Tim Kuperus isn’t new to pastoral ministry—he’s been doing it full-time for 25 years. So he’s familiar with church controversy and challenges. He’s seen his share of long hours, hard conversations, and difficult situations.
“But I never once thought about whether I was still called to ministry,” he said.
Until the past three years.
“It was the convergence of so much in a compressed time, from the toxic political situation to the absolute challenge of the pandemic,” said Kuperus, who leads Manhattan Christian Reformed Church in Montana. “When arguing over a piece of cloth can tear your people apart, you start to question the core of what you thought was shaping your church’s identity together as a people in Christ.”
When arguing over a piece of cloth can tear your people apart, you start to question the core of what you thought was shaping your church’s identity together as a people in Christ.
Kuperus wasn’t the only one. In January 2021, 29 percent of pastors told Barna they’d seriously considered leaving ministry within the past year. Ten months later, that was up to 38 percent. By March 2022, it was 42 percent. The main reasons? The immense stress of the job, feeling lonely and isolated, and current political divisions.
“We had 40 people walk out” over perceived liberalism in the Christian Reformed Church denomination, Kuperus said. After a while, “I lost the joy of ministry,” he said.
But he didn’t walk away. In fact, despite rumors of a mass migration, most pastors stayed. In the fall of 2021, the rate of evangelical pastors quitting before retirement was 1.5 percent, up only a little from the 1.3 percent resignation rate in 2015.
“Because information flows so quickly today, it is easy to string together a handful of crowd-sourced stories of pastors quitting and to assume you have a new trend or a new epidemic in the American church,” wrote Lifeway Research executive director Scott McConnell. “In reality, even a list of 100 pastors is still a fraction of the normal range of pastors changing career direction in a typical month.”
The Gospel Coalition asked three pastors, each of whom would have told Barna he gave “real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry” during the pandemic, why they didn’t—and why they’re glad they stayed.
Seriously Considering Quitting
“If pastors are being honest, they probably ask themselves whether they should quit more than they care to admit,” said Ronnie Martin, pastor of Substance Church in Ashland, Ohio. “In a world full of options, made far more readily available to us because of technology and remote work, those things are easier to imagine in terms of possibilities.”
His church lost about 60 members over mask policy disagreements. “I thought my life would be so much easier if I were doing anything but this,” he said. “It wasn’t even just having conversations with those individuals so much as it was the level of anxiety and paranoia it produced. I kept wondering how many other people were thinking like they were.”
At Jeremy Writebol’s Woodside Bible Church in metro Detroit, half of the 350 members left after he prayed about racialized violence after George Floyd’s death.
“They thought I was woke,” he said. “They thought I was advocating for critical race theory.”
He couldn’t change their minds, and it seemed like he’d blown up the whole church. “I began to ask questions of myself—Am I called to do this? What did I do wrong?” he said.
Martin was wondering the same thing. “Am I built for this? Or are there other things I should be doing?”
Why They Stayed
Martin didn’t wrestle long. “I had moments of darkness and despair, but they were short-lived,” he said. It helped that he felt supported by his family, his elders, and the other pastors in his network. He was also feeling a morbid curiosity.
“I wondered—What will happen if we can just endure?” he said. “Lord, what are you surfacing in me? If I can endure, I’d love to see the person I am becoming emerge from this.”
He knows how it sounds—“more romantic than it felt at the time.” It wasn’t romance, but the Bible, he was hanging on to. “It was a time for waiting,” he said. “The Lord told us in Scripture 227 times that we have to wait and hope.” So he did.
If I can endure, I’d love to see the person I am becoming emerge from this.
Kuperus was also waiting. Six months passed, then a year, and he still didn’t feel his previous joy in ministry. He worried he might never get it back.
He kept going anyway.
“I can’t say enough about what it means to have a place of peace and rest in your home,” he said. “I am blessed with an incredible spouse. When everything externally was fraught, I knew that home would always be a place of peace and rest. That was so grounding for me.”
He also held onto his sense of calling. “I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I was going to be a pastor,” he said. “I have a deep internal and external sense of calling.” While he was wrestling with that internal call, people in his congregation and denomination kept affirming him externally. Congregants dropped him notes or emails that were more encouraging than they knew. Every week, two elders met with him to encourage and pray for him. And he didn’t ever want to go to his classis—a regional gathering of pastors and elders—and tell them he was quitting.
“I couldn’t imagine being in front of my dear fellow pastors and saying, ‘I’m finished,’” he said. “That horrified me.”
Over in Michigan, Writebol was also leaning on his elders. He asked them, “Am I doing harm to the church in such a way that I shouldn’t be leading here locally?”
No, they told him.
