Solo Pastorates Are More Challenging Than Ever

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In a conversation with and old friend, discussing the challenges of solo pastorate churches… Years ago, before the advent of the mega-church or the corporate church, I seem to remember seminarians being placed in small pastorates, Solo pastorate churches in established communities.  I was newly saved or not saved yet, so did not understand the dynamics of ministry and expectation.

Perhaps expectations were lower then.  Perhaps the propensity of member or attenders to spectate, rather than participate were lower.  Perhaps we had more common cultural norms and value systems.  I don’t know but I think the challenges of the solo pastorate church were less then.

When I reflect on it now, the challenges of a small urban or suburban congregation are many, and as a much older person, I struggle to imagine a recent seminary graduate having the capacity to lead in this situation without burning himself out.

Here are things that have changed over the last 30-40 years that have made this more (rather than less) challenging:

1) Creation or expansion of the spectator mentality within the evangelical church.

In the older Christian denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc) this pattern has been established.  Coming to faith in the evangelical community, I always understood that my participation in the mission was more than just showing up for worship service on Sunday.  Larger churches can afford for people to “bounce off” – to come and not deeply connect into the community, to not get involved in the activity of ministering to others.  Smaller congregations exist in a more “all hands on deck” mode.  It is more essential for smaller congregations to convert larger percentages of attenders to active roles to support ministry programs that appear to be table stakes.  At the same time, our worship culture, prone to church shop/hop and perennial spectating, make people resistant to this form of deeper participation.  Solo pastors are often tempted to bend the mission inward to the congregation to retain spectators at the expense of deepening connection through discipleship or tempted to bend the outbound mission to appeal to the comfort of the church rather than the needs of the surrounding community.

2) Increased expectation of worship as “show” rather than “do”.

As the Evangelical church in America has tried to become more open to “seekers”, and to offer something that doesn’t feel like the church you grew up in, the invitational model of evangelism they supported made the church more of a show, than a intimate worship experience.  While I am not saying that during the show, people don’t experience intimate communion with God.  I am saying that some of us never get past the show.  For smaller congregations with solo pastors, producing this “show” becomes problematic, even infeasible.

3) Invasion of consumer mindset into Christianity in the U.S.

Being completely candid about our current state, there is no doubt that (even mature) believers looking for a new church are looking for their needs to be met, rather than looking for what ministry they can help with.  There are certain “table stakes” ministry programming, that if you don’t have it, people simply won’t stay.  Most of the time, this revolves around Kids Ministry and some form of adult community, but people definitely try on churches like a garment to see if they like how they look and feel.

4) Advent of “Christian Media” and the mainstreaming of Christian Culture via emulation of popular culture.

While I like to listen to “Christian Contemporary” music and Christian talk radio or ministry programming, I realize that this invites a broader range of diversity my Christian experience, and in some ways it feeds into the consumer mindset.  In very real ways, these ministry outlets are competing for our time and resources with our own local church.  Even more, while these ministries and artists and performers can be a tremendous encouragement to our faith at times, they also can become almost idol-ish – displacing the local church in the function of the Bride of Christ with a shallower form of faith, completely absent of appropriate accountability relationships.  Solo pastors must compete on the same stage as Erwin Lutzer, Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll and others.  Worship must compete with Hillsong and other very talented artists producing and performing worship music.

5) Migration away from “Sunday School” to small groups as a community model.

Adult Sunday School as a model for community within a congregation is definitely in full decline.  Yet it occurs to me that it bears significant advantage over the replacement “small group” model up to a certain scale.  It offers a consistent, visible (in the facility) community to new attenders.  It can support a higher leader to student ratio, so requires smaller number of volunteers to staff.  It is extremely easy to organize – literally needing only qualified teachers to run.  From a solo pastorate perspective, it is absolutely the right model.  It is not, however, aligned with outreach – and it runs out of “scale” when you run out of “building” – so it has it’s limitations.  A small group ministry that is not essentially Sunday School, off campus, on alternate schedule is much more involved, as groups form, deform and reform all requiring some administrative oversight.

