Christian Nepotism (Michelle Van Loon)

Christian Nepotism (Michelle Van Loon) May 14, 2015

By Michelle Van Loon:

So much of my Christian journey has been marked by the way those in power have used their social privilege to either protect themselves or promote those in their families or their inner circles. I’ve written about nepotism in this space before. Others (click here and here) have raised lots of important questions about nepotism and related forms of cronyism in the church. These practices live directly at the intersection of a leaders’ joy in seeing his or her children/pals following the Lord andthose unflinching words James wrote about favoritism. And every time I think I’ve seen it all when it comes to those in power using their privilege to fast-track a family member to prominence, I discover a new variation on the theme. So because I keep running into it in churches large and small, I thought I’d volley a new question about the subject, below. If you’re a leader who has placed a family member or close personal friend in a position of responsibility in your church, I’d especially love to hear from you.

Not long ago, I sat in a very large church listening to a sermon given by the child of the church’s head pastor. This individual grew up in the home of a master communicator, and had obviously learned the family business from the inside out. The message was solid, but as I looked around me, I wondered how many other gifted teachers were sitting out there in the crowd who would never, ever be given an opportunity to speak because they would never have the kind of privileged access this individual did.

A famous mother or father handing the microphone to his/her child is one example of this two-tiered system, but it is far from the only one. Hiring the pastor’s kid to do janitorial work around a church building can be just as problematic, especially if there is a qualified unemployed man with both a servant’s heart and a family to feed who wants the job. Giving a ministry role to a relative or pal without looking around like you mean it to see who the Lord has brought to your congregation to do the work is another. Maybe your sister-in-law is really the best person for the task. Then again, maybe not. But in my experience, for every one truly qualified person who has been fast-tracked to a plum position due to blood line or BFF status, there are a dozen more who shouldn’t be in their roles. In doing so, it seems to me they’re robbing gifted, experienced, qualified people from the opportunity to serve. We aren’t gathered so a particular family flourishes, but so that the body of Christ does.

Promoting* your family members if you are in a position of influence doesn’t flat-out violate Scripture’s commands, but it certainly doesn’t enhance the notion that there is equal opportunity for all believers to offer their gifts in a local church. In the small and mid-sized churches where I’ve spent the bulk of my time, the congregations that run as family businesses reflect the dynamics and dysfunction of the family in charge. It means there’s a two-tier system at play: the family and those who’ve learned to function in that family ecosystem gets to sit at the adult table, and everyone else clusters around the kiddie table. Yet we all believe Scripture doesn’t talk about two tables, or better seats for those with financial, social or spiritual privilege. There’s only one table, and there is a seat at this table for each one of us.

When I came to faith in Jesus as a teen, I took seriously his words about becoming part of his family. I knew from reading the Bible I was a child of a Father who didn’tplay favorites. I know of no clearer way to state my thesis about familial privilege in the church than this: Nepotism is the way of kings, not servants. It is of the world, and sows worldly weeds among the seeds God is planting.

I’ve heard people proffering all sorts of loophole-seeking exemptions to the nepotism issue: “No guarantee a non-family member will do a better job than my cousin”, “My son knows what I expect”, “God loves families, and our clan is modeling healthy Christianity to our community”. How I wish the rationalizing would stop, and those leveraging their privilege would call it what it really is. I love my own family, broken and imperfect as we are. I am positive if any of my children or grandchildren ever desired to serve in the same ministry as me, I would be unreservedly biased in their regard. I know there would no way to navigate church conflict and critique as if we were all disconnected from these family relationships.

Am I wrong? I’d LOVE some pushback from those who’ve served in ministry with a family member. I’ve heard before from those who’ve been shut out of ministry roles or wounded by nepotism in the church. For those of you who don’t have a problem placing family members in positions of power in your congregation, talk to me about the benefits you see. How do you ensure that the church doesn’t become a family business, but functions as the body of Christ?  Is there an upside to nepotism in your church you’d be willing to celebrate in the comments below?

Nepotism is not the same thing as celebrating your family member’s gifts and accomplishments with sensitivity among your congregation. I’m not suggesting pretending those family relationships don’t exist. I am suggesting that using your position to grease the skids into a position for your kid may be problematic for the rest of your (non-related) congregation. 

