In early 1993, my pastor all but fired me … and I deserved it.
He had planted a church in 1989. I interned with him in 1990, then joined the staff in 1991, while also attending seminary. Like many church planters in the 1990s, he had adopted a seeker-sensitive ministry methodology. This annoyed every theological nerve in my body, so I gave him grief about it every day.
Finally, the tension between us came to a head over lunch. He told me to get with the program or get a new job. I couldn’t do the former, so I chose the latter.
Although we were no longer coworkers, we worked hard to remain friends. I rejoined his staff six years later, working productively with him for an additional seven years until becoming a senior pastor myself. That church grew and continues to thrive under his leadership.
I never changed my mind about seeker-sensitive methods. I changed my mind about the responsibilities of a second-chair leader, however. I came to realize that my job was to help the pastor implement the church’s mission, vision, and values, not to fight the direction that he and the board had prayerfully and thoughtfully taken.
This didn’t mean our disagreements went away. In fact, we had some of our best arguments after I went back to work for him. The difference was that now he had total confidence I would carry out the decisions of the church’s leadership and support them publicly and privately. My input, even when it was contrary to his ideas, became more valuable to him precisely because he knew he could trust me implicitly.
I tell you this in order to recommend Chris Sonksen’s new book, Saving Your Church From Itself. Sonksen is founding pastor of South Hills Church, a multicampus congregation in Southern California, and CEO of Church BOOM, whose mission is to coach churches for expanded Kingdom effectiveness. I saw a lot of my 1993 self in the pages of his book.
Its thesis is that one of the ways the devil sidetracks effective ministry in the local church is through what Sonksen calls “leaderdrift.” This is “the subtle, negative change of an individual’s attitude or behavior toward the leader and/or the vision of the local church.” This description fit my 1993 self to a tee.
Sonksen outlines six directions toward which second-chair leaders drift: pride, artificial harmony, isolation, critical spirit, division, and gradual shutdown.
I suppose that a second-chair leader could drift in only one of those directions. In my experience, however, several combined. For example, as a 24-year-old grad student, I was confident that I was smarter than my 34-year-old pastor, who had over a decade of experience leading ministries in a large suburban church.
That pride combined with an artificial harmony, whereby I pretended that we were of one mind in public, even as I potshots at him in private. I justified these potshots as constructive criticism, but the reality was that they arose from a critical spirit. They led to division between the pastor and me, and I gradually lost sight of the evangelistic priority of the church’s ministry.
The opposite of leaderdrift is team alignment. Alignment happens when everyone is moving in the same direction. Sonksen argues that alignment increases confidence and trust among team members, devotes more time to strategic thinking rather than correction of misbehavior, increases productivity, and reduces staff turnover. My experience from 1999 onward confirms Sonksen’s insight.
These lessons have broad application throughout the organization structure of a congregation. They apply most obviously to the relationship a senior pastor has with pastoral staff members as well as with board members. But they also apply to suborganizations within the local church, for example, the relationship a small group pastor has with volunteer small group leaders, or that a hospitality pastor has with ushers and greeters.
Consequently, I recommend this book to second-chair leaders of all stripes. If you have a leader over you in ministry, this book will teach valuable lessons about how best to serve your pastor and church. If you’re a senior pastor, it will help you identify signs that second-chair leaders may be moving in the wrong direction.
I must admit that a thought kept nagging me as I read Saving Your Church From Itself. We live in a season where the moral failures and spiritual abuses of first-chair leaders have become front-page news. Why focus on second-chair leaderdrift in such a season?
As I reflected on this question, I came to three conclusions:
First, leaderdrift is a perennial issue that must be addressed if a local church is to have a healthy, effective ministry.
Second, Chris Sonksen needs to write his next book about how first-chair leaders drift from God’s mission for them and their churches.
And third, until that book is published, first- and second-chair leaders should read and discuss Saving Your Church From Itself together. The conversations would be hard, but if my experience is any indication, they would be ultimately life-giving.
Chris Sonksen, Saving Your Church From Itself: Six Subtle Behaviors That Tear Teams Apart and How to Stop Them(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2022).
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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.