“This is a message that I have waited 44 years to give,” pastor Steve DeWitt told Bethel Church in Crown Point, Indiana.
His congregation immediately knew what he was talking about and started to cheer.
He told them anyway, to shouts, claps, and whistles: “This is my last sermon as a single man.”
Bethel members knew Steve had been looking for a wife—in fact, many of them had been looking on his behalf. It should’ve been easy. Steve was theologically solid, a gifted speaker, and popular in his growing congregation.
And he wasn’t avoiding the search. Steve started dating in high school. His junior year, his parents switched him to a Christian high school. “It was like summer camp, with all these Christian girls walking around,” Steve said.
“Beginning at age 18, I prayed for my future wife nearly every week,” he said. He was serious about his faith, about responsible dating, and about going into the ministry. He dated through his years at Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, then through his pastoral internship and his handful of years as a youth pastor.
Steve was “a hopeful dater but didn’t feel any pressure about it,” he said. That’s because there always seemed to be possibilities.
The ratio of Christian men to women has been disproportionate ever since the days of the early church, when women likely made up about two-thirds of the believers. In the 1700s, Puritan preacher Cotton Mather complained that “in a Church of three or four hundred Communicants, there are but a few more than one hundred Men, all the rest are Women.”
Today, women make up 55 percent of American evangelical Protestants. But if you’re looking for an eligible young Christian, it’s a little trickier. Only about 12 percent of eligible Christian men and 18 percent of their female counterparts are serious about their faith, believing “basic Christian teachings and . . . meaningfully practicing Christian piety,” researcher Lyman Stone wrote.
Steve DeWitt was looking for someone like that—and on paper, the odds were in his favor. But things didn’t work out that way.
When Steve was a 25-year-old single youth pastor, nobody at College Park Church in Indianapolis thought he was weird. But by the time he became the senior pastor at Bethel Church in Crown Point, he was still single at 29.
Kurt Hand, who is about Steve’s age, was already attending Bethel Church with his wife, Kelly, when Steve arrived. “We wondered how he was going to teach us about marriage,” he said.
“But we could clearly see he was dedicated and loved the Lord,” Kelly said. “That was obvious after spending a few minutes with him.”
When Bethel called Steve as pastor in 1997, he was not only a committed Christian but stood up in front of 500 members every week and displayed this commitment. The single women in his church—and in other area churches—were attracted to that. At the same time, congregants began trying to set him up with their single daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and friends.
“To my shame, that caused me not to think too seriously about commitment,” Steve said. “I think that’s an unhealthy part of my story. There is no doubt I overlooked or passed on some excellent Christian women who would have been wonderful wives.”
It’s not like Steve was dating every night of the week. “There are advantages to being single in the ministry, and I worked those to the max,” he said. “I was able to pour energy into the church in ways that it would be wrong for a married man to do.”
For example, he spent lots of time with his church members, eating meals at their houses or having them over for pizza. (He wasn’t a great cook—eventually, meals at Steve’s were BYOE, which stood for Bring Your Own Everything.) He threw himself into sermons, researching and thinking and polishing and practicing. He authored articles; spoke at college chapels, camps, and other churches; and wrote a book.
“I truly enjoyed the experience of that freedom,” Steve said.
He never stopped praying for his future wife. But as time went on, it was getting harder to find her, because the stakes kept rising.
“Many pastors are able to grow into ministry, into increasing responsibilities, with their spouse,” Steve said. “They start off younger and can mature and get seasoned together.”
Steve, on the other hand, was stretching into his 40s and was leading a church that had grown to thousands of people. His wife would need to be a mature believer, love ministry, not mind being in the limelight, and share him with a church that had enjoyed his undivided attention for 15 years.
Steve was likely the only never-married megachurch pastor in America at the time, according to megachurch experts Scott Thumma and Warren Bird. As such, he was a unicorn. She was going to have to be one too.
When Jennifer Terrell was little, she was often her mother’s plus-one to the weddings of friends and family.
Honestly, she was the best option. Her father, a former major league baseball player and scout for the Kansas City Royals, was traveling much of the time. And her two older brothers would rather clean the toilet with a toothbrush than sit through a wedding.
Jennifer, on the other hand, was a wonderful wedding guest. She loved the music, the dresses, and the flowers. She kept souvenirs—confetti, invitations, bubbles—in a special box at home. She picked up ideas for her own special day, writing them down so she’d remember them.
She grew up dreaming of a husband, a family, and home decor. “She went to Baylor University quietly hoping for an “MRS degree,” she said. “I always wanted to be a wife and a mom. I prayed God would provide me the opportunity soon so I could fulfill that desire in my life.”
A few years after college, Jennifer finally got engaged. She sprang into action—choosing venues, trying on dresses, and deciding on cake flavors. She visited reception halls, hired a photographer, and asked friends to be in her bridal party. Everything was going to be perfect.
She remembers standing in the security line at the Phoenix airport, heading home to Kansas City for the wedding. She had time to finish a few final details before her big day.
