Management by Wishful Thinking?

Thriving-in-the-Second-Chair-small“I’m looking forward to a season when I’m not dealing with personnel issues.” Those words, spoken by the executive pastor of a large church, still ring in my ears, even though that was years ago. I also remember my response: “This might not be the right role for you.”

My answer may have been too blunt, but I believe that the message was correct. Second chair leaders generally carry a heavy responsibility related to staff. They are involved in hiring, training, developing, evaluating, promoting, reprimanding, rewarding, and firing. Even if the management responsibility is shared with a first chair leader or others, the second chair can’t escape this “burden.” Hence my response.

The best second chair leaders live in the tension of grace and stewardship, and they strive to achieve “both/and” as they relate to staff members. They give second chances, but they don’t give second chances for the fifth time. They understand that leaving someone in a position where they are floundering is not compassionate. They also understand that they have a stewardship responsibility, not just for financial resources, but also for helping staff members develop their gifts and succeed in their roles.

Practicing the both/and of grace plus stewardship is complicated. If you entered the second chair from the corporate arena, you may have a distinct advantage relative to many of your colleagues. Your former company may have done a great job in hiring and developing people. They may have been very fair and consistent in addressing performance problems.

But before you try to copy all of those practices, realize that you also have a distinct disadvantage. Personnel matters in ministry settings are almost always more complicated than in business. It is complicated when a long-time church member applies for a job and meets some, but not all, of the requirements. It’s complicated when a staff member who was a star performer doesn’t have the skills to go to the next level as the church grows. And it’s certainly complicated when you try to evaluate “effectiveness” for something that is inherently hard to assess, such as the quality of pastoral care.

Whether you entered the second chair from a business background or already had ministry experience, it’s likely that you will need to make several shifts in order to effectively manage and develop your staff. Some of these shifts focus more on grace while others emphasize stewardship. One of the most important is the shift from wishful thinking to intentionality. (All five shifts are described in my new book, Thriving in the Second Chair, in a chapter entitled, “Develop for the Future.”)

How often have you been in a conversation about a personnel-related issue that has been centered in wishful thinking? “If we just give our program director a little more time, she will get more organized.” “It’s just a busy season, so I’m sure that the workload for the financial office will be more manageable soon.” Wishful thinking often flows out of an over-emphasis on relationship and grace that neglects stewardship.

Statements like these may be accurate. The program director may get more organized. It may just be a busy season for the financial office. But often, the statements are simply a way to postpone a more difficult conversation. We may have hired the wrong person for the program director position. We may need to add a person in the financial office.

The shift toward greater intentionality starts with determining whether you are dealing with wishful thinking. A simple question can shed light on this: what leads us to believe that this statement is true? The program director may have been very organized in a previous job. The financial office may be closing the fiscal year and preparing for an audit. If the answer, however, sounds like, “I just think it’s going to get better,” then you’re probably dealing with wishes more than reality.

Sometimes it isn’t clear whether you’re dealing with wishful thinking. When this is the case, ask two other questions: how soon can we expect to see improvement? What would be the indicators that we’ve turned the corner on this issue? These questions accept the explanation that a situation is temporary, but they also establish a timeline for progress. If the timeline isn’t met, then it’s time for a different conversation.

Intentionality doesn’t mean being the bad guy or the gloomy doomsayer. It does mean saying, “I think we have an important issue here that’s not going away on its own. Can we discuss it and try to come up with a solution?” The solution may be training or administrative support for the program director. It may be a part-time person for the financial office.

The shift to intentionality is supported by a shift from ideas to accountability. Ministry leaders are often full of ideas. An animated brainstorming session may generate new and creative ways to expand a ministry or address a problem. But in the months after the brainstorming, will those ideas translate into action? Often the answer is “no.” Great ideas aren’t enough. Before the meeting ends, the decision on which ideas to pursue needs to be made, and responsibilities and deadlines need to be assigned. Second chairs are typically the ones who insure that this happens and hold people accountable for those assignments.

Shifting from wishful thinking to greater intentionality isn’t easy. In the moment, it’s almost always less painful to accept wishful thinking. In the long run, however, wishful thinking allows a problem to grow, which forces a more difficult conversation down the road. Intentionality can nip that problem in the bud. Is it time for you to shift away from wishful thinking?


This is an excerpt from Mike Bonem’s forthcoming book, Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge), which will be released in September 2016.

Mike Bonem

Mike Bonem is a consultant, author, speaker, church leader, businessman, husband and father. He brings a wealth of experience and a personalized style to each client that he serves. Mike spent over 10 years on the staff of West University Baptist Church in Houston, most recently as Executive Pastor. His business endeavors have included consulting as a senior manager with McKinsey & Company, and senior leadership roles in two environmental service companies. Mike obtained his M.B.A. degree, with distinction, from Harvard Business School, after having obtained a B.S. degree in chemical engineering from Rice University. For more information on Mike, go to

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