Leading Solo

As Told to Jessica Hanewinckel

With 40 years of church consulting experience under his belt as president of the Church Growth Network, Gary McIntosh understands the role of the solo pastor. Solo pastors play an important part in the church today, though they’re primarily a fixture in smaller churches. The needs and demands they experience are unique, but McIntosh—who once was a solo pastor himself for nearly a decade early in his ministry—gets it. And via training and teaching, he has helped guide these pastors toward a healthier leadership life and toward growing, thriving churches. 

A distinguished affiliate professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, McIntosh is the author of several books, including his latest, The Solo Pastor: Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges of Leading a Church Alone (Baker Books). Here, he shares some of what he’s learned after decades of shepherding leaders who shepherd their churches alone. 

Solo pastors make up much more of the church leadership landscape than we realize. They’re just not as visible as megachurch pastors, so they fly under the radar.

Yes. The larger megachurches get most of the press, so that creates the impression that most churches are large and led by multiple pastors. The reality is, according to one study, at least 54% of churches are actually led by a solo pastor. In general, most solo pastors are leading smaller churches. And I think in our financial landscape today, at least in larger cities, a church has to be somewhere between 125–150 people in worship attendance in order to financially afford a full-time pastor. To afford two full-time pastors means you need to be at least over 200, maybe 250 in attendance. So smaller churches tend to have a single pastor. Many of those churches can’t afford to even pay that single pastor a full-time living wage with benefits, so many solo pastors are bivocational. They’re working a secular job and leading the church on the side. Thom Rainer estimates there are over 1 million bivocational ministers today, and the number is growing. Now having said that, some solo pastors are actually pastoring larger churches, maybe 400, 600, 800 in attendance. That can work if you have a lot of volunteers. 

As churches have grown larger over the past several decades, has the role of the solo pastor changed at all?

What has really changed for the solo pastor, with the growth and the visibility of the larger churches, and with the growth of technology too, is increased expectations. In an era when anybody can go on their phone or their computer or their TV and watch some of the best preachers in the world, people carry that expectation to their church. But a solo pastor most likely doesn’t have the time to put into developing their sermon to be as clean and as exciting as a full-time pastor of a larger church does. A larger church typically has a lead pastor or maybe a preaching team, and they have protection of their time through secretaries and other staff that allows them to have the luxury of really preparing for a message. A solo pastor doesn’t have that. However, the solo pastor still has that expectation from their people.

What’s a solo pastor to do with those expectations?

You have to be very clear in your own gifts and calling. And I think you have to realize you can only do so much. Part of that is leading yourself—managing your time, making sure you work with a calendar and keep your priorities and your focus as clear as possible. It’s difficult in a solo pastor church to say no to people, but you have to face the fact that you can’t do it all and to discern the most important priorities and focus on those.

Solo pastors must, by the nature of their roles, serve in areas where they are personally weak or aren’t as passionate. Isn’t that problematic and counterproductive for a healthy, growing church?

You’re right. Solo pastors get pulled into many different aspects of ministry. You may have a pastor who is good at evangelizing but has trouble balancing their own checkbook, yet is pulled into the financial workings of the church. As a solo pastor, you have to focus on the mission of the church and look for other people in the church who can help you in those areas. Pull them in, and use their gifting and talents. Now, if you have people in your church who volunteer three or more hours a week, you need to treat those people as your staff. So bring them in and meet, dream and plan with them. 

What does leadership look like in the context of a solo pastor’s role—both the reality of it and the ideal?

The reality is, many solo pastors do not lead the church. That is, they do not seek to create a vision for the future or develop plans and goals to work toward. They’re just too busy. Preaching and taking care of people use up all their time, so a lot of solo pastors just don’t have the space in their life to sit down and dream and strategize about the future and develop some plans and goals. They need to create some space in their life where they can have three to five hours a week to do all that. 

When I was a solo pastor, every Tuesday morning I went to the local library and basically hid out for three to four hours just to get some space to dream and plan for the church and think about the needs and concerns of the community.

