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Tag: Regret

One of My Biggest Regrets


My recent interaction with a man who was a teenager and married young adult in two churches I pastored, raised a regret that I have long had about my ministerial career and its deleterious effect on people who called me “Preacher” or “Pastor Bruce.” (Please see Dear Terry — Part One and Dear Terry — Part Two.) Thousands of people sat under my preaching at one time or the other. Hundreds of others were active congregants with whom I had closer relationships. And a handful of people — not many — were friends.

For many years, I was a hardcore, hellfire and brimstone, pulpit-pounding, King James-waving Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher. While my theology and practice moderated over time, I was still quite conservative theologically and politically. It wasn’t until late in my ministerial career that I made a decided leftward turn towards the social gospel and liberal politics.

My regret comes from the influence I had over people during my IFB/conservative days; how my preaching and teaching deeply formed and instructed church members; how my preaching and teaching caused incalculable psychological harm (and led to physical harm and abuse when parents put into practice my instruction on discipline). Many of the people I once pastored are either no longer Christians or have moved on to gentler, kinder expressions of faith. I am glad that they have progressed and matured, even if I disagree with their sincerely held beliefs. I am not an antitheist. I don’t hate God or Christianity, in general. I am friends with people who are Christians. On Monday, I had lunch with a man who pastors an Evangelical church in Bryan, Ohio. We had a wonderful time. On Sunday, I will have dinner with three friends of mine: a former Lutheran pastor, a United Church of Christ pastor, and a Buddhist. We have been meeting together for years. We eat, drink, and talk about all sorts of things — including religion. I am quite comfortable having discussions with religious people as long as they don’t view me as their “enemy” or some sort of target for evangelization. I have no interest in having discussions with Bible-thumpers or Evangelical zealots. If such people want to interact with me, they can do so through my blog. Beware, the blog dog bites. 🙂

dog bites

Some former congregants such as Terry haven’t moved a lick belief-wise over the years. Terry is attending a church that has beliefs similar to the churches he attended when I was his pastor. His worldview has evolved very little, if at all. I know other former church members who have similarly “progressed.” Oh, they might have made changes to peripheral social beliefs on dress, alcohol, or entertainment, but their core beliefs are similar or identical to what they were when I was their pastor. I feel bad about this, even though I know, as my therapist frequently reminds me, that their belief choices are not my fault or my responsibility. I understand this from an intellectual perspective, BUT, it is hard for me to not lament that I didn’t teach them better; that I didn’t expose them to the depth and breadth of Christian faith and theology; that I didn’t encourage them to think skeptically and rationally. I know that I couldn’t do these things because I didn’t know any better myself. I was a product of a lifetime of religious conditioning and indoctrination. That said, I have never been able to shake the regret I have over my IFB past. I am sure some of you understand exactly what I am talking about.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Spend Time With Those You Love While You Can

barbara gerencser 1978
Mom and Bruce, Rochester, Indiana, 1978

The redheaded preacher stood before his church, preparing to preach as he had done countless times before. This Sunday was just like every other Sunday — until it wasn’t. His expositional sermon was well-received by the fifty or so people in attendance. Most of them would return a few hours later for Sunday evening service; another opportunity to hear from God and fellowship with God’s people.

The preacher, along with his wife and five children, lived in a 12’x60′ mobile home that sat on the southern edge of the church parking lot. His wife had already walked from the church to their home so she could prepare dinner, wondering, “Will he invite someone to dinner?” She never knew who would be eating dinner with them. Her preacher husband loved to fellowship with church members. She just wished he would plan in advance.

On this particular Sunday, there were no extras for dinner. As the preacher’s wife set the table, the phone rang. It was the preacher’s aunt. “Just a minute, I’ll get him.” By then, the preacher was almost to their home. “Your aunt is on the phone.”

“Hmm,” the preacher wondered, “why is she calling me?”


“Butch.” (a family nickname given at birth).

“Your mom killed herself.”

The preacher’s mom lived in Quincy, Michigan — five or so hours away. His mom has taken a Ruger .357 revolver, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger — shooting herself in her heart. She quickly slumped to the bathroom floor, and in a few moments, she was dead.

