Thriving While Surviving: Second Chair Leadership in the African American Church


The Bible is replete with markers that God intends for His Church to be governed by a group of leaders. While the blueprint isclear, the exercise and implementation of this plural-elder model of church governance is fraught with challenges for the second chair leader; these challenges stem from a lack of understanding or willingness to employ the biblical principles of Christian leadership, authority, and submission, as well as allowing one’s actions to be led by the Holy Spirit.

Plural-Elder Church Governance

Plural-Elder Church Governance Defined

Steve Cowan (2004) provides a concise definition of plural-elder church governance that indicates that “each local churchshould be governed under normal circumstances by a plurality of elders” (p. 188). The caveat “under normal circumstances” addresses situations such as a fledgling ministry with 10 members not requiring a multi-elder leadership team during its infancy. However, as we learn from Moses’s impromptu leadership summit with his father-in-law Jethro in Exodus 18:13–23, the delegation of certain duties of first chair leadership responsibility to other capable leaders is beneficial not only to the first chair leader but to the entire congregation.

Biblical Support

In the Old Testament, we find multiple indications that leadership duties and key decision-making impacting the lives of God’s chosen people were being handled by a group of elders (Exod. 3:16, 18; Num. 11:16–17). An important detail to note from Numbers 11:17 is that the 70 leaders chosen to assist Moses in the exercise of leadership were endowed with a portion of the same Spirit that Moses had received. The responsibility of these second chair leaders was simply to assist Moses in carrying the load. God never intended for the tremendous burden of leading a flock of His sheep to be borne by one person.

In the New Testament, we find a distinction made by God between first chair and second chair leaders. In Revelation 4:2–4, Jesus’s church assessment memoranda were not addressed to the board of elders of the seven churches but to the angel of the house. This singular designation clearly indicates that there was one specific leader whom God held ultimately responsible forwhat went on within the local franchise church. These church report cards were destined for the hands and eyes of the first chairleader of each local assembly of believers.

Putting It into Practice

I have personally experienced the application (and avoidance) of the proper exercise of this form of church governance; I did so for 15 years as an ordained elder and for over 40 years as a member of predominantly African American U.S. churches within the Pentecostal and Baptist denominational traditions. More specifically, the church governance models seen employed have been single or plural-elder congregationalism. The deeply rooted, passionately expressed need for independence from a ruling hierarchy outside of the local church has been a foundational pillar in these local congregations. Many have consented to membership in associations for the purposes of education, training, and mutual fellowship, but the associations exercise no authority over their local member churches (Cowan, 2004, p. 188).

The choice to employ this type of church government model often stems from the visceral negative response to perceived and real abuses of the exercise of governance under the hierarchical structures of the Roman Catholic and Anglican church traditions. (It is also these negative responses that spurred the Protestant church movement.) In many cases, steps were taken to avoid the undue burden placed on local congregations in the historical church government hierarchies. However, this opened the door for constructing and utilizing church governance models that included manipulative and unbiblical practices. There was no accepted and recognized earthly human source of accountability for the first chair leaders of these congregations. I have heard more than one first chair leader of a single or plural-elder congregationalist church errantly and defiantly indicate that they only needed to submit and be accountable to God.

Implementation Challenges

In his 2005 work, Mike Bonem addresses many of the challenges that second chair leaders face on a daily basis in attempting to exercise leadership and delegate authority within a plural-elder church governance construct.

These leaders must be subordinate to the top leader yet lead in their own right. They should be deep in their expertise but wide in perspective. And they must be content in their jobs yet remain enthusiastic about their dreams for the future. (Bonem, 2005, p. 14)

As a 15-year veteran second chair leader, I can attest to having endured countless episodes of struggling, juggling, and fumbling to find the most appropriate way to live out the teachings and admonishments found in 1 Peter 2:13 and 5:5. On more than one occasion, I have had to work through mental conversations similar to this: “I thought I was assigned to lead/facilitate tonight’s mid-week Bible study session. Why is the senior pastor constantly interrupting, interjecting, and asking the attendees questions that aren’t remotely related to the topic? Do they feel that they are being helpful? Are they trying to embarrass me or show that they know more than I do? Did I present or share a concept or Scripture that was inaccurate or errant?”

Author Dutch Sheets (2005) offers additional insight into the plight of the second chair leader as he describes those who occupy this unique and vitally important position. Such leaders must carry out a challenging role that demands a great deal of trust from those they lead, as well as from the leader they serve (p. 30). Frequently, the second chair leader is caught between the simultaneously closing pressure plates of the demands from both constituencies. Sheets (2005) suggests that our response to this intense pressure should be to serve both groups. This requires that second chair leaders be well-furnished with the spiritual character quality of humility.

Impact and Consequences

Second chair leaders come in one of two varieties: those who are destined to become first chair leaders, such as Joshua or David, and those whose calling is to remain the number two leader for the entirety of their existence, like Joseph serving Pharaoh in Egypt. Much frustration, disappointment, and angst can be avoided by the second chair leader who prays to God for divine direction and discernment regarding his destiny.

