The Solo Pastor: Rebel Rousing

This is my final entry in the “Fruitful Solo Pastor” series.  Over the past several weeks, I’ve listed a variety of skills, traits, and qualities that are characteristic of fruitful solo pastors.  While most – probably all – can be applicable to pastors who serve on staffs with other pastors, I’ve tried looking through my particular lens as a solo pastor.  The list was never intended to be exhaustive, so I wonder what other traits and skill-sets you would suggest?  Feel free to contribute in the comments section below, but for today we will look at the final trait: holy discontent or, aka, rebel rousing.

One of the most formative books I’ve ever read was G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.  His poetic prose and audacious surety stirred within me new possibilities and gave me a new language with which to speak.  With chapter titles like “The Maniac,” “The Ethics of Elfland,” and “The Eternal Revolution,” Chesterton’s avant-garde approach to traditional orthodoxy made the Christian faith interesting to me again.  Moreover, when “I had heard that I was in the wrong place…my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.”  I think there is a trait, an internal understanding, a Christian imagination within fruitful solo pastors that understands this is the “wrong” place – that the way things aren’t the way they are supposed to be – and that realization fosters within them a holy discontent.  Fruitful solo pastors see the world vis a vis the light of heaven.  They have seen glimpses of the new earth and rebel against this one in order to bring about the new.

A couple weeks ago I alluded to Greg Jones and Kavin Rowe’s concept of Traditioned Innovation.  Such an understanding holds to the past, while also acknowledging – in the words of ESPN’s Ron “Jaws” Jaworski – “We have too many historians in this world; I’m looking for pioneers.”    But innovation for innovation’s sake is not being faithful to the Christian tradition.  Rather, true Christian innovation is birthed and shaped by our living tradition.  Our tradition as Christians, in fact, demand and necessitate innovation.

The Testaments of scripture are replete with examples of innovation, shaped and informed by the past, as God continually works in new, different, and particular ways.

I think solo pastors, especially the fruitful ones, really get this – and they strive to make the churches they serve understand it as well.

Too many of our United Methodist small-membership churches are treading in their 1968 bath waters and have changed far too little.  Sadly their “tradition” can too frequently be confined to their nostalgic re-membering of their own histories.  What good it would do to remind them of the book of Acts, for example, and how early Christians strove to tell the “old, old story” in new, fresh, and particular ways.  And what good it would do to be reminded that this “old, old story” isn’t primarily about us, our desires, or how we want worship to be.  These realizations, at least according to the testimony of Acts, are not easy or neat.  They are combative and disruptive.  They are messy.  They are costly.  ButThey are faithful to the God who wants “all to be saved” through the Good News of Jesus.

There is something naturally rebellious about the Christian message.  It is subversive, while being transformative.  It is adventurous, unending, and relentlessly enduring.  It loves us exactly the way we are, but way too much to let us stay that way.

Fruitful ministries are grown from the Vine of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  This God knows no limits to His grace, mercy, and love.

“Once [we] have seen Him in a stable, [we] can never be sure where He will appear or to what lengths He will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation He will descend in His wild pursuit of [you and me].”  Frederick Buechner’s The Hungering Dark.

God tenaciously goes after the world in humiliating and self-deprecating ways, all because God so deeply and profoundly loves us.  God doesn’t the world to be as it is, but on a mission to “make all things new.”

Fruitful solo pastors just seem to get this.  And everything they do is bent toward joining up and participating with God.


The Solo Pastor: A Player-Coach Approach

I learned something new preparing for this post: Bill Russell served as player-coach of the Boston Celtics from 1966-1969.  While working in this duel-capacity, Russell led the Celtics to championship seasons in ’66,’68, and ’69!

It’s incredibly difficult to win, let alone while working as both player and coach.  I think, in ministry at least, winning, fruitful solo pastors are ones who become such teammates.  At the very least, as I introduced nearly one month ago, fruitful solo pastors need to be tenacious equipment managers.  We’ll talk about these approaches more in depth, but first a couple of stories.

In college, I had a professor we called “Coach.”  Coach was a ministry professor who had spent his career serving as a local church pastor, in denomination-wide positions, and as a professor.  One student, in particular, saw him as a coach – one who taught the fundamentals of ministry, challenged his ‘players’ to be better, and coached them up for The Big Leagues when they graduated.  It proved to be an apt comparison and the name stuck.  Coach was particularly influential in my life.  I took about every course he taught and, after I graduated and stuck around working for the university, we would meet weekly for coffee.  I have countless napkins with notes scribbled down from the wisdom and coaching he shared with me.  Coach believed in me, challenged me, encouraged me, and celebrated with me.  He embodied what a good coach looks like, and showed me what it means to “give your life away” for the sake of Jesus.