The preacher’s mom’s lifelong battle with mental illness came to an end. Numerous suicide attempts had come before this one: prescription drug overdoses, slit wrists, and driving a car into the path of a truck. (Please see Barbara.) Her prior attempts failed, but not the last one. Why she chose to kill herself on this fateful day remains unknown. Decades of physical and psychological pain certainly played a big part, but the preacher wondered if there was more to her sudden suicide. He would never know, of course, because the woman who taught him to read, instilled in him a passion for truth, and modeled to him standing up for yourself, was dead. The moment she pulled the trigger everything changed.

The preacher planned his mom’s funeral. No viewing, no dealing with countless well-wishers and glad-handers. His siblings viewed their mom’s corpse, but the preacher chose not to. He wanted to remember her as she was — a beautiful, passionate, complicated, contradictory woman.

On the appointed day, the family gathered at Fountain Grove Cemetery for the graveside service. The preacher’s mom had written in her Bible that she wanted her preacher son — whom she had never heard preach — to take care of her funeral. She also wanted her grandchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the Star Spangled Banner. These requests were ignored.

Family and a few friends gathered at the graveside, right next to Grandma and Grandpa Rausch’s graves. There was not enough room to bury the preacher’s mom, so his grandmother was disinterred so the vault could be dug deep enough to accommodate two coffins, one on top of the other.

“Why did Mom want me to do her funeral?” the preacher wondered. The preacher delivered a brief sermon, complete with Bible readings and prayer — weeping the entire time. A moment after the benediction, there was one more indignity to be had. The preacher’s Fundamentalist Baptist grandfather (John) and his wife (Ann) were in attendance, and John wanted to have the last word. (Please see Life with My Fundamentalist Baptist Grandparents, John and Ann Tieken.) As everyone stood there with broken hearts, John decided to give a sermon of his own. Of course, he did. Whatever his grandson did was never good enough. A few years prior, John and Ann had driven to southeast Ohio to visit their oldest grandson and his family. These visits were never welcome, and a few years later, the preacher ended his relationship with John and Ann. On this particular day, the preacher delivered a sermon to 150 or so people in attendance. At the conclusion of the service, the preacher’s grandfather stood up and told the entire congregation what was wrong with his grandson’s sermon. The preacher wanted to die; that is, right after he murdered his grandfather.

As the preacher’s grandfather deconstructed his daughter’s life at the graveside, homicidal thoughts briefly returned to the preacher’s mind. He wanted to tell everyone who would listen that John had repeatedly raped his daughter as a child; that he physically abused his sons (and spouses); that he was an angry, abusive man — even after Jesus allegedly “saved” him. John and Ann may have loved Jesus, but they most certainly didn’t love their daughter. “Maybe they were broken too,” the preacher wonders. Regardless, these sums-a-bitches are responsible for their behavior, as are all of us.

Death irreversibly ends relationships. All we have left are memories — good, bad, and indifferent. The preacher deeply loved his mom, but rarely took time to express that to her. On the day of her suicide, it had been months since to talked to her and saw her face to face. There were plans in the works for the preacher to take his children to Michigan to spend a week with their grandmother. Alas, a bullet put an end to that idea.

The preacher was a busy man. He had a church to pastor and a school to operate. Yet, none of that mattered as he pondered the life of his mom and their relationship with each other. He wished he had been a better son. He wished he had visited his mom more often. He wished he had called her every week to see how she was doing. But, he didn’t, and now she was dead.

The preacher is now sixty-six years old. In failing health, he knows his days are numbered. His children and grandchildren live near him. Rarely does a week or two go by that he doesn’t see most of them. Yet, there are those nights when he sits alone, wishing one of his children would stop by for a visit. The preacher can no longer drive, so he must rely on people coming to him or taking him to school events. He hates depending on others.

He knows his children and their significant others and his grandchildren have their own lives to live too. Everyone is busy these days, yet he can’t help but think about that moment over thirty years ago when the phone rang and the voice on the line said “Butch, your mom killed herself.” He knows there is coming a day when the phone will ring at his children’s homes, and the voice on the line will say, “Your dad (grandfather) is dead.” He knows what hearing those words can to do you, the regrets that flood your mind.

