Leading from the Second Chair – Mike Bonem & Roger Patterson

I may have been too idealistic in my understanding of how church leadership works. I have always seen it as brothers and sisters in Christ working together for the fulfilling of God’s mission for the world. But experience and readings made me realize it is not always the case. I wonder if the professionalization of ministry has changed its nature. Cultures also impact how church leadership works. During one of my seminary class, a professor talked about this topic and recommended reading Leading from the Second Chair by Mike Bonem & Roger Patterson. So I did and I found it extremely useful. I wished I could have read it years ago. The book was so insightful I decided to quote it extensively rather than trying to reexplain the main concepts.

Bonem and Patterson start with a definition of a “second chair:”

“[A second chair is] a subordinate whose influence with others adds value throughout the organization” (p. 13)

A second chair is not the lead leader, but he still influences the whole organization “through strong relationships and wise decisions in ministry.” (p. 12) Leadership is not a matter of position but influence.

“A person who is able to succeed by influencing others is a more effective leader than one who issues edicts to be obeyed.” (p. 2)

“A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants” (Greenleaf, 1997, p. 10).

The authors list three essential attitudes for second chairs:

  • “An essential attitude in the second chair is submission.” (p. 22)
    • “An attitude of submission is not a loss of authority. It is recognition of the source of authority. If you are to model Christ to the world and to those in your ministry setting, you must be willing to be under the authority that God has established.” (p. 23)
  • “A related attitude is that of service.” (p. 23)
  • “The final attitude is a passion for being the best. This attitude causes you to push back, ask questions, and challenge the thinking of others. It challenges the other team members to pull their weight and be responsible as they carry out their duties. It is the other side of the coin that keeps submission from being spineless. It is a counterbalance that keeps thankfulness from becoming carefree.” (p. 23)

After this introduction, the book is structured around three paradoxes relevant to me.

“The lens must be trifocal, allowing you to focus on how you manage your relationships (subordinate-leader paradox), your work habits (deep-wide paradox), and your emotions (contentment-dreaming paradox).” (p. 5)

Paradox #1: Subordinate Leader 

The first paradox deals with relationships and the most important relationship for a second chair is his relationship with the first chair. First and second chairs are like a couple.

“He considers the partnership between senior pastor and executive pastor to be similar to a marriage.” (p. 27)

Businessman puppeteerI remember thinking about this years ago. Being a second chair is supporting the first chair the way a spouse would support the other. A second chair is a subordinate which means that (s)he should learn to follow the first chair:

“Tom Billings says, ‘If a leader can’t be a follower, he can’t be an effective leader.’ Kim Miller’s comment was similar: ‘Great leaders are ultimately great followers.’ ” (p. 29)

“Subordination is recognizing and accepting that you are not the lead leader. It is acknowledging that you do not have the final authority; nor do you have the ultimate responsibility.” (p. 30)

A right relationship between first and second chairs will lead to a thriving organization. It is defined by a foundation of trust which requires time to build. The second chair needs to understand what the first chair wants and learn to gain his trust. This implies that “the second chair needs to have a high level of respect for the first chair as a leader. Absence of respect sows the seeds of discontent and insubordination” (p. 37). When a second chair respect the first chair, he will also believe in what the first chair thinks is best. “Strong, trust-based relationships flourish in an environment in which honesty and integrity are valued in making decisions” (p. 39). The benefits of a right relationship are:

  • “An open line of communication [between the two chairs which] is one of the first things you might experience as the trust relationship begins to blossom.” (p. 38)
  • Unity in the entire team.

On the contrary, the consequences of a wrong relationship leads to destructive consequences for the second chair and the organization. “A frequent consequence of a first chair’s loss of confidence is micromanagement” (p. 40) and we know that no one thrives with that kind of management style. “If the ultimate benefit of a right relationship is growing influence, the ultimate consequence of a wrong relationship is lost influence and lost opportunity.” (p. 40)