The second story, or person rather, is about my friend Eric.  Eric was an “All-State Manager” in high school – having been a manager in football, basketball, and baseball.  I didn’t even know there was such an honor, but even state all-star games need managers I learned.  Eric was a tenacious equipment manager.  He passionately went about his job equipping players and coaches with the necessary items they needed to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.  Shoes, pads, towels, water bottles, clip boards, coaches’ chairs, whatever the item, Eric knew where it was and when it needed to be given.  Eric tenaciously, tirelessly, doggedly, passionately equipped players to do their jobs.

A fruitful solo pastor can learn a lot from Coach and Eric.  Like Coach, fruitful solo pastors invest their lives in coaching others up.  They believe in people, because God believes in them.  Just like Jesus, they accept people as they are, but are not content to let them stay that way.  Fruitful solo pastors coach congregants up by teaching them the fundamentals of the faith, and then continue coaching them from the sideless as the ‘players’ put what they’ve learned into daily practice.  A fruitful solo pastor works hard to make complex knowledge and schemes accessible in ways that every player can understand.  And the other thing about good coaches/pastors, is that they never stop learning and pushing themselves to grow.

Just as fruitful solo pastors can learn from Coach, they can also learn from Eric.  Eric made the games easier for the players and coaches because he made sure they had everything the needed to succeed.  Fruitful pastors work to do the same for their parishioners, volunteers, and co-workers.  What does your Sunday school teacher need in order to do his/her job best?  New paint?  A white-board to replace that old, stained chalkboard?  What about your worship director/musician(s)?  Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek, talked about this in his book Courageous Leadership.  Very early on in the church’s life, the music director needed a piano in order to do their job better.  They had the talent, but their equipment was faulty.  Hybels made getting a new piano one of his top priorities, and it paid off.  The music was better, worship was more inviting, people connected to God in new ways, and his teammate was succeeding.  Equipment managers know this and ascribe to the axiom: everyone does better when everyone does better.  Who can you help ‘do better,’ fruitful pastor?

Finally, I threw in additional twist to what I suggested last month.  I added the Bill Russell factor: fruitful solo pastors are equipment managers, coaches, and players.  Fruitful solo pastors are teammates.  I think this one is especially true for solo pastors, at least those pastors who are serving smaller-membership churches.  In larger membership congregations, pastors can operate more as coaches and equipment managers, but in smaller congregations they must be teammates of the ones they serve – in their churches and communities.  These sorts of pastors are fruitful because their communities know they are loved and cared for.  They care about what their equipment-manager coaches/pastors know because they know how much their player-coach-pastor cares about them – not just the mission, not just the establishment, not just about their own visions, but about them.  Player-Coach Pastors are different and set apart from the team, but not entirely.  They get on the court with them, make a few mistakes themselves, and yet still find ways to get everyone on the same page striving toward a shared goal.

Being a Player-Coach or at least a Tenacious Equipment Manager is not easy.  But it can be an incredibly fruitful approach to ministry.

The Solo Pastor and Emilio Estevez

Do you remember the Mighty Duck franchise?  I used to love those movies and all of their 1990s glory: the racial and economic tensions between the District 5 hockey team (later called The Mighty Ducks) and Gordon Bombay’s childhood team, The Hawks, in D1; the patriotism that blossomed in my heart when Team USA came back to beat Wolf “the Dentist” Stansson’s Iceland team; and then the third one which rightfully ended the franchise because it was nearly as bad as Turtles in Time.

The point?  Fruitful solo pastors share something in common with Emilio Estevez’s character, Gordon Bombay: they both know how to create a team.  A few weeks ago, I said it like this: fruitful pastors have the ability and desire to create systems of support.

When I began my first appointment, I was terribly lonely – professionally and personally.  My wife and I had just left a city, culture, and people that we loved.  We moved to a new town and back to a conference where I had too few connections, to work at a church where I was the only pastor.  I don’t think people realize how difficult that is, probably because it is so ‘regular’ – that’s par for the United Methodist course.  We are predominately small-membership churches where pastors come and go; that’s just how it is.

