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.

Pastoral care in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeHaving been professionally trained as a social worker, I made the assumption for many years that pastoral care was the term for social work in the church. It was about visiting the sick, providing for the poor, counselling the messed up, befriending the lonely, caring for the needy, and helping people with their problems. This was the stuff pastors should do. Preachers preached, but pastors took care of people’s social, relational, physical, emotional (and sometimes spiritual) needs. That’s what I thought and, to be honest, I think most Christians I knew would have agreed with me. The trouble was that I’d never examined the Scriptures on the topic. We need to look at God’s definition of pastoral care, and allow his Word to shape our pastoral priorities.

As we consider the role of growth groups in the life of a church, we’ve identified pastoral care as a priority for groups. But what does this mean? What expectations should we have of the groups and their leaders? What will it look like for a group to take pastoral care seriously? Well, we need to be clear on how the Bible describes pastoral care. Pastoral care in the church and growth groups must be shaped by God’s plans as revealed in the Bible. What is the emphasis of pastoral care in the Bible?

God – the Shepherd

The word pastor comes from Latin word for shepherdPastoral ministry is the ministry of shepherding God’s people. It’s a leadership picture that uses the image of the shepherd to describe the roles and responsibilities of those who lead God’s people. It’s an idea that starts with God himself. God is the Shepherd and he leads his sheep where he wants them to go. Arguably the most famous description of this comes from Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

In this Psalm the Shepherd leads, guides, feeds, comforts and protects his sheep. The Shepherd ensures the eternal security of his sheep.

The image of the shepherd is also applied to Israel’s leaders. They are to lead, guide, feed, comfort and protect the people by teaching and living out the Word of God among them. They fail dismally on this front. Instead of watching over the sheep, they feed on the sheep and destroy them. God holds the leaders accountable for this, and declares that he, himself, will replace these oppressive shepherds. God will act to save his sheep and provide for them.

7  Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.  (Ezekiel 34:7-11)

God specifically promised to send one special shepherd. This new shepherd will be the Messiah in the line of David and he will rule over and care for God’s people.

23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.  (Ezekiel 34:23-24)

This remains the hope for God’s people throughout the Old Testament, and it’s not until the New Testament that we meet the one promised by God.

The Good Shepherd

Jesus fulfils God’s promises made through Ezekiel. He is the Davidic Messiah, the Good Shepherd who will rescue the sheep. He will not only gather in the lost sheep of Israel, but also people from all nations and he will unite them together under him. The amazing thing about this Shepherd is that instead of slaughtering the sheep, as Israel’s leaders had been doing, he allows himself to be slaughtered in their place. To mix the metaphors, the shepherd becomes the sacrificial lamb.

14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 

God’s plan in saving and caring for his sheep extends from Jesus to others who will lead under Jesus’ authority. Jesus as shepherd remains the model to follow.


The book of Acts introduces us to the beginnings of Christian pastoral ministry. As the gospel spreads and churches begin to grow, leaders are put in place to oversee the congregations. The Apostle Paul spent three years pastoring the church in Ephesus, and he uses the image of the shepherd/pastor when encouraging the Ephesian elders to continue his work. The church is precious to God. It’s purchased with his blood. It belongs to him. Pastoral care of God’s own flock is very important. Knowing this, Paul urges the Ephesian elders to teach God’s word of grace, so as to see the church growing into maturity, standing firm against false teaching, and persevering into eternity. This is to be their pastoral care. Paul had devoted himself to this responsibility and he now calls the elders to do likewise.

28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32 ‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

With the spread of the gospel and the establishment of churches, people are regularly being equipped and appointed to oversee and care for these congregations. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are particularly helpful in understanding pastoral ministry. In fact, they are often described as the pastoral letters. Paul is looking to the future, raising up leaders, shaping their priorities, emphasising both life and doctrine, character and teaching. He is working to ensure that the gospel remains central to the life of the church. It’s worth taking the time to read these three letters very carefully in order to understand pastoral priorities.

The Apostle Peter also encourages pastoral care in the churches. He is concerned about the heart of the pastor/shepherd and calls his fellow elders to allow the gospel to shape their attitude to ministry. They are to be willing, generous, and eager servants as they exercise pastoral ministry among the flock, all the while looking forward to the return of the Chief Shepherd, the true Senior Pastor, Jesus Christ.