In this relationship between the two chairs, there is a very important area that demands attention: limitations in roles. This is what the book calls “Crossing the Line.” Second chairs have limits defined by the first chairs, but it is not always clear where the line is. It goes far beyond a job description. What second chairs are often trying to find where this subtle and moving line is. There are two factors that help understand where the line is. First is the experience factor. It is obvious that a more experienced second chair will find this exercise easier than a newbie. The second factor is the first chair’s ego. “First chairs with fragile egos are usually uncomfortable with anyone who might be perceived as a stronger leader than themselves. Their actions, directly or indirectly, attempt to control their subordinates and keep them from taking a prominent leadership role. In a related vein, some first chairs have large egos that need constant stroking. They always need to be seen as the leader, which may leave little room for their second chairs to establish themselves. On the positive side are the first chair leaders who are secure in their own identity and in their role. They do not feel threatened by the second chair and know that their own effectiveness is enhanced if other leaders in the organization are allowed to thrive.” (p. 49). It is inevitable that a second chair crosses the line, but it must be accidental rather than intentional. When it is intentional, it becomes insubordination.

Paradox #2: Deep-wide

The second paradox is learning to see deep and wide. It is about how to work effectively. A second chair needs to have a big picture of how things work, but at the same time, he needs to dig deeper in the issues that he hears: “As you ask questions, be diligent in looking for the hidden connections between parts of the congregation. Be hesitant to accept the first, simple answer to any question you ask. A guiding principle of systems thinking is ‘solving the problem can make things worse.’ ” (p. 79)

“if what you are doing is important, and if you want to grow as a second chair leader, then swallow your pride and ask for feedback.” (p. 80)

A second chair is also a team builder. More than creating an organization, it is about building relationships that will enable effectiveness. “Too many second chair leaders think they have to wait for formal authority—as indicated by lines and boxes on an organization chart—before they can truly have an impact on their organization. This story illustrates again that leadership is influence.” (p. 83)

Being wide and deep implies crossing the line horizontally, but it is only possible when the second chair builds relationships with peers and team members: “If the outcome was negative, if your assistance was rejected or your advice was not followed, what kept you from being successful? Our guess is that one or more of several factors prevented you from achieving your desired result: You did not start with a strong, trust-based relationship. Your attempt to help was seen as self-serving. The manner in which your assistance was offered was wrong—too harsh or judgmental. You touched on a particularly sensitive area, something in which the other person felt vulnerable or inadequate.” (p. 85)


Teams are a powerful tool for the organization: “When a true team emerges, performance improves not because team members like each other better but because collectively they can make better decisions on the important issues facing the organization. One critical dimension is the ability of each team member to speak into any part of the organization. This is the essence of a collaborative environment. This ability to make meaningful contributions beyond your official role is central to the deep-wide paradox.” (p. 91) but a second chair must learn to balance empowering and accountability: “He has to guard against empowering them to the point where he is uninvolved or they are not accountable for a certain level of results.” (p. 95)

“Here are some practical steps for avoiding the traps that undermine teamwork: be selective, be affirming, be unselfish, be discreet, be constructive, be involved” (p. 95)

The key to success for a second chair is not found in his ability to achieve, but to influence others to be successful.

“In truth, much of your ability to achieve your full potential as a second chair leader does not depend on title or position; it depends on the voluntary cooperation of coworkers and other constituents in the organization.” (p. 96)

The authors end this part with four practices:

“1. Be a pulse taker. Knowing what others are thinking and feeling is valuable information for you and the first chair. Your role places you in a unique position to keep a finger on the pulse of the organization.

2. Be a vision amplifier. The first chair is the primary vision caster in the organization, but a second chair leader has many opportunities to repeat, clarify, and reinforce the vision.

3. Be a leader multiplier. For the second chair, identifying and recruiting other leaders who can help achieve the vision should be an ongoing priority.

4. Be a gap filler. If there is no other leader who can serve in a critical role, the second chair should be prepared to fill the gap.” (p. 100)

Paradox #3: Contentment – Dreaming

The third and last paradox is about desires. The second chair can be a difficult place where dreaming is restricted… and many find it difficult to be content in this role. The authors start with contentment in the second chair.

“Contentment in the second chair is your choice to stay and grow and excel, for a season, regardless of current circumstances.” (p. 124)

Contentment is a choice second chairs make. It can be a very frustrating position where people may feel limited. But whatever situation they are in, they must learn to grow and to do the best they can despite the circumstances. “Second chairs must often discover how to choose contentment amid great frustration. You may feel you are going through a prison experience. You pray and long for freedom, yet God does not release you from this setting. In such times, you may feel loss, hopelessness, fatigue, restlessness. Your emotion is screaming at you to leave and find rest and relief, but you know in your heart that you are right where God wants you.” (p. 127) It is also a process of sanctification. Second chairs should not leave “prematurely at the first bump in the road.” (p. 125). The difficulties should lead us to wonder if we truly serve God or if we serve ourselves. Having difficulties with the first chair does not mean that we are necessarily self-serving, but the question merits to be asked.

