Editor’s Note: The author of this piece hits a lot of themes I heard when I interviewed non-believing clergy – the study that eventually led to The Clergy Project. While the clergy had changed their beliefs, they still loved the people they served and felt terrible about deceiving them. They often seemed to be in great pain when thinking about disappointing the people in their congregations. They were in pain about a lot of things, actually, while hoping to put it all behind them. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Bruce Gerencser
Why do people become pastors? The reasons are many, some of which are laudable, others quite nefarious. Becoming a pastor of a church is a great way to hide in plain sight for psychopaths, adulterers, and abusers. Most churches are pastored by one person, usually a man. In some settings, a pastor may answer to his denomination, church board, or congregation, but often pastors are treated as self-employed workers who only answer to themselves. There’s no supervisor — except God, and he ain’t paying attention — no time clock to punch, or any of the other controls workers typically have. Lazy pastors with poor work ethics love the “work of the ministry.” Show up on Sundays and preach, marry the young, bury the old, visit the sick, and the rest of the week is yours. I knew more than a few pastors who spent more time hunting, playing video games, or working on personal projects than they did doing the work God allegedly called them to. The ministry was treated as a means to an end – a way to make money without much effort.
On the other hand, there are countless pastors who are committed to the churches they pastor. Believing they have been called by God to minister to the needs of their congregations, these pastors work hard, love people, and do what they can to make the lives of their people better. Atheists may disagree with them about God, Jesus, and the Bible, but it is unfair to judge all pastors by the lazy, indolent behavior of some. While I was far from perfect as a pastor, I genuinely loved the people I pastored, and selflessly gave myself to them day and night.
One thing is certain for pastors, regardless of their character, pastors are typically viewed as moral pillars in their communities. Community members think pastors speak for God and have some sort of wisdom other people don’t have. When crisis and tragedy affect a community, pastors are often called in to help, regardless of whether they have the necessary training to do so. Most people have no idea about what kind of training, if any, pastors have. Scores of American churches are pastored by men and women who have no formal training. I mean none. I even know of churches that are pastored by high school dropouts. Regardless of educational attainment, character, and work ethic, pastors are given special treatment. I suspect many people are afraid they will make God angry if they treat his spokesman poorly or dare to treat him like everyone else.
Pastors often are offered discounts at restaurants, auto repair shops, and stores. I suspect many business owners see these discounts as a cost of doing business. Do well by the local preacher and he will speak positively to congregants about your business. Piss the same pastor off, and his words privately to influential church members or the pulpit can have devastating financial effects. Some pastors, knowing this, use this power to their advantage, to extract goods and services from Christians and unbelievers alike.
I was offered discounts or even free stuff more times than I can count. I did my best to say NO, but there were times when declining was not an option. I pastored in southeast Ohio for almost 12 years. At the bottom of the hill from our church was a Dairy Queen-like restaurant owned by the parents of a church member. In the summer, we frequently ate at the restaurant, as did many church members. The owners were United Methodists. In the 1980s, their youngest daughter was raped and murdered while attending Ohio State University. Their pastor was out of the country at the time, so they asked me to do the funeral. Though I did not know the girl, I gladly took care of the service.
Afterward, the father would occasionally stop by our dilapidated 12’x60′ trailer and drop us off damaged food items he had picked up at his wholesale food supplier. At the end of summer, he would drop off fresh and frozen food that he knew wouldn’t last until the next year. One time, he dropped off two crates of eggs that had been hit with a fork truck. There were a number of undamaged eggs in the crates; they just had to be picked out of the uncooked omelet they were floating in. More than 30 years later, our three oldest sons STILL talk about having to pick and clean the eggs.
I could never have said NO to this man without offending him, so I graciously accepted what he had to offer. Sometimes, he brought way too much food, so I would pass it on to other church members. In hindsight, I know some people felt bad for Pastor Bruce, his wife, and six children. We lived in a rundown trailer and drove junk cars. While we dressed well and never gave the appearance of being poor, to those who were really paying attention, it was evident the Gerencser’s didn’t have two nickels to rub together.
I am not one who likes being treated special. I have a difficult time asking for or accepting help from others. This thinking was fueled by my Evangelical beliefs: that God would never leave me or forsake me, that God would provide all my needs, that suffering and doing without were all part of God’s plan for my life. Thus, I rarely accepted discounts or freebies from local business owners. I wanted to be treated just like everyone else. The same went for the churches I pastored. Churches are notorious for asking for preferential treatment or discounts. Hustling for Jesus is what I call such behavior.
Unfortunately, many pastors and churches are out to get all they can from business owners. There’s a sense of entitlement. Many churches think their communities need them, not the other way around. “You need us! Why, if our church ceased to exist, the local businesses would be harmed.” This outsized (and untrue) view of their importance leads pastors to ask for special treatment, both for themselves and their churches.
If I were asked to give advice to preachers, one thing I would tell them is not to be a beggar for Jesus. Don’t expect or demand special treatment. Instead, do everything you can to blend into your communities. Chuck the uniforms, and dress like the commoners among you. Practice humility — you know, just like Jesus did. When people want to laud you by giving you titles, how about saying, “that’s okay, just call me Bruce.” Don’t be a professional preacher. Instead, as Jesus did, walk as a mere man among your congregation and community. Because that is exactly what you are.
**Editor’s Questions** Readers who have been clergy: how does this fit your experience? Readers who have been members of a congregation: What was your relationship with your pastor like?
Bio: Bruce Gerencser lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have 6 grown children and 12 grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for 25 years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. He left the ministry in 2005 and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. He is also one of the original members of The Clergy Project, which began in 2011. He blogs at The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser, where the above post originally appears. It is reposted with permission.
>>>Photo Credits: By Linda LaScola