Recognizing the Paradoxes Facing the Second Chair Leader

Editor’s Note: While we will use “Executive Pastor,” “XP,” “second-in-command,” or “second chair” language throughout this issue of SUMS Remix, the content – and intent – is to help any leader who reports to a senior team member.

It has been said that an institution is the lengthening shadow of a visionary leader. What rarely is said is that in the shadow of that visionary leader was another leader who executed the primary leader’s ideas, monitored the budgets, built the infrastructure and systems, and along the way, cleaned up a few of the messes. Such is the life of a leader who is “second-in-command.”

Bruce Hornsby

The second-in-command leader – many times with the title of Executive Pastor or XP – is the person who picks up where the lead pastor leaves off. By nature of the role even if not reflected in the title, this person has to be a pastor as well – someone who will see ahead three moves to the pastoral needs that will be created by the unveiling of the church’s vision as led by the senior pastor. This is the role of the leader who comes alongside of a visionary senior pastor and says, “I’m with you – I’m ready to go to battle for what God has called you to do in and through this church.” (Phil Taylor)

Unlike almost any other job in the church, the definition of a second-in-command leader or Executive Pastor often inherently lacks definition. It is consistently changing.

This is the hallmark of a good XP: the ability to jump into just about any role and do it moderately well. Is there someone better for the job? Probably, and that’s why you will ultimately hand it off to someone else. But sometimes the best person for the job is the person who has both the time and the drive to call something new into existence couples with a deep understanding and commitment to the Lead Pastor’s vision. You may be the only person in your church that fits that definition. Executive Pastors are like utility players. The best right hand men or women are actually ambidextrous.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Leading from the Second Chair by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson

Leading from the Second Chair will raise awareness of the need for strong leaders in secondary positions. It will describe the value they can bring to their organization and to primary leaders when they are serving at their full potential. It will reshape the way they view their role, with an emphasis on their own responsibility as leaders. It recognizes the unique challenges and frustrations of serving in a subordinate position and equips these leaders with the attitudes and skills that they will need to survive and thrive in this new paradigm.

Because of the scarcity of resources for second chair leaders, particularly those in the church, this book will offer a practical way to improve the performance of any organization.


According to authors Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson, “not only is it lonely at the top, it can be even lonelier when you’re almost at the top.”

Of course, they are referring to “second chair leaders.” Church leaders who hold second chair (or third or fourth) positions are under tremendous pressure. They are expected to do their jobs and provide leadership but defer to the top leader, too.

How can you lead effectively while serving under someone else’s leadership?

The answer can be found by looking to the engineering principle of tension. Whether a small manufactured component like a spring or the huge arches of a suspension bridge, the tension of being able to handle opposite pulling forces makes a successful machine work or a bridge span great distances.

For a second chair leader, these tensions develop because the expectations may appear to be incompatible or even contradictory. 

The second chair requires a special leadership lens that brings clarity to the challenges of three paradoxes. 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). 

Subordinate-Leader Paradox – Effective second chair leaders do not have a zero-sum view of organizational responsibility. They know that two heads are better than one, and that the first chair is not an adversary. They are able to lead with being at the top of the pyramid. Most importantly, they understand that their authority and effectiveness as a second chair stem from a healthy, subordinate relationship with their first chair.

Deep-Wide Paradox – Second chair leaders have specific roles that are narrower and deeper in scope than those of the first chair, yet they need to have a broad, organization-wide perspective. Some who struggle with this paradox resent the restrictions of their role as being too narrow, or they see the more detailed dirty work as being beneath them. At the other extreme, some excel at their specific tasks but fail to see the big picture. If an issue arises, they always see if from the viewpoint of how it affects their ministry. Narrow leaders may have trouble negotiating the informal relational networks that are leveraged by second chairs who seek to have a broader impact on the organization. Effective second chair leaders develop the skills to be both deep and wide.

Contentment-Dreaming Paradox – Being the second chair does not mean giving up on individual or corporate dreams. But a dream cannot be allowed to become shortsighted ambition, nor can it be positioned in competition with the plans of the first chair. Second chair leaders intentionally seek to shape the organization’s directions and mesh their individual dreams with the broader vision. They understand that an apparent detour from their dream may be short-term and even a catalyst to fulfilling their God-given potential. Successful second chair leaders are able to maintain contentment with the present without losing their sense of God-given calling for their future.

Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson, Leading from the Second Chair


Bonem and Patterson note that the three paradoxes listed above represent daily tensions for a second chair leader; not tensions leaders would choose but the reality of the position and the temperament of the leaders involved.

To better understand these paradoxes, schedule some reflection time with the “first-chair” leader you report to. As preparation, share this issue of SUMS Remix with them, asking them to read it ahead of your time together.

Write each one of the paradoxes at the top of a chart tablet, and spend at least thirty minutes discussing it. Use the following questions as jump-starters for your discussion:

  1. What do you love to do?
  2. What kind of projects do you look forward to digging into?
  3. Do you look forward to a day of non-stop appointments or do you simply endure it?
  4. Do you tend to hand new things off to other people fairly quickly once you are done building them or do you hold on for a long time?
  5. When you think of your ideal workday or workweek, what does it look like?
  6. Do you find yourself saying on a regular basis, “Man, this church would run so more smoothly if it weren’t for all these people?”

Close your discussion time by considering this comment by Eric Geiger:

There is tension embedded in the “executive pastor” title. Sometimes what an “executive” would do in a situation and what a “pastor” must do contradict each other. In those moments, “pastor” must trump “executive.”

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 141-1, released February 2020.

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>> Learn about and purchase SUMS Remix here<<

>> Learn about and purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix here <<


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