Local Church Nepotism

Local Church Nepotism September 16, 2013

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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