How should a solo pastor frame the needs of the church to both nurture its members and reach out to others? Those seem a bit conflicting.

It’s easy for most solo-pastored churches to become inward-focused, typically focused just on survival. Thus, the church doesn’t think enough about outreach in the community. The solo pastor has to help turn the people’s eyes toward the community and how the church might effectively reach out to unchurched people there. You do that by focusing on how you can improve the current ministry first. Then you help your people look outward. What are the needs in the community that we as a church might be able to meet? The pastor has to help them see that there’s hope for their church, but that hope lies in reaching new people and developing new ministries. They may not have the resources of larger churches, but I think they can do one new thing this year, and then do one new thing next year. You just gradually notch up the church so it’s slowly doing more ministries that are effectively reaching the community.

How do you balance a big vision like that with the limited resources of a smaller church?

You have to be strategic. Instead of focusing on winning the whole city, focus on winning your neighborhood or on adopting one elementary school and ministering to the teachers there. Focus on just one thing. Within your limited resources you can do something. I think it all starts with prayer and the church asking God, What do you want us to do in the community? What ministry should we start, and where should we focus on outreach? We ask God to show us, and low and behold he does, because we are actively seeking to reach out.

Any advice when it comes to handling comparison with other pastors or churches that are bigger or appear more “successful”?

Comparison is a problem, and I think that’s why a lot of solo pastors feel discouraged. They’re able to see these larger ministries, and they compare their own churches to them. First of all, be confident in your own call to ministry. God has called you to the place where you are, he has a reason for you to be there and a ministry for you to accomplish. 

Second, focus on your identity in Jesus Christ, that you’re a child of the King, of the Son of God, and he has no small ministries. He’s put you there to make a difference in that particular place. I’ve found that what keeps most pastors going is the assurance that God has called them to this particular place for this particular time in their life in ministry. If they’re sure of their call and they’re sure of their identity in Jesus Christ, then they can weather the fact that they’re in a smaller church and not in one of these larger ministries. 

Third, focus on what you need to do. God has put those other pastors in those larger churches, and they are not intentionally trying to make you feel bad; they’re just following whatever God has done in their life and their ministry. We have to resist that urge to compare ourselves and to be faithful and as fruitful as we can be in the place he has put us.

Any encouragement or words of wisdom you’d like to leave pastors with, whether solo or those larger-church pastors seeking to better understand their solo pastor counterparts?

To a solo pastor: Leave the church better than you found it. You may not be able to do everything you want to do because you are a solo pastor, but focus on improving the church, and one day when you leave, look back and be able to say, I moved that church forward a little bit, and I left the church better than I found it. If you have two options of reaching out in the community, go for the one that is the boldest. Try and do something that really will connect and make a difference in the life of the church.

To pastors of larger churches: I would encourage you to reach out to some of the solo pastors in your community. Maybe take them out for coffee and be available as a listening friend, as someone who can encourage them, as a sounding board. Most solo pastors really have no one they can talk to. So if pastors of larger churches seek to, they can minister to many solo pastors in their community. Where I live, there was a pastor of a megachurch who ministered to pastors of smaller churches, and most of them were solo pastors. He took it on himself to call them, to invite them to lunch, and he had eight or 10 pastors who would show up once a month. He would just encourage them and love them and listen to them. It was a safe place for them to talk. I think a lot of times, pastors of larger churches are so busy themselves that they don’t think about that, but it’s something they could do. It makes a difference, because those pastors feel supported, and that allows them to go back to their churches with a little more of an encouraging spirit. They’ve gained better perspective, and a sense of hope, which they then communicate to their people.

Gary L. McIntosh (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is president of the Church Growth Network and professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Talbot School of Theology. He leads seminaries and has written dozens of books, including “The Solo Pastor,” “Biblical Church Growth,” “Beyond the First Visit,” and “Taking Your Church to the Next Level.”