bears, Fenton glass, and other collectibles. Small tokens of love, yet each of them carried great meaning for Polly. I grossly underestimated how much these things meant to her. At the time,  I saw her attachment to these things as a sign of love for the world; an unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus.

This phase of my life would pass, never to return. I finally realized that I was standing alone on this matter, and that every other Christian I knew was busy pursuing houses, lands, cars, and material wealth. I realized while still a Christian that I had been a fool; that I had sacrificed my health and financial security, and to what end? Hell was still hot, souls were still lost, and people were dying. Bible verses that spoke of laying up treasure in heaven no longer satiated my spiritual desires. I wanted the lives other people had, as did Polly and our children. I became, I suppose, just another preacher who loved Jesus, but also loved the good life.

I left the ministry in 2005, and left Christianity in 2008. Since decoupling from Christianity, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the religious and psychological forces that led me to a life of servitude, self-denial, and poverty; that led me to demand that my wife and children follow in my steps. Had I been single, the only harm caused would been to self, but as a married man with six children, I harmed those I loved and cared for the most. There are not enough lifetimes left for me apologize for the harm I caused to Polly and our children. I now know that I spent much of my life serving a myth; and that my sacrifices and voluntary poverty accomplished almost nothing. I say almost, because I know the money and material goods I gave to the poor, sick, hungry, and homeless helped them, so my giving had some effect, but all in all, my life of devotion to Jesus was “a waste of time, money, and talent” — to use the line oft recited by Baptist preachers when trying to goad congregants into doing more for Jesus. I pissed away tens of thousands of dollars, and even more when not-taken salary is added in. As with all past misdeeds, there’s nothing I can do to undo them. The past is the past. All I can do is learn from past mistakes, pass what I have learned on to others, and spend what life I have left living one hell of a hedonistic, sinful life — that’s sarcasm, by the way, for the Evangelical dullards who happen upon this post.

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.

I Did It For You Jesus — Crank Windows and Vinyl Floor Mats

1984 chevrolet cavalier

1984 Chevrolet Cavalier

In the late 1980s, while I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I purchased a 1984 Chevy Cavalier for $2,900. It had 19,000 miles on the odometer. The car was spartan in every way: crank windows, vinyl mats, AM/FM radio, and no air conditioning. I used the car for my ministerial travels, and we also used it to deliver newspapers for the Zanesville Times-Recorder and the Newark Advocate. If this car could be resurrected from the junk yard, it would have stories to tell about Bruce and Polly Gerencser zipping up and down the hills of Licking, Muskingum, and Perry Counties delivering newspapers. All told, we put 160,000 miles on the car without any major mechanical failures. Tires, brakes, and tune-ups, were all the car required.

If the car could talk it would certainly speak of being abused:

  • Polly hit a mailbox, denting the hood and cracking the windshield.
  • Polly hit some geese, damaging the air dam.
  • Bruce hit a concrete block that had been thrown in the road.
  • Bruce hit a black Labrador retriever, causing damage to the front of the car.
  • Bruce hit a deer, causing damage to the bumper and radiator.
  • A tree limb fell on the car, further damaging the hood.
  • A woman drove into the back of the car while it was parked alongside the road in Corning, Ohio. We found out later that this accident broke the rear frame member.

By the time we were finished with the car, it looked like it had recently been used in a demolition derby. We carried personal liability insurance on the car — no collision — so no repairs were performed after these accidents. We certainly extracted every bit of life we could out of the car. It went to the happy wrecking yard in the sky knowing that it faithfully served Jesus and the Gerencser family.

Our Chevy Cavalier is a perfect illustration of our life in the ministry. Unlike Catholics, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers don’t take a vow of poverty. That said, the eleven years I spent as pastor of Somerset Baptist can be best described as the “poverty years.”  I put God, the ministry, and the church before my wife and children. We did without so the church could make ends meet, thinking that God would someday reward us for our voluntary poverty.

Pastoring Somerset Baptist was a seven-day a week job. I was always on call, with rarely a day off. And as a workaholic, I liked it that way. During the late 1980s, for example, I was preaching on the street two days a week, teaching Sunday school, preaching twice on Sunday and once on Thursday. On Wednesdays, I would preach at the local nursing home. On Saturdays, I would help visit the homes of bus riders and try to round up new riders. I also helped start a multi-church youth fellowship. We had monthly activities for church teens. And then there were revival meetings, special services, Bible conferences, watch night services, pastors’ conferences, and the like. Throw in visiting church members in their homes and when they were hospitalized, and virtually every waking hour of my day was consumed by the work of the ministry.  And lest I forget, we also took in foster children, many of whom were teenagers placed in our home by the court. I believed, then, I could “reach” these children and transform their lives through the gospel and regular church attendance. I was, in retrospect, quite naïve.

