Can You Lead From Tthe “Second Chair”?1
By Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson
“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.
So, what does it look like for those who are in second-chair roles to lead? In our book, Leading From the Second Chair, we define a second-chair leader as “a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the organization.” 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?
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? We 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.
Subordination: Challenging, But Biblical
Many second-chair leaders struggle in the tension of the subordinate-leader paradox. They know they have the gift of leadership but feel unable to exercise it. This struggle often plays out in one of two ways. Because they feel hampered, some slip into a submissive and passive posture. They follow the orders of their first chair with little enthusiasm and a growing frustration. Others experience constant friction with their senior pastor. They repeatedly take initiative, even when this is clearly beyond their authority. The former may eventually leave for greener pastures once the stress becomes unbearable. The latter may leave for any pasture when they are asked (or told) to exit.
At its root, the subordinate-leader paradox deals with issues of relational and spiritual vitality. It is relational because effective second-chair leadership is only possible in a healthy, trust-based relationship between first and second-chair leaders.
The analogy of a marriage is often used to describe this partnership. An enduring, successful marriage is only possible when trust is established and maintained. The issue is also spiritual because a clear understanding of Scripture and awareness that God is at work in both lives can completely reorient a second chair’s perspective.
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 we 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.
Jesus demonstrated a willingness and desire to only do His Father’s work. We have proclaimed through the ages that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Our creeds and confessions speak of this, yet we have neither stopped to consider how this played out in Jesus’ ministry, nor have we realized that this is an example of how second chairs should relate to their senior pastors as they serve together.
Let us clarify what we are and are not saying. As our orthodoxy has expressed for centuries, the members of the Trinity are coequal and coeternal. This is critical in understanding this discussion about Jesus being subordinate to the Father, lest we fall into heresy by advocating the doctrine of subordinationism — the teaching that the Son and Spirit are later creations of God the Father. The distinction that theologians make is that the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father in their administrative function.2 Wayne Grudem terms this “economic subordinationism,” in which the Son and Spirit are “equal in being but subordinate in role.”3
Scripture teaches that God the Father had a redemptive plan that was to be accomplished through God the Son and God the Spirit. In the relationships within the Trinity, we see this picture of the Father, the source of ultimate authority, granting all authority to the Son (Matthew 28:18) to accomplish the redemptive mission that God the Father authored.
Look at these words from Jesus about His relationship to the Father: “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him” (John 5:20–23).
Jesus depicts a love relationship in which the Father shares His plan with the Son. Furthermore, the Father fully empowers and trusts the Son with judgment that will honor the Father. Out of this love, Jesus reflects a spirit of submission.
Others noticed Jesus’ constant expression of subordination during His earthly ministry. The Roman centurion, who understood the vesting of authority, asked Jesus to exercise the authority granted to Him by God to heal his servant (Matthew 8:5–13). We might paraphrase the centurion’s request: “Jesus, I too, just like You, have authority because it has been granted to me by another. Please exercise the authority granted to You to heal my servant.”
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. We 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 we 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.
Beyond Subordination — The Deep-Wide Paradox
Having a great relationship with the first chair is essential for those who seek to lead from the second chair, but it is not enough. The deep-wide paradox calls for second-chair leaders to see the big picture, identify their church’s greatest opportunities or most pressing problems, and then take initiative in these areas. But if only one person does the initiating, the certain result is a burned-out, unsuccessful second-chair leader. Effective second-chair leaders work well with others by calling out people with different gifts to build a team. They know that the journey of ministry is more exciting and that the results are multiplied when the Body functions in this way.
How do you view those who serve alongside you? When was the last time you recognized your dependence on the rest of your team? Joe Namath was asked whether he could be a Hall of Fame quarterback in this modern era of football. Namath’s response: “It depends on the horses in front of me. It is a team game and no one player can win without the rest of the team.”4
Are you willing to play a team game? Ministry in the 21st century is a team game. The sooner all players are willing to do their parts to fulfill God’s vision, the sooner eternal victories will be wrought in and through the local church.
A second-chair leader needs to take the first step to create this collaborative environment. A simple admission that he needs help will open the door to expand his ministry. It will push him to reach out to others and to include them in the process of developing solutions for his most important needs. It will bring to light things he would have never considered. And it will give others in the church a greater sense of permission and freedom to contribute. God has assembled the body of Christ with the necessary gifts to do the work He has called the Church to do (Romans 12:3–8; 1 Corinthians 12:1–31; Ephesians 4:11–13). When the second chair fails to use these gifts, it is not only a lost opportunity, but it is also poor stewardship.
Another glimpse of the relationships expressed in the Trinity can revolutionize the way we relate to those with whom we serve. Let’s ponder how the relationship between the Son and Spirit shows us a mutual dependence from which we can learn.