And that’s when her fiancé broke things off.
“All I remember is falling on the ground and having people ask if I needed medical help,” she said. A few days later, mortified, she fled to a friend in St. Louis, where she stared in the face of her failure.
“I had made the wedding the ultimate thing,” she said. Without it, she felt disoriented.
“I had quit my job to move [near my fiancé],” she said. “I had no spiritual support there. I had minimal friend support. The man I thought was pursuing my heart was not. I felt so rejected. That was the first time I really understood what the gospel was. When I am unlovely, when I have nothing to offer, when I am embarrassed—God is pursuing me.”
Jennifer spent “a lot of time in the fetal position during those months, but I wouldn’t trade it,” she said. “I can vividly remember an appetite for the Word, and tear-soaked journal pages of pain and faith. Now I can say, looking back, that was the sweetest time.”
After a season of healing, Jennifer refocused on her career as a pharmaceutical representative. She served in Bible Study Fellowship, volunteered to help with kids in her church, and later shared her story at a women’s event. “My main point was that you can be lonely as a single person or a married person—your marital status doesn’t matter,” she said. “You have to find your satisfaction in Jesus.”
After sharing her testimony, Jennifer got an email from a woman who was there. It linked to an article on The Gospel Coalition called “Lonely Me: A Pastoral Perspective” by Steve DeWitt.
“Your talk reminded me of this article,” the woman emailed. “Any chance you’d be interested in getting to know the author? Steve used to be our pastor in Indiana.”
Jennifer agreed. She was standing in a Starbucks a few months later when she saw his message pop up on Facebook.
“I’m sure we’ve both been around this block before,” he wrote. “I’m willing to stick my little toe in the water. How about you? What do you think about a phone call sometime?”
Excited, Jennifer left her order on the counter and ran out to her car to call her sister-in-law. Together, they crafted her reply: “My toe is in.”
To be honest, Steve was interested but skeptical. “I remained hopeful that God would provide a wife for me, but I was having to stare at the possibility that this wasn’t his will for me. I wasn’t putting too much stock in the call.”
He was pleasantly surprised. She was a “very good conversationalist”—so good he kept calling. Eventually, he offered to stop by Kansas City on his way to Thanksgiving in Iowa. (It only added 6 hours to his drive.)
Steve and Jennifer couldn’t have felt more differently about their first encounter. She was so nervous she could barely eat or sleep the entire three days of his visit. He was so relaxed she wondered if he was interested.
“I thought I was crashing and burning,” she said. On the day of his departure, he left Kansas City early in the morning for Thanksgiving at his parents’ house.
“I thought he couldn’t wait to get out of town,” Jennifer said. “I ran 19 miles to work out the stress I was feeling.”
Truthfully, Steve wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Wanting to explore it a little more, he asked if she’d mind driving to his parents’ to spend more time together.
“She walked into my family gathering and dazzled everybody,” Steve said. “I was able to see her in that kind of setting—with strangers—and her sparkle really won me over.”
But she was asking herself this: If Steve is so great, why isn’t he married already?
She asked him, and he gave her three reasons: First, his ministry was very important to him, and he didn’t want to undermine that by making a wrong decision. Second, he hadn’t met the right woman yet. And third, he wanted to make sure his congregation would accept her—for both their sakes.
The last point was the least worrisome. On Jennifer’s first stealth visit to Bethel, the family seated next to her welcomed her and began a conversation. When they found out she wasn’t married, their first question was “Hey, have you met Pastor Steve?”
Steve lived in Indiana; Jennifer lived in Missouri. Steve worked Tuesday through Sunday; Jennifer worked Monday through Friday. She was free to talk after 5:00 p.m., when he was heading over to someone’s house for a pastor visit or attending church meetings.
When they were in Kansas City, they could go out. But when they were in Indiana, they tried to be discreet. Steve was enough of a public figure that this was difficult. When he had knee surgery and Jennifer visited him in the hospital, he told the nurse she was his “friend.” The nurse wasn’t fooled; she went home and told her family Pastor Steve had a girlfriend.
In March, he led a trip to Israel. Jennifer had signed up to attend a different trip to Israel around that same time, and Steve asked her to switch to his tour. While in Jerusalem, having made arrangements for privacy inside the garden tomb, he gave her a necklace with the Hebrew word hesed (translated “covenantal love”) on it and told her he loved her for the first time.
In May, he preached a sermon and then called Jennifer onstage to introduce her to the congregation and ask them to pray for her. And then he blew everybody away. With Phantom of the Opera music playing and rose petals falling from the ceiling, he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.
In hindsight, Jennifer said, “I wish I would’ve put my finger on my chin and pretended I was thinking about it.” But in the moment, she kissed him, and then whispered, “Ohhh, I just kissed you in front of everybody.” He whispered, “Let’s do it right,” and kissed her back.
Then, as a pastor prayed a prearranged long prayer, the couple ran out of the church before anybody could ask a single question.
