There are times when being a second-chair leader in a progressive Baptist church should include membership in a multi-step support program. The second-chair leader is the most misunderstood clergy position of all time. Whether we are called executive pastors, associate pastors, or assistant pastors, our role is rife with issues related to being the Number Two person. I can envision a room filled with anonymous second-chair leaders sitting on folded chairs: Hi, my name is Michael and I’m a second-chair pastor.
My unique experience began in college, where I was prepping for a career in the legal realm. But I felt a distinct calling to vocational ministry, and after several bouts of angst I said yes to God. In our tradition a freshly called, would-be minister must stand before his church and declare his intentions. By declare I mean to “state with precision what God has called you to do with your life.” In my small church most of those professing a call into ministry were called to preach, and our preacher-boys were highly celebrated. Now and again someone would answer the call into music ministry, which was understood to mean a part-time job leading the choir and congregational singing, and at times an odd taste in clothing. My childhood church taught me that the music leader is to ministry what the fiddle is to the Stradivarius violin. Second-class status was both inferred and enforced. And pity the poor misguided soul who accepted a call into youth ministry. He or she would be slotted well below the music minister, and since no one in my church had ever seen an education minister in person, it was assumed they were mythical creatures who only lived in Texas. It was into this inequitable and benevolently ignorant atmosphere that I proclaimed my calling to serve God.
I stood before my church and announced that God had called me into ministry. That was the easy part. I then stated that God had not yet made clear what form my vocational service would take. Pins dropping on carpet would have made noise in the sanctuary at that moment. I honestly had no clue at that time what God was calling me to do with my life. My church didn’t know whether to vote to affirm my nebulous calling or go straight to a prayer vigil. Despite my inauspicious start, I enrolled in seminary in 1980, where I served a small pastorate and later became associate pastor of one of the early contemporary churches.
Upon graduation there was the obligatory stint in youth ministry followed by six years as an education pastor. I now serve as executive pastor in a progressive Baptist church, a position I have held for almost fifteen years. If you do the math, it will show that I have spent the majority of my ministry career as a second-chair leader/pastor. This demonstrates two things: first, the second-chair pastor can be an intentional career path that is both productive and effective; and second, the unique needs of God’s kingdom often require unique people serving in unique roles. If I have proven one thing in my ministry career it is that second-chair roles do not have to be stepping stones to one’s “own church.” I have my own church, thank you very much, and I also have my own chair!
While writing a book on Paul’s pastoral-training letters to Timothy and Titus, I came to realize how much today’s church needs multiple minds and vision. The 1950s strategy of an individual pastor exhibiting hydra-like gifts and abilities and being the (lowercase) alpha and omega of a church is dangerously dated. While the senior pastor should and must be the primary voice and compass, today’s church needs to acknowledge that few mortals have all of the gifts necessary to lead a church through the complex climate of this new century. Paul’s writings on spiritual gifts clearly teach that no one person possesses the necessary gifts for successful proclamation, leadership, vision, discernment, evangelism, and strategy development. Even Moses needed help. Of course, this reality hasn’t stopped churches from expecting these varied gifts from lead pastors, often to the detriment of both the church and the minister. Senior pastors can also be their own worst enemy if they suffer from “sharing deficit disorder.” It is one thing for a pastor to lack specific gifts necessary to lead today’s church, and it’s another thing altogether for a pastor to admit to that fact.
The answer is clearly in a combination of gifts and a safe yet intentional sharing of the load, even if the congregation is unaware of the scope of teamwork going on behind the scenes. Below are a few tips from a second-chair leader who has found fulfillment, peace, and success despite spending a career out of the limelight.
First, seek peace in the knowledge that you are of equal worth to God’s kingdom. Senior pastors have an uncanny ability to soak up the spotlight and suck the oxygen from any room they enter. To succeed long term in the second chair, one must be inoculated against the dreaded “second-banana” syndrome. You are second chair for a reason. This is what God called and equipped you to be. If you don’t make peace with the second chair, you won’t survive. Remember, you are a second-chair, not second-tier, leader.
Second, actualize your unique gifts and find the right place to utilize them. The turnover rate is higher among first-chair pastors than those who occupy the second position. There are also thousands more trained senior pastors than second-chair pastors. Throw a rock in any direction in the southern United States and you’ll likely hit a preacher (that’s an analogy, not a suggestion). This is good news only if second-chair leaders are in the right place of service. One’s gifts must match the needs present in the church. If you have the gifts of critical thinking and leadership and you resonate on the x’s and o’s of church growth, you won’t flourish in a staid, maintenance situation. Being woefully mis-gifted for a particular church is a primary reason for burnout and turnover. Location isn’t primary just to real estate.
Third, your church must accept you as an upper-level leader and expect you to perform as such. When all parties see you demonstrating high-level leadership skills, it will be much easier to merge the gift profiles, brains, and vision of the two leaders at the top. This type of respect may be granted to the senior pastor upon arrival, but it is normally earned over the course of time for those in the second chair. Be patient and consistent and allow for the process to unfold. If you have what it takes to lead a church, it will become apparent and respect will follow.
Fourth, always allow the senior pastor to be the voice of vision and spiritual authority in the church. This is not only good advice for continued employment, it is necessary for the two pastoral positions to remain distinct. Too much role diffusion in a church will lead to a diffused vision and could, over time, lead to a breakdown of unity within the church. Today’s church faces too many obstacles to be sucked into the vortex of a twenty-first-century Corinthian problem. When I follow Apollos collides with I follow Paul, the church always loses. The senior pastor is the primary leader and that fact must be exampled and supported consistently by the second-chair pastor. The senior pastor is going to receive the lion’s share of the credit for the successes of a church. That reality may as well be written in Scripture (it isn’t), but the opposite is also true: they will also shoulder the majority of the blame for the failures.
So cheer up, second-chair leaders. You are specially called, gifted, and equipped to assist in the leadership of today’s church. While you won’t receive the credit you deserve, and you will never need treatment for overexposure to spotlights, you do matter and you are valuable. An old adage applies here: great leaders take less credit than they
deserve when things go well, and more blame than they deserve when things do not go well. That should be a line in the job description of every great pastor, senior or second-chair. The church deserves our best no matter the location of our chair. Thank you for listening to my second-chair story.