William Evans states, “How dependent Jesus Christ was, in His state of humiliation, on the Holy Spirit!” The Scripture portrays this dependence as Jesus was led into the desert (Matthew 4:1), anointed for service (Acts 10:38), crucified in the power of the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14), and raised by the power of the Spirit (Romans 1:4, 8:11).5 Clearly, Scripture shows that Jesus’ accomplishments were made possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was dependent on the Spirit, but He was also in authority over the Spirit.
The doctrine of double procession teaches that the Father and the Son have the authority to send the Spirit. Jesus was dependent on the Spirit, but He also was the One who gave the Spirit to His disciples. In John 15:26, Christ said, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” And in John 16:7, He stated, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Beyond being sent, the Spirit is directed by the Father and the Son: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:13–15).
If the Son and Spirit are dependent on one another to accomplish the redemptive mission of God, why do pastors think they can go it alone? Why are first-chair leaders slow to recognize that a significant way God meets their needs is through their staff? First-chair leaders need to see their staff as God’s provision. If not, how will these leaders begin to change the way they view their staff?
What about you, second-chair leaders? Do you respect and encourage your colaborers, even when you become impatient with their inadequacies? On your church staff, do you bear with and forgive one another as Colossians 3:13 describes?
If this spirit of humility and teamwork does not characterize our lives and our churches, we will not accomplish anything substantial for the kingdom of God. If God the Son is dependent on the Spirit, and the Spirit is dependent on the Son, how can second-chair leaders choose not to honor and be dependent on those whom God has put around them to fulfill His redemptive mission? Second-chair leadership requires that people see God’s broader plan and know that joining Him in His mission is not meant to be a solo journey.
The final paradox, contentment-dreaming, also has a clear spiritual and scriptural foundation. While the subordinate-leader paradox focuses on the relationship between first and second chairs, contentment-dreaming is rooted in the vibrancy of the second chair’s relationship with God. Unfortunately, many second-chair leaders relegate God to the backseat when they are dealing with seasons of discontent or dreaming about their future. How do we know? Because we hear them talking about their frustrations in their current role, but not about what God is teaching them in their current circumstances. Or we hear them planning their next career move, and it sounds as if they have orchestrated a man-made timetable.
Contentment is never possible unless we are following God. Dreaming is never fulfilling unless the Lord inspires it. Think of the captivating stories you have heard of people ministering in the most difficult circumstances. What enabled them to continue day after day? What was their source of joy and strength when the fruit of their efforts seemed meager? These testimonies always point back to God as the Source of their dream and their Sustainer in the midst of daily struggles. Why should the picture be any different for those in a second-chair role? The words of the Psalmist aid our understanding in this matter.
Psalm 37 teaches that those who wait on the Lord will inherit the Land (verses 9,11,22,34). The verse that most people know and love is Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Simply put, (and taken out of context) if we delight in God, we will get what we want. What we want is the next move, the bigger church, and the anointing and opportunity to speak before our peers at annual denominational meetings. We have big dreams, and we want them fulfilled now.
At times we claim these promises and then walk away disappointed because they have not come to fruition. That is, they have not come to fruition in the way and time that we wanted. We need to understand the context and meaning of this verse, realizing that God longs to do much as we wait on Him. Psalm 37:4 does not stand alone. It is surrounded by instructions to Israel about their responsibilities while they wait on the Lord. They are told to cultivate faithfulness, dwell in the land, trust in the Lord, do good, and commit their way to the Lord. He then promises to do what only He can do: “make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (verse 6).
Most people can testify to the struggle of waiting for the desire of their hearts to bear fruit. If second-chair leaders will be responsible to dwell, trust, commit, and cultivate faithfulness, they can be encouraged that God will use this season of waiting to prepare them to inherit the land He has for them. God will use this season of uncertainty or turmoil to prepare them for the dream that He has put in their hearts. As you claim the promise of Psalm 37:4, embrace verse 7 as well: “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”
Your leadership gift is a precious treasure from God. He wants you to develop your gift to its fullest potential and use it for His glory. The church needs you to thrive in your second-chair role, whether it is for a brief season or the rest of your ministry. We hope you will become increasingly more effective as you understand the paradoxes of second-chair leadership.
Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson are coauthors of Leading From the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams. Both serve in second-chair roles at West University Baptist Church in Houston, Texas; Roger as associate pastor and Mike as minister of discipleship. For more information visit: http://www.SecondChairLeaders.com.
- Portions of this article are drawn from Roger Patterson’s doctoral thesis, “A Theological Foundation and Workshop for Subordinate Leaders in the Local Church” (D.Min. Thesis, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006).
- Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books,2005).
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
- Fox News Channel’s Hannity and Colmes (November 29, 2006).
- William Evans, The Great Doctrines of the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980).