But, wait, there’s more! — I am starting to sound like a Billy May commercial. In 1989, I started a tuition-free private Christian school for church children. I was the school’s administrator. I also taught a few classes. Polly taught the elementary age children. Many of these children have fond memories of Mrs. Gerencser teaching them to read. Students have no such memories of me, the stern taskmaster they called Preacher.

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.

For the last five years at Somerset Baptist, we were up at 6:00 AM and rarely went to bed before midnight. When I started the church in 1983, we had two children, ages two and four. Eleven years later, we had six children, ages fifteen, thirteen, ten, five, three, and one. Our home was patriarchal in every way. Polly cared for our home — a dilapidated 12×60 trailer — cooked meals, and changed thousands of diapers; and not the disposable kind either. Polly used God-approved cloth diapers with all six children. She also breast-fed all of them.

Why did Bruce and Polly live this way? The short answer is that we believed that living a life of faith on the edge poverty was how Jesus wanted us to live. After all, Jesus didn’t even have a home or a bed, so who were we to complain?  If God wanted us to have more in life, he would give it to us, we thought. Much like the Apostle Paul, we learned to be content in whatever state we were in — rich or poor, it mattered not.

I left Somerset Baptist Church in 1994. I am now a physically broken down old man. The health problems I now face were birthed during my days at Somerset Baptist. There’s no doubt, had I put my family first and prioritized my personal well-being above that of the church, that we would be better off financially and I would be in much better health. As it was, I spent years eating on the run or downing junk food while I was out on visitation. I know we surely must have sat down to eat as family, but I can’t remember doing so. Of course, I can’t remember us having sex either, and our children are proof that we at least had sex six times. All I know is that I was busy, rarely stopping for a breath, and so was Polly. It’s a wonder that our marriage survived the eleven years we spent at Somerset Baptist. It did, I suppose, because we believed that the way we were living was God’s script for our marriage and family. We look back on it now and just shake our heads.

I am sure some readers might read this post and not believe I am telling the truth. Who would voluntarily live this way? Who would voluntarily sacrifice their economic well-being, health, and family? A workaholic madly in love with Jesus, that’s who. A man who believed that whatever he suffered in this life was nothing compared to what Jesus suffered on the cross. A man who believed that someday in Heaven, God was going to say him, well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord. I viewed life as an endurance race, and it was my duty and obligation to keep running for Jesus until he called me home. No one can ever say of Bruce and Polly that they didn’t give their all — all to Jesus I surrender, all to him I humbly give.

beater station wagon

$200 beater. Polly HATED this car. What’s not to like, right?

Of course, my devotion to God, the church, and the ministry was a waste of time and money. One of the biggest regrets I have is that I wasted the prime of my life in service to a non-existent God. While certainly I helped many people along the way, I could have done the same work as a social worker and retired with a great pension. Instead, all I got was a gold star for being an obedient slave. I am not bitter, nor is Polly. We have many fond memories of the time we spent at Somerset Baptist Church. But, both of us would certainly say that we would never, ever want to live that way again. We loved the people and the scenery, but the God? No thanks. We feel at this juncture in life as if we have been delivered from bondage. We are now free to live as we wish to live, with no strings attached. And, there’s not a dilapidated Chevrolet Cavalier sitting in our driveway. No sir, we have electric windows, electric seats, air-conditioning, and the greatest invention of all time for a back ravaged by osteoarthritis — heated seats. We may be going to hell when we die, but me and misses sure plan on enjoying life until we do.

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.

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.

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Quote of the Day: Militarism Steals From the Poor by Dwight D. Eisenhower

dwight eisenhower quote

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

Dwight D.Eisenhower

Preaching the Anti-Abortion Gospel

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Our recent vacation found Polly and me in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. We were amazed (and disheartened) by how many downtown churches there were — mainly Baptist — and the seemingly ubiquitous  homeless and panhandlers. I told Polly, “look at all these big, fancy, rich churches, yet hungry, out-of-work, homeless people abound. So much for taking care of and ministering to the least of these.”

