What It’s Like to Pastor QAnon Believers

Pastors tend to the spiritual needs of their congregations. Conspiracy theories have made their jobs a lot harder.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who identifies as Christian, has embraced QAnon conspiracy theories. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images.

Vicar Derek Kubilus, a United Methodist pastor, has one of those voices — knowing but full of levity. When we attended church camp together as teenagers, I often wondered if he was telling a joke I didn’t quite understand. Today, I hear a matured version of this voice on his podcast, Cross Over Q, which offers healing for QAnon followers and family members from a Christian perspective. On the podcast, his tone is heavier, that of a faith leader who’s been trying to hold his church through dual crises, a pandemic and spiritual upheaval as QAnon has torn churches and families apart.

To Kubilus, QAnon is a pastoral concern. He sees the movement’s conspiratorial thinking as heresy, a “spiritual pandemic” that is destructive to real people’s lives. Unlike so many pastors who have spent the past year weaving together Christian nationalism, Trumpism, and Q ideology, Kubilus is on the other side, trying to unravel these conspiracies and bring Christians back home.

A January survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute showed that 27% of white evangelicals, 18% of white Catholics, and 15% of white mainline Protestants believe QAnon conspiracy theories are completely or mostly accurate. The disproportionate acceptance of debunked delusion doesn’t stop there. It also extends to almost half of white evangelicals who believe it is either completely or mostly true that Antifa activists were responsible for the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

And there are others who aren’t sure what to believe anymore. Jaded Q followers are now forced to reconcile with a Biden presidency, tens of thousands of QAnon accounts have been purged by social media companies, and Donald Trump is de-platformed and out of office. Their “prophet” Q has not posted since early December, but a mood of uncertainty and isolation still remains. Extremist groups are actively working to attract vulnerable, disaffected, former QAnon believers and pull them into their ranks.

Pastors learn how to baptize, officiate weddings, and help families mourn a loss. There’s little preparation for helping people you care about dismantle a worldview that cleaves them away from reality. When someone in Kubilus’s own life started spouting conspiracies, “my first instinct was one of anger and frustration and derision” he says. “Eventually I had to figure out that that wasn’t helping anything. That I can be as angry as I wanted to be, but that anger was only making the problem worse.”

On Cross Over Q, Kubilus strikes a delicate balance, clarifying he is not a liberal nor a politics junkie. He doesn’t want to talk on the podcast about abortion or socialized medicine. Kubilus is also not a fan of Donald Trump. He finds his arrogance and “chronically incurious personality to be simply objectionable,” and has little interest in talking about the former president except to the extent that QAnon has centered on the former president.

On his podcast, Kubilus strikes notes of empathy. He understands people wanting to feel they have secret knowledge, that they are taking part in saving the world. He understands it’s easy to get caught up in a grand narrative. “QAnon literally injects transcendental meaning and purpose into the lives of regular folks every day, by convincing people they are central players in a war for the soul of America,” Kubilus has said on his podcast. He recognizes the intoxication people must feel on Twitter and Q message boards as they are encouraged for the conspiratorial connections they make and are told “Hey, this is great. You’re doing good work.”

Kubilus didn’t want to go into detail about work he’s done directly with members at his own Uniontown, Ohio church, citing confidentiality. He says the conflicts over QAnon in his congregation have been settled for a while now. He thinks, perhaps, those who were in conflict over it have left. When I asked him what it feels like being in this role, he told me, “It sucks. You can quote me on that.” Yet he does it anyway. It’s an act of love, patience, charity — terms once more likely to be associated with the Christian faith than conspiracy.

During the early days of the pandemic, existing conspiratorial and politico-prophetic threads began to enmesh in new ways online. As Sarah Posner, author of Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump has pointed out, there were natural affinities between evangelical rhetoric and QAnon. Evangelical leaders often pray for God to heal America of abortion and human trafficking; QAnon describes a (fictional) deep state in which powerful figures sex traffic children. For people trying to make sense of the world, these pieces fit together, confirmed one another. For Christians, the message was a moral call to action among a community of like-minded people. It was a cause, a Holy War, something to do. And it washed back into American churches.

There’s a messy spectrum among churches about conspiratorial thinking. The Patriot Church in Knoxville is working to establish like-minded churches to “preach the gospel and fight for Freedom, Righteousness, and the Well-Being of the United States of America,” according to its website. Christian nationalism is baked right into the mission statement. Founding pastor Ken Peters is not only spreading a message of spiritual revival — including themes concerning abortion, Biblical marriage, the “Islamic Invasion,” Marxism, Leftism, and socialism — he also believes Biden’s presidency is illegitimate and reportedly participated in the January 6 rally for Donald Trump.