"Hi Dr. McKnight and others,I wish to make a couple observations concerning what is the ..."

The Gospel of With Us and ..."
"I am just amazed at the hedging against “male leadership” in marriage, and the church. ..."

Elisabeth Elliot and Me (by Ruth ..."
"Christians are attacked for following a man who may not be a Christian or be ..."

Church Attendance is Down, But Why?
"I don't know where you are from,but in THIS country, WE are the 'government', and ..."

Is Religious Freedom an Issue Today ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Phil Miller

    Hiring the pastor’s kid to do janitorial work around a church building
    can be just as problematic, especially if there is a qualified
    unemployed man with both a servant’s heart and a family to feed who
    wants the job.

    OK, as a PK, this part made me laugh. Growing up in a small church, my brother and I were drafted into cleaning the church. I think when we started we got $15 a piece to do it. It generally took us a few hours a week. The thing about it was that my parents had tried to get a number of other people to do it, but they were unreliable, and my parents would end up picking up the slack. Eventually I think they just figured we were there (we literally lived in the church building – it was an attached parsonage), so it made sense for us to do it. Same thing with mowing the lawn. It wasn’t that we were stealing work from people. It was that no one else wanted to do it.

    I guess I can see the broader point of the post, though. There are many churches where leadership is very centralized on a couple of families. Ironically, even though I was the pastor’s son, I never really felt that I was part of the “in crowd” at my parent’s church. I think there’s a way in which people see you as different from them.

  • Matt Edwards

    This is a great article; it’s definitely something that churches and church leaders need to consider.

    While not defending nepotism, I think I can suggest a real-world reason why it is a common practice in churches: much of church ministry depends on informal authority. This is not the kind of authority you get from having a title like “pastor,” “elder,” “deacon,” “teacher,” or “seminary graduate,” but the kind of authority that you get from marrying, burying, baptizing, and praying for people. Pastors spend their whole lives gaining informal authority in their churches. It’s what allows them to lead well.

    When you promote your kid, people see him or her as an extension of you. Your kid gains all of the informal authority that you have built up, and this allows him or her to lead in a way that a “more qualified” candidate (in terms of experience, aptitude, grades, or whatever) cannot. It keeps the church from taking a few steps back while the new leader gains informal authority.

    Again, I don’t say this to justify the practice, just to say that it “works.” It’s an institutional reality.

  • gingoro

    Frankie Schaeffer comes to mind as does Franklin Graham. Neither seem to me to be particularly functional at replacing their parent.
    I tend to suffer from the opposite problem in that I would not attend either the church my father attended not the one attended by my wife’s parents. In fact it is not just no but absolutely NO! DaveW

  • One’s point of view on nepotism entirely depends on their experiences with nepotism. Mine have been positive. I’ve been in a lot of churches (I move a lot) and in most, the pastors’ kids were exemplary. I’m in one such church now. Used to be in a church where the pastor promoted his entirely-qualified daughter, who held the church together by putting more and more laypeople into leadership.

    And yes, I’ve been in one where the pastor figured he could straighten out his wayward boys by putting them into ministry. Problem is, he put them into leadership, and thank God they didn’t stick around long enough to seriously damage people. If that was my first experience with nepotism, chances are I’d be entirely against it ever after. If I were scarred by it, my bias would blind me from ever admitting nepotism was okay—even after seeing, time and again, examples of it working well.

    We see it in the scriptures, y’know. Moses’s brother Aaron made high priest; Aaron’s sons made his successors; their entire tribe turned into a hereditary priesthood. Yes, of course there were bad apples in the bunch—Eli and his sons; Annas and Caiaphas; and some of the Hasmoneans were no prizes. But sometimes God’s callings are to whole families. Some talents are hereditary. And some churches are meant to be led by not just a pastor, but by that pastor’s family—’cause a healthy church is family, not a corporation with VPs fighting for position.

    So, sometimes I see concerns about nepotism as totally valid. And sometimes I see them as the grumblings of the older brother in Jesus’s prodigal son story—”How come he gets all the attention when I’ve been here all this time, working hard yet under-appreciated?”

