Leading Through Change From the Second Chair

Driving to work this morning I spotted our neighborhood school’s marching band outside early, rehearsing for the start of football season. I live in Texas and “Friday Night Lights” is a real thing!  Not only is the rivalry fierce between football teams, but also the drill teams and marching bands. In high school, I played flute in the marching band. I was second chair.

Every year, we had tryouts to see who would take the coveted first chair position, and inevitably, my nemesis would beat me by the smallest of margins. While the competition was stiff, the experience of playing harmony next to the first chair is a fond memory. I learned quickly that I had to play with just as much expertise, precision, tone, and skill as the first chair, or we just wouldn’t sound as good. Something would be off.

As a woman in ministry, I have served for the past 25 years in churches, campus ministries, and now in a seminary, always as a “second chair leader.” Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson, in their book Leading from the Second Chair, define a second chair leader as “a person in a subordinate role whose influence adds value throughout the organization.”[1]  Serving from the second chair does not mean I am less than a leader, have less ability, or less influence; it is simply the position and part I have been given, and my responsibility is to perform my part with as much skill and ability as my organization’s first chair leader. Sometimes this comes easily. Other times, leading from the second chair is hard.

When a ministry or organization goes through change and transition, leading from the second chair can be especially challenging.

God has allowed me to experience leading through a church split, ministering at a church that saw quick, exponential growth, and now He has me serving a seminary that is in top level leadership transition. I have learned a few things along the way that have helped me lead through change as a second chair leader.

  1. The world is constantly changing, but we serve a God who is consistently constant.

    When every morning begins with the question, “I wonder what we will face today?” it is good to know when everything else is changing, my God stays the same. God’s guidance, His Word, His faithfulness, His love, His grace, His mercy, His discipline, and His covenant with me, as His daughter, never changes. Knowing this helps me to face the challenges before me as I seek Him and trust Him.  Some days, on the hardest of days, I must intentionally remind myself of this fact, so much so, that above my desk I have posted a note that simply says, “I trust you, Jesus.” I speak those words out loud, as a confession and proclamation that I serve an immutable God.

  2. “Communicator” may be your most important role.

    The larger the organization, the more first chair leaders depend on second chair leaders to communicate with the people they lead. When far-reaching change and transition comes, I need to communicate assurance and hope. God knew these changes were going to happen, and God is still in control. I also need to communicate the vision and future direction that is being cast from the top. I have learned that it is better to over-communicate than to leave the people I lead in doubt. When questions remain unanswered, or people are left in the dark, there is more likelihood for mistruths and gossip to develop. I try my best to share what I know and what I am free to share with my team. I believe my team has come to expect me to be honest and open consistently, so when those instances arise that I must say, “I really can’t go into detail, but trust me,” they will.

  3. Celebrate the successes and try to redeem the losses.

    Whenever you are facing change and transition, there will be hard-fought successes. Celebrate those with your team. Many will go the second, third, and fourth miles for the sake of the ministry and the church. Celebrate their commitment and help. Unfortunately, change and transition will also bring losses. Sometimes, the losses are people. These are the most painful. Try to redeem the losses because the bottom line of our calling as followers of Christ rests in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18).

Change is inevitable, and significant organizational transition will test even the most seasoned leader. Even so, embrace your second chair position with all enthusiasm and confidence. Don’t shy away or push pause when things are uncertain because the band is going to keep on marching and God is looking for you to play your part well. He has placed you in that second chair to be used by Him, for His glory, even in the midst of change.


[1] Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson, Leading from the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005, 2.