But sometimes a pastor is the only person standing between a congregant and conspiracy-fueled violence. As Peter Manseau recently reported for The Washington Post, Kentuckian Michael Sparks had been advised by his pastor to get off Facebook; it had been feeding his anger. He shared Newsmax links and threatened to shoot someone in the head. Another pastor at the church gave a sermon about turning to prayer during the crisis, rather than weapons and ammunition. According to the FBI, Sparks was the first to enter the Capitol through a smashed window on January 6. In his case, the preaching didn’t take.

When church and QAnon worldviews are in conflict, the consequences aren’t always that dramatic, of course, but can still cause fissures within congregations.

Bruce Hitchcock, the district superintendent of the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, works in Steubenville, Ohio, a region that was blanketed in Trump flags and Gadsden flags last fall. Hitchcock has seen conspiratorial thinking wrapped up in discussions of masking and pandemic safety at UMC churches, but not necessarily citing Q prophecies specifically. There were issues around the election and attempted insurrection, Hitchcock notes: “Q is not the presenting issue but is often at the bottom of conflict.”

For Christians, QAnon was a moral call to action among a community of like-minded people. It was a cause, a Holy War, something to do.

One church in his conference nearly destroyed itself over a debate about masking. First members said Covid was no big deal, just a cold. Hitchcock recounts how they said things such as “the president says we don’t have to do this. Stand up for our freedom.” Pre-pandemic, that church would draw 40 to 45 people. Then the pastor agreed to hold services without masks. After about a month, half the congregation was no longer attending. After many months the pastor asked why and found many of those who’d quit attending had high-risk family members. The general sentiment was “What’s wrong with you people? You claim to love Jesus and love your neighbor but you can’t wear a mask for 45 minutes to keep from killing someone in my family?” The pastor reconsidered and instituted masking. Those who had left came back, but the anti-maskers quit. Now, “attendance is under 20,” says Hitchcock, “because they fought this battle with rhetoric that was so extreme.”

Most churches in his conference seem to have found a way to remain civil; but for a few like the one he described, he isn’t sure they will survive. “They have destroyed their congregation. To me, it’s stunning that rather than listening to Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount and his talk about loving, not only your neighbor but also your enemy… it seems like the pandemic and all this QAnon conspiracy theory stuff has made people forget who we are.”

Even within mainline denominations, believers now have access to self-made YouTube prophets who reinforce connections between faith and conspiracy; there are memes aplenty to justify beliefs about a Covid hoax. Derek Kubilus finds that in “the wider Christian world, you definitely see this nebulous sort of prophetic imagination that has these very loose edges that people tap into.”

Another Ohio minister I spoke to who works at a large evangelical church and asked to remain anonymous says it’s hard to know anymore which beliefs come from Q and which ones elsewhere on the internet. Church members and leaders claimed Covid would go away after the November election; members shared the “Plandemic” video on social media; some folks shared an invitation to an “election integrity” prayer event.

The minister described counseling a church member who believed “we’re all being lied to about masks.” He took the position that no matter what any members believe individually, together the church would err on the side of safety and caution and insist upon masks and socially distanced seating. (The member seemed to understand but also quit attending. Seeing the masks was too much of a reminder of the “pervasive evil force” lying to all of us.) The minister sees a blurring of fact and conspiracy, distrust of media, and selective latching onto words from authorities they trust. On Sunday mornings he finds himself thrown by questionable comments he isn’t sure how to refute in real time. Via social media, his theology is second-guessed by people sharing links to YouTube preachers.

The minister wants to engage in real dialogue, not confirmation bias. “I certainly don’t jump right in. I probably would have been fired by now, because I have very strong views about Christian nationalism,” he says. He is there trying to understand the core drivers making people vulnerable to conspiracy. He strives to understand their fears. He himself is worried some will become so submersed in QAnon ideas it will suffocate them. “Will they be able to come up for air?”

More on conspiracy theories and crises of faith

The pandemic and political uncertainty have shaken the foundations of belief for many. How do we move forward?

Sarah Stankorb is a contributor to GEN. Other works in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O, and The Atlantic. @sarahstankorb www.sarahstankorb.com

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