3 Ways to Lead from the Second Chair

Just before Christmas, I asked you to shout out some possible topics for me to address in 2018. Today is one of those posts!

John Harris, a pastor in the Nashville area, requested that I tease out a topic that affects many of you who are on church staff. The subject: What is the relationship between a senior pastor and his staff?

This is a very relevant topic, John, so thanks for asking for a blog post on it – it will be the first time I’ve addressed it! I’m going to approach this from the other side of the staff – from the staff member’s perspective. Here we go…

3 Ways to Lead from the Second Chair

I’ve served on church staff in the past – 18 years worth, and now I’m in a part-time role on a church staff in my area as an education pastor. I’m responsible for helping a church grow its Sunday School/groups ministry. And I’m back in a “second chair” role in the church.

A second chair leader is just what it sounds like – a person who has a significant leadership role, but is not the #1 senior leader. That’s most of us! So if you are in a second chair role, it’s mission critical that you lead well from the second chair, and there are 3 things you must do if you are going to relate well to the person in the #1 chair (your pastor).

I refer you to the book titled Leading from the Second Chair. The author cites 3 paradoxes that second chair leaders must deal with daily. If you can navigate these, you can relate well to your pastor, and he to you.

  • Subordinate-Leader: The first paradox may be the most difficult one to navigate. As a second chair leader, you are not going to be in the driver’s seat – that privilege belongs to another person, your first-chair leader. There will be times you disagree with your #1 chair’s decision on a matter. You may not like the person. You might even be a better leader than your first chair – but it doesn’t matter. Your role and your job is to provide support for your first chair. That’s the subordinate part of your role – and when you accept and get comfortable with the fact that you’re not going to sit in the “captain’s chair,” you’ll be a happier, healthier staff member. But then there is the other side of the paradox – you’re not just a subordinate, but you’re also a leader! You have people who look to you for leadership and guidance. You may be responsible for a significant portion of your church’s ministries. Support staff may report to you. Volunteers no doubt, do. So you live in a dual role of leader (where there are times you actually do sit in the #1 leadership chair – but a chair that sits in your ministry area!), and you are also a subordinate to the first chair. If you cannot figure out your subordinate role, your pastor isn’t going to keep you on staff, nor should he.  We are all in submission to someone!
  • Deep-Wide: This second paradox has to do with your requirement to lead from the second chair. You must see across the organization and how your particular function affects others and other ministries. You cannot work in a void. Your #1 chair needs you to manage your area, but also be sensitive to the overall organization. So at times you’re going to “go wide” and see the big picture of ministries taking place in the church. At other times, you must drill down on the specifics and the details of your ministry assignment – no one should know this ministry area better than you! And by the way, your #1 chair probably will never fully understand all the nuances of your work as a #2 chair leader, and that’s ok. That’s why he has you on staff.
  • Contentment-Dreaming: The final paradox is one that you should share with your #1 chair. You’ll be a happier staff leader if you are content in your role and can see how God is using you and your ministry to make an impact on people. Be content in developing others. Be content in difference you’re making. Be content being a helper to your #1 chair. BUT…dream also! Where do you want to be in 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? Do you want to move up? Do you want to pursue schooling and more formal education? How do you want to see your ministry area expand and grow? What are your dreams? Your pastor, if he knows these, can often help you achieve them. So share them! You’ll both be glad you did.

Thanks, John, for your question and request. I hope this touched on a few things that will be helpful in your ministry context!


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