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Mike Bonem on Leading and Thriving from the Second Chair


Mike_Bonem_podcastWelcome, everyone, to the unSeminary podcast. Thank you for taking the time to join us today as we talk with author and speaker Mike Bonem.

Mike is the author of the book Leading From the Second Chair. He started as an engineer and then went back to school to get his MBA and work as a consultant. He began working more consulting with churches and it was from there that God opened the door for him to become an executive pastor. He served in that role for eleven years before leaving five years ago to do the consulting and coaching work that he now does with churches and other executive pastors.

Mike is with us today to talk about his experiences as an executive pastor and the challenges that an executive pastor can face from the second chair of the church.

  • Leading well as a subordinate. // When Mike and his co-author set out to write Leading From the Second Chair, they broke the book into three main challenges that executive pastors face. The first is being in the subordinate role. It can be difficult to be in that position, knowing that you’re not the senior pastor and not the person with the final say, but still wanting to lead. Mike come into the role as a church leader on an interim basis, but then felt that God was leading him to stay there. When he decided to take on the role, he went and spoke with his senior pastor. He asked if it would be okay if he pushed back on him and challenge him at times. He knew he wouldn’t thrive in the role as executive pastor if he couldn’t push back at times when he disagreed with the senior pastor. His senior pastor said he needed someone who would do that, which is what a lot of senior pastors need. But it needs to be done in a respectful way that still honors the senior pastor’s leadership.
  • Deep and wide. // In big churches, there may be many people who handle different aspects of the church, yet the executive pastor is still expected to be a part of all of it. The executive pastor is expected to know the details of different situations or parts of the church, but also be able to see the overall picture. This is what Mike refers to as “deep and wide”—getting deep into the details, but wide overall. There may be certain areas that the executive pastor needs to be deeper involved in than others, but it’s still a good idea for the executive pastor to know the details of the church and how it’s functioning throughout all areas.
  • Content with your dreaming. // Mike says a lot of executive pastors ask the question, “How can I be content with where God has placed me today even if that’s not where I think I want to be long term and yet not give up on dreams about the future?” It’s a myth that only the senior pastor is allowed to dream about where he’s going or what is coming for the church. God doesn’t operate on our timeline, as Mike reminds us in today’s podcast. “God may be at work right now in ways that I can’t see right now on a timeline that I don’t understand,” Mike reminds us. Trust in God, pray, and find that contentment with where you are at the moment and where God is leading you and grow from that.

You can learn more about Mike and his books at his website

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Episode Highlights

00:37 // Rich introduces Mike Bonem and welcomes him to the show.

01:33 // Mike talks about his background.

02:50 // Mike introduces us to his book, Leading from the Second Chair.

05:00 // Mike talks about his relationship with his senior pastor.

07:39 // Rich and Mike discuss the Subordinate-Leader paradox.

08:19 // Mike explains the Deep-Wide paradox.

09:51 // Rich and Mike discuss replicating within the church to enable growth.

13:28 // Mike explains the Contentment-Dreaming paradox.

15:06 // Mike introduces us to his new book, Thriving in the Second Chair.

16:08 // Mike shares one of the chapters of his new book.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // Evernote and TimeTrade

Ministries Following // United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City

Influential Book // Daring Greatly and Rising Strong by Brene Brown and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas

Inspiring Leader // Bill Hybels

What does he do for fun // Running and the outdoors and spending time with his family

Contact // and [email protected]

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, happy Thursday. We hope things are great with you this week at your church, we know that you’ve got a lot going on, we’re honored that you would take some time out, there’s lots of things you could be doing today and we’re just privileged that you would put us in your ears and listen in to today’s conversation.

Super excited to have Mike Bonem with us, he’s an author, speaker, church leader, has wrote a book that you’ve probably heard of before, if you haven’t we’re going to dig into it a little bit today, called Leading from the Second Chair. He serves as an executive pastor, which I always love, I love interacting with executive pastors. Mike, welcome to the show.

Mike – Thanks a lot Rich, it’s great to be here and be a part of it.

Rich – I’m so glad you’ve taken some time. Actually, for a while you were a manager at McKinsey & Co as well, we were just talking about this before we started. That’s a rare bird, I don’t think I’ve ran into any other church leaders that worked for the management consulting firm McKinsey.

Mike – There probably are some somewhere. Actually, one guy that I do know well that worked for McKinsey is Greg Hawkins who was the executive pastor at Willow Creek for a number of years.

Rich – Right, so that gives you a sense, you know, not a lot. Greg’s a great guy, this is fantastic. Why don’t you give us kind of a bit of the Mike Bonem story, kind of compress it down, give us a sense of your background?