When the end comes, the preacher knows that his family will be there for him — not for money (there is none); not for material goods (most everything has already been given to them); but for love. In the present, all he wants (and needs) is as much time from them as they can possibly give. Not selfishly, of course, but he knows there is coming a day when the relationship the preacher has with his family will come to an end; that all that will be left are memories. The preacher wants to leave behind as many good memories as he possibly can.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Leaving the Ministry: Dealing with Guilt and Regret

no regrets

A friend of mine, a former devoted, committed Evangelical pastor’s wife, wrote me and asked:

I’ve been struggling a lot lately. re: all the wasted years, harm my kids experienced, folks I hurt as a pastor’s wife and later as a homeless shelter for women, fundamentalist BS I taught and lived. I know you’ve talked about how you deal with such stuff before. If you can direct me to previous links or have any advice I would be oh so grateful! Thank you!

Over the years, I have corresponded with a number of people who were at one time Evangelical pastors, pastor’s wives, evangelists, youth pastors, missionaries, or college professors. Having walked or run away from Evangelicalism, they are left to deal with guilt and regret. For those who were true-blue, sold-out, committed, on-fire followers of Jesus, their past lives are often littered with the hurt and harm they caused not only to themselves, but to others. The more former Evangelicals were committed to Jesus and following the teachings of the Bible, the more likely it is that they caused hurt and harm.

Literalism and certainty — two hallmarks of Evangelical belief — often cause untold mental, emotional, and physical harm. It is often not until people deconvert or move on to kinder, gentler forms of religious faith that they see how much damage they caused.

I was in the Christian church for fifty years. Twenty-five of those years were spent pastoring Evangelical churches. I think I can confidently say that Evangelicalism made me the person I am today. Every aspect of my life was touched and shaped by Evangelical beliefs and practices. No area of my life was unaffected. Any sense of self-worth was sacrificed at the altar of self-denial. I sang with gusto, All to Jesus I surrender, All to him I freely give. I lived and breathed Jesus. Everything, including Polly, my children, my parents, my siblings, and my extended family, was secondary to Jesus and his call to follow him.

I was, in every way, a fanatic. A fanatic is one who is intensely, completely devoted to a cause. No matter how Christian apologists try to say that I never was a real Christian, those who knew me well in my pastoring days know that I was part of the 100% club. (See You Never Were a Christian and Jose Maldonado Says I Never Was a Christian.) My ministerial work ethic put most pastors to shame. While they were busy taking vacations, going to Cedar Point, playing video games, or golfing, I was working night and day trying to win souls and raise up a God-fearing, Christ-honoring church. I had little tolerance for lazy preachers who gave lip service to their calling, or Christians who thought coming to church on Sunday was all that God required of them.

As I look back on the twenty-five years I spent pastoring churches, I see that I caused great harm to my family and parishioners. I expected everyone to work for Jesus as hard as I did. Polly will tell you that I hounded her about reading her Bible more and spending more time in prayer. Never mind that she had six children to care for and taught in our Christian school. Never mind that I was the one paid to pray and read/study the Bible. Devotion to Jesus always came first.

Setting impossible expectations, not only for myself, but for my family and the church, resulted in a constant feeling of failure. No matter what I did, no matter what my family did, no matter what church members did, it wasn’t enough. Hell was hot and Jesus was coming soon. The Bible taught that we were to be watchmen on the wall, ever warning the wicked to turn from their sinful ways. Since the Bible contained everything necessary to life and godliness, every Christian had a duty and obligation to, without hesitation, obey its teachings. Pity the person who was not as committed as I was.

Guilt and regret are the products of living life in this manner. Let me be clear, I am not saying that this was the wrong way to live life. If one believes the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Words of God, how can he NOT live in this manner? If Evangelicals really believe what they say they believe, how can they NOT give every waking moment to the furtherance of the gospel and the Kingdom of God? If God is who and what the Bible says he is, and eternal judgment awaits every one of us, how can any Evangelical idly sit by and let the world go to Hell?

Guilt. I had little time for Polly and the kids. No time for vacations. No time for leisure. No time for enjoying nature. No time for relaxation. No time for anything that took away from my ministerial calling. I even scheduled the one big vacation we took around preaching for a friend of mine. Road trips were to visit churches or attend conferences. The old acronym for Joy: Jesus First, Others Second, Yourself Last, had no place in my life. It was Jesus first, period. Polly and the children were along for the ride, mere appendages to my ministerial work.