While poking around — one of our favorite pastimes — we came upon a rolling advertisement for the anti-abortion gospel. I say anti-abortion and not pro-life because most Evangelical “pro-lifers” are not actually pro-life. These zealots are pro-unborn, but once babies are out of the womb, these preachers of the anti-abortion gospel are quite callous and indifferent to virtually everything that materially affects the babies – and indeed, the lives of their fellow humans. A perfect example of this is the recent Congressional battle over healthcare. The “pro-life,” God’s Only Party Republicans have made it clear that the only lives that matter are theirs and those of the unborn. Until Republicans start truly caring about we who have successfully exited our mother’s wombs, they are not really “pro-life.” As long as Republicans want to take away our healthcare, cut food stamps and other poverty reducing programs, do away with Social Security, do away with the minimum wage, increase Defense spending, and support the never-ending war against terrorism, they most certainly are NOT pro-life.

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Link to Defy Tyrants website. The site is operated by Matt Trewhella, pastor of Mercy Seat Christian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Trewhella, father of (or to?) eleven children, calls himself a missionary to the pre-born. Trewhella’s church bio page states:

Pastor Trewhella has been a passionate leader and laborer within the body of Christ since his conversion at age 17 in the inner city of Detroit. His integrity and innovative leadership within the pro-life movement [and now within the abolitionist movement] have inspired a generation to “love their neighbor as themselves”.

Though much maligned in the liberal media for his effective pro-life work, Pastor Trewhella’s reputation as a man of principle and great courage shine brightly to a generation so desperately in need of godly leadership. He and his wife Clara live in the Milwaukee, WI area. They have eleven children.

The driver of the rolling anti-abortion advertisement is also a missionary to the pre-born.

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]

Christians Say the Darnedest Things: Lazy Bums Want Us to Act Like Compassionate Christians by Steven Anderson

steven andersonWhen people come to the church office asking for money, I ask them where they went to church on Sunday. If they name another church, I tell them to go ask that church for money. If you have an account at Bank of America, you don’t walk into Wells Fargo asking to make a withdrawal. The truth is, most of these people don’t go to church anywhere, and there are certain criteria in the Bible about who we are supposed to help.

“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10

“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27

“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Galatians 6:10

Our first priority should be members of our church who have a genuine need, especially the widows and the fatherless. Even the widows have to meet certain criteria as outlined in 1 Timothy Chapter 5.

The Bible does not teach that we should give away free money to every drug addict and whore that shows up on a Tuesday asking for money. These people have despised God’s commandments, despised chastity, and despised the institution of marriage. They are wasting what little money they have on lottery tickets, cigarettes, and worse. They go from church to church asking for money yet lack the character it takes to show up and even sit through one church service.

….

These lazy bums don’t want to hear what the Bible says, but they want God’s money. They want to use our church as an ATM machine when they don’t even have an account here. If you can’t stand the Bible and can’t stand preaching, then you should go somewhere else looking for money instead of a church.

With all of the government programs and charities available, people in the United States are not financially destitute. If they were really that hungry, they would be willing to sit through the service. These people need spiritual help more than financial help, but unfortunately, most of them are not interested in hearing the Word of God.

— Steven Anderson, Lazy Bums Wanting Money From Our Church, January 13, 2017

One Mother’s Attempt to Get Her Children to Pick Up After Themselves

My youngest daughter is looking for a house to rent and she had me look at a home here in Ney that is $21,900 cash or $1,200 down and $434 a month. Less than ten years ago, the house sold for $77,910. The people who last owned it proceeded to trash the place and defaulted on their loan after they divorced. Last month, a distressed property company in New York bought the house for $13,050. The house has sat empty for four years.

The Ohio housing market is still in the toilet, so I thought maybe this house would be a good opportunity for my daughter and her boyfriend. Well, this house gives new meaning to the word fixer-upper. The inside of the house looks like monkeys on crack went through the house defecating and urinating as they beat holes in the walls with a hammer. Seeing such things makes me wonder if some of my fellow Homo sapiens have evolved. In fact, I suspect cave men treated their caves better than the people who last lived in this house.

That said, the foundation is pretty good, and the house has a new roof, gutters, and recent siding. For the right price, the house could be restored to its former glory. Evidently, the older gentleman who lived there years ago kept the house up. Replace all the carpet, fix the walls, paint everything, and the house would at least be livable.

While looking at the house, I noticed the following written on the living room wall:

pick up your stuff

According to one neighbor, the family had four children who pretty much did what they wanted. I doubt this message caused the children to pick up their stuff. Why should they? Their parents had them living in dump and showed no care for their own property. You can’t expect kids to care if you don’t. I’ve lived in a lot of old, junky houses over the years. My parents were poor and our housing reflected it. But, every house we lived in was kept clean. Mom taught us that there is no shame in being poor and just because you don’t have anything doesn’t mean you have to live like a pig.  Polly and I passed on this ethic to our children and that is why they have a hard time fathoming how someone could destroy their home and turn their yard into a landfill.