Mike – Sure, well like you said, McKinsey, so I actually started my career as an engineer and then went back to school and got an MBA and onto McKinsey. Then that’s really where I learned a lot about consulting and found out that, through a series of I think, God ordained events that a lot of what I had learned about consulting was applicable in a church environment. So I started doing, over 20 years ago, some consulting, organizational strategy stuff with churches and God opened some doors to me to write and then ultimately opened the door for me to go into this executive pastor role at the church that we were members of at the time.

So I’d sort of been there for 11 years and counted the last chapter in that story, at least from a career standpoint, stepping out of that role about almost 5 years ago to do the consulting and coaching work that I had been doing, sort of part time, to do that full time.

Rich – Very cool, very cool. Well Leading from the Second Chair, a lot of folks that are listening in are in that role, they’re executive pastors or some role that is like that and that’s a unique challenge. What would you say some of those, as you’ve kind of dealt with a lot of executive pastors around, what would you say are some of those common tensions or common problems that come about when you want to really lead from that second chair?

Mike – Yeah, you know Rich, when Roger Patterson and I wrote this book on that subject we framed it around 3 things that we think seem to be paradoxes for people in those second chair roles. It’s been 10 years since the book came out, I still hear people talking about the exact same tensions today.

Rich – Right.

Mike – The first one we call Subordinate-Leader. You know that you’re not in the first chair role, you know you’re not the senior pastor. So you know you’re a subordinate and nobody likes that word, a few people like that word, but we know we’re not in the first chair.

Rich – Right.

Mike – Yet we’re called to lead, we’re called to use our gifts and part of our gift is leadership. So what does it look like to lead well but also be a loyal subordinate?

The second tension that we talk about is, we call Deep-Wide and most second chair folks that I know are expected to really get down into the details in at least some areas of the church. If the church is huge they may not, they may still have a lot of the staff that do much of the detail work, but you still have to get into some of those details that’s deep. Then to lead well in the second chair you have to see the big picture, you have to be able to get up at the visionary level with your senior pastor and think why and so that’s a tension.

The third one we call Contentment-Dreaming. How can I be content with where God has placed me today, even if that’s not exactly where I think that I want to be long term and yet not give up on dreams about the future? I tell folks all the time, “Don’t buy into the myth that the senior pastor is the only one who’s allowed to dream,” because I think that is a myth. We are supposed to dream together about where God is leading our church and let God influence our dreams about where he’s leading us personally.

Rich – Very cool. Why don’t we dig into each one of those?

Mike – Sure.

Rich – I think that’s a great framework there. Subordinate-Leader, I totally understand that, you know, the tension that’s there. Let’s say there’s a leader that’s listening in today, maybe wrestling with that a little bit, feeling that tension of like, “Gosh, I’m just not sure, am I just supposed to say yes to everything that my senior guy says or the person I’m following?” Help us flush that out a little bit.

Mike – And I’ll flush it out with a chapter right from my story. When I was first stepping into this role I had been in business, as I said, for a number of years. I had come to the church, had gone into the role of the church really on sort of this part time, interim basis as I was at a season while I was trying to figure out what’s next in my life.

Rich – Right. Just going to help out with a few things for a little bit.

Mike – Yeah, help out with a few things. So after about 9 months I really sensed that God might be leading me to stay in that role and of course that’s the church’s and the senior pastor’s prerogative to say yes or no.

Rich – Yes.

Mike – So I sat down with Barry Landrum, who was our senior pastor at the time and we started talking about it and I said, “Here’s one thing that I know about me and I won’t be successful in this role, I won’t be able to thrive in this role if we can’t agree on this. Is it going to be okay for me to push back on you? Is it going to be okay for me to disagree and challenge at times?” And what he said was really helpful to me, he said, “Mike, not only is that okay, I need that. I need someone…” But as the conversation unfolded what we talked about was, how do you do that in a way that’s respectful?

Rich – Right.

Mike – How do you do that in a way that still honors his leadership? So I felt enormous freedom with Barry, to challenge him, to disagree, but mostly behind closed doors. Most of what we worked out was in private or in very small meetings, because that’s the way I could do it respectfully and when we walked out to the larger audience, I was going to get behind him.

Rich – Yeah that’s critical. I think, as someone who’s led in that second chair, leads in that second chair, I think it’s super important, you need to listen in on this, that a part of our job is to be publically loyal to our lead pastors, to our senior pastors, to ensure that they see that we’re going to take bullets for them.

Mike – Yes.