  • Ann

    While I’d generally agree that nepotism is a problem in the sense of a family run church, i.e. dad is the pastor, son is the youth pastor, daughter is the children’s pastor, I have to pushback some when friends are included in that as was done in this article. There are very good reasons for team ministry – not least of which is the example of the Apostle Paul, who was usually surrounded by a team. Of course promoting someone just because they are a friend or family member is a problem, but in my opinion, a church staff culture is healthier when the leadership is close (this coming from someone is associate pastor and has served with the same senior pastor in a couple ministries prior to this one).

  • Rory Tyer

    I think leaders should be *more* skeptical, not less, about the qualifications of friends and family for positions that it’s the leader’s responsibility (in full or in part) to fill. It is dangerous for leaders to surround themselves with people who are, for whatever reason, more likely to agree with them and less likely to do the hard / uncomfortable thing of questioning and saying “no.” It seems to me like if the people around a leader were already good friends or related, and they wouldn’t have their job (most likely) apart from that association, they’re much more likely to simply be yes-people rather than prophetic leaders. This applies to any position at a church, I think. Leaders shouldn’t trust themselves to be objective when it comes to these decisions and they shouldn’t trust those around them to be objective if those around owe them their jobs by friend or family association.

  • PKvsPK

    While
    there are some very real dangers to having family members on staff, it isn’t an
    inherently bad idea.

    I am employed (for 7 years) at the church my father has pastored
    for 24 years. I have some thoughts:

    1. It has not been the easy way. There has been a lot of issues.
    This is a multi-staff situation. My presence has caused staff problems. There
    was a family pastor when I was an intern, issues arose when some began
    whispering in his ear that I was there to replace him. This was not the case.

    The
    youth pastor started only a month before I did. I pressed my father to allow no
    signs of favouritism, so the youth pastor went on more missions trips, more
    conferences and he also got away with a lot more than he would have if I had
    not been on staff. The bad optics of firing him while I remained on staff saved
    his job at least three times before he finally resigned.

    That
    and the accusations of nepotism have done the most damage in this regard, not
    anything I have done. (Though I am obviously a biased source, others may
    disagree.) This is the negative we have experienced.

    2.
    Personality-wise my father strives to be unbiased, or at least to be aware of
    (and counteract) his biases. I should know, I have the exact same personality
    type. There are no extra raises for me, no extra perks, I would be frustrated
    if he took it easy on me. He ought to be harder on me, as his son. I can see
    how some father/son teams can be inappropriate, but that awareness motivates us
    to avoid favouritism and the appearance of favouritism.

    For
    example, we were in the position of hiring two more staff members. We would
    never have hired someone similar to us. We purposefully picked people who were
    different temperaments, backgrounds, theological leanings and personalities. My
    father and I are too similar, we wanted to avoid an echo chamber.

    3. It
    was about the body, not the head.

    I was
    raised in this church, since I was 10 years old. I love these people, I adore
    them. I went to school with them. I dated their daughters and I played with
    their sons. They taught me Sunday school. I taught them Boys&Girls Club as
    a teenager. I remember when some of the young adults were born. Kids I watched
    in the nursery when they were toddlers are now adults in my church. I love this
    church, these people.

    I
    backslid as a later teenage and young adult. I partied a lot, slept around, was
    the stereotypical Pastor’s kid/Prodigal son. When I came back, with a
    completely unchurched girlfriend in tow, they welcomed me back with hugs and
    not judgement.

    I
    didn’t want to be a pastor, ever. But Jesus did so much for me, what else could
    I do? I had to serve him the best I knew how.

    So when
    I graduated Bible College, now married to that girlfriend, and an internship
    position opened up, I took it. I was serving Jesus as a minister out of love
    and because he had done so much for me. I wanted to serve this church so much
    because they have loved me so well.

    It
    isn’t an issue of nepotism, it’s an issue of faithfulness, I feel like I’m
    giving back to the church body that nurtured me.

    4.
    Okay, it’s a bit about the head.

    I never
    planned on working with my father. Then, when it happened, it was to be short
    term, before I moved on. Circumstances don’t always work out the way you
    expect.

