“To organize or not to organize? That is the question.” While this may be a bad take-off on Shakespeare, it’s a key issue for second chair leaders. One possible response to this question is, “Don’t bother with it.” After all, churches and ministries will always be somewhat chaotic. They are relatively small entities (compared to corporations) in rapidly changing environments, and they rely on volunteers. Besides, some chaos is good because it leads to creativity and innovation that can stimulate needed changes.

It’s obvious that I think differently. “Organizing selectively” is one of the ten practices that allow a second chair to thrive. While some chaos can be a positive stimulus, too much chaos results in confusion and conflict and wasted resources. When needed systems are missing, volunteers quit, staff members work on the wrong priorities, and great ministry ideas flounder. When this happens, second chair leaders can’t thrive. That’s why organizing selectively is valuable.

“Organize” isn’t just referring to an organization chart. While that’s an important element, the organizational challenges that second chairs face are much broader. They include all of the different processes and systems of a church or ministry, from personnel policies to scheduling systems to budgeting to goal-setting and more.

In fact, this list highlights one problem. The organization challenge can feel endless. It’s not hard for second chair leaders to find areas that would benefit from more structure or from clear processes. The real challenge is knowing where to focus their efforts and how to work within a system that seems to be determined to remain chaotic.

Think for a minute about the wandering Hebrew people in the wilderness. Imagine that you’re a second chair leader with Moses. With God’s guidance, your leader has just led the thirsty masses to water. Moses might be able to thank God and walk away, but you’re envisioning a mob scene if you don’t get things organized quickly. Some sort of system is needed to make sure that everyone gets water and that no one gets trampled. Which tribe goes first? Does one person go and bring water back for the family or does each person go to the spring? Should all the people get water before any of the animals?

In this moment, you will focus on organizing the access to water. Frankly, you’re not going to thrive, or even rest, until you put a system in place and you’re sure that it’s working. You may next turn your attention to organizing the campsite. Where will everyone sleep? Where should the livestock be kept? In the middle of this, if someone suggests that you need to create a system to inventory all of the gold and jewels that were plundered from the Egyptians, you may laugh at them. It might be an interesting idea, but it doesn’t merit even a small footnote on your “to do” list.

This demonstrates the meaning and importance of organizing selectively. It’s not done to satisfy someone’s penchant for rules and order. It’s done so that the group—whether that’s a church or ministry or nomadic Israelites—can thrive. Because when they’re thriving, the second chair leader has a chance to do the same.

Across all different sizes and ages, churches and ministries are chronically under-organized. Notice that I did not say “disorganized.” While the “dis-“ label may be applicable in some cases, “under-“ is a more accurate description of reality. Better organization is almost always needed in multiple areas. These may include an informal performance review system that needs to be formalized, a better system to forecast cash flow, or consolidation of several overlapping databases.

Under-organization occurs in churches and ministries for a variety of reasons. The biggest is that they are constantly making decisions about how to allocate limited resources, and “ministry” typically wins out over “administration.” The trade-off is easy to understand. These entities exist for the purpose of doing ministry, whether it’s teaching children about Jesus, creating a more inviting worship experience, or conducting job training for individuals who are unemployed. It can be difficult to make (much less win) an argument that upgrading software is more important than ministering to people. This argument applies equally to the money and the effort that may be required. As a result, the church or ministry’s systems will tend to lag behind until a crisis forces a change in priorities.

It is clear that a second chair leader will never run out of opportunities for filling organizational gaps in a church or ministry. But knowing that a gap exists doesn’t mean that it needs to be addressed. Taking an inventory of plundered gold may never become a priority.

Organizing selectively means focusing on the structures, processes, and systems that will have the greatest impact on the church or ministry. As you look at all the different areas that could be organized better, what systems and processes are most needed to accomplish the mission? Which will produce the greatest benefit relative to the cost? Even though every church or ministry is unique, my experience is that four important principles should be used to answer these questions:

  • Put people first. Every ministry leader wants to have the right people, but few establish the right processes to insure this outcome.
  • Translate vision into goals. If you do not have an effective way of translating the overall vision into ministry-specific goals, then you’re giving each person the freedom to do whatever they choose.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Many resources are available for second chair leaders who are willing to look and ask. If you want to accelerate your organizational efforts, take advantage of the work that others have done already.
  • Remember that it’s not a business. If you’ve entered the second chair from the marketplace, you may need to shift your mindset. Be sensitive to your context and be prepared to adapt the “best practices” that you used in the past.

You know that you can’t organize everything. By organizing selectively, you can help yourself and your church to thrive by focusing on the places where structure is most needed and valuable.

[This is an excerpt from Mike Bonem’s new book, Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge).]