Rich – That ultimately, when you’re publically loyal, that does create an environment when you’re behind the closed door to say, “You know, I just don’t understand why we’re going in this direction,” or “Help me think this through more,” or “I think we need to go this way to actually help you lead in your organization.”

Mike – Yeah. One of the things we talk a lot about in the book and then the coaching that I do is, if you’re not right in your relationship with your senior pastor, it doesn’t matter how right you are with an issue.

Rich – So true.

Mike – Yeah, you’ve got to get that relationship right first and if you’re seen as doing something that is disloyal, that is perceived as undermining them, you’re wrong on the relationship and then you quickly lose the ability to lead well in that second chair position.

Rich – Yeah, it seems like, this initial issue of Subordinate-Leader is really where the tender is for these relationships to blowup right?

Mike – Absolutely.

Rich – If things are going to go sideways, it’s going to be around this particular issue and unfortunately I’ve seen that, where kind of the executive pastor, senior pastor, lead pastor, whatever we call them, those relationships really can come apart and they really are around these issues.

Mike – Absolutely yeah, that’s exactly right.

Rich – On the Deep-Wide issue, help us wrestle through that. So the idea that there are a few areas that we’re probably going to have to drive deep in, what are those areas that you’re seeing are pretty common among executive pastors to drive deep into?

Mike – I’m convinced… I’m going to avoid the question Rich.

Rich – That’s fine. It’s an election year, you can do that.

Mike – Yeah that’s right. You know, I’m convinced that there’s more differences in executive pastor or second chair job descriptions than almost any other job description in the church. So to say there’s a common issue where everybody has to be deep, that wouldn’t be true to what I really believe. They really are all over the map. Having said that, staff, kind of personnel issues, most executive pastors have a pretty broad portfolio related to staff and so knowing what’s working, what’s not working. You don’t have to be an HR expert but you better have good systems and if you’re not directly making it happen, overseeing to make sure that it’s working well, especially in a large church environment.

Some executive pastors I know need to be really deep on the financial side of things. Some don’t touch the finances but if the financial side of the business side of the church is part of your scope and responsibilities, knowing that and knowing that really well is another area where you have to be deep and you can’t just say, “On the budget we’re kind of within 10% or 20% of being right,” it’s like, “You know [Inaudible 00:09:37].

Rich – That’s not going to work. You can only do that for one cycle and then you’re done.

Mike – Yeah, exactly.

Rich – Absolutely. You know, there’s an interesting tension here, I’d love you to help me understand this. A lot of times organizations to grow, churches to grow have to be about replicating leaders right?

Mike – Yeah.

Rich – You have to be finding ways to replicate at every level; staff, volunteers, leaders. There can be a tendency, as you climb up or climb down, whatever you’d call that ladder, that there actually becomes less and less replication. So the kind of ultimate example is a lot of times the lead person in the church, they’re the teacher, they’re teaching 30 times a year, 40 times a year and they’re not really doing anything to replicate other teachers around them. How should we be thinking about replicating, even at this level, as an executive pastor, when a lot of the things we do, frankly we don’t want to necessarily just handoff to someone else, it’s not like, say I’m a small group leader or even I’m in student ministry or some other area, how should we be thinking about that?

Mike – I think a couple of things Rich. One is, I’ve seen churches that have gone from a 2-person executive team; senior pastor/executive pastor or relief pastor/executive pastor, to adding another person into the team. That’s not exactly replication, I mean that’s really dividing the executive pastor job into 2 different parts, where one person might focus more on ministry and one more on the business side, but that is bringing somebody else in which gives the church then the will and the capacity to continue to grow.

Rich – Yeah.

Mike – The other issue, you can always be looking for those high potential leaders and give them a delegated task say, “Look, I know you’re not the HR expert but I’d really like you to help take a hard look at our evaluation system.”

Rich – Yes.

Mike – In doing so you’re going to empower somebody as well as increase your capacity as an executive pastor.

Rich – There seems to be a lot of executive pastors have the ‘other duties as assigned’ category.

Mike – Oh yeah.

Rich – Right?

Mike – Yeah.

Rich – Or a lot of times I’ll hear an executive pastor describe it like, they’ll rattle off their core function and then when anything comes up that’s like different, like a project, that ends up being my responsibility and that’s a great area to pull people in.

Mike – Absolutely.

Rich – Like, “Hey, if you’re going into something new at the church, hey don’t do it alone, bring somebody else in who can help plug away,” that could be a volunteer or maybe another staff member; “Hey, you’ve got somebody in your student ministry who seems to be a great up and coming leader, why not get them involved for 6 months? How can we shift around what you’re doing so you can get plugged in on this special project that we’re pushing away on?” That’s great.