“They had my back all the way, which was very affirming and helpful to me,” he said. “They never said, ‘Yeah, you should think about leaving.’ It was always ‘We trust you. We’re with you.’ Sometimes a comment I made wasn’t helpful or well-received, and they were able to correct me in those moments, but they didn’t lose trust in me.”
Like Martin and Kuperus, Writebol didn’t feel released from his calling. “The Lord hasn’t opened another door for me,” he said. “I don’t feel a sense of being called to anything else. I’m feeling very called here. . . . The work he’s given me is not done yet, and nobody is telling me to get out.”
One reason he knows that is the paycheck. His church pays a fair salary and offers benefits.
“I know I have skills that would be transferable to corporate America, but I have no vision of what I could be doing there,” he said. “I’ve been in ministry for 20-plus years. This is my vocation and career. I have no idea how to restart something else or the financial savings we’d need for me to explore for a while. I have to do this ministry, because it’s the work the Lord has given me to do, and because it is the way the Lord is providing financially for our family.”
How They Stayed
In order to stay, sometimes the pastors had to take a step out. Martin dug into classic novels—primarily Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Kuperus spent time woodworking or doing sports photography.
They were also escaping into their Bibles.
“I spent a three- or four-month period praying through and meditating on the Psalms,” Martin said. “That was a massive help, a balm.” Kuperus spent time there too, especially in Psalm 46.
Writebol was writing a book for pastors on the Revelation passages about the seven churches. He fell in love with chapters 2 and 3.
“Even Revelation 1:5—that verse grounds my identity,” he said. “I am loved by Christ. I belong to him. Later we read the imagery of Jesus holding the seven stars in his hand, and that’s a metaphor to me of Christ holding me in his hand in spite of all of the turmoil.”
The Christians John was writing to were in the Roman Empire, facing heavy and violent persecution. That helped put things in perspective for Writebol.
“Those were important passages that anchored my heart over the last few years and reminded me of Jesus’s sufficiency, of his love for me, of his sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness,” he said. “He keeps calling me back to remember who he is so I can remember who I am as well.”
On the Other Side
Most congregants aren’t wearing masks anymore, but many pastors are still processing, Martin said. “Because trauma surfaces slowly, sometimes I wonder if some of us are just beginning to deal with some of these things.”
That’s not all bad. “For me, the moments of darkness and despair were short-lived, and they led to longing and searching,” he said. His prayer was “Lord, we’re seeking some relief, and we have to find it in you.”
The sifting in his church, while painful, left a more united congregation. “We looked around and saw people who were serving the church, who were on mission with us, who were encouraging us with their words,” he said. “I had the sense that the people here wanted to be here. We had a newfound sense of unity, and when that emerged it was hugely encouraging to us.”
Martin also felt the sifting in himself. “I realized I really trust in the affirmation of my congregation—I want them to tell me everything is OK,” he said. “But when they had opinions on things we’ve never had to talk about before, and we weren’t on the same page, I didn’t feel supported or encouraged.”
It was a hard grace because it strengthened his reliance on the Lord alone, Martin said. When he frames it that way, he’s grateful.
“I’d say I love God more, and I think I feel more loved by God, after going through this,” he said.
I love God more, and I think I feel more loved by God, after going through this.
Kuperus can see changes too. Hard and angry attitudes are softening. His own joy is starting to return. He can see shoots of life.
“I turned 50 in May of 2021,” he said. “It was on a Sunday, and the church threw me a surprise party after the service. They had balloons and donuts and the whole nine yards. After that terrible, hard year, that celebration expressed something to me. I felt deeply cherished. In ways I didn’t expect, it reaffirmed my calling to my dear congregation.”
It felt like a celebration of survival. And even though his church was smaller, Kuperus decided to minister not to the church he used to have but to the one he has now.
It’s a good place to be. “We worship with about 250 on a Sunday, and right now there are seven young women who are pregnant,” he said. “It’s almost like God is showing us through the physical new life that there is also new life and joy in our congregation.”
As American culture secularizes, it’s not hard to envision a future where things are harder for the church.
“Maybe the pandemic was a preparation for something else,” Martin said. “It helps me to realize whatever the Lord allows the American church to have to endure, it is for the purpose of our perseverance, of our love for him not to grow cold.”
“Those days will probably come for me, when trying to stand up for what is true and right in culture and to speak the truth in love and to shepherd God’s people will come with costs,” Writebol said. “I’m going to have to navigate through this world while hanging onto Christ. I trust and fully believe Christ holds us. I’m going to keep looking to him and trusting in him.”
Pastoral ministry is a high and noble calling, Writebol said. Most days, he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
“His calling to me as a pastor is to be the one who carries the theology of the cross, who shows people this is what Jesus has done for you,” he said. “Let’s fix our eyes on him and he’ll get us home.”