The Paradox of the Second Chair

Sam Rainer

July 11, 2012

Whether it’s a paid or unpaid position, formal or informal, most churches have a strong leader serving under the lead pastor. In smaller churches, this person can be a prominent lay person. In larger churches, the position is often an executive pastor. Numerous titles describe this position, including associate and administrator. Other church leadership positions can be second chairs as well, such as a worship pastor. In this article, I refer to the position simply as the second chair.

The second chair position is paradoxical for two reasons. First, a second chair involves the tension of submitting as a subordinate to the first chair while at the same time leading with a high level of influence. Second chairs maintain a dependence on the first chair while at the same time managing the significant amounts of freedom found near the top of the chain of command. The second paradox involves being in an ever-changing role that is difficult to define while at the same time trying to add structure to the vision of the first chair. Second chairs often find themselves in the unenviable position of being the Jell-O others are trying to nail to the wall.

How can lead pastors serve those whose main job description is to serve them?

Serve first; lead second. All church leaders should take on the posture of serving first and leading second, but a personal example is not enough. First chairs cannot assume second chairs (and other staff members) will follow the example of servant leadership if it is simply lived out and never taught.

First chairs must do more than encourage others to serve; they must teach others how to be servant leaders. First chairs should direct second chairs and staff to be aware of more than just what they should do, but also who they are in Christ. Servant leadership is more than a list of positive and negative traits. Servant leadership is more than a list of helpful or unhelpful actions. Being a servant leader like Jesus is an identity. This identity has a biblical foundation, and it must be taught.

Balance authority and responsibility. The temptation for a first chair is to seize power and authority from the second chair. In the hierarchy of command, it is easier for a first chair to pull authority from a second chair than it is for a second chair to take it from a first chair. One of the ministry tensions of the second chair is leading and adding value to the church without the positional authority of the senior pastor. A subordinate leader can only influence upward if the senior leader gives him or her the corresponding authority to do so.

One of the first chair’s primary responsibilities is serving the second chair. Nothing invalidates leadership like abandoning a servant’s heart. A first chair’s relationship with a second chair is one of a partnership, not a dictatorship. In this partnership it is the first chair’s obligation to grant a second chair a high level of authority to accomplish the tasks of his or her responsibility.

This post is a shortened version of my article originally posted at Church Executive. Read the entire article here.

2 comments on “The Paradox of the Second Chair”

  1. Robert Ivey says:

    I have been a “Second Chair” for 17 of my almost 20 years of ministry, and am currently serving as a “Second Chair.” I enjoy the challenges and freedom of being in the “Second Chair” and it is how God has equipped me for serves. I have had to privilege of serving with 1 “First Chair” all of this time. Years ago somebody asked me what I did and my reply was, “Everything I do I do to make my senior pastor look good.” That has become our “joke” but also a key insight to success in the “Second Chair” (Spiritual speaking we are all in the “Second Chair” and everything we do is make our Heavenly “First Chair” look good.)

  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Robert – Good points. When any church leader places more faith in his or her own abilities than the Head, Christ, then they no longer deserve to lead.

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