“When we opened our eyes, they were gone,” Kelly said. “We felt complete and utter happiness because we had known him for so long. We knew his heart longed for someone to walk beside him, and we knew it had been a struggle finding the right girl, and we wanted him to be able to experience loving your best friend and having children.”
The sanctuary erupted with chatter and cheering.
“We were all reflecting back,” Kelly said, “trying to remember, ‘Have we seen her in the audience before?’”
For Jennifer, the wedding planning experience couldn’t have been more different the second time around.
“The first wedding wasn’t even going to be in a church, because it was all about the aesthetic,” she said. This time, she and Steve wanted to be married in a church—his church. (To do otherwise would have been “a scandal,” Kurt said. “Come on—he’s our pastor.”)
The first time around, she had a six-month engagement, and her head was full of details. This time, “I was very hands-off,” she said. “My first wedding was going to be quite the splashy event. For this one, I had punch and Costco cakes. We had to make it affordable because we had so many people coming.”
The church auditorium sat 1,200—even then, Steve and Jennifer had to limit the guest list to church members, and then to only two from each family. (And yes, that motivated some attendees to officially join the church.)
Jennifer was less focused on wedding details but far more focused on her future husband.
“Just imagine two 17-year-olds in love,” Kurt said. “That’s what it was like when they came over.”
“It was different to see our pastor giddy,” Kelly said. “He was so happy.”
When Jennifer walked down the aisle, Kelly was watching Steve look at his bride.
“It was a magical moment,” she said. “At the end, they were pronounced man and wife, and they played the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ as they walked up the aisle.”
For many church members, it felt like a royal wedding. Their joy was complete.
But if you’ve ever gotten something you’ve wanted badly, for a long time, you already know—it won’t fulfill you.
Happily Ever After?
“Our first year of marriage was really hard,” Jennifer said. Because of past medical problems, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to have children. But she got pregnant so fast that when Steve shared the due date with the congregation, “we had to laugh because you could see people doing the mental math,” she said.
“I got sick almost immediately,” she said. “I was a new bride, trying to figure out how to be a pastor’s wife, and everybody wanted to go for coffee. Due to my pregnancy, I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee!”
She’d prayed for this, so she didn’t feel like she could complain. And yet her move from working professional to pregnant pastor’s wife was throwing off all her rhythms.
“I got through on God’s strength,” she said. “I didn’t have the best habits of being with the Lord that first year because everything was spinning around. I think I lived off the fumes of the spiritual growth I had during my single years, but you can’t do that forever. It’s kind of humiliating to be a pastor’s wife and admit, ‘Yeah, I haven’t been in the Word.’ That was a humbling experience.”
For his part, Steve felt like an old dog learning new tricks.
“It was a challenging transition,” he said. “I had to learn to lean into our staff and our leadership more, to become a better delegator and sharer of ministry.”
Bethel, too, had to make some adjustments. Steve’s attention was now divided, and his time was limited in new ways.
But Steve and Jennifer’s marriage also brought tremendous benefits. They now have two little girls, Kiralee and Madeline (who show up in sermon and book illustrations). They’ve hosted hundreds of people in their home for dinner—and none had to bring their own meals along or eat off Walmart’s cheap paper plates.
Jennifer “is a great complement to Steve,” Kelly said. “She’s gifted in hospitality. She’s caring toward other people. She doesn’t see negatives in people—she’s very positive. When you’re with her, she makes you feel special, like you’re her best friend.”
Being married “hasn’t detracted one bit from [Steve’s] mission for God,” Kurt said. “His marriage has enriched his pastoring, his preaching. Now he has some experience and can tell us about his version of marriage and raising kids.”
“He’s softer toward people in general,” Kelly said. “I think becoming a husband and parent has humbled him in a good way. Now he has to dig deeper within himself and the Bible to navigate his wife as well.”
“Our dating was somewhat of a Disney fairy tale,” Steve said. “But there are no marriages that are Disney fairy tales. We have struggled like everybody has to, making it work by applying the gospel in the midst of our sinfulness in day-to-day life. While we are grateful God brought us together, we need God’s grace every day.”
Both look back at their single days with fondness, Jennifer said. “We were serving the Lord, studying the Word, pouring into relationships with people. . . . Singleness is a good and valuable gift.”
That’s their best counsel for those who desire to get married: Pursue Jesus. Plug into a local church. Volunteer to help others. Go on that mission trip. Sign up for that 5K. Attend the Bible study. Take the job.
If God has planned for you to remain single, it will be a life of suffering and joy, relationships and loneliness, trouble and peace—just like a married person’s life. Instead of serving your children through sleepless nights and toddler tantrums, you’ll be able to serve children in your church or community. Instead of intimate conversations with your spouse, you’ll be building close friendships with other Christians. Instead of discipling your immediate family, you’ll be mentoring—and being mentored by—other believers.
And if God has planned a spouse for you, that’s a gift too. But you can’t simply rely on yourself to attract that person, Steve said. “We need to trust the Lord for it. And I do think he is a matchmaker.”