Local Church Nepotism

By Michelle Van Loon

What do you have for wisdom in this area?

The pastor’s wife leads the worship ministry at their small congregation. Or…the pastor’s son-in-law becomes the youth minister.

It’s only natural that family members serve together at a local congregation, isn’t it?

Even some of Jesus’ first disciples were brothers. The prayer and ideal is of families sharing an active, engaged faith. Wouldn’t the logical conclusion of this shared faith be shared ministry?

Yes. And no.

Did you know that the word nepotism has its roots in medieval church practice? One pope even went so far as to appoint his nephews, ages 14 and 16, as cardinals.

A husband-wife team ministering together can be a beautiful thing. It can model a healthy marriage and the joy that comes from serving together. It can go terribly wrong when the relationship puts a stranglehold on ministry growth, for example, a pastor’s wife who runs the women’s ministry with an iron fist in order to ensure her position is never challenged. Who is there to remove the pastor’s wife from her role if she doesn’t do a good job?

We attended a church that had a pair of brothers-in-law and a set of sisters on the paid staff of 7. Further complicating the situation was the fact that one of the pastor’s kids was dating the child of one of the relatives. The elder board at the church included relatives of these relatives. Disclosure here – this nepotism-heavy arrangement included me as I was a part-time staffer and my husband was an elder. When I started getting a paycheck as part of my service to the church, both Bill and I were pretty naive about how these interconnected blood relationships would affect how decisions were made at the church.

It didn’t take long to discover that not all staff meetings happened in the church building. Some also happened at family birthday parties and during vacations. Plans were hatched and decisions were made in the context of these tight family bonds. I learned through the painful tutorial of experience at the church that blood ties had a powerful insulating quality if someone was toxic in his or her ministry role. Protecting the family was a more powerful motivation than protecting the sheep.

Even with that horrible negative example, I believe there is great power in family doing ministry together. It can be an amazing, countercultural expression of shalom as long as the focus stays on the kingdom, not on tribe.

Has your experience with family members heading ministry roles in a church been positive or negative? Does your church have a policy limiting family from paid staff positions, or a history of encouraging the practice?

*Note: This is an adaptation of a post that originally ran in February, 2010. 

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  • I’ve seen both positive and negative. It all depends on the spiritual maturity (i.e. humility, fruit of the Spirit) of the leaders in question. All of them have to have it. ‘Cause they’ll all be dragged down by the one family member who lacks it.

    I’ve seen a pastor whose career was ruined by his nightmare of a wife. Even though she never held any official position herself, she was so emotionally abusive he had to leave his position, and will never be hired by any other ministry where his wife could be remotely involved.

    I’ve also seen husband-wife teams who are outstanding people, and who work great together. (My current pastors, fr’instance.) I used to go to a church where the senior pastor promoted his brother-in-law, who grew to be a far better leader than he was. I’ve seen pastors promote their children, who were excellent ministers… and I’ve seen other children who were truly rotten ministers. It varies.

    My advice: No one church leader should be able to unilaterally promote anyone to positions of serious responsibility. Other people, and not yes-men, need to have veto power. This way anyone who’s up for a position, family member or not, is vetted for it, and given it only once they meet Paul’s requirements of Christian maturity, plus any extras the position might require.

  • Don Bryant

    When I came to a church as a pastor, I found out that everyone on the board either was a family member of the patriarch or an employee. Uh-oh, I said to myself!!

  • I’ve certainly seen the bad side of this, where the predominance of family members in leadership positions has made the overall leadership style very opaque. Also any criticism, however constructive, can be received in a very defensive way when family members are involved.

  • And then you have churches that think that when they’ve hired a pastor, they also own the pastor’s family, expecting the spouse and children to fill all sorts of support rolls in the church on a “volunteer” basis.

  • BryanJensen

    Check. Check. And check.

  • I grew up in a ‘family-run’ church, and I saw no problem with it. However–it was MY family. Later, I saw the difficulties, and some of them were difficulties for me. I would not want to do that again.

  • Marshall

    Seems like this is tied up with Denominationalism. That is, a large “corporate” body is supposed to function by rules and roles, and personalities (personal issues, personal relationships) intruding is seen as disruptive. A standalone church could be family run, I don’t see why not. Of course you would need a good family, but always the rest of us can vote with our feet.

  • Mark Pixley

    I served in numerous roles in a small church for longer than 10 years, it was a tight knit group and since it was small there was never any pay for me…then family began to move into the area/church and suddenly money WAS available to pay positions that I had held in the past. Wasn’t an issue until I began to confront the lack of transparency, the iron-fisted rule and lack of vision beyond immediate family vision…all missions trips, ministry trips etc. were for the family…when I began to insisted we funnel resources into widows and fatherless I was told to do it myself, they would support my efforts…which was code for we don’t have a vision to put resources into anyone but family…long story short in these models it is primarily about insulating those who cannot bear up under transparent scrutiny, this is known as “judging” and you are wounded or poison… if you ask questions…
    Any model that does not allow honest questions and open transparency is borderline abuse…ANY.