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.  (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Pastoral care

From this brief overview of shepherd/pastor ideas in the Bible we can distil some important ideas.

  1. God is the ultimate shepherd/pastor who promises to lead people into eternity with him.
  2. Jesus is God’s appointed shepherd/pastor who gives his life to bring people into relationship with God.
  3. Shepherd/pastors lead others by gospel-shaped teaching and modelling the application of God’s word of grace in their lives.
  4. Therefore, the goal of pastoral care is: under God, to lead God’s people, by the word of God’s grace, into eternity with God.

I suspect this is probably not the way we would have described pastoral care. It sounds more like a ministry of evangelism, teaching, discipleship and encouragement. And yes, it is. This is what flows from the pastoral heart of God. What God is doing in our world isn’t limited to the next ten, twenty or even seventy or eighty years. God is gathering his people for all eternity. He’s keen to see them secure in his grace in this life, so that they will enjoy his full blessing in the next. As Newton wrote in Amazing Grace: ’twas grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home and when we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun. Pastoral care is a ministry of God’s grace for a few years, focused on people enjoying God’s grace for a zillion years. This is the perspective we must carry.

In growth groups

If growth group leaders are to exercise pastoral care among the members of their groups, and if the people in our groups are to pastorally care for one another, then they will need to look backwards and forwards. Backwards to the saving grace of God in the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. Forwards to the Chief Shepherd returning to usher his people into glory. These are the trig points that give us bearings for our pastoral care.

The leader will be concerned first and foremost that every member of the group has become a member of God’s flock. Is each person in our group a Christian? Are they trusting in God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus? Are they submitting to Jesus as the one who rules and directs their lives? If someone is not a Christian, then the most caring pastoral thing we can do for them is to help them to understand and respond to the gospel. This will likely mean praying for them, catching up with people one to one, reading and discussing the gospel together. There might be questions and doubts to resolve. If there are a number of people in the group who aren’t Christians, then perhaps the whole group might focus on these matters together.

Leaders, do we know where people are at? Have we taken time to get to know people, to understand what they believe, where they’re coming from, what they’re living for, what they’re trusting in? Maybe it’s time for some quiet conversations. This is the starting point for pastoral care.

The leader will desire to see each member of the group becoming more and more like the Chief Shepherd. Bible study will be central to this, as we seek to nourish and strengthen the members of our group in the grace of God. Not Bible study so as to know about the Bible, or even to know about God. We will examine God’s Word together, so as to get to know God himself. We want people growing together into maturity. This isn’t measured by how many theological books we’ve read or the Bible verses we’ve memorised. It’s not how much we know, but how we respond to what we know. It’s about being gripped by God’s grace and letting it shape our thinking and speech and behaviour. It’s about the wonder of the gospel freeing us to walk in God’s ways by the power of his Spirit. It’s about not being tossed around by false ideas. It means not being lured away from God by the idols of this world. It’s seen in patiently keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and the things of eternity. This is what pastoral care is about.

Pastoral care will involve praying. We can’t bring about spiritual change. That’s the work of God’s Spirit. We need God to bring about deep inner transformation, and therefore we pray. We are weak and so we pray for God’s strength. God’s strength to persevere through trials and difficulty. God’s strength to stand firm against temptations. God’s strength to remain faithful in the face of persecution. God’s strength to work through our fears and doubts and struggles and selfishness. God’s strength to run the race to the end. And so we pray.

Pastoral care is gospel-shaped. It’s Bible-nourished. It’s prayer-dependent. This is God’s idea of pastoral care. We are seeking to grow leaders who will care pastorally for the people in their groups and encourage their groups to develop relationships where people care pastorally for one another. Please encourage the members of your group to become pastoral carers.

But I’m sure you are left with a few questions…

So what about things like visiting the sick, counselling, offering hospitality, providing practical helps, supporting couples or parents, caring for the elderly and orphans and widows? Aren’t we called to carry each others burdens? Isn’t this still pastoral care? Shouldn’t we be focusing on these things? Aren’t we expecting our growth groups to provide ‘practical’ care to one another?

This is the topic of another paper: Life together in growth groups.

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