Regret. As the old gospel song goes: wasted years, oh how foolish. I gave the best years of my life to Jesus and the work of the ministry. I worked night and day building churches, winning souls, and preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ. While most of the people I pastored and many of my colleagues in the ministry were living the American dream, accumulating wealth, houses, and land, and preparing for the future, I was living in the moment, busily waiting for Jesus to split the eastern sky. Thousands of hours were spent doing God’s work, God’s way, and to what end? Here I am with a broken body and most of my life in the rear-view mirror. No chance for a do-over. No chance to make things right. No chance to correct the harm and hurt I caused.

Bruce, you sound bitter. I know this post might sound like the acerbic whining of an old man, but it’s not. It’s just me being honest. I know I can’t undo the past. It is what it is. I am simply reflecting on how life was for my family and me. Who among us doesn’t look back on the past and wish they had the opportunity to do things differently? Unfortunately, there are no time machines. All we can do is make peace with the past and try to move forward.

A few years ago, a man who was raised in one of the churches I pastored came to visit me. This man attended our Christian school and sat under my preaching for almost a decade. He had the full Bruce Gerencser experience. This man is gay. I’ve often wondered when he realized he was gay. I preached a lot of sermons on the sin of homosexuality. Thinking about the pain I might have caused this man still grieves me to this day. As he and I talked, I apologized to him for my homophobic, harsh, judgmental preaching. I told him I had guilt and regret and wished I could go back in time and make things right. I’ll never forget what he told me:

Bruce, everyone who sat in the church was there because they wanted to be or their parents made them. The truth is, a lot of people want someone to tell them what to do. A lot of people don’t want to think for themselves. You were that someone. If it wasn’t you it would have been someone else.

His words have greatly helped me as I continue to battle with guilt and regret. As I told someone several years ago, I was a victim and a victimizer. I was schooled in all things Evangelical from kindergarten to my days at Midwestern Baptist College. I was indoctrinated, much like a cult indoctrinates its members. That I turned out as I did should surprise no one. It should also be no surprise that I then took what I had been taught and taught it to others. How could it have been otherwise?

What my pastor’s-wife friend really wants to know is how to deal with the guilt and regret. If she is like me, she wants it to go away. Sadly, it doesn’t. A person can’t spend his or her life deeply immersed in something such as the ministry and not come away with scars. While I have found atheism and humanism to be transformative, I still bear the marks and scars of a life spent slaving away for the Evangelical God.

Two things greatly helped me post-ministry and post-Jesus. The first thing that helped me was this blog (one of the many iterations of this blog, anyway). When I started blogging, I cared little if anyone read what I wrote. My friend Zoe has written about this, as have many of my other heathen friends. Putting feelings into words is therapeutic. Over time, other former Evangelicals began to read my writing, and my words resonated with them. They saw that I understood, having experienced many of the things they were going through. Now, twelve years later, the raw, painful emotions that filled me as I walked away from the ministry and God have faded into the background. They are still there and can quickly be resurrected in the wrong circumstance, but my focus is now on helping others who are at the same place I was a decade ago.

Second, I sought out professional, secular counseling. When I left the ministry and later left Christianity, I burned the house to the ground. Now what?  All I have is a heap of ashes, the sum of a life that no longer exists. It took seeing a counselor for me to rebuild my life and rediscover who I really am. Self had been swallowed up by Jesus and the ministry. After I deconverted, I had no idea who or what I was. My entire being was wrapped up in being a pastor. The same can be said for Polly. She spent most of her adult life being a devoted pastor’s wife. Now all of that was gone. Bit by bit, my counselor helped me reconstruct my life. That process continues to this day.

As I answer the emails of those who were once in the ministry, I encourage them to put their thoughts and emotions into words. Even if it is just a journal — write. I also encourage them to seek someone to talk to, someone who will listen and not judge. If nothing else, correspond with someone who will let you vent. Over the past twelve years, I have entered into email discussions with countless hurting former Evangelicals. Some of them still believe in God, others are not sure what they believe, and still others have lost their faith. Their letters are filled with mental and emotional pain and anguish. Writing me provides them with a sounding board, a secular confessional. Sometimes all a person needs is to know someone cares and is willing to listen.

Are you a former pastor or pastor’s wife? Are you a former on-fire, sold-out follower of Jesus? How did you deal with guilt and regret? What advice would you give to my friend? Please leave your wise thoughts in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

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

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Bruce Gerencser