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Climbing Solo: The Dangers of Being a Solo Pastor

Being a solo pastor is a bit like free-climbing. The way forward is hard and often risky. The personal sacrifices and stress on one’s family are difficult for many people to understand.

Last week I watched one of the most nerve-racking movies I have ever seen – Free Solo. In this documentary, Alex Honnold attempts to free-climb Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, a famous 900-meter vertical rock face (see picture above). Free-climbing is climbing without the use of ropes or other assistance. The only thing holding Alex to the surface are the strength and skill of his own body. As the drone photography showed shots of Alex hundreds of feet in the air, I was alternately amazed by his bravery and appalled at the unnecessary risk he was taking. His girlfriend couldn’t watch; she was overcome by the fear of losing him. Alex would say he had to do this. His internal drive, made it impossible to avoid. The mountain called to him, and his love of climbing said, “Yes!”

Being a solo pastor is a bit like free-climbing. The way forward is hard and often risky. The personal sacrifices and stress on one’s family are difficult for many people to understand. We have to do this. We are called to it. Something inside drives us forward. Love compels us to shepherd the sheep.

Maybe you think I’m being overdramatic. “Being a solo pastor can’t be that hard,” you might say. But Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs for a reason. When the apostle Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, he took along people to help him. Jesus and Paul recognized the dangers of solo ministry. Ministry is supposed to be teamwork. If your pastor is flying solo, it’s important that you know these dangers too.

Small Congregation

Solo pastors are almost always in small congregations. A church needs an average weekly attendance of 76 people for each full-time staff member. Half of the churches in America have a weekly attendance of less than 75. Most churches are small and they have solo pastors. There are some struggles unique to small churches – not enough money, limited and aging facilities, and not enough volunteers. So the solo pastor often takes on more than one person can possibly do. Pastors do a lot!

Overwhelming Expectations

In addition to the extreme pressure pastors put on themselves, churches often have overwhelming expectations of their pastor. Thom Rainer writes, “Clearly a pastor will sense the tension of so many factors competing for the limited hours in a week. And clearly no one can ever humanly meet all those expectations.” A pastor often feels pressured to be a preacher, a teacher, a counselor, a shepherd, an evangelist, a leader, an administrator, a CEO, a financial expert, a janitor, a holy person, and a human being. A large church can staff for some of these roles. In a small church, the pastor has fewer people to delegate to, so people expect him to do it all alone (not to mention the unseen things that many pastors do).

Overworked Volunteers

When a small church tries to have a big ministry, everyone suffers. Most small churches don’t have enough people to effectively run nursery, children’s ministry, youth ministry, small groups, adult studies, men’s groups, women’s groups, and a dynamic worship service. So all these ministries end up being mediocre at best. Running a mediocre ministry is draining to leaders. They are continually frustrated and never have enough (money, resources, space, people, etc.). A healthy, simple church would ask volunteers to maximize their gifts and say no to the other things. Small churches usually don’t realize that they are hurting themselves by trying to do everything. In most small churches volunteers end up doing several roles. Overworked volunteers usually become burned out, depressed, cranky, or leave the church altogether. Many times the pastor is the one who is the object of their frustration.

Things Left Undone

No one can do it all, so some things are left undone. When this happens, those are the things that people will criticize. Often small church pastors end up sacrificing the things that no one sees in order to do the visible things. Prayer, personal Bible study, exercise, self-care, and sermon preparation – the most important aspects of a pastors job – get minimized so that the pastor can avoid criticism. This people-pleasing pastor is filled with guilt and shame because they are not superhuman. Does your pastor have the freedom to say no to less important things?

Hidden Power Structures

A recent article in Christianity Today described a common reality in many small churches:

“Closer observation revealed that the real meeting began after the adjournment of the official meeting. It was there the same people, with coffee in hand, would weigh the matters introduced in the formal meeting, and by consensus, either validate the decisions of the formal meeting, or overrule them. His congregation considered the official meeting a polite concession to their pastor.”

Loneliness or Isolation

Just look at the term “solo pastor” – doesn’t it sound lonely? Loneliness and isolation are two of the most common problems among pastors.

It’s Hard to Find Practical Help

Karl Vaters became frustrated looking for help as a small church pastor. Everything was written from the perspective of a large church, and most of that didn’t apply to a smaller congregation. He says it’s hard to find help when pastoring a smaller church:
“If so many churches are even smaller than the small church I was pastoring, why did I have to search so hard to find them? Why weren’t these principles front-and-center in every seminary, church leadership conference, and book?
Then I got mad. After one particular “aha” discovery, I found myself yelling at an empty room, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this?!”

Family Pressures

The stress of solo ministry can take a toll on a pastor’s family. When the pastor faces criticism, betrayal, or anger from someone in the congregation, who can he talk to? There are no colleagues at his church. So his spouse often hears of the struggles. In some ways, it hurts her more than it hurts him. Joel McKeever says, “The pastor’s wife can be hurt in a hundred ways—through attacks on her husband, her children, herself. Her pain is magnified by one great reality: She cannot fight back.” Not to mention how it affects the pastor’s children to hear the mean things people say about their dad. If the pastor isn’t careful, ministry in a solo church will drive his family away from the church.

There are many more dangers for solo pastors. If you are a solo pastor, what dangers have you seen? Leave a comment, I’d love to learn from you. In my next post, I’ll help you create a safety net for your ministry.

(M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet, and freelance book editor. Together, they have one son.

7 comments on “Climbing Solo: The Dangers of Being a Solo Pastor

  1. Pingback: Safety Net for Solo Pastors — The Pastor's Soul

  2. Becky Brinks

    Excellent article – very well written. It is sure to help others and hopefully generate some conversation.

  3. I enjoyed this article. While not a pastor, I have served on church boards for many years and understand the stressors of being a solo pastor, especially in a small church. It’s a great reminder to us as members to support our pastors and be sensitive to their needs and struggles. They need our support and encouragement.

    • Thanks, John! You’re right pastors need the support and encouragement of their church just as much as the church needs them. This site is all about helping people like you care for their pastor. Please, spread the word.

  4. This year in a counseling session my amazing counsellor had a vision of me 10 feet from the top of this exact place with fingers dug in, toes cramping, and sweat pouring off my face and body. A solo pastor for 16 years led to many of the issues listed above and I appreciate you posting this. Blessings!

    • We’re climbing together! Thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds like your counselor has great insight. Are there other dangers you faced along the way? I’m sure we could make this list much longer.

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