Solo Pastors in The 21st Century Church

My denomination defines “solo pastor” as one who does not supervise other blue_solo_cuppastors on a church staff.  He/she might supervise organists, educators, office administrators and sextons, but – at least according to the PCUSA – he/she is not a “Senior Pastor” or “Head of Staff.”  In other words, a solo sings alone.

Increasingly, there are more and more “solo pastors.”  (Attention Multi-Pastor Congregations:  this might be your future.)

According to 2012 PCUSA statistics:

  • About 3100 congregations have less than 50 members
  • About 2400 congregations have 50-100 members
  • About 2200 congregations have 100-200 members

Of all those congregations with 200 members or less:

  • About 3200 of the churches have an installed (‘permanent’) pastor
  • About 2600 of the churches have a temporary pastor (temporary supply, stated supply, interim, supply preacher)
  • Almost 2000 of the churches have no pastor at all (so they rely on guest preachers each Sunday and a neighboring pastor moderates their Board of Elders)

In other words, there are quite a few solo pastors out there, and as several congregations are downsizing their staffs due to financial issues, the numbers of solo pastors will increase in the coming years.

There are many congregations in rural areas without pastors, I believe, because while the work of a solo pastor is similar in both rural and not-so-rural areas of the country, the rural pastor has no place to “get away” and refresh where he/she can be anonymous and truly free, unlike the pastor who can head to the other side of town and have a cup of coffee without running into a parishioner who wants to chat.  (Long sentence, but agonizingly true.)

I’ve been a solo pastor in both a small rural church and a medium-sized suburban church, and I can tell you that – in addition to preaching (every Sunday), teaching Bible studies/confirmation/new members classes, supervising paid and volunteer staff, writing liturgy, moderating Session, administrating, recruiting/training leaders, leading youth group, offering premarital, prebaptism, & general counseling, and assisting strangers who come through the doors in need of rent/food/gasoline/social services – my tasks also occasionally included:

  • turning on the heat/AC
  • locking/unlocking doors
  • vacuuming floors
  • taking out trash/recycling
  • typing bulletins
  • copying & folding bulletins
  • dealing with plumbers/roofers/electricians
  • catching vermin (ask me about Possum Protective Services)
  • filling the baptism water pitcher and setting up communion

Obviously, most of those tasks are done on an emergency basis only, and other paid/volunteer church staff perform those tasks.  But my point is that A Solo Pastor works very hard.  I would argue that it’s harder to be a solo pastor than a multi-pastoral staff pastor, if for no other reason than loneliness.

I remember visiting Riverside Church in NYC during my haven’t-learned-to-delegate years just after ordination, and my life was changed forever when I noticed that one team of volunteers unlocked doors, and another team welcoming worshippers, and another team passed out bulletins.  I almost burst into tears.  I usually did every one of those things on a given Sunday – plus the other stuff.

It was quite possible to have a life and be a solo pastor in the 1950s church because:

  • There were scores of women who “didn’t work” during the day and they happily volunteered to do everything from running the Sunday School to organizing mission projects.
  • There was less counseling and working with transients because people kept their addiction/abuse/mental health/relationship issues to themselves.  (In towns where everyone was related to everyone else, you didn’t dare share your problems with anyone but family.)
  • There were fewer program expectations.
  • The culture was homogeneous and already “churchy.”  We didn’t have to translate Western Church World to guests who had never been taught the language.

Unlike the work load for a 1950s solo pastor, the work load for a 21st Century solo pastor is not sustainable.  Especially for pastors of small churches who – contractually – work only 10 or 20 hours a week, they are most likely getting paid for only half the work they do.  It’s impossible to write a sermon, lead worship, prepare for and officiate at a funeral or wedding, lead a Bible study, and answer phone calls/emails in 20 hours, much less 10.

I saw a job description for a “PT Interim Pastor” recently that included 30 pastoral duties expected of the pastor each week.  Impossible.

In spite of the dreadful way this all sounds, I see this phenomenon of Lots of Work/Too Little Time to be Good News.  We are forced to be not only a different church in the 21st Century; we are forced to be more like the First Century Church.

According to scripture, the pastor’s task is to equip others for ministry. (Ephesians 4:11-12)  This is quite time-consuming in and of itself, so it involves a huge culture shift.  But what if . . .

  • The solo pastor took a season to spend more time teaching others to pray out loud, write & deliver homilies, offer basic pastoral care than doing these tasks herself/himself?  (Call your Presbytery or a consultant for help with this.)
  • The solo pastor relinquished traditional preaching once/month to allow a different kind of sermon?  (Examples: an elder shares a snippet of her faith story or a community leader (police officer, guidance counselor) shares what he does all week?  This informs the congregation of possible needs in the community. Invite the music leaders to lead in singing songs that speak to a particular theological doctrine)?
  • The solo pastor connected with other pastors (not currently serving congregations) to take on – for a season – the confirmation class or a Bible study or training the Deacons or  . . .?

Yes, all these ideas are also labor intensive, but we have got to let go of some of our solo-pastor tasks.  And – ATTENTION PARISHIONERS – we must allow our pastors to relinquish many of the tasks we have previously expected of them.

Let. Them. Go.

Let the tasks go that we’ve taken on which do not need to happen (or if they are necessary, someone else will pick them up.)  Let the people go who have unreasonable expectations of their pastor.  Let our own pastoral addictions to perfection go.

The future church will have more solo pastors and more PT/bivocational pastors.  And the shift begins now (or yesterday.)

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12 responses to “Solo Pastors in The 21st Century Church

  1. For many of the reasons you list above, I am leaving the lonely and underpaid solo ministry behind to pursue a career that will allow me to make enough to support family and also give me a chance to do some bivocational ministry that will demand more from a congregation simply due to time constraints.

  2. virginiahollis

    wtg! needed to hear this.

  3. Thank you! I wonder how many parishioners will read this and get it? I’m no prophet, but I agree – the current model for church life is unsustainable – For all the super-well-articulated reasons you list! And this is coming from a solo pastor of a church membership of around 280…….

  4. Excellent recipe for burnout unless one is very careful. I learned that the hard way and am still licking my wounds in retirement.

  5. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  6. I’m currently a two-point solo pastor in a Urban/suburban context. I don’t discount the point you’re making. But you make it sound like the people in these congregations expect and demand this of solo pastors. I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s incumbent on leadership to empower people to take ownership. And that means letting things fail. Pastors suck at that. And they also suck as asking for help.

    We too often mistake all this and think we’re leading by saying, “I’m not doing that.” But it comes across as lazy and selfish, especially to people who work full-time jobs, and work hard. I grew up in a rural farming town; we had a pastor that did it just that way, and that’s how it came across.

    As a solo pastor, and one who’s bi/multi-vocational at that, I ask for help a lot. And I usually get positive responses. And when I don’t, things fail and a conversation starts….which is where growth happens.

  7. Reblogged this on Found Gospel and commented:
    An interesting read – what do you all think? What would it look like if I spent less time fishing, and more time teaching y’all to fish?

  8. What a great reminder for congregations to step in and relieve the pastor of some of these duties instead of leaving him to “fly solo”…

  9. Forever, it seems, Black pastors generally flew solo. To this day In PCUSA, you can almost count the number of “Senior Pastors” on one hand. No need to fear in the future. We will be glad to offer our experience as coaches.

  10. Sunday Etsekhume

    Solo pastors worked tirelessly, but I believe that if the pastors are able to share responsibilty or delegate authority, the work may be lighten. However, the elders, deacons, trustee and others must be willing to volunteer their services. I also believe that the urban church may be different in operation compare to the rural church.

  11. I will pray for Confort Habila

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