“Second Chair” Leaders in the Church

by Tommy Deal, Pinnacle Leadership Associates

Everyone has a role to fulfill. For instance, a ship’s Captain and Chief Machinist argued for days who was the greatest on board. The Captain in all his dignity was decisive in his command of the ship and its crew, noting how each followed his orders. The Chief Machinist proudly declared that the Captain would go nowhere if he didn’t keep the engines running. So, to settle their dispute they agreed to switch places. After an arduous night at sea, the Captain called up to the bridge demanding the Chief Machinist come below quickly. He said, “Chief, you must get down here! I can’t make her go!” After a brief pause the reply from the bridge came. The Chief Machinist sheepishly told the Captain, “Well, I guess you can’t, Sir, ‘cause I’ve run her aground!”

Not everyone can be, or is called to be, in the lead role in any organization. The church is no different. There is only one senior pastor or lead pastor to whom the entire congregation and leadership team looks to as their shepherd and guide. This position can also be referred to as “first chair” leader. Working alongside of every first chair leader are many “second chair” leaders, both paid and volunteer, clergy and lay.

I have spent my entire ministry in “associate” roles, either as an associate pastor, Minister of Education or as an associate coordinator of a middle judicatory of denominational-types of entities. I feel my call into ministry is to this arena. As I have analyzed my gifts, strengths and weaknesses I thrive in these roles. I talk with others who are in these positions and the theme seems to be the same: happiness in the calling, but sometimes unclear of the perspective.

It is said that it can be lonely at the top. Well, it can be even lonelier when you are almost at the top. Women and men who find themselves in second, third and fourth chair roles many times feel very alone even though surrounded by fellow associates, a senior pastor, support staff and a loving church.

After reading Leading from the Second Chair by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson I was convinced that my observation during my entire ministry has been that most senior (or “first chair”) pastors don’t get it – “it” being how to lead, affirm and support “associates.” However, “Leading” helped me realize that perhaps just the opposite is true: we/I don’t get “it” either.

As Bonem and Patterson point out, “Being in the second chair is the ultimate leadership paradox. It is the paradox of being a leader and a subordinate, having a deep role and a wide one, and being content with the present while continuing to dream about the future.” (p. xiii) A second chair leader is a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the organization.” (p. 2) They affirm that in order for any organization to function at its highest level of performance, it must have effective leaders in second chair roles.

Effective second chair leaders in the church understand God’s vision for their congregation, and they embrace it wholeheartedly. They are able to see ways to accelerate progress toward the vision. They can design and implement new ministries and overhaul old ones to keep the congregation on track. They can share the vision with others and expand the foundation of committed leaders and followers. They can lift the leadership burden from the first chair without usurping authority. (p.8)
They are Superman! There must be accountability and encouragement from other “seconds” from time to time. No man or woman is an island. Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” is an apt prescription for any second chair leader: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” (p. 10)

Associate ministers are not second-class professionals. Associate ministers are those whose calling to ministry are focused, maybe even specialized, and worthy of support and recognition by the congregation and peers. I would encourage every “second chair” minister to find a support group of peers. I would also exhort each one to reclaim the awareness of the high calling of God this position affords to engage in His great Kingdom work.

Tommy Deal, an Associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates, is available to discuss how to form peer groups among associate pastors and even facilitate learning and coaching opportunities around resources like “Leading from the Second Chair.” Email him at tommyd@pinnaclelead.com.