The Legend of the Lone Pastor
Clearly history testifies that certain men have risen and, as the Lord called for, stood "in the gap before Me" in pastoral ministry (Ezek. 22:30). Jonah was sent alone into the heart of the great city of Ninevah to preach a message of repentance. Titus was apparently left by himself for a period of time by the Apostle Paul on the Isle of Crete to organize the developing churches there. The famous nineteenth century missionary John G. Paton went solo to the New Hebrides Islands among cannibals (though his pregnant wife was with him, she died at childbirth and their son died soon afterward). Other examples can be cited. So, yes, there are legendary evangelists, missionaries, and pastors who have seemingly gone it alone and had the Lord bless their ministries.
However, I believe that the Lone Pastor is the exception rather than the rule. A man going it alone in ministry is to be the stuff of legends rather than the Biblical model. I hear or even know of too many men struggling and even failing in ministry. One commonality among them is they were having to go it alone. I think congregations, church planting ministries, and mission boards need to reassess the common ministry paradigm of the singular pastorate.
Did not even the Lone Ranger have Tonto?
For is not the common Biblical paradigm for ministry pairs and teams of men to go into fields and serve there? Jesus sent the seventy out in pairs (Luke 10:1). As intentional mission work began in the early church of Antioch, the Lord said clearly, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them" (Acts 13:2-3). Then when Paul and Barnabas had a dispute on the outset of the second missionary journey, they did not go out solo but both men took other men with them (Acts 15:36-41). As missions and church planting grew, Paul traveled with a team of men (Acts 20:4-5). When Paul wrote the pastors and churches, clearly pastors like Timothy had others serving with him (2 Tim. 4:19) and other pastors were sent to help those ministering in a city (1 Cor. 16:10-18). The Biblical paradigm appears to be that the New Testament churches were accustomed to having more than one man ministering in their midst at any given time, even when apparently one man had the primary pastoral charge such as Timothy at Ephesus.
Yes, the vast majority of pastors do have those who stand with them in ministry. Most preachers have wives that serve along side them and encourage them tremendously. More directly, certainly a pastor desperately needs ruling elders who help shepherd the flock and lift his hands, making sure he is not all alone in the ministry. Most ministers can point to faithful lay people who are dear friends who sacrifice readily for the sake of the church. All of these are undeniably precious gifts to the pastor. What I am about to say should not be read as diminishing their vital importance whatsoever.
Yet because of the unique burden ministry is, men need fellow co-laborers working with them in pastoral ministry. The souls of the congregation are dependent upon a pastor's faithful feeding of the flock week-by-week, year-by-year. The pastor carries around a 24/7 sense of responsibility for their spiritual care in an unseen yet real way. Such things as the inevitable church conflicts, sense of failure in reaching hardhearted people, the larger target on his back as a spiritual role model, the shame over his own sins and shortcomings, and complaints about the ministry can wear on the psyche of a pastor. Without ministerial companionship, accountability, and shared labor, a man can break under the pressure. Is he really meant to bear the office of pastor alone?
I do not think so. Consider the following ways men do not have to serve alone in the ministry.
The trend toward seeing congregations have multiple pastors without necessarily being a megachurch is an encouraging one (I enjoyed this arrangement for a considerable period of time as a pastor). Yet that is not the only solution.
A pastor having a close mentor nearby can be a fruitful way to share the ministry (that was my lifeline in my early days of church planting).
A retired minister spending a season with a congregation who offers prayer, encouragement, counsel, and lifts the preaching load occasionally is a wonderful gift to a pastor (I also benefited greatly from this resource).
Having interns join in the ministry for a period of time, though a lot of work for the pastor in overseeing them, can give a real sense of joy and help as they grow in sharing the ministry (I was blessed to have a number of men serve with me in this way).
A man with ministry experience who is earning a further degree or working in a different capacity for a time while attending a church can bless the pastor in significant ways (again, I received this gift as well during my tenure as a pastor).
Note those five parenthetical comments above. I speak from experience as well as Biblical conviction. I am not ashamed to say that I would not have made it through twenty-two years of church planting and pastoral ministry without the Lord providing these men He knew I needed to walk with me in pastoral ministry. For I know readily that I am a common man, one who has had impressed upon him not just a common truth but a Biblical one. "Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor" (Eccl. 4:9).
Yes, it is possible for a man to serve faithfully by himself for a long time in a congregation. He is a legend in his own right, even if unknown by the world or church history books. Yet what is possible is not always most profitable. So as you assess your pastor, your church planter, or your missionary, please consider this one question among others. Are we asking him to be a legend, or may it be that he needs some help in this work that we have called him to do?