The Solo Shepherd

By guest blogger, Pastor Louis Prontnicki, Copyright 2018
Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church

If you are the pastor of a small church and the only person working in the building, it’s likely that you are the de facto church secretary, custodian, administrator, purchasing agent, IT specialist, activities coordinator, and missions and evangelism director, as well as the preacher, counselor, disciple-maker, worship leader and global awareness specialist! I know this is not what Paul meant when he said he was “All things to all people,” but a solo pastor often feels that unless he* does something at the church, nothing will get done. The story is told of a solo pastor who would regularly go to the train station and watch the trains pull in and out of the station. When asked why he did this, the pastor replied that he enjoyed seeing something move that he didn’t have to push himself.

While every pastor will face similar challenges, the shepherd of a smaller congregation (often the only paid person on staff) will struggle with some unique difficulties. I want to examine the distinctive problems that a solo shepherd faces and provide Biblical and practical helps.

The Struggles

It is easy for the hard-working solo shepherd to become discouraged, resentful, and worn out. He puts in 15 or 20 hours every week studying God’s Word and preparing thoughtful and pastoral sermons, and then sometimes half of his already small congregation is missing on Sunday morning. Those who do show up, even if they are fed by the sermon, usually give little encouraging feedback. He looks at larger churches just down the road with multi-staff teams and hundreds of people flocking and feels discouraged by how little influence he’s having in his parish. He feels that he has to be a jack-of-all-trades pastor, doing most everything for most everyone – or else it won’t get done in the church – and so he feels inadequate and spread far too thin. He sees new people visit on a Sunday morning, never to return, for his congregation can’t offer the extensive programs that the larger churches can. It’s possible that this solo shepherd slowly thinks of himself as a divine dictator: “Well, if no one else is going to help, then I’ll carry the church on my shoulders and make the decisions for it!” Though he works as hard as the next pastor, his pay and benefits are barely adequate for his family’s needs, and it is unlikely that he will get the opportunity for a sabbatical or for obtaining a doctorate of ministry degree. The life and ministry of a solo shepherd can be wearisome and defeating.

The Real Savior

In the summer before I graduated from seminary, I was pastoring a small church with elderly people. As I got up to preach at the evening service, I observed that all seven attendees were sleeping. I considered taking off my shoe and banging it on the pulpit to wake them up, but at that point the Spirit of God challenged me: “Are you preaching for your own satisfaction, or for God’s glory?”  Serving as a solo shepherd can often be the means by which the Lord exposes our deepest heart motives, and makes us wrestle with why we are pastoring in the first place.   I sometimes reflect that if God had made me the pastor of a large and successful congregation, I might have been filled with pride and tempted to think that I was the driving force behind such success! Pastoring a smaller flock is one way the Lord humbles me, reminding me that like our Savior, I have been called to serve others and not myself or my reputation (Mark 10:43-45). Another biblical principle that the Lord has been teaching me as a solo shepherd is that regardless of the feedback I may or may not receive from my flock, I myself desperately need to be nurtured and challenged by the Scriptures I am studying. Paul commands Timothy to train himself in godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16), and to do his best to present himself to God as one who is approved in how he handles God’s Word (2 Tim. 2:15). So I have come to realize that first and foremost, I need to be awed and fed by God’s Word before I worry about whether my sermons are impressive to my people.

The Lord is teaching me through being a solo shepherd that I am not the savior of the church. By looking to Jesus Christ as my joy and reward, I can more easily be, as the hymn writer puts it, “Content to fill a little space, if Thou be glorified.”

Some Suggestions

Many pastors today stay at their churches for 20 or 30 years, so it’s best to think long-range, even as a solo shepherd. Here are some suggestions to help you run the race.

First, you can help prevent burnout by asking God to make you a more balanced person and pastor. For example, look for a ministry outside of your church where you can use some of the gifts and experiences that you may not find an outlet for inside the four walls of your church. I have found teaching ESL to internationals, serving on school boards, and working with a ministry that helps single moms out of generational poverty to be enriching. If you are married, make sure you grow and deepen that relationship, not only to honor the Lord and to care for your spouse, but to give you a much needed anchor and a fresh perspective on your life and ministry. Lynn, my wife of 42 years, knows me better than any other person, and she continually provides encouragement, nudging, prayer and teamwork when I would otherwise feel defeated or angry.