While that may be true, it doesn’t make it any easier.  One look at a maladjusted PK (pastor’s kid) is enough to show just how hard it is to leave relationships and try to form new ones, especially with people who already have their own circles of relationships.  Moreover, being a solo pastor is made all the more difficult because much of our weeks are spent alone.  It’s easy to become a “Lone Ranger Pastor” – as many people warned against me becoming when I first started serving here – in a system that seems to be bent toward creating such clergypersons.

But that’s where a fruitful solo pastor differs: a fruitful solo pastor is intentional and purposeful about creating teams of support.

Such teams get you out of an isolating office and into community.  Creating teams of support push back against a Lone Ranger Mentality and invites accountability.  The desire and ability create these connections are vital for fruitful ministry and fruitful living.  We are meant to live in community – extroverts and introverts alike.

This takes time, however.  And it should be strategic.  Here are a few thoughts to consider when creating your teams:

Know your District Superintendent.  And make sure they know you, too.  I am speaking from within the United Methodist system.  I have found my building relationship with the DS to be extremely fruitful.  She prays for me, speaks candidly with me, challenges me, and helps connect me with fellow clergy in our district.  I am also thankful that she knows me, my family, and that I can trust her.  I know not everyone enjoys such a relationship, but the fruitful solo pastor strives to create as healthy of one as possible.  And if you are not United Methodist, who would be the “DS” in your situation?

Seek out a mentor…or two, or three.  I was very fortunate to have a tremendous pastor serve at my current appointment before me.  JW works full-time for an organization in Indianapolis and served this church part-time prior to my arrival.  JW is an incredibly gifted and skilled individual who also generously offered to mentor me.  JW always leaves it up to me, however, to schedule our meetings.  I have learned much from his mentorship, but also recognized there are others I needed to learn from.  Each person has their own particular strengths and skill-sets.  What wonderful opportunities to learn from their wisdom gleaned from years of successes and failures!  A fruitful solo pastor knows how important and life-giving it is to have someone mentor them.

Meet regularly with a clinically-trained psychologist.  Counseling still carries with it a largely negative stigma.  Thankfully, however, that cloud is being dispersed with the nation’s wider understanding of how beneficial it is to talk with someone who listens to you and can serve as a sounding board.  I remember hearing a pastor I greatly respect talk in one sermon, so disarmingly normal, about how he regularly meets with a therapist.  This was the pastor of a mega church.  I am thankful people can ‘mentor’ me even though we’ve never met.  It wasn’t long after hearing him speak that I saw my first therapist, and I am so glad I’ve made it a regular practice of mine.

Befriend local colleagues.  Fruitful Solo Pastors do not have colleagues in their churches to brainstorm with, vent to, nor colleagues with whom they can share responsibilities.  Befriending local colleagues, however, can subsidize that empty piece.  A college professor of mine used to call these types of relationships “Drinking Buddies” – people you can go have a drink with (Mt. Dew, Bell’s Oberon, whatever’s your fancy) and vent, dream, cry, and laugh with.  The fruitful solo pastor needs local colleagues who can resonate with what they’re experiencing.

Find a spiritual director.  I was recently challenged, by my DS in fact, to find a spiritual director.  Fruitful solo pastors are people who put forth a lot of energy in tending to the flock entrusted to their care.  But who is feeding the pastor?  Spiritual Directors are persons trained to do just that.  Fruitful solo pastors make their own spiritual development a top priority.

Mentor someone else – intentionally and purposefully.  Fruitful solo pastors know it isn’t just about them.   People are created for community, remember?  This is another lesson Coach Bombay reminds us of: leadership isn’t done in a vacuum.  Coaches can’t coach if they don’t have players.  Just as you can’t water a garden with an empty pail, a full pail sitting on the window sill doesn’t do the vegetables any good either.  Leaders lead others.  Fruitful solo pastors know this and, therefore, are just as intentional about investing in others’ lives as they are about ensuring they are being invested into.  This is one way fruitful solo pastors live into Christ’s teachings: to love others as we love ourselves.  It’s a both/and, not an either/or.

That’s a lot to think about this Advent season.  Maybe the better thing to do would be to pray about such relationships as 2014 closes and 2015 begins.  Use these suggestions as fuel gauges in your Christian life.  Are there areas that are full?  Are there others that need filled up?  What other types of relationships and teammates do you think are needed in order to have a fruitful ministry and life?