Nepotism And The Local Church: A Question

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. 

About Michelle Van Loon
  • Pat68

    I’ve experienced both good and bad. I’ve seen a large extended family, filled mostly with good and godly people be the backbone of the church and were unofficial historians about the church and the denomination.

    I’ve also had the negative experience of having some brothers who were real power brokers within the same church (different family). Because of the humility or timidity of the other family, rarely does anyone speak up to these individuals and they continue to be chosen to lead ministries because of their experience and know-how. But there’s something to be said for getting along with people and not steam-rolling them to get one’s way. Also, there are their favorites that they pull in to their inner circle, so it all can be a bit much. When I left the church where this was the case, I was very honest with my fellow elders, telling them things they already knew, like the fact that it wasn’t Jesus’ church but this small group. One of the elders ruefully admitted, “Yeah, they are close.” Another admitted that they really needed to stand up to the one guy who often said demeaning things to people.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      “Yeah, they are close.” It’s not the closeness that’s the problem. It’s the power, isn’t it?

      I’m glad you had an opportunity to speak honestly to the elders. It doesn’t sound as though they were all that interested in changing the “club” culture that existed in the congregation, especially if they already knew it.

      • Pat68

        Well, close in the sense of cliqueish and often in those cliques power is sought out and fiercely maintained, even if it means alienating others.

        I don’t know that they weren’t interested as much as they were cowardly about confronting bad behavior, particularly among power brokers. In this way, you never can change a culture.

  • Roger Morris

    Oh yer, nepotism is rife in contemporary churches, as well as cronyism and cliquishness. One church we went to, the pastor had the casting vote on the board of elders – including for the decision about whether to terminate the pastor’s employment. At our current church, if you’re not related to the leadership team, best friends or in their homegroup, you are pretty much on the outer.

  • CSmith

    My experience was quite different. The small congregation expected the pastor’s family to do everything. While my Dad was pastor, Mon and Sis were Sunday school teachers, Bro played guitar for services, I played piano. Mom was in charge of a food ministry to raise money for missions. My brother cleaned the church. I produced the monthly newsletter, with Mom doing a lot of the writing. Not because we were trying to consolidate power, but because these people had their rear ends glued to the spiritual couch! Of course, none of these positions were paid except for the pastor (and it didn’t pay much) so maybe that is the difference.


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