I have discovered a powerfully affirming statement that accurately sums up my 15-year journey of maturation in the wilderness of second chair leadership. In Andy Stanley’s forward of Clay Scroggins text How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge,Stanley states, “Great leaders leverage influence and relationships over title and position. The best leaders become the leaders by mastering the art of leading when they’re not in charge” (Scoggins, 2017, p. 12). It sounds too simple to be true, yet it absolutely is. The barrier to living out Stanley’s statement is most frequently not an unwilling or timid second chair leader. Instead, it is often due to a first chair leader whose leadership style, ego, or understanding of what God requires of them (specifically in relation to the mentoring and development of other leaders) is not clear or of chief importance.

Biblical Principles of Christian Church Leadership

Authority and Submission

The Bible offers a primer on the concept of authority and submission in Romans 13:1–5. Throughout both the New and Old Testament writings, we are presented with dozens of examples of God’s desire and frequent habit of delegating portions of His ultimate and sovereign authority to others. In the specific example of Christ Jesus, God the Father gave all authority to Him. A significant portion of the art of being a successful second chair is for a leader to be able to instantly discern when they need to increase and when they need to decrease. I describe this ability as an art, not a science—although its optimal exercise is informed by biblical principles of honor (1 Pet. 2:13, 1 Tim. 5:17) and order (1 Cor. 14: 26, 33; Titus 1:5; Isa. 48:13).

Holy Spirit Led Leadership: Discerning and Employing Spiritual Gifts

In his 2004 text, pastor and author Wayne Cordeiro refers to the text of 1 Corinthians 12. He explains that God’s blueprint for His Church ensures that every believer is endowed with at least one spiritual gift. God’s desire is that these good and perfect gifts be utilized for the collective benefit of the entire local church community and the universal Church of Christ. “Doing church as a team isn’t one person doing a hundred things. It’s a hundred people doing one thing each—each doing what they do best” (Cordeiro, 2004, pp. 43–44).

When it comes to the familiar culture and environment of the Christian church, many of those in positions of leadership display a tendency to operate from a fleshly (i.e., focused on talent, abilities, and skills) platform rather than allowing themselves to be used, moved, and directed by the anointing of the Spirit of God. It’s almost as if they’re in competition to out shine or be more spiritual than the leaders on either side—behind or ahead of them. In this scenario, God is robbed of His glory in the place where He should be most exalted.

This ungodly spirit of competition and covetousness is often the root of contentious relationships among second chair leaders. It is most insidious when the battle to be more highly regarded in the eyes of the congregation exists between a first chair leader who is jealous of the second chair leader’s gifting in a particular area. This situation harms the second chair leaderas they are denied the benefit of being mentored and allowed to develop their spiritual gift(s). It simultaneously stifles the growth of the first chair leader as they deprive themselves of fulfilling the assignment to identify and develop other leaders in the local church.

Ultimately, the entire community of believers suffers because the gifts that Christ gave to the universal Church are not being employed to equip and edify the entire body (Eph. 4:11–12). If utilized at all, the gifts are deployed only to allow a performance to take place. No true ministry occurs as the actions taken are propelled by flawed, self-seeking motives.


Leadership expert Peter Northouse (2019) affirms and agrees with what has already been stated in Scripture about team leadership. It is validated as an effective leadership method to be employed in governing the church because “it does not focus leadership on the position of power of a single leader but re-defines leadership as problem diagnosis and action implementation” (p. 382). This form of leadership is often challenging to execute well due to the multiple complex scenarios that a leader within a team leadership structure must navigate. Successful navigation is also impacted by the relatively long timeframe required for leaders, both first and second chair, to become proficient practitioners of this framework (Northouse, 2019).

Spiritual leadership carries out the mandates of God with a heart that aligns with God’s Word and His will (1 Sam. 13:14). It equips and prepares God’s people via the use of spiritual gifts for works of His service and for their edification until the church reaches unity in the faith and knowledge of God (Eph. 4:12–13). Plural-elder church leadership meets those criteria and is thus clearly spiritual leadership (Rom. 13:1–5). It makes effective, orderly use of the multiple spiritual gifts that God has given to His Church. In addition, it simultaneously benefits both the local congregation and the universal body of believers as it places God’s model of leadership delegation into action. If we accept these assertions, we must put them into action as part of our responsibility as leaders; we must submit to the rule of those into whose hands God has entrusted the care of our souls. Let us yield to the Spirit, the will and Word of God, rather than attempt to resist it, as that would not be to our benefit. We, as members of the body, can become partners with Christ in continuing the godly tradition of first chair leaders, discerning, identifying, and developing the next generation of second chair leaders who will guide and shape His church for the next generation.

Gary Nelson, MAM, is assistant pastor of Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a doctor of education student at Liberty University a and Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, resident.


Bonem, M. (2005). Leading from the second chair: Serving your church, fulfilling your role and realizing your dreams. Jossey-Bass.

Cordeiro, W. (2004). Doing church as a team: The miracle of teamwork and how it transforms churches. Regal Books.

Cowan, S. B. (2004). Who runs the church? Zondervan.

Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed.). Sage Publishing. Scroggins, C. (2017). How to lead when you’re not incharge. Zondervan.

Sheets, D. (2005). Second in command: Strengthening leaders who serve leaders. Destiny Image Publishers.

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