We are fam-ah-lee

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, right? The ideal is that families share 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, doing a lot of the heavy lifting in a small church 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 cozy 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 very complex these interconnected blood relationships would impact the way decisions were made at the church.

It took about twenty minutes for me to figure out that not all staff meetings happened in the church building. Some also happened at family birthday parties and 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.

I’m curious, dear readers – has your experience with family members heading ministry roles in a church been positive or negative?

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About Michelle Van Loon
  • Eric Nygren

    In our small church we have two family lines that make up a good portion of the congregation. Therefore it is inevitable that relatives will find themselves serving together in ministry and in church leadership. Generally it is an non-issue unless there is a major area of conflict that arises. Then the temptation presents itself to take sides.

  • Amanda

    I've had experiences of both kinds.

    My parents served together as the music minister and church pianist/organist for the first part of my life. I'm slightly biased, but I think they handled themselves with integrity, so their joint ministry seemed to be a positive thing.

    However, at the same church, there was a big to-do when the pastor's wife decided she wanted to come on staff. She was a bit… mentally unbalanced, most likely unsuited for the job, but the pastor brought her on staff anyway. The conflict over his decision actually ended up dividing the church — NOT a good thing.

    I think it comes down to the maturity and integrity of the parties involved. Surprise, surprise — character matters!

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Boy howdy, Amanda – character does matter! :)

    Healthy boundaries matter. Mission matters. Open communication matters. And even if all the components are in place, I think it is still a big, difficult task to avoid allowing the church to become a subset of a family's dynamics – harder than anything we can do on our own. We need the Lord's help to sort out allegiances and responsbilities for sho.

    Your church is blessed to have you, Eric. You're a fair, wise person, and bring an outsider's discernment to the family mix.

  • RefreshMom

    I agree with you that it can so often become problematic. I'm married to a minister and we've seen variations on all of the examples you gave. Mostly with unhappy consequences.

    We decided early on that Hubs is the professional and I'm a lay person, the same as any other church member. I won't (unless God clearly directs otherwise) ever hold a paid position in a church where he's on staff. I will find volunteer opportunities, but even those will be chosen carefully and will always take a back seat to my husband's work.

    Having been through a trying time in a "family" church, these things were reinforced even more. My distance from the center of activity/politics may not always have been viewed favorably by some church members, but it was crucial to maintaining our family's sanity.

    Mary Hampton

  • paulvk

    Very interesting post. Good stuff. Thanks. pvk

  • Pastor D

    Our parish is about to celebrate its 172nd anniversary. Many families can trace their roots back to eight generations and yes they are ALL related. I recall when a man was running for chairman one person came to me with a concern that he had married into one of families and was considered by some to be an “outsider”. He had been a member for over twenty-five years. Decisions are arrived at slower then other places because we don’t want any of the “family” offended. Delinquency issues must also be dwelt with tactfully. When family dynamics run afoul and they spill into church well let’s just say it can put the fun in dysfunctional.

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Thanks, Mary and Paul.

    Mary, the reserve you've created is a nice counter-point to the oppressive dynamics I described in my post. Plus, if I'm remembering you properly (I think we met at Mt. Hermon a couple of years ago) you have a vocation of your own as a writer. That vocation needs space and focus – in addition to the space you've wisely built around your family life. :)

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Pastor D – You've learned to navigate the dynamics over the last couple of decades of ministry there. When do you tread lightly in light of the generational make-up of your congregation – and when do you decide it's time to lovingly confront?

  • Pastor D

    Michelle,

    The more I’ve been in parish ministry the more I’m convinced that 90% of what I do is relational regardless of context. I’ve spent four years with steel workers in South Chicago and twenty-three years in rural Indiana. Having been here as long as we have and following the “family” theme I find myself as an adult child to some of our seniors and a father figure to most of our youth. In a few situations I can simply say “I KNOW what I taught you!” and they get the point. This month I’ll baptize two infants I baptized their parents twenty-two and twenty-three years ago. Starting on the second generation is a bit surreal. With one family in particular my father was their family physician and now I’m their parish pastor. Cohabitation and out of wedlock births are the most troublesome and challenging.

  • Michelle Van Loon

    When I was working at Trinity, I had the opportunity to chat with lots of pastors-in-training. I understand the importance of things like language and theological study for forming a leader's mind and soul. However, as you noted, the truth is that 90% of ministry is relational. Conflict resolution is a far more important part of church ministry than, say, the ability to translate a passage of Judges from the original language.

    I celebrate your longevity, Dan! There aren't many pastors who get to stay in one place long enough to baptize the kids of those you baptized when you were first starting out.

  • Pastor D

    A few years back our local high school basketball team played at the high school where my parents live. My Dad and I attended the game which was packed with partisan fans from both schools. At one point I turned to my dad and said "half the kids in this gym you brought into this world (he delivered them) and the other half I brought into a better world!"


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