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?

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