Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge)

Written by Mike Bonem Reviewed By Brian C. Dennert

There are countless books and resources to help pastors with their general duties (preaching, counseling, discipling, leading, etc.) and numerous resources that focus on specialized areas of pastoral ministry (small groups, youth ministry, worship), but there are few resources targeting pastors serving in the “second chair” as Associate Pastors or Executive Pastors. Mike Bonem, who served as an Executive Pastor after a career in business and now works as a consultant, has recognized this gap and tried to fill it, first with his book Leading from the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, Realizing Your Dreams, co-written with Roger Patterson (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005) and now with this contribution.

In many respects, this volume stands as a complement and sequel to the aforementioned book, which introduces and defines the concept of the second chair leader as “a person in a subordinate role whose influence with others adds value throughout the entire organization” (p. 5, quoting from Leading from the Second Chair). This book refers back to concepts introduced in the previous work and builds upon it, moving from helping leaders understand what it means to be in the second chair to thinking about how one can thrive, not just survive, in this role. Therefore, this volume is best read after reading Leading from the Second Chair, but one can benefit from reading this book alone, especially since Appendix A offers an overview of the previous book.

As indicated by its title, the book examines ten practices Bonem maintains are essential for a second chair leader to thrive in his role and bless a church or ministry. Bonem calls these ten practices “deep springs” (p. 2) that give life and will not dry up in times of drought. The ten practices can be divided into three categories, as the first three deal with one’s relationship with the first chair leader (“Grow toward Partnership”; “Live with [and Lift] the ‘Lid’”; “Clarify Your Role”), the next four chapters deal with one’s work in the second chair (“Think [and Act] Strategically”; “Develop for the Future”; “Organize Selectively”; “Navigate Government Nuances”), and the last three deal with the second chair’s self-care (“Seek Lasting Rewards”; “Overcome Loneliness”; “Extend Your Shelf Life”). Bonem states that one can read the chapters selectively if desired and encourages readers to focus on one or two of the practices. Each chapter includes reflection questions as well as some questions to discuss with the first chair leader. Appendix B is designed to be read by a first chair leader to help facilitate discussion of the book with the second chair leader. The epilogue gives an encouragement to write a letter to one’s first chair leader and offers a prayer for the reader. There is also a list of further resources to supplement ideas found in chapter six, “Organize Selectively” (Appendix C).

By drawing upon his experience as an Executive Pastor as well as his interactions with other second chair leaders, Bonem offers many practical and useful insights for ministers who find themselves in the second chair. Some pieces of advice are not unique to this book, such as the calls to keep one’s perspective on eternal rewards, to overcome loneliness by networking with others who understand you and the dynamics of your position in the second chair, and to find ways to draw out one’s gifts and passions while delegating tasks that one does not need to be doing. Bonem, however, applies these insights to the unique challenges that one faces in the second chair. Tips for dealing with problems in one’s relationship with the first chair leader, particularly the need to do self-examination when frustrated with a first chair leader and the need for multiple conversations to address concerns, are some of the most important takeaways for second chair leaders. The book also continues to help the second chair leader understand his role, offering helpful metaphors such as the need for a second chair leader to have his head “above the weeds and below the clouds” (p. 54) and reminding second chair leaders that some ambiguity will always remain in this role by its very nature (p. 45).

Many of Bonem’s ideas derive more from his background in business than from the biblical text (which is not surprising, as he has an MBA rather than an MDiv), but Bonem adapts these business principles in bringing them to the church because he recognizes that the church is not a business so principles cannot be directly transferred (see pp. 93–94). While the systems in the church will differ from those in business, systems and organization are still important to help people; one needs to have the right systems for the context of ministry in general and one’s ministry location in particular (p. 71). For example, he notes that organizational charts in the church do not work as neatly as those in the corporate world (p. 86) but are important so people know how to handle issues and problems. He also seeks to stress the importance of goals to bring clarity to one’s work and role as a second chair leader, as well as a supervisor who functions as a coach (pp. 76–78). Overall, Bonem stresses the importance of thinking about the church as a garden to cultivate rather than a machine to be managed (p. 94), with structures helping the garden flourish. This gardening metaphor is reminiscent of pictures of the church we find in Scripture and other books with a closer eye towards the biblical text, such as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2009).

Some assumptions found in Bonem’s writing style and examples will differ from realities found among the book’s readers, but these do not limit the book’s usefulness. For example, the discussion on staffing seems to assume a large church staff, but principles can apply to smaller staffs as well. In addition, Bonem appears to write from an egalitarian perspective, but there is no agenda or attempt to argue for such a position; the reader need not adopt that position to learn from this book. The discussion of navigating governance does not assume one particular model and could be helpful in different settings.

As one who has sat in the second chair for much of his time in ministry, I found this book helpful to think about my role, and I believe it will benefit someone serving as an Associate Pastor, an Executive Pastor, a Campus Pastor, or in any second chair role. Not only can this book help the second chair thrive in his role, but it can also help first chair leaders and organizations thrive through intentional conversations and adjustments in light of the book’s material. In fact, this is a great book for a first chair leader to read in preparation for hiring a second chair leader. Therefore, similar to a second chair leader, this book can add value throughout organizations when partnered with other books focusing more on biblical teaching on pastoral ministry and Christian leadership.

Brian C. Dennert

Brian C. Dennert
Faith Church
Dyer, Indiana, USA

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