John Ames did not have the kind of ministry pastors dream of. He gave his life to serve a church with a building not worth repairing in an ailing Iowa town he conceded was probably beyond hope. And for it all, he was repaid in heartache and rejection.

That is to say, Ames, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s masterful novel Gilead, was in many ways a typical pastor.

Arguably the most stinging rejection of Ames’s career came at the hands of his father, also a minister, whose Congregationalist church Ames took over at a young age when his parents retired to the warmth of the Gulf Coast. They returned only twice.

On one visit, Ames invited his father to step back into the pulpit and preach a guest sermon. His father declined, leaving us to conclude he had deserted his faith altogether. “I have become aware that we here lived within the limits of notions that were very old and even very local,” father told son. “I want you to understand that you do not have to be loyal to them.”

Feeling belittled and abandoned by the central role model of his life, Ames said, “It was as if a great cold wind swept over me the like of which I had never felt before, and that wind blew for years and years.” The wind eventually did quiet. And in the end, Ames shrugged it off, declaring that all his father accomplished “was to make me homesick for a place I never left.”

If only that kind of healing were assured. In reporting for this month’s cover story about clergy and the Big Quit, Kyle Rohane heard from pastors across the country who have felt similar betrayals. People whose children they baptized told them they didn’t believe anything anymore, or told them they’d found ...

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