There are also some things that have not changed:

1) Solo pastors wear more hats.

Preacher, counselor, administrator are the essential roles.  No solo pastor can evade these for long, or without consequence.  Often worship director, evangelist, kids minister, program director duties are also absorbed by a solo pastor.  Many solo pastors are tentmakers (bivocational), working outside the church as well, especially in plants or starts.  With that roster of duties, it is difficult to envision a person who is competent let alone excellent across the range, so some aspects of ministry become a struggle.  While this has not changed, a number of new duties have emerged:  website designer, media coordinator, or stage manager.  Solo pastors understand that God provides resources, gifts and talents to meet spiritual and physical needs in ways that are beyond our comprehension.

2) Solo pastors rely on lay leadership.

Those roles that a pastor cannot execute can often be delegated to lay persons (volunteers) within the congregation, but that then requires the solo pastor to be a supervisor, coordinator, manager, director – organizing the activities of those people.  God blesses each congregation with gifts given to individuals (not just staff) to bless His body.  However, those gifts often come in packages that are full of opinion and ideas that aren’t easy to harmonize.  Many solo pastors end up feeling that (or acting like) it is better for them to do everything themselves than to rely on others to get things done.  I can clearly see why this happens.

3) Smaller congregations tend to become dynastic more frequently.

Smaller congregations often fall under the influence of strong willed board members, or families of great will or influence.  A dynasty can be tremendously beneficial, for a generation, but sometimes pride interferes with service, and the dynastic leadership either tries to hang on to past accomplishments or once successful methods – resisting needed change and allowing the body to decline.  When a solo pastor sets himself against the dynastic leadership, discord and conflict abound and drama ensues.  I have been in churches where either the pastor or the dynastic leader has been “cast out”, or have separated from the body.  In either case, a split frequently follows as factions have aligned with either leader and follow them as they separate.

4) Smaller congregations are more subject to individual contributors.

Sometimes it all comes down to money and pride.  A wealthy member, can carry a church financially, but if he/she is slighted, or feels unappreciated, there can be all manner of problems.  Small churches are more susceptible to this form influence or tragedy.  Solo pastors have to be conscious of both the influence of these members, and of the appearance of partiality when feeding this beast.  Many wealthy church members are extremely humble, and even reject positions of influence because of the appearance of impropriety.  However, any time the financial solvency of a church relies on a single contributor – especially when the contribution is as significant as the solo pastors salary, there can be challenges.

5) Smaller congregations are more likely to get “stuck”.

There are many reasons for this.  This can happen because we lack resources, talents, or ideas.  It can also happen because of the graying of the congregation, and the lack of new members.  It can happen because the solo pastor does not have much of a support system outside the congregation.  I think most often it is a combination of friction and inertia.  Change causes friction (people don’t always agree on how to change, and sometimes become resistant to change) , and it takes energy to overcome the inertia (a body at rest tends to remain at rest) of our current state.  The combination of friction and inertia, can prove too much for a solo pastor to overcome.

6) Sectarian “Bias” prevents ecumenical collaboration.

Congregations, even smaller ones, especially those in decline, want to control their own destiny.  It is hard to collaborate with other churches nearby to meet common needs, or to reach the community – because we feel our denominational convictions too strongly.  Why can’t Baptists and Reformed and Lutherans work together?  Why can’t three small congregations form a partnership to reach a community – why do we have to do it alone.  I think the answer often is that each congregation wants to retain its identity and to control its destiny.  Fear of being consumed by another larger congregation or of losing membership to another organization is mostly what prevents us from finding the common ground required to sponsor or participate in interdenominational or ecumenical collaboration.

If you are a member or attender of a solo pastor church, please pray for your pastor.  He needs that more than anything.  If you are a solo pastor, know that I am praying for you.  I have no solutions, nor are all of these problems.  I am simply recording my observations and opinions.  I used to think that small churches and solo pastorates were a suitable training ground.  Now I have a different opinion.  Solo pastoring is a difficult challenge, not for the faint-hearted.

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