    I
    looked at my options as a new Bible College grad. I could be the pastor of a
    small church with a board that I fundamentally disagreed with, or be a part of
    a multi-staff situation where I disagreed with them. I’m an evangelical
    charismatic. Everywhere I turned were churches that preached judgment because
    the gays and no prayer in school and Jesus is coming back to kill everyone.
    Fear mongering, poor understanding of scripture, the gospel of empire rather
    than the Gospel of the Kingdom.

    What
    board would hire me if I was honest? Where could I preach a message of hope
    with a senior pastor who was convinced Jesus’ imminent return was going to
    usher in the worst period of human history?

    Or I
    could work with Dad, who focused on Jesus and hope. No fear, no control, no
    manipulation, no condemnation.

    It was
    a no brainer.

    Circumstances
    brought me here, not a well thought out plan. Not a greased up fast track.

    Finally,
    we have issues hiring staff. We’ve been yearning for a children’s pastor for a
    couple years now, no one applies. Only the big churches can attract good
    children’s pastors. We interviewed one candidate for the youth pastor position
    last year. We had a few resumes that were complete messes, and the resume of
    our current youth pastor. (He’s doing amazing! Love that guy.)

    Sometimes,
    there aren’t many pastors to choose from. Of my graduating class, in the
    pastoral leadership program, I can count the other’s actually working as
    pastors on one hand. Sometimes the only candidate is family.

    So, I
    don’t disagree with the dangers you stated above, but wanted to offer the
    viewpoint of the hired family member.

  • Is it also that the child will obey the parent? maybe more so than somebody else?

  • Steve_Yellowknife_Canada

    Here’s my story. It could certainly be accused of being nepotism. I actually bear some insecurity about being open to the charge.

    I became Christian in my early twenties. Not long after I went to seminary to earn my MDiv, and was being mentored by the same man who baptized me. Halfway through seminary, my relationship with his daughter changed. We’d been friends for many years but we suddenly became interested – quick engagement and marriage followed. So now my ministry mentor is now also my father-in-law; this was not part of the original plan. After finishing my MDiv, i could have entered the career grind of applying to different churches looking for a call. But I stayed on as pastor in the church that I first walked into as an unbeliever, was baptized at, and where I was loved and supported by the congregation. So I ended up co-pastoring with my father-in-law. This has been the arrangement for the past 7 years. That’s the rough sketch.

    Van Loon asks for potential benefits. Well, there’s a mix of frustrations and benefits that are probably unique to co-pastoring with my father-in-law. We may not have been able to ride out tension or conflict the way we have if we didn;t have a family tie. Often ministers just go separate ways instead of learning to work it out and learn together. That’s the number one benefit I can think of.

    I do share some of van Loom’s concerns. I think familial ties could really be abused; I haven’t seen it but that is easy for me to imagine. But I’ve been affirmed in my gifts by the congregation (in as much as a small non-denom church can do with a pretty organic way of decision making). I didn’t just waltz in. I went to seminary, I got formal training. I didn’t cut in line in front of anyone else and the path of future co-pastoring was set upon before any marriage to his daughter. So I have some questions for van Loon (and I’d seriously like some answers because I respect her concerns and what she’s trying to address):

    Are there any circumstances where family members could be ‘on staff’ together in a church setting?

    What would legitimize (and nullify the accusation of nepotism) the appointment or call of a pastor/staff who happens also to be related to an existing pastor/staff?

    If the congregation can have a say, what is wrong with related co-ministers?

    Is there something that can be built into church polity that protects against abuse of family ties but doesn’t slam the door to related co-ministers (and thereby forbidding what the Bible expressly does not)?

  • Jay Egenes

    My daughter works part time for the congregation at which I’m the solo pastor.

    A few years ago we adopted a new ministry model. After being unable to hire a qualified worship leader who understood what we were trying to implement (the person we offered the job turned us down), I ended up serving as the worship leader and the pastor. Which made Sundays exhausting.

    Then my daughter moved home. On a volunteer basis she started helping me with some of the extra jobs I was doing to make the new worship model work.

    Over the course of a few months of helping out, she started to get training in worship planning, songleading, etc. This wasn’t a stretch for her. She’s a singer, vocal teacher, and actress with a degree in directing.

    When we decided to hire somebody on a part time basis to lead worship on Sunday mornings and do the associated planning and administrative tasks during the week, our board asked her to interview for the position and decided to hire her. I abstained from all discussion of the issue once we had agreed on a job description.

