Three Tips from a Pastor to Care for Those Deconstructing


At 26 years old, Kelly was the definition of success. She had a master’s degree in international business, a great job with a great salary. Anyone looking at Kelly from the outside would think she had a great life. And they would be right. However, what they wouldn’t see is the profoundly deep and incredibly painful suffering in Kelly’s life.

Kelly was among those in the 2016 Pew Research survey that was exposed to the theory of evolution for the first time in college. This led her to question many things about the church and her faith. The pain and suffering that filled her life certainly didn’t help. She just recently suffered her 3rd miscarriage, and she and her husband were in the throes of grief. Adding to all this, last year Kelly lost her childhood best friend to COVID. With so much suffering in her life, Kelly had a lot more on her bright young mind than her career when she came to see me, her Pastor.

The question for Kelly was, how much faith (if any) did she have left? She didn’t directly mention the failure of her previous church to appreciate science, nor did she mention the problem of evil, or the question of how God could use a process like evolution with so much suffering to create. But I could see the implications of such questions written all over her face. As her pastor, she needed me to care for her. But how?

What do you say to a church member who has suffered so much and has so many good reasons for leaving the faith? Is this really the time to use apologetics? Do I bring up Alvin Plantiga’s theory of “Transworld Depravity”? Or is there a better approach? Situations like this force pastors to move beyond the theological debates surrounding science and faith, evolution, suffering, and the goodness of God, and provide real care and healing to those who are deconstructing their faith right in front of us. The question is, how? Here are three things I’ve found to be helpful as a pastor talking to someone who is in the process of deconstructing from the Christian faith.

Situations like this force pastors to move beyond the theological debates surrounding science and faith, evolution, suffering, and the goodness of God, and provide real care and healing to those who are deconstructing their faith right in front of us.

1. Be a Good Listener

I’ve never been convinced that people in general (and hurting people in particular) who are asking questions are terribly interested in answers. Answers are great, helpful, and necessary. But what I think they really want is a safe place to ask their questions, and what they really need is a good listener.

They want us to know that they have questions, and they want us to affirm that it is ok for them to ask. And they want to know that they have someone who is suffering with them.

Some of those questions that are being asked (according to the 2016 Pew Research Poll) are concerning the compatibility of evolution and Christianity, as well as the scientific evidence for God, creation, and the resurrection of Jesus. The Church, according to a Barna research study, has not been listening to those questions, and has been “antagonistic” toward science. Often offering unrealistic answers to scientific challenges. This is the opposite of listening well.

Listening creates sacred time and space and communicates to the other person: you are valuable, your suffering is meaningful, your questions are important, and your presence here is desirable. Listening says to the sufferer, “you, your suffering, and your questions belong here.”

By creating a space for people to question and suffer, communicates to people that the world is not perfect, we are all questioners and sufferers, and you are allowed to question and suffer with us. Pastors are not exempt; we find ourselves questioning and suffering too. While listening is powerful, it is not sufficient. We need to show compassion as well.

Person reflecting while looking out at ocean

Photo by Yaoqi on Unsplash


I’ve never been convinced that people in general (and hurting people in particular) who are asking questions are terribly interested in answers. Answers are great, helpful, and necessary. But what I think they really want is a safe place to ask their questions, and what they really need is a good listener.

Mario Russo

2. Be Compassionate

It is not enough to sit with people and their questions or in their suffering, we must walk with them through it. Compassion is the act of walking with those who are questioning, suffering, and even deconstructing. One way we can show compassion is by being transparent with our own suffering and questions.

Kelly had so many questions. Not so much the “big” questions though. My pastoral experience has taught me that those who are questioning their faith are not so much questioning as hurting. Kelly was hurting. She didn’t care per se why there was suffering in the world. She wanted to know why there was suffering in her life. Why her? Why now? Why her friend? What was going to happen to her, her job, her marriage? She wanted to know why God was doing this to her. She knew there wasn’t some kind of unrepentant sin. It all seemed so unfair.

