The Challenges Every Pastor Faces

Editors’ Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken’s first installment, “A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry.” This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 86 to 149 of Gilead. See also:


One of Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary accomplishments in Gilead is to establish, as a woman, a plausible narrative voice for a man. Further, as a layperson, she manages to capture with remarkable authenticity the interior life of a man who serves in pastoral ministry.

The Reverend Ames is honest about the challenges of ministry, familiar to any pastor. He complains about church meetings (“just a few people came, and absolutely nothing was accomplished”). He confesses how hard it is to love his sheep (“After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it”).

At the same time, Ames knows that his parishioners treat him differently, giving him more respect than he deserves—a “kindly imagining” that is hard for him to disillusion. He also laments the relentless approach of next week’s sermon (“it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night. You just finish preparing for one week and it’s already the next week”).

The Difference a Minister Makes

With these inevitable challenges come many opportunities for personal ministry. The same people who suddenly change the subject when they see the minister coming, Ames says, will “come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things”—the dread, the guilt, and the loneliness that lie under the surface of life.

In each pastoral encounter, Ames has sought to discern what the Lord is asking of him “in this moment, in this situation.” Even if he has to deal with someone who is difficult, that person is “an emissary sent from the Lord,” who affords him “the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me.”

Over the course of a lifetime in ministry, addressing a wide range of spiritual needs, the Reverend Ames has learned that trying to prove the existence of God is an ineffective strategy for dealing with spiritual doubt. “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense,” he believes. In fact, “the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it” because “there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.”

He has also learned how to answer the questions that people have thought about the torment of hell, which he believes the Bible characterizes primarily as separation from God: “If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.”

Ames has also learned the value of friendship for ministry. He is blessed to have Robert Boughton as his oldest, dearest friend and closest colleague in ministry. Having grown up together in Gilead, the two men now serve as pastors of the town’s leading churches. They do not work in isolation, but share ideas, discuss their sermons, and pray for one another’s families.

For reflection or discussion: What are the hardest challenges you face as you serve God in the church? What are the most important lessons that you have learned about ministry—the first lessons you would pass along to someone who is just starting out? What are the most common questions that people ask about God? How have you learned to answer them, or not to answer them? What patterns of relationship and accountability support your ministry? What relationships do you still need to put into place?

  • Richard Cook

    My first comment is that I would like of copy of the comments made in response to this article. I’d like to hear other pastor’s thoughts, not just my own.
    The challenge is to be honest in answering the questions posed and not just give the answers that are “expected.” I am on a quest to be more honest in my own assessments as I “make every effort…to be holy” (Heb. 12:14). I don’t enjoy writing, but will attempt it here. Though brief I hope the answers will suffice for this short post.
    – Hardest Challenge – Dealing with my own sinfulness when I’m suppose to be helping others.
    – Most Important Lesson to Pass On – Be ABSOLUTELY certain that this is what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t guess.
    – Most Common Question – Though they never word it this way, “Will you justify my actions or beliefs?” To which I answer, “No!” More often than not people want to justify themselves rather than take a good look at themselves in the mirror of God’s word.
    – Relationships – My wife is my greatest partner in accountability; I have a mentoring relationship with a leader of our denomination; I have an accountable relationship with the elders of our church, even over detailed daily use of my computer; I am mentoring at least one other new pastor.
    – What Relationships still need to be put into place? – Good question. I want to “make every effort” so I could use some suggestions for this (and other areas) where I don’t know what I lack or what the next step should be.
    Great questions.