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.


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