Clarifying your role in the second chair

second chair church leader

By Mike Bonem

“And all other duties as may be assigned.”

This is commonly the last line in a job description. But, the practical reality for many second chair leaders is that this is their first responsibility. This simple truth can be frustrating and confusing. 

It’s confusing when you’re not sure what your priorities should be or when you can’t plan your day. It’s frustrating if you feel like your performance will be evaluated based on an arbitrary set of expectations, or if you feel like your time or talents are being wasted. You might wonder why it’s so difficult to develop a job description or if you’re the only one who has these struggles.

You’re not.

When I’m working with a group of second chair leaders, I often ask them to think about their job description (written or verbal). Then, I ask them to reflect on how well their actual jobs match this description. This usually results in a moment of laughter, as well as a new awareness that they’re not alone in their lack of role clarity.

In Leading from the Second Chair, Roger Patterson and I defined a second chair leader as “a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the entire organization.” It’s a definition that is not limited to a specific title such as executive pastor or executive director. And while this is still my working definition for what it means to be a second chair leader, I recognize that this definition does little to clarify the role.

One of the practices that allows second chair leaders to thrive is clarifying their role as much as possible. In saying this, I recognize that some degree of ambiguity will always be part of a second chair leader’s job. The best second chair leaders accept this reality while at the same seeking clarity where it is most needed.

They also recognize that a variety of factors can hinder clarity. The challenges of second chair role clarity tend to fall into one of five categories:

  • Responsibilities and expectations for the job are not well-defined at all
  • Responsibilities were well-defined at one time, but the current reality is quite different
  • A significant gap exists between responsibilities and authority
  • The second chair leader has gifts and abilities that aren’t being used
  • A transition has occurred — either in the first chair or within the executive team.

Each of these categories has unique challenges, but the one that I hear most often is the lack of clear definition. In those same workshops where I ask second chair leaders about their roles, someone inevitably tells me that they’ve never had anything that would pass for a written or verbal job description. Perhaps there was a brief conversation about the position or a few bullet points written on a napkin over lunch one day, but it was never formalized. This is most common when someone is promoted into a second chair role from within the church or ministry, or when a church member is brought onto the staff in a newly created second chair position.

In these cases, “all other duties as may be assigned” isn’t just the primary responsibility for the job; it becomes the only responsibility because of the lack of other defined duties. Even in cases where some sort of job description exists, clarity is often lacking.

Vagueness is the hallmark of this challenge. For example, the senior pastor might have said, “I need you to help me manage the staff.” What does that mean? Do staff members report to the first chair or the second chair? What “help” is needed? Which “staff” are you helping to manage? Or, a first chair might have stated that your primary job is to “implement the vision.” Is the vision clear? Are you responsible for interpreting the vision at the next level of detail? How much freedom do you have to implement?

From your perspective, it seems obvious that some sort of job description is appropriate and helpful — but what about from your first chair’s perspective? You might be working for a classic visionary who simply doesn’t think in these terms. Or, in the case of a newly created second chair position, your first chair might not know what is possible in this role.

Regardless of the underlying cause, it is pointless to “demand” a real job description from your first chair. Demanding will only create tension, not a meaningful job description. Does that mean that you’re doomed to live in ambiguity? No, because there is another option.

If you’re frustrated that your role is not well-defined, you can take the initiative to create clarity. While it might seem odd or even arrogant, second chair leaders in these situations often need to draft (or revise) their own job descriptions.

The key in doing this is the second chair’s attitude and intentions. Taking initiative in this way must not be seen as an attempt to usurp authority or undermine the first chair. Effective second chair leaders will ask for permission to create a draft job description. They will explain that their purpose is to start a conversation that will bring clarity to their role and fruitfulness to the church or ministry. Conversation is the key. The draft document starts a discussion between the first and second chair that clarifies their roles and how they relate to each other. In most cases, multiple discussions are needed to bring about this clarity.

So, if you have permission and know that you need to create a job description, where should you start?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What would most help to advance the mission of our church or ministry? What areas are falling short of their potential? “Areas” could be specific departments, major initiatives, or organization-wide systems.
  • What are my first chair’s biggest needs? Where is she overwhelmed? Where does he have leadership gaps that need to be supplemented?
  • What am I most passionate about? In what ways will my gifts allow me to make the greatest contribution?
  • How should my role be defined so that it moves toward a partnership and clearly demonstrates my support for the first chair?

When a second chair’s job has never been well-defined, this process can begin a conversation that brings much-needed clarity to the role. But a job description is only a starting point; it will never fully capture the nuances and the ever-changing dynamics of the second chair.

The reality is that flexibility is one of the hallmarks of thriving second chair leaders. They know that there will always be ambiguity in their roles, so they thrive by living in the balance between pursuing clarity and demonstrating flexibility.

If you’re feeling out of balance, what steps do you need to take today?


mike bonem authorThis is an excerpt from Mike Bonem’s new book, Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge).

Mike Bonem is a consultant, speaker, church leader, businessperson, husband and father, who loves to help ministries and leaders reach their God-given potential.

This article is an excerpt from Bonem’s new book, Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge)


One Response to “Clarifying your role in the second chair”

  1. John Sugars

    Can a second chair stay a second chair? For example, when the lead pastor goes in leave, can another member of the exec team run the church, while the second chair stays the second chair? I gave not seen this spoken about.

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