The 2nd Chair: Suffering a Toxic Leader When 2nd in Command

2nd ChairIn an orchestra there is the “principal” player in each section (I.e. trumpets) and the “second chair” who supports the principal.

Depending on the church, an Assistant to the pastor may take a significant role in directing a particular ministry in the church such as youth groups, music, discipleship and worship as a leader in the “second chair.” In some denominations the senior pastor and elders have equal authority and this may include an assistant.

However, most elder and deacon boards give significant authority to the senior pastor, giving him broad discretionary powers in budget spending, vision, and day to day operations of the church. An assistant (or associate) pastor may report almost entirely to the pastor.

When the senior and assistant pastors’ visions and practice of leadership conflict there can be significant relational battles waged that then envelop the congregation.

How does the pastor’s assistant, who “leads from the second chair,” practice self-differentiation when the environment is exceptionally anxious due to the autocratic leadership of a senior pastor?


“Self-differentiation” is described by Edwin Friedman [A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix] as,

Someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.”

An “anxious emotional” environment may develop because of the autocratic and non-empathetic leadership of the pastor. Conflict is a matter of course under his leadership.

Some literature describing self-differentiation suggest that those who are self-differentiated can have a significant impact on the systemic anxiety located in an organization. Though there may be a person who acts “obstreperously” or is “ornery” and intimidates “everyone with his gruffness,” Friedman argues that it simply takes one person willing to take “a stand, telling this person he has to shape up or he cannot continue to remain a member of the community” to neutralize the anxiety in the system.[1]

While speaking of marital discord, Friedman says, “It does not require two people working on a marriage to change it.[2] Friedman argues that one person can create a positive environment despite the intimidation of another individual.

Christian writers, Herrington, Creech and Taylor would agree as they maintain that the focus in an anxious environment needs to be on “managing yourself rather than managing others.[3] It is necessary to be different (differentiated) from those creating the anxiety.

These counselors have had extraordinary success in helping leaders of organizations develop self-differentiation skills that greatly impact the relationships in their systems.

But Abuse

But does this really work when under the authority of an abusive leader? Can the pastor’s assistant practice self-differentiation in this way and impact the systemic anxiety while facing an autocratic, dictator-like senior pastor?

David McAllister-Williams, in The Leadership Challenge, exhorts, “what matters is not your personal success or the success of your organization.” To self-differentiate, the assistant needs to “put the future in God’s hands, and [he] will be the kind of non-anxious presence people will look to for comfort and hope.”[4]

Here self-differentiation is related to a servant’s attitude as the (second-chair) leader has opportunity to provide “comfort and hope” rather than defending his own territory, ego, or ideas.

However, when anxiety-causing leader has extensive authority and is seeking only his personal success, the aggressive stance of telling him “to shape up,” as Friedman suggested earlier, is not an option available to the second-chair. Even seeking redress from others in the organization (like the elder board) can mean losing employment or breaking an already fragile relationship with the pastor or CEO, according to Mariam Ciby and R.P. Raya of Pondicherry (Central) University.[5]

There are few psychologists who have studied abusive leadership who will suggest that self-differentiation by those under abusive leaders will change the environment. Calling the subordinate to mellow the anxiety created by the leader places the responsibility of systemic change on the target of the abuse rather than calling to account the badly behaving pastor.

Expecting the one under the powerful position of the leader to be above it all while being battered is likened to telling an abused woman to “just hang in there,” being submissive to a man who has no intention of loving her, only controlling her to his own selfish ends.

There is likely to be no change in the abusive leader’s end-game as any abuse counselor will affirm. He may change tactics, but the end-game will be his control and entitlement.

Coping Strategies

For fear of losing their job or being ruled by people-pleasing instincts, some under abusive leaders create coping strategies when under the duress of this anxiety. They cannot change the environment they have found, but they want to “fly under the radar.”

One of those coping strategies is the “herding instinct.” This pattern of behavior is intended to bring peace to an environment in a perpetual state of anxiety by discouraging “dissent,” “seeking consensus,” and “adopting an appeasement strategy” toward the one that is troublesome according to Friedman.[6] The goal is to create a positive and peaceful environment, overlooking or diminishing disagreements.

However, this strategy will focus on “changing others” as it is necessary that all employees (or congregant members) who surround the difficult leader must come to a consensus on matters of disagreement in order to please the senior pastor.

Friedman says people must “focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”[7] The pastor’s assistant and elder or deacon boards caught in the middle must be primarily concerned about their own beliefs, values, and integrity rather than seeking agreement where there will be none with the autocratic leader. He is likely only to agree to those things that bring him fame and honor…and this often is not what is best for the organization, nor God-honoring.

Be Ye Different

However, being self-differentiated provides a positive coping strategy according to Herrington, Creech, and Taylor. They suggest that,

Differentiation is the ability to remain connected in relationship to significant people in our lives and yet not have our reactions and behavior determined by them.”[8]

Both Herrington and Freidman recommend facing the aggressor firmly planted in self-identity and personal values. For Herrington, Creech, and Taylor this perspective is found in the example of Jesus as He served others, “But they would not determine his decisions.”[9] He would not entrust Himself to the crowds who were praising Him, because He knew they were fickle.

Self-differentiation can be understood to mean that the surety of one’s place in God’s kingdom and the giftedness with which the assistant to the pastor has been given assures him of the value of his perspective and leadership when facing a “tyrant.”

Whether that leader allows him a place at the table or not. The Assistant can act with integrity, damning the torpedos.

But be prepared to leave…by force or by choice when the abusive leader becomes implacable. It is unlikely the winner will be the underdog – the second-chair.

He rarely is.


An assistant to the pastor, seeking to be both leader and follower, serving an autocratic senior pastor and leading the people of God, faces a difficult environment. As he depends on God’s gifting, leading, and faithfulness, he can find the solace and shalom necessary to impact the anxiety present in the system or get out of it.

Whichever will mean fruitful ministry in God’s kingdom by God’s sovereign grace.


[1] Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 238–241.

[2] Ibid., 1523–1524.

[3] Herrington, Creech & Taylor, The Leader’s Journey, 70.

[4] John Maxwell, Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge, 59.

[5] Ciby and Raya, “Exploring Victims’ Experiences of Workplace Bullying: A Grounded Theory Approach,” 76.

[6] Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 1285–1287, 1306-1308.

[7] Ibid., 313–315.

[8] Herrington, The Leader’s Journey, 273–274.

[9] Ibid., 322–323.

Leave a Reply