the shape of leadership

How to Lead a Church Alone

Review of ‘The Solo Pastor’ by Gary L. McIntosh

George P Wood on February 2, 2023


Solo pastors, whether full- or part-time, lead 56% of American churches, according to the 2015 National Congregations Study by Duke University researchers.

Leading a church alone presents obvious challenges, as well as unexpected opportunities. Gary L. McIntosh examines both in his new book, The Solo Pastor. He presents his material in four parts.

Part 1 identifies the challenges of solo pastoring, the relational character of solo-pastor churches, and the nature of leadership in those churches.

An important insight emerges: “The key ingredient in the solo-pastor church is love.” Why? Because the relational dynamics in solo-pastor churches differ from multi-staff churches.

Solo-pastor churches are like families, McIntosh writes, where the primary values are “love, care, and acceptance.” Church members are “born, adopted, or married into” such churches. And they are motivated by “safety, security, and peace.”

The Solo Pastor fills a hole in the literature of church leadership.

By contrast, multi-staff churches are like armies that value “loyalty, commitment, and risk.” People voluntarily enlist in those churches in response to the compelling vision of the lead pastor.

Trying to lead a solo-pastor church like an army is thus a recipe for failure. One has to lead it like a family. Relationship is the key to successfully leading solo-pastor churches.

Part 2 outlines the best ways to relate to church members in solo-pastor churches.

A key insight here is the importance of trust. McIntosh writes, “The trouble is that pastors think organizationally about the church before thinking relationally. A good rule to remember is this: whenever you hit resistance, strengthen the relationship before bringing in reinforcements.”

Building relationships is not a passive form of leadership, however. It does not mean doing whatever church members ask you to do. McIntosh calls this “pastor fetch.” Nor does it mean backing down in the face of bullies. Those are dysfunctional forms of relationship that solo pastors need to resist.

Part 3 focuses on three aspects of small-church leadership: communication, both verbal and nonverbal; vision and direction; and resource management.

Because relationships are so important in solo-pastor churches, this observation by McIntosh is worth highlighting: “Solo pastors must move away from thinking they have to make all the decisions and create a collective alliance with board members. Purposeful relationships truly signal leadership maturity in the solo pastor.”

Finally, Part 4 emphasizes the importance of “spiritual, emotional, and physical balance” in a solo pastor’s life. To achieve this balance, pastors must “set priorities” for their work. If they don’t, others will. They also need to “conquer fear” and “redeem stress.”

“Investing in your own health will reduce loneliness and stress while creating the opportunity to lead a healthier church,” McIntosh writes.

The Solo Pastor fills a hole in the literature of church leadership. Books about church leadership are often written by pastors of multi-staff churches, or they assume readers lead such churches. They rarely address the concrete situations of solo pastors, who lead smaller congregations with different social dynamics than larger ones.

These practical realities come to the fore in McIntosh’s book. He begins each chapter with a conversation between a new solo pastor and a mature one about problems solo pastors face. (The characters are fictional, but the problems are real.) Each chapter ends with three questions and two ideas. Readers who journal their way through these sections will develop a better sense of what they need to do to pastor their congregations more effectively.

I recommend McIntosh’s book to all solo pastors, especially those at the start of their ministries in smaller churches.

Denominational officials, Bible college professors, and ministry coaches also will benefit from reading the book. The insights McIntosh offers will help them target their advice to the needs of solo pastors they are leading and training.


Book Reviewed

Gary L. McIntosh, The Solo Pastor: Understanding and Overcoming the Challenges of Leading a Church Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2023).

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