Fulfillment in the Second Chair

Published in INSIGHT - Summer 2016

By Mike Bonem

“I have labored to no purpose. I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard words like this from a second chair leader who is in the midst of a season of discouragement. 

Things may be going well in the church, but the second chair does not feel that his contributions are recognized or valued, or the ministry may be suffering through a difficult period that is forcing the leadership team to rethink the mission or even its future existence. In these and many other scenarios, a second chair leader may think, “What’s the point? I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.”

That is why it is important to complete the quote: Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God. These words – from ISAIAH 49:4 (NIV) – have become one of my most important life verses. If you want to thrive in the second chair, you should hide these words in your heart as well.

Does not every job have ups and downs, good seasons and difficult ones? Of course. Are these any different for a second chair leader than for others in ministry? I believe that they are different because the “ups” are often not as high, and the “downs” can be particularly intense. 

It is only human to want to see the fruit of one’s efforts, but what is that fruit when you are in the second chair? If the church or ministry is thriving, people will point to one or more specific elements as being responsible. “It is our children’s/youth/small group/missions/worship that makes this such a vibrant church.” They may point to the preaching of the senior pastor or the charismatic leadership of a homeless agency’s first chair. Whatever they highlight is connected to a person (usually a staff member, occasionally a volunteer) who has direct responsibility for making it happen, and that person is not the second chair. 

At times a second chair leader has a more direct role for one aspect of the church or ministry. It may be an area that does not have a dedicated staff member or a special initiative like a capital campaign or an all-church, off-campus anniversary worship service, but these hands-on duties tend to be a relatively small portion of the job. Even when the second chair has a direct responsibility, it may go unnoticed. That is because the public portion of the task may be handled by the first chair leader. 

Thriving in the second chair requires coming to grips with these realities. Staff members that work for you will get credit when their individual ministries are soaring. No one will know about the long meetings that you had with those staff members to help them develop the ideas that led to this success. Church members will be thrilled with the great results from a church-wide initiative, but they will not know that you spent hours coordinating the efforts of multiple staff members and volunteers in order to produce the final results. And when the first chair leader announces a new strategic emphasis – such as the launch of a satellite campus – few people will realize the role that you played in getting to this point.

These are the challenges when things are going well, and it is certainly not any better when a church or ministry is struggling. Those who serve in second chair roles are leaders who see the big picture, so they feel the weight of poor results almost as much as the person in the first chair. In difficult seasons, second chair leaders will experience the stress of trying to develop plans that will lead to a much-needed turnaround. They will agonize over the possibility of layoffs. They will feel responsible for the mistakes or performance shortfalls of others that led to this point. They may even be blamed (by the first chair or key leaders) for these implementation failures.

Fulfillment for second chair leaders is also directly linked to their relationship with the first chair. Things can be going great for the church, but if this key relationship is strained, the second chair may find herself on the margin. When the ministry is not doing well, relational stress may lead to unjustified blame for the second chair. In contrast, when the relationship is healthy, good seasons feel like shared victories and times of struggle are not borne alone. 

Outside of the church or ministry, second chair leaders will find few people who understand and recognize what they do. Ministry colleagues and denominational leaders often do not “get it.” When someone refers to you as “just a ____ (fill in your job title),” it stings. It suggests that you do not have a significant leadership role and that your contributions are marginal. 
It also stings when you are unfairly criticized or attacked by people within the church or ministry. It seems that every second chair has at least one scar caused by someone who did not agree with a leadership decision or just did not like him personally. Our settings are supposed to be places where Christ-like behavior is the norm, but they are often just the opposite. At times, it is enough to make anyone feel like he is laboring to no purpose. 

Let us assume that you are not working for a first chair leader who easily gives credit and encouragement and that you are not surrounded by people who affirm the value of your contributions. Does that mean that you just need to find another spring that will quench your thirst for thriving? While it may be more difficult to thrive in this environment, it is not impossible.

I had been in the second chair role for about four years, and had not had a meaningful performance review since my one year anniversary. (The annual reviews since then had been less than five minutes long with the message being, “Keep up the good work.”) I asked our senior pastor if we could schedule a time for a more complete review. In response, I got a couple of extra sentence: “You’re doing a great job. I’ll let you know if I have any concerns. Keep up the good work.” 

In that moment, I realized that I would never receive a comprehensive evaluation from this senior pastor. We had a great relationship, and he was truly pleased with my work, but giving performance reviews was not one of his strengths. So I realized that I needed to reframe my understanding of feedback in light of my first chair’s personality. 

This meant three specific steps for me. First, I needed to interpret the feedback (or lack thereof) in light of the person. Because my senior pastor gave praise sparingly, I learned to treasure those moments when I did receive recognition. Second, I tried to read between the lines. When he did not say anything, that meant that he was generally pleased with my performance. Occasionally he did not say anything verbally, but I could sense some kind of frustration or displeasure. That leads to the third step – asking for specifics. If I sensed that my senior pastor was unhappy, I would ask a direct question,  or if I wanted feedback on a particular aspect of my work, I would focus on this. “Can you give me feedback on how I handled this year’s budgeting process?” is very different than asking, “How am I doing in my job?” You are more likely to get meaningful feedback if the topic is well-defined.

Your first chair leader’s approach to giving feedback may be completely different. She may be so positive that you would never know if she is unhappy with something, or he may be just the opposite – always able to find a fault no matter what you do. Regardless of the particular personality or style, these three steps are a good starting point.

But these steps are only a starting point. They are all dependent on your first chair, and your boss is not the only person who can give meaningful feedback. The staff members and the key laypeople that you work with can also point out areas where you are most effective and those where you need to grow. With these groups, even more so than with a first chair, your requests will need to be specific. A generic question like “How am I doing?” or even “What do I need to improve?” may result in generic responses that are not constructive. If you ask for their observations on specific points, the conversation will be more productive. You might even use a “360 survey” if you want more extensive feedback. 

If feedback – from your first chair and others – is sparse or is not particularly meaningful, you can create your own standard. You are a second chair leader, so you should have clear ideas about what needs to be done for your church or ministry to accomplish its mission. What is your role in making this happen? Can you translate this into specific goals? If so, then your progress toward these goals can become a source of fulfillment in your role. 

Ultimately, true fulfillment in the second chair – or any other role – is described in the last part of ISAIAH 49:4. My reward is with my God. A leader with a vibrant spiritual life knows that any “success” is a gift from God, and also knows that “failure” is only temporary and cannot separate him or her from God’s love. When this truth rings louder than every other source of affirmation or criticism, you will know that your labor is not in vain. 

Mike Bonem is a consultant and coach. He can be reached at .713-822-0272

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