They say it’s lonely at the top. And it can be even lonelier when you are almost at the top.

two-office-chairs1They say it’s lonely at the top. And it can be even lonelier when you are almost at the top. Church leaders who hold “second chair” positions are under tremendous pressure. They are expected to do their jobs and provide leadership but defer to the top leader, too. It’s a demanding balancing act. How can they lead effectively while serving under someone else’s leadership?

I came across the book “Leading from the Second Chair” by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson on a blog written by Tony Morgan. (As a side note, this is a great blog for ministry leaders.) Not many books are written from the perspective a leader who is not “The Leader” in an organization. Most of us leaders report to someone else. You don’t have to be the No. 2 person to be a second chair leader. The definition in this book is for anyone who is not the “lead leader.” There are unique challenges in being a leader in an organization and working under other leaders.

“If you have the gift of leadership, then lead diligently” (Romans 12:8, paraphrased). But is this verse only for first-chair leaders — the senior pastor? The scriptural exhortation to lead is not limited to one person in a church. In fact, if the senior pastor is the only person exercising the gift of leadership, a congregation is not reaching its greatest Kingdom potential.

If you are a second-chair leader, how can you use your gifts to lead diligently? And if you are the senior pastor, how do you take full advantage of the leaders who serve alongside you?

How we respond to these challenges will determine our success as a second chair leader and ultimately the future of ever becoming a “lead leader” if that’s our desire. One of the things that I have learned about myself is that I am a pretty good No. 2 guy and I like that role. I often joke that I like being No. 3 or is it 4 maybe 5? lol! I never asked in my current role, because if all goes bad I can always blame No. 1 or 2! Seriously, I think I am more effective at cascading and executing on vision rather than creating it which is the lead leaders responsibility.

Leadership in the second chair is fundamentally different from first-chair leadership. Scripture has much to teach on this subject. What is the best way to convey the importance, challenges, and potential impact of this role? You have to understand the unique nature of second-chair leadership through a framework of three apparent paradoxes: subordinate-leader, deep-wide, and contentment-dreaming.

The subordinate-leader paradox recognizes that those in the second chair are called to lead, but they also answer to a supervisor. They learn to lead without being at the top of the organizational pyramid because they understand their authority and effectiveness are dependent on their relationship with their senior pastor.

The deep-wide paradox acknowledges that second chairs have specific roles that are narrower and deeper in scope than those of the first chair, and yet they need to have a broad, organization-wide perspective. They need to be strategic thinkers; and, at the same time, manage a variety of ministry areas with excellence.

The contentment-dreaming paradox calls for second chairs to take a long-term view. They can have dreams even though they are not in the top position; but, they also need to discover contentment as God shapes their lives and guides their paths in the present.

The Bible contains many examples of vibrant relationships between first- and second-chair leaders: Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Paul and Timothy. Have you ever thought of God the Father and Jesus the Son as the original illustration of this subordinate-leader paradox?

Consider Jesus’ words in John 5:19: “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” This statement about the eternal work of God expresses the subordinate-leader paradox better than I possibly could. A second-chair leader is aware that he can only do his ministry because of the authority and permission the first-chair extends to him. Without this, a second-chair leader will accomplish little of lasting value in his current place of service.

Second-chair leaders often long to be granted authority without first making sure they are being subordinate to the authority figure that has been placed over them. I recognize that this analogy breaks down at many points because second-chair leaders are not Jesus, and the first-chair leader is not the Father. But when second-chair leaders are submissive and subordinate to the authority that God has placed in their lives, they look like Jesus. Second-chair leaders must realize that the only thing they can control in their interactions with their first chair is their portion of the relationship.

What is the most frequent advice that can be offer to second-chair leaders? Draw near to the first chair. Work diligently and intentionally to establish a strong relationship with the first-chair leader. Look for ways to build trust and demonstrate loyalty. Recognize what frustrates him so you can avoid missteps. Be a student of his personality and preferences so you can learn how to communicate in ways that are clearly understood.

This sounds like hard work, and it is, but the fruit in your life and your ministry will far outweigh the cost. Your leadership in the second chair requires that authority be granted to you, and this will only happen in a healthy relationship with your first chair. As your senior pastor’s confidence and trust in you grow, your freedom to lead and ability to make a difference will increase exponentially. So, if you want to lead, use your gifts to their full potential, and to thrive in this paradox, practice subordination and draw near to the first chair.

As a teaser to the book, let me give you best practices of second chair leaders the book covers, along with some of my comments:

  • Be a pulse taker – Sometimes a CEO or even a Lead Pastor has the worst seat in the house when it comes to taking the pulse of their employees, staff and even customers. Many members just don’t feel comfortable telling lead leaders what they truly think. Second chair leaders have an obligation to be the pulse taker for the lead leader, no matter the consequences. As Jim Collins says in his book “Good to Great”, “You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without first confronting the brutal facts.”
  • Be a vision amplifier – As an executive at Russell Investments I was sent to Boston for management training put on by a couple of Harvard professors. The primary focus was how to cascade vision through a five-level organization: very interesting but a bit over-detailed in my opinion. This book does not spend much time on the topic, but does reinforce that every important encounter is an opportunity to reinforce the vision. This assumes you have a clear understanding of the vision as well. I would add that as you cascade vision, it’s also an opportunity to give recognition to the vision caster. This reinforces good organizational structure and who the lead leader really is, a seemingly small but very important aspect I think the book does not address.
  • Be a “leader multiplier” – Identifying and recruiting other leaders is a key role of a second chair. This is particularly true in a ministry setting, where the effectiveness is highly dependent on volunteer leaders and doers. As vision gets amplified, it’s important to find leaders excited about the vision and put them in a position to maximize their potential.
  • Be a gap filler – If there is no other leader who can serve in a critical role, then the second chair leader should fill it. This is motivation to raise qualified leaders. I have been jokingly and fairly criticized at times with doing too much in my current second chair role as an Executive Pastor. Yes, I have filled the gap (small group leader, facilities manager, connections pastor, janitor etc.) but not spending enough time finding leaders is where the true criticism rests. I am working through this now and cascading the Lead Pastor’s direction of raising and empowering our leaders. This holds true in business just as it does in ministry.
Photo Credit: sonictk via Flikr & Dr. Steve Brown
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