Leading from the second chair

second-chair1Leading from the second chair: Serving your church, fulfilling your, and realizing your dreams by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson is a book I used to recommended to my associate staff. Now that I’m one of them I figured I should look at it more carefully!

A second chair leader is a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the organization. (p2) They exercise leadership that is not based on the power and authority of a position. Their effectiveness has more to do with influence and relationships. You don’t have to be the number two person to be a second chair leader. Anyone who is not the lead leader can fall into this category.

Leading from the second chair involves three paradoxes: the subordinate/leader paradox; the deep/wide paradox; and the contentment/dreaming paradox. This is the work environment for the second chair leader. They need to focus on how they manage their relationships (subordinate/leader), their work habits (deep/wide), and their emotions (contentment/dreaming).

Most organisations, churches included, have lots more second chair leaders than first chair leaders. They need to be equipped, supported, and allowed to exercise leadership. A lot of second chairs see their current position as a stepping stone towards becoming the first chair. This book is not about how to get promoted. It’s about growing and contributing to the organisation from the second chair.

Determining whether you are a second chair leader is not so much about your title (eg. associate pastor) but your influence. Regardless of your title or position, your influence will grow as you build strong relationships and make wise decisions for the good of the organisation. It can take longer to achieve this influence when you don’t occupy the first chair. It requires patience, persistence, and consistency. It takes commitment to teamwork and cooperation. It requires to to be committed to the whole of the organisation and not just your particular focus of responsibility.


Effectiveness in the second chair is greatly impacted by the quality of relationship with the first chair.

If the relationship is healthy, most second chairs find a sense of freedom and fulfillment in their job, irrespective of the responsibilities assigned to them. But if ongoing tension or detachment characterizes the relationship, it is difficult to feel successful, even while the organization is flourishing. (p27)

The second chair is required to be subordinate. They must accept that they are not the overall leader. They don’t have the final authority or the ultimate responsibility. This requires genuine humility and gladness. It grows out of reverence for God, understanding that God is the ultimate authority. They must remain loyal to the first chair even when things are difficult. They need to be committed to supporting the first chair in his work.

The big test of subordination comes when the first chair does disagrees with the second chair’s advice , criticises the second chair’s actions, or gives a role to someone else that the second chair expected would be theirs. What happens then? There are three options:

  1. Fight: you openly disagree and directly challenge your first chair.
  2. Flight: you walk away wounded and feel like giving up.
  3. Stay involved without confrontation: you accept the decision for what it is but stay engaged in the discussion and accept the first chair’s final decision, whatever it may be. (p33)

Relationship is absolutely critical. The right relationship is more important than the right answer. This can be difficult for a second chair who often has more information available than the first chair. It doesn’t mean you don’t state your views, but relationship must trump getting your own way. The more the relationship grows the more the second chair is likely to influence the decisions being made.

Trust is the foundation for an effective partnership between first and second chair leaders. This requires faithful service and patience over a long period of time. Mutual respect, complementary skills, and common vision and passion are important. As trust builds so does communication, morale and teamwork across the organisation. A warning for first chair leaders: micromanagement is one of the best ways of damaging trust.

Inevitably conflict will arise. It might be caused by personal clashes, unresolved issues from the past, or different visions. Sometimes the second chair crosses over an invisible line. They might be seen as overstepping authority or being insubordinate. It may simply be a matter of taking initiative that is not appreciated by the leader. It’s important to recognise that a line exists. It outlines responsibility and authority and is more than what’s written in a job description. Sometimes the line can be moved, but it takes time and trust before this can happen. If the second chair is in doubt as to where a line is, they are wise to seek clarification. Better to ask, than to appear insubordinate. Sometimes it will happen accidentally, in which case a prompt apology might be all that’s needed.

Work habits

The truth is that adding value throughout the organization is not a function of position; it is a matter of perspective. (p71)

Some second chair leaders love the big picture and get lost in the details. Others are experts in their particular area but have trouble seeing how it relates to the whole. Second chair leaders need to be both deep and wide. They need to develop their systems thinking, to see the interrelationships rather than isolated parts. Systems thinking helps them to grasp that a change in one place creates a ripple effect throughout the organisation. For example, hiring a new kids and youth pastor results in more families coming to church, which means we need more growth groups for parents, which means we need to equip more leaders, and so on. To think systems means asking lots of ‘why’ and ‘what if. questions. It means thinking logically down the line. Know the people, the problems, and the opportunities. The most effective second chair leaders develop a deep/wide perspective that enables them to be effective in their particular area of responsibility and to add value to the whole organization.

Too many second chair leaders think they require formal authority before they can truly have an impact on their organisation. We need to remember that leadership is influence, and if we can’t lead through influence then we shouldn’t be given more authority. Second chairs not only need a healthy relationship with their first chair, they also need to build strong, trust-based relationships with their peers. Effective teams are very important. Such teams are collaborative, mutually dependent, and typically operate by consensus. They can take months or even years to develop working well, but once they do it is good news for the organisation. Roles in teams need to be clear, otherwise people can end up defining their own jobs and having expectations of others that may not be accurate or fair. This requires good communication. Everyone needs to be on the same page.

