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How to work with the Second Chair (Part 1)

By Paul Clark

Perhaps no other staff relationship is more important on the church staff than the relationship between the Senior Pastor and the Second Chair, whether that second chair person carries the title, Executive Pastor, COO or something else. In my context it’s Pastor of Ministry Environments.  That relationship is highly visible and watched by the rest of the staff. It’s critical to maintaining a healthy organization. It’s sets the tone for the other staff relationships. It’s key to creating real organizational effectiveness.

Much has been written about how the Second Chair should relate to the Senior Pastor, but I haven’t seen much written about the converse relationship. How should the Senior Pastor approach the Second Chair? What does the Second Chair need in order to be effective in ministry, not to mention be fulfilled and satisfied in their work?

After 18 years in a Second Chair role, I’d like to take a crack at a list of dos and don’ts for Senior Pastors working with their executive pastors or Second Chairs. It’s born out of personal experience serving a handful of church leaders in my career with vastly different personalities and leadership styles.

Here’s a list of ideas for Senior Pastors to consider:

  • Let your Second Chair into the inner circle of leadership issues, challenges, problems, decisions and dialogue. Many senior leaders struggle opening up to allow another person into the crux of the leadership challenge. Yet without that transparency, the Second Chair cannot find the clarity he or she needs to be most effective.
  • Work hard at building trust.  Start systematically with smaller tasks and delegations and as confidence increases, increase the size and complexity of the responsibilities. The ultimate goal is to allow the Second Chair to lead with some sense of independence, but trust is the foundation.
  • Be transparent with how you prefer to work with your key staff. What are the unwritten rules that you use? Be upfront about your preferences. Draw clear boundaries. Make sure that satisfying you is not a moving target.
  • Pray for your Second Chair as much as you would want him or her to pray for you.  Realize that the challenges of the Second Chair are just as intense, albeit different, as those of the senior role.
  • Make yourself available. Have an “open door” policy for the Second Chair. Expecting him or her to save their questions or problems for a weekly meeting is unrealistic. Plan a daily exchange of ideas, concerns, decisions and information.
  • Let your Second Chair be the expert. If your Second Chair has expertise in finance, business, leadership or some other discipline, allow them to stand out in that role. Don’t insist that you be the voice on every topic. Standing to the side while allowing someone else to demonstrate expertise communicates humility, a healthy shared leadership, and a willingness to let those around you excel.
  • Be a friend. The senior leader and the Second Chair don’t need to be best friends, but there must be a level of care that goes beyond the business of the church. We serve best those we care for the most. Developing a shepherding style toward your Second Chair will create the kind of deeper relationship that will lead to greater loyalty and therefore greater partnership.
  • Give credit where credit is due. If a great idea comes from the Second Chair, don’t make it your own when you explain it to the Board or the staff. A good Second Chair doesn’t need public accolades, but when their ideas don’t get credit, the integrity of the relationship is undermined.
  • Keep criticisms private. A great Second Chair will not criticize the Senior Leader in public, i.e. among other staff, Board members or congregants, so be sure to return the favor by keeping criticism private and away from everyone’s purview.
  • Empower the Second Chair to lead in day-to-day operational decisions. Insisting that all decisions be processed through the senior’s office will slow down the organization and hinder the ability to be nimble in daily management. Draw clear boundaries around what must be discussed before executing decisions, but beyond those things, let go. Insist on good communication but not in shared decision-making.

Paul Clark is pastor of ministry environments/operations at Fairhaven Church, Centerville, OH. He has served in the areas of church administration and operations for 18 years. His passion is to translate great vision into organizational reality, sharing his thoughts and ideas at www.visionmeetsreality.org and @paultclark Twitter account.

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