Second, try to be a continual learner, not only in Biblical studies, but in other areas as well. The temptation will be to think that there’s too much to do every week at the church for you to take time for continuing education. But in the long run, you can’t afford to neglect such enrichment. Take an adult evening class at your local high school. Sit in on a course at a local seminary or Bible college (sometime offered for free to pastors). Be an avid reader of good books, especially history, biography, and cultural analysis. Now that our five sons are adults, I finally have time to read more, taking full advantage of the local public library.

Third, another way to stay balanced and strong for the long haul as a solo shepherd is to develop and maintain godly and practical disciplines. Having such structure and good habits will act as guard rails to keep you from going off the pastoral path and will sustain you when you grow weary. For example, for the last 45 years I have either jogged or biked three times per week. Now that I am 65 I continue to do so out of habit, and I know that God has used those times of physical stretching to clear my mind and renew my strength. Another example is having hobbies and avocations which both provide outside interests and enhance one’s ministry. I have grown a vegetable garden for the last 26 years, and not only do I find pleasure in this activity, but it has also allowed me to share vegetables with my flock and to find helpful sermon illustrations!  Other examples include doing genealogical research for my own family and for many others, coaching a boy’s basketball team, and hosting neighborhood get-togethers twice a year.

Fourth, let me say a word about your relationship with your church leadership and  leaders in other churches. You need them both. Put in the time and effort to develop at least a good working relationship with as many of the elders or deacons as you can. They will help you from developing an Elijah complex “I have had enough, Lord…I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:4, 10). Look for a prayer partnership with one other solo shepherd in your area, someone who can identify with your struggles. I have met regularly with another pastor for sharing and prayer for about 25 years, and it has been a lifeline for both of us in times of trouble and discouragement.

Fifth, make sure to love the flock over which God has made you shepherd. If you are a solo shepherd, chances are your congregation is small enough so that you can see who is present and absent each time you come to the pulpit to preach. And therefore they will be missed, and you will probably call them and be concerned for them. They appreciate you as their pastor, as the one who cares for them, prays specifically for them, visits them, and knows the names of their children, grandchildren, and their dog! While you might not receive many cards from them during the official Pastors’ Appreciation Month, they really do love you. You are like the Great Shepherd to them, calling them by name and laying down your life for them. (John 10). What a privilege!

Senior Perspective

When I turned 60, I finally preached the sermon I had been waiting to give: “God works in decades and centuries.” At that point I had been the solo shepherd of our congregation for 23 years, and today I have been involved with the same church for over 43 years. Though I have seen many people come and go, experienced a church split, and wondered if the church was going to survive, I can now look back and see the hand of God working through four decades. There have been people we had to discipline who came back years later and told me that they repented, thanking me and the church for the steps we took! I have seen God take our experiences of campus ministry, urban work, cross-cultural missions, pro-life activism, foster care, and radical hospitality and use them to shape me and my wife, so that our later years of life and ministry are more productive and deeper than the earlier decades were.

In the lean and hard years of ministry at this church, I often prayed, “Lord, would you move me somewhere else? Would you put me in a church where I don’t have to do everything, and where I can have more influence? (for your glory, of course!)” The Lord answered those prayers with a “No.” In His wise and gracious providence, he kept me as the solo shepherd of a small congregation. Lately – out of desperation at our situation – our church decided to have regular days of prayer and fasting, casting ourselves at His mercy. Guess what happened? Within a short time 15 new people started coming to our church, which is big for a church of 30 or 40 people! God has used those people to stir us to new giving, fresh service, deeper caring, and a greater global awareness! And as the solo shepherd, I stand in amazement and gratitude at what the Great Shepherd of the flock is doing in us and through us!

In conclusion, I urge you not to despair. Don’t leave your church or drop out of the ministry, unless the Lord gives you no other option and the Holy Spirit gives you peace about it. As a solo shepherd you will grow in ways you might never have otherwise.  Be faithful so that one day the Lord will say to you, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”

*As we at ServingLeaders read this article, we realized that it is written from the perspective that assumes the pastor is a man. We recognize -- and care deeply for -- the fact that there are differing views regarding women in ministry leadership. And although we all come to this issue with our own denominational backgrounds and personal convictions, we want to state that at ServingLeaders our greatest concern is care for the ministry leader, woman or man, regardless of whether they hold complimentary or egalitarian positions. This article represents one person’s tradition and conviction, but we are publishing it because of what it communicates for any ministry leader, female or male.