Being deep and wide requires the second chair to be a generalist, as well as as well as a specialist. There are four practices that can make people deeper and wider as a leader:

Be a pulse taker
Stay in touch with what others are thinking and feeling. Keep your finger on the pulse of the organisation. Often the senior pastor has the worst seat in the house when it comes to pulse taking! Many people just won’t tell him what they’re really thinking. Helping the first chair to stay informed and in touch is very helpful.

Be a vision amplifier
The first chair is the primary vision caster, but the second chair leader can repeat, clarify, and reinforce the vision. In taking the pulse, you also have an opportunity to influence the pulse. In talking with people you can help them to understand the vision.

Be a leader multiplier
Recruiting leaders to the vision should be an ongoing priority. As you amplify the vision, you will discover people who are on board and have leadership potential. We need to make a priority of growing and developing leaders.

Be a gap filler
Many second chair end up filling gaps when suitable leaders can’t be found. They should be prepared to do this. Gap filling can be a function of the first chair’s strengths and weaknesses. If the second chairs fills these gaps it can lead to a stronger and more effective organisation.

A note to first chairs: if you really want your second chairs to be deep and wide, you need to allow them to participate in the big picture. This is more than going to a meeting; it’s involving them in shaping the picture. That means not being a control freak!


The contentment/dreaming paradox captures our internal struggles as leaders. It’s not always easy to serve faithfully and diligently wherever we are. We need to learn to be content.

Contentment in the second chair is your choice to stay and grow and excel, for a season, regardless of current circumstances. (p124)

The most important part of this definition is that contentment is a choice. Contentment is possible if we choose to recognise that something more is always at work, beyond our needs, expectations, and frustrations. Contentment is difficult when society is always telling us that we should be on the lookout for the next opportunity, a better prospect, and that we shouldn’t stay in one place too long. This is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, we need God’s grace to offset and overcome our impatience. We should remember that our identity is found in Christ, not our title or role. Contentment can be encouraged through developing healthy relationships. Celebrating the fruit of our ministry helps us to see how we’re making a difference. Patience is an important character trait to develop. It’s easy to get frustrated when things don’t happen as fast as we want them to, or the way we want them to. But patience is a choice! Don’t imagine that leaving our current ministry situation will solve all the problems we are having in the second chair. The grass isn’t actually always greener somewhere else.

Second chair leaders often think they’re not allowed to dream big dreams. Just as we must pursue contentment, the paradox is that we should also pursue our dreams. It’s good to dream, but we need to check our egos at the door. We mustn’t be arrogant or overconfident. We should always remember that ministry leadership is about serving others.

It can be good to dream with your first chair. It’s not easy, but neither should it be impossible. A first chair’s dream for the organisation is often big and broad, but may not answer all the how questions. The second chair has plenty of room to pursue their vision, so long as it’s in step with the general direction of the first chair. Look for opportunities where our passion and gifts intersects with the first chair’s overall vision.

Moving on

Most second chair leaders leave their positions eventually, but not all leave well. Some leave because they want to take a first chair role, others take a new second chair position, and others retire. Leaving well is important for you and the organisation. It’s helpful to be honest and clear with yourself and others about why you are leaving.

In terms of leaving, you need to think carefully about whether you should move on, and if so whether it’s the right time for you and the organisation. Some people leave too soon and others hang on too long. Sometimes leaving isn’t your choice. You may be asked to move on. This isn’t easy. Whether voluntary or not, the challenge is to leave well. Try to maintain a good relationship with your first chair and others on your team, even if you feel you’ve been treated badly. Don’t badmouth or undermine the first chair or the organisation. It will probably come back to haunt you. Don’t burn your bridges. Seek to leave with the good will of the first chair and the organisation, and offer your good will also.

A very useful book

Leading from the second chair is a unique and important contribution to the literature on leadership. Most books are addressed to the first chair leader, the senior pastor, or the CEO. There seems to be very little written specifically for the team members and subordinate leaders. There is much to be learned about working well with others in this book.

I only half read this book when I was a working as a senior pastor, but I should have given it my full attention. There are specific sections for the first chair to assist them to develop and encourage their second chair leaders. In fact, much of what is written is directly applicable to first chairs also. It’s helpful to be reminded that real leadership is more a matter of influence than positional authority. I recommend senior pastors read this book before they add staff to their teams. If you are about to make your first associate pastor appointment, then consider these ideas very carefully. It could make the difference between a frustrated colleague who moves on quickly, and a long term associate with whom you share some exceptional teamwork.

One thought on “Leading from the second chair”

  1. Hi Leanne, Not sure if you subscribe so if not I’ve forwarded this one to you. There have been some really good articles on leadership but this one you may find useful. Cheers Judith

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