Rather than quote Scripture, try to explain the “will of God,” or offer any answers, I tried something I had never tried before. I affirmed every single question she asked, and then I added a few of my own. I told her that I had questions that were similar to hers. Not only why was God doing this to Kelly and her family, but to other families in the church as well. Why was everything going wrong for all of us? What happened to “God is in control”? The pandemic caused church giving to take a sharp decline. Was I going to have a job in a year? What about all those years I spent in seminary? Would all of that time and energy and sacrifice from me and my wife be wasted? Didn’t God want me to be in ministry? Didn’t he call me to this? Did I make a mistake in thinking I was called to be a pastor?

And do you know what happened next? Kelly realized that she wasn’t alone. She realized that she had a fellow sufferer and questioner walking with her. I wish I could say that her questions stopped, and the pain ended, but it didn’t. However, our conversation did provide a moment of perspective adjustment. The questions that seemed so big got a little smaller. The pain that was so heavy, got a little lighter. And God who seemed so distant, got a little nearer. That’s the power of compassion. But being compassionate requires something that comes natural to so few of us. It requires honesty.

Woman reading bible

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


The questions that seemed so big got a little smaller. The pain that was so heavy, got a little lighter. And God who seemed so distant, got a little nearer. That’s the power of compassion.

Mario Russo

3. Be Honest

As pastors, many people look to us for theological answers. There is a certain expectation that as church leaders and visible leaders in the community, we will have the answers to the tough questions about life. But here is the secret: we don’t have all the answers. Sure, some pastors think they have all the answers and some act like they do. But the reality is that we don’t. And I think that most pastors know they don’t, and try not to pretend like they do.

Nevertheless, as pastors with hearts that love those people whom we shepherd, we want to provide answers. We want to give healing where there is brokenness and comfort where there is pain. But sometimes, we have to admit: “I don’t know.” This answer can be really disappointing, I know. Pastors hate to see disappointment in other people’s eyes. You come to us for answers, we don’t want to disappoint you. So, it is really hard to admit that we don’t have the answers. But in truth, honesty really is the best policy.

In my conversation with Kelly, honesty looked like me sharing my story about how I changed my position from a young-earth creationist to evolutionary creationist. It wasn’t easy for me to abandon a theological position that I had held since I was a teenager. There were many points at which I could have abandoned my faith. I can remember sitting in class learning how to exegete Scripture and having so many questions come to mind. The challenge that sound exegesis presented to my understanding of Genesis caused me to “deconstruct” my young-earth creationism view. I could have been one of those who deconstructed from the faith entirely. Instead, armed with the truth and guided by compassionate professors, I emerged with my faith intact.

Open Bible beside coffee cup

All we can say is what we do know. And that is that God loves you deeply…God has overcome our greatest enemies and modeled ultimate love. Our job, when ministering to those deconstructing from the Christian faith, is to embody that same love.

Mario Russo

However, such clarity will not always be possible. The simple truth for Kelly and for those reading this is, sometimes, we don’t know. We don’t know why you have suffered. We don’t know why God has allowed it. All we can say is what we do know. And that is that God loves you deeply. He desires all people everywhere who are weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest. We know that on the cross and through his resurrection Jesus defeated sin, death, suffering, evil, and pain. He made a new painless, sinless, deathless, evil-less, and suffering-less future possible. God has overcome our greatest enemies and modeled ultimate love. Our job, when ministering to those deconstructing from the Christian faith, is to embody that same love.


Mario A. Russo
About the Author

Mario A. Russo

Mario A. Russo is a PhD in Theology (Science and Religion) candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Director Emeritus of the Dortmund Center for Science and Faith in Dortmund, Germany. He is an ordained pastor who holds several degrees in both Christian theology and the biological sciences including a Doctor of Ministry from Erskine College and Seminary, as well as an Interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Psychology from the University of South Carolina. He has written and spoken on various platforms about issues related to science and faith for over 15 years. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina along with his wife and 2 children.
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