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How to Serve Well as a 'Second Chair Leader'

How to Serve Well as a 'Second Chair Leader'

Helping to lead a church can be easier when you’re the senior pastor than if you’re serving in a subordinate role. As a “second chair leader,” you may have lots of good ideas and plenty of enthusiasm, but not much power or authority.


That doesn’t mean you can’t successfully influence your church for the better, though. In fact, you can help improve your church at every level through wise leadership, even when you’re not in charge.


Here’s how you can lead well while serving in a subordinate role:


Develop strong relationships. Realize that your primary strength as a leader won’t come from your job position, but from the relationships you build with others throughout your church. Work to build relationships marked by trust and respect. Expect that your influence with other people will help you add value to your church as a whole. Know that your contributions as a leader are vital to help your church perform well.


Deal with the subordinate-leader paradox. Manage your relationships well. Understand that your church’s senior pastor is not your adversary. Know that you can accomplish a great deal if you work together well. Understand the line that defines which decisions you can make without consulting the senior pastor, which ones require his approval, and which you shouldn’t even approach on your own. Earn the senior pastor’s trust and work with him as a team player. Support him through your loyalty and encouragement. Keep him informed of all significant issues or undertakings as they come up.


Deal with the deep-wide paradox. Manage your work habits well. Recognize that, while your specific role in the church is likely narrower and deeper than that of the senior pastor, you still need to have a broad, organization-wide perspective. So you need to balance the details of your job assignment with the big picture of all that’s taking place at your church. Understand that you can’t make isolated changes that won’t affect the status quo at your church; a change in one aspect of your church will ripple through the rest of it. Ask lots of “why?” and “what if?” questions to gain a more complete understanding of your church’s organizational dynamics. Always think of the congregation’s needs ahead of any specific tasks. Try to identify gaps that aren’t being addressed by others and consider how you can help fill them without being unduly intrusive.


Deal with the contentment-dreaming paradox. Manage your emotions well. Remember that, just because you’re not the top leader, you shouldn’t have to give up your dreams for yourself and your church. But you can’t allow any dream to become a shortsighted ambition or a plan that competes with the senior pastor’s dreams. Instead, you need to mesh your own dreams with your church’s broader vision, and seek God’s wisdom as you try to help shape the direction in which your church is moving.

Decide to stay and grow and excel in your current position, for a season, regardless of your current circumstances. Keep an intense focus on your responsibilities until God clearly moves you to a new place of service. Trust God to be at work behind the scenes, preparing you for whatever is in your future. Remember your identity in Christ and your sense of calling when you need peace and the strength to persevere in your current work with joy. If God does clearly call you to leave your current position for a new one, strive to leave as a better leader, servant, and more mature Christian than you were when you first started. Also make sure that your church is stronger as you leave than it was when you arrived. Don’t burn bridges; keep relationships intact as you move on to a new assignment.


Identify opportunities every day. Be on the lookout for opportunities to cultivate influence in your church. Nurture your relationships with others there to earn credibility with them. Pray regularly for the ability to make wise decisions. Be patient, consistent, and persistent as you go about your daily work. Try to step back from every problem and view it through the lens of leadership, keeping your church’s overall needs in mind. Maximize opportunities you have to be part of the solution, such as when an important decision needs to be made, a new ministry initiative launched, or a voice of faith is required in a time of crisis. Have the courage to make difficult decisions, and don’t back down from what’s right, even in the face of challenging circumstances.


Embrace the right attitudes. Submit to God’s ultimate authority in your life. Pursue service, being willing to help out even when it’s inconvenient or when the task isn’t something you want to do. Be thankful for your church, the people in it, and the opportunities you have to work for God’s kingdom. Be honest. Give your best to every task you undertake, working with passion toward the goal of excellence.


Be a team player. View all your fellow church workers – staff members and lay volunteers alike – as equally vital parts of a team working toward the common goal of what’s best for your church. Be selective about the issues you comment on. When you do speak, be affirming, offering two positive and encouraging comments for every one criticism. Be unselfish, considering the needs of your church and coworkers and making sure that your recommendations don’t always benefit you. Be discreet about when and where you criticize others; try to do so in private, one-on-one meetings. Be constructive when you share ideas. Be as involved as possible in working toward solutions you recommend.


Take the pulse of others in your church. On a regular basis, get to know what other people in your congregation are thinking and feeling.


Amplify your church’s vision. Although the senior pastor is the one who primarily casts the vision, you can repeat, clarify, and reinforce it.


Multiply leaders. Make it an ongoing priority to identify and recruit other leaders who can help achieve the vision.


Fill gaps. Be prepared to fill gaps when there is no other leader who can serve in critical roles.


Adapted from Leading from the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams, copyright 2005 by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson. Published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint, San Francisco, Ca., Visit the Leadership Network Web site,, for more information.


Mike Bonem has been a consultant to churches, judicatories, and businesses for more than 20 years. His company, Kingdom Transformation Partners, offers coaching and leadership development for first and second chair leaders.


Roger Patterson is the associate pastor of West University Baptist Church in Houston, Tx., where he has served for eight years. He is a second chair leader who loves to invest in the development of other leaders for the expansion of God’s kingdom.