“God is in the slow-cooking process of the Crock-Pot, not the high-speed zapping of the microwave. The final quality is so much better this way.” (p. 124)

“If you do not feel you can honor your first chair, then ask yourself whether or not you are choosing contentment and doing your ministry as unto the Lord.” (p. 127)

There are two sources of contentment:

  • “Your identity in Christ should be your greatest source of contentment. Greg Hawkins considers this to be foundational for any second chair leader: ‘I’m subordinating myself to God in this role. If I feel tension between a dream and my position, I have to trust God will resolve it.’ ” (pp. 130-131)
  • “Lawson, understanding your calling brings peace of mind for your ministry. It helps you persevere, discover your passion, and provide you with joy and fulfillment, especially in difficult seasons of ministry” (p. 131)


It is possible not only to be content in the second chair, but also to dream as second chair. A second chair can dream with the first chair. This is the ideal combination. For that, we must understand the first chair’s vision and support it. “Second chair leaders should assist the first chair by clearly defining these organizational details, especially if the first chair is given to big, broad visions. The senior pastor often casts the vision while the second chair implements the details. The beauty of this relationship is the complementary way in which the two functions help grow the church.” (pp. 145-146)

This ideal can be hindered by different issues such as the first chair’s lack of vision. “Some second chairs may feel hemmed in by a first chair’s lack of vision. This makes dreaming with the first chair difficult at best, and it limits her or his ability to take any initiative on a far-reaching scale” (p. 146) It is also related to the first chair’s struggle with his own ego: “Some first chairs are highly insecure or controlling. In this case, any kind of dreaming is difficult” (p. 147).

But being able to dream with the first chair leads to dream with everyone else. There are tremendous benefits to the whole church. “Another aspect of dreaming in your current chair is developing the people who serve with you in your ministry area. If your influence with others adds value to the entire organization, then you should dream with the people in your ministry.” (pp. 147-148)

Now this contentment and dream as second chair does not mean it is not possible to go beyond. Second chairs have the right to dream beyond their chair. The authors lay out principles to do it the right way.

“A wise minister at West University said, ‘When it is right for you, it is right for everyone. If the Lord is in it and He leads you away, then it will be right for everybody.’ ” (p. 154)

Second chairs can dream beyond their chair because they are not given the opportunities to grow: “If your role is not continuing to offer growth, challenge, and significant opportunities to make a difference in the organization, it may be time for a change. […] If you are not constantly learning and growing, you are likely to see your influence diminish” (p. 155).

Unfortunately there are also times when second chairs are asked to leave because of “relational stress or questions about your performance.” (p. 156).

“Ultimately the decision to leave is also a decision to be a good steward of your gifts. Dena Harrison says, “Each person has a duty to God to use their gifts and not accept a situation where their gifts are not being used.” If you are in a position where you consistently are stymied in using the gifts God has given you, then it is impossible for you to be a good steward” (pp. 157-158).

As second chairs decide to leave, the authors advise to do it wisely to be able to leave well: “Even if you are enduring great struggle, turmoil, or controversy, do not damage the relationships and organization that you have worked so hard to build” (p. 162).


In conclusion, this book is very useful because it shares wisdom learned by many second chairs through their years of service. I can definitely relate to every single chapter. I have my own load of mistakes. Second chair is a very difficult and lonely place where not much can be shared with others. My hope is to continue to make the most out of my situation and learn to grow in contentment. In many ways, the second chair’s ability to thrive and to fulfill his role is tightly related to his first chair. Understanding how the first chair is wired is high priority – even more than performing tasks – because at the end, the success of the second chair depends on the first chair more than anyone else. Again, I wish I could have read this book years ago, but I have learned many of the wisdom in this book through my own experience. Reading the book was very valuable because I felt that I was not as lonely as I thought I was. Reading it was similar to getting counseling. It was cure for my soul.

Here is a couple of helpful articles:

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