    We hired her because she truly was the best person for the job if we hired from inside, which the board wanted to do if we could. She’s actually our least well paid worship and music staff person, although she has the most responsibility–and for that matter the best credentials.

    So perhaps the downside of being a member of the pastor’s family in a small congregation is that you can be underpaid, just like the pastor.

  • Phil Miller

    So perhaps the downside of being a member of the pastor’s family in a
    small congregation is that you can be underpaid, just like the pastor.

    Bingo!

  • Michelle Van Loon

    Thanks, Steve, for your great questions. I am not against family members ministering together. Scripture gives plenty of examples including Moses and Aaron and some relationships among Jesus’ disciples. I also recognize that it is often expedient (and perhaps even preferable) to bring a qualified relative on staff, particularly if there’s been trouble filling a position in the past and the relative is willing.

    Long before a relative is brought onto staff, I believe it would be wise for the elders or board to have considered ways to protect from the negative effects these family relationships may have on the life, growth, and exercise of gifts among the rest of the congregation. In their job as shepherds, the elders and board also have a responsibility to safeguard the pastor’s family/relatives by building in protections for them so their family relationships are guarded and nurtured, rather than used and abused by the congregation. Once these hires are made or positions of influence are filled by family members, it’s too late to have any sort of rational discussion about this. Here are links to some helpful discussion starters: http://briandodridge.com/2014/01/07/hiring-pastors/, http://churchexecutive.com/archives/when-the-pastor-brings-the-wife-and-kid-on-staff-how-should-a-church-respond, http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201501/201501_010_FamilyTree.cfm

  • I’ve seen a number of cases of nepotism in our small denomination. It seems that answering your dad during the job interview gives you much more self confidence than answering someone else. And I despise it, it is not good.

    On the other hand, I work at a small bible school where my dad is Mr. President. I can tell that I’m closer to my dad than my colleagues and I can tell that, although it’s hard to admit, that I probably had better opportunity to get this job than my (not less deserving) friends. At the same time, I can tell that my job did not lend me any remarkable benefits. I started with minimal wage, doing job of three people in many different domains, having little hope for future improvement. So I don’t feel guilty. I work hard, I respect my colleagues and I keep saying that when there’ll be someone willing to take my job for this money, I will resign immediately 🙂

    But again, thanks for this article. There’s much truth in it.

  • I’ve watched nepotism at a church I worked at destroy the entire family so that it seems beyond any kind of reconciliation. Our pastor who was a rising star in our Evangelical denomination invited his brother who was pastoring a failing church to come on Staff as an assistant. The brother from the smaller church was barely surviving financially. The brother at the successful growing church had a large staff and promoted his brother from being the failing church beyond many other staff members that had invested sweat equity into the growing church. The brother from the failing church was able to do and say whatever he wanted with impunity against those with more time in service at the growing church. **The pastor/brother from the failing church eventually had an affair with a woman he was counseling and ended up getting fired. It ended up being a messy church split. The fired brother started two or three churches that never got off the ground and, began spreading rumors about the successful brother at the successful church was just as bad as him. **It turns out that the successful brother was a sexual predator having several affairs with women in his mega-church congregation. When the successful brother was exposed, he, too, was fired, his wife divorced him, and his children are estranged from him. The brother from the failed church feels vindicated and neither speak to each other. ** A new pastor rubs the mega-church now. He has systematically eliminated all of the previous pastor’s BFFs and replaced them with his own BFFs. The new pastor’s wife and some kids are employees at the mega-church. ** I’m convinced that being on staff at a mega-church can be easily compared to being a made member of the mafia.

  • jp

    One principle I was taught was “Never hire someone you can’t fire.”

  • Wolf N. Paul

    Reading most of the responses here makes me think that this is today a very American problem. Where I live, in Europe, paid church positions are scarce and not very well paid (if at all), and candidates for them are even scarcer. Pastors draft their relatives and friends out of necessity, to get the job done. They still sometimes get accused of nepotism, typically by people who are unwilling to step up to the plate themselves.

  • DrLefty

    I’m a university professor, and at my institution and many others, it is common practice when hiring to try to find something for a desired candidate’