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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Knowing When To Fold ‘Em: The Plight of Second Chair Leaders

Congregational staff who occupy the “second chair” often find themselves in a precarious position related to the prospects of their tenure.

Sometimes circumstances dictate this, but also, the relationship with the senior pastor can be a major factor, or, simply falling out of favor with a small but influential group within the church.


One insight that can be of help when both circumstance and relationship make for a prickly situation is that during times of acute anxiety the issue is not about some of the things we assume should matter.

For example, I’ve heard church staff members, who are trying to resolve the conflict that threatens their job argue on the merit of things like:


Staff members often are taken aback to discover that none of those tend to count for much, or are given merit, during times of reactivity, when a staff member becomes the focus of anxiety. (resulting in ).

Reactivity is not about logic and reasonableness, so what rises to the surface is scapegoating, blame-displacement, or personalization of issues.

People who are in the throes of reactivity are not interested in dialogue—the bottom line is, they just want their way.


Here’s what it sounds like:

“I’ve been here 10 years. They wouldn’t just dismiss me or tolerate the pastor just firing staff.”

When reactivity hits, length of tenure does not matter much—in fact, it may become one more arrow in the opponent’s quiver (”You’ve been here too long,” “That staff person should have left five years ago.” “We need new blood and fresh ideas.”).

This notion also assumes that length of tenure provides some “rights” and “privileges.”

That may be true in more formal organizations that recognize length of tenure as a value, but it’s not universally true in congregations. (Andrew Bierce said that fidelity is “A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.”).

As to the issue of the pastor firing staff, that’s one loaded with all sorts of angles.

In some churches, it may be that staff is expendable while the pastor is not.

Or the congregation may hold to a “theology of hire” rather than a “theology of call” related to staff.

In other words, an un-theological view that “the pastor hires staff” as opposed to the congregation, as a community of faith, calls its staff.


“I’m competent at what I do and I carry out my work responsibly.”

Aside from the fact that this is a given—you are expected to be good at your job—the fact of the matter is few congregational members will have any idea of what you do at your job and ministry.

Program staff tend to be behind-the-scenes persons and their sphere of influence will tend to be small and focused, often by virtue of program areas: youth, children, adults, senior adults, educational programs, etc.

Usually, most people will not notice how good a job you are doing—but they’ll immediately notice if you drop the ball on something!


“But I’ve gotten glowing personnel reports every year! How can they now say I’m not doing a good job?!”

Sadly, most congregational personnel committees tend to be ineffective if not dysfunctional; and in many congregations, they are non-existent.

Often these committees consist of people in the congregation who have no idea about what you do, may have only a passing personal acquaintance with you, and, tend to have no idea about how or why they are meeting for the annual personnel review with staff (reasoning that it’s the pastor’s job to supervise staff).


Additionally, there tends to be a high turnover in these committees—no one wants to be critical of staff (except for the occasional willful persons who get on the committee to work out their issues with the church) and few church members feel competent enough to evaluate the specialized kind of ministries that second chair program staff carry out.

Paradoxically, the more responsible members take the view that if they don’t supervise you, why should they evaluate you?



When conflict spikes to a certain point, either because of circumstances or relationships, staff need to do the work of discernment about whether to stay or go.

This is not easy and can be heartbreaking.

But I’ve seen too many staff persons take a naive posture and just “hope for the best” or trust that persons will be reasonable and redemptive.

Sadly, often that’s just setting oneself up for a tragic surprise by putting one’s fate in the hands of others.

So, how do you know when to fold ‘em?

Here are some thoughts based on my observation of staff (second chair) terminations over the years:


Lest this sound like a tirade against pastors and senior pastors let me say three things: (1) first, let’s confess that sometimes, it is the pastor; but, (2) often it’s a consequence of the challenge of pastoral leadership functioning in a complex and chronically anxious system.

I don’t think pastors intentionally want to function in unhealthy, unredemptive, reactive ways that are detrimental to self, others, and their congregations.

But we should never underestimate the pressure of an anxious system on leaders who lack the resources to do self-care, self-work, or lack the capacity to function in self-differentiated ways.


Never underestimate the power of systemic emotional process on the person on the end-point of anxiety (especially if it involves acute anxiety)—respect the power of homeostasis that facilitates a system to call out the leader who matches all of the system’s neuroses; (3) accept that the relationship between pastor and staff is complex and fraught with difficulties.


Trust, mutual respect, collegiality, and just working out a good working relationship takes time, commitment, vulnerability, honesty, mutual accountability, trust, and requires personal and spiritual maturity on the part of all players.

How often do persons come together that can facilitate that constellation?

How often do people give themselves enough time and opportunity to develop that kind of a relationship?

The more common pattern in congregations seems to be that the pastor has little interest in meeting with and spending time with staff colleagues—despite all their talk of being a “team player” or “team leader.”

I don’t think I’m being harsh here—take a poll among second chairs and see what response you get.


Here’s the bottom line: the matter comes down to the integrity of self.

God will hold you more accountable for your response to your calling and ministry than God will others.

And that means leaving well regardless of the fairness of your treatment.

Life is too short to allow ourselves to be caught in oppressive and unhealthy contexts and relationships.

While there is no perfect congregation or place of ministry (and none populated by perfect Christians that I’ve been able to discover) there are places that are healthy, redemptive, affirming, and call out the best in people.

None of us who are called of God, and who accept the call to ministry, are called to minister in places that are toxic to spirit, mind, or family—especially when fostered by those who claim to be disciples of Christ.


Is it time to fold in your cards?

Or has your church or ministry forced you out of your ministry?

Consider the Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat for Clergy and Spouses.

It is specifically for those who have experienced a forced termination or are facing a crisis leading to it. You do not have to walk that journey alone.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.


Dr. G. & Friends