Mike – One of the things we talk about in that Deep-Wide is that executive pastors are often gap fillers and that’s one of the phrases we use for that, ‘all other duties as may be assigned’.

Rich – Yeah.

Mike – The reality about gap filling is there’s always lots of gaps in any church.

Rich – Yes, right.

Mike – Lots of things that need to be done, but that doesn’t mean that the executive pastor has to do it all by him or herself.

Rich – Right, absolutely.

Mike – So I’ve got folks all the time, “Yeah, fill the gaps,” but sometimes you fill it with other people, sometimes you fill it not today but tomorrow. Focus on the things that need to be done right now and that only you can do and then figure out ways to handoff some of the rest of that.

Rich – Absolutely. The Contentment-Dreaming paradox there, that I think is the most, I would say pastoral part of what… I shouldn’t say most pastoral, it’s a pastoral word that as we’re wrestling with our internal issues around, “Hey, am I content where I’m at here? Are we content with where we’re going today with what’s happening, versus where is God calling us?” How does that work out? What are some of the ways that executive pastors are working out this last paradox?

Mike – You know, I think we spend a lot of time and like you said, a lot of time on that whole issue; what does it look like to be content with where I am right now? A danger of contentment is I slip off into complacency.

Rich – Yeah.

Mike – And that’s not good, that’s not what you want, that’s not what God wants for your church or for your role and the other danger is that you become just discontent and then you’re running into all sorts of friction. To me one of the keys to contentment is trying to take a bigger picture look and say, “God doesn’t operate on my timeline. So God may be working in ways that I can’t see right now and on a timeline that I don’t understand that’s a lot different than mine,” and just be willing to kind of get up, at least for today and say, “I’m going to pray and trust that God’s in this for me.”

The definition we use on contentment is, it’s a choice, you have to make a choice to be content right? “I’m going to look at the glass as half full not as half empty.” It’s a choice to stay and to grow and to excel for a season.

Rich – Yeah.

Mike – “I’m going to stay here and I’m going to do my very best and I’m going to trust, even if there’s some things I don’t like, that God really is going to teach me and I’m going to be able to grow in that, at least for this season.” Then God may move me on beyond that.

Rich – Very cool. Well the book came out, I can’t believe it was 10 years ago.

Mike – Yeah.

Rich – It came out 10 years ago, a hugely influential book. What has evolved in your thinking and are you pulling that together in any way? What has kind of gone over the last 10 years as you’ve kind of thought through these issues?

Mike – Well as you can image, I’ve had lots of conversation with second chair folks and others over those 10 years. I’ve just finished the manuscript for a new book.

Rich – Oh great.

Mike – Yeah, called Thriving in the Second Chair. It’s 10 years’ worth of conversations, it’s everything that I’ve learned that I wish I had said in the first book that I’d like to say now. Really the central idea is, it’s great to lead but too many second chairs that I run into I would say are surviving but they’re not really thriving and what are the practices that you need to have in place if you’re going to really thrive in the second chair.

Rich – Very cool. Any timeline on that book coming out?

Mike – Yeah, it comes out in September.

Rich – September 2016, that’s amazing.

Mike – Yeah.

Rich – That’s great.

Mike – Yeah, just a few months away.

Rich – Great. So everybody, if you haven’t read the first book, you’re going to want to get that, pick that up, Leading from the Second Chair, so then you can jump into Thriving in the Second Chair when that comes out later this year.

Mike, anything else you’d like to share before we pivot on to the rest of our episode?

Mike – Yeah and I want to take one page out of the Thriving book and offer this to your audience.

Rich – Yeah.

Mike – One of the things that I’ve become deeply convinced of is that second chair leaders tend to be very isolated. They just tend to be alone, they’re surrounded by people all the time and yet they don’t have anybody to really talk to about the challenges and the difficulties, the struggles they’re having in the second chair. Sometimes the struggles are with the senior pastor and you try to talk with him and, “Yeah, well, we still haven’t worked through that, who else do I talk to? Well, if I talk to the people who work for me, that’s not appropriate. If I go and try to talk to a key person in the church, they’re often going to want to fix the problem for me and that’s not really what I need. I need just somebody to help me process stuff through,” and usually that’s outside and yet we’re so busy with our jobs, we don’t have those people on the outside that we can work through.

So I think the thing I would say, like I said, this is one of the chapters in the new book, is you’ve got to find some friends, you’ve got to find those helpful, safe outlets, ideally people who actually understand something about the unique challenges of being in the second chair and develop those deep relationships with them, so that when you are hitting those hard times, because we all hit those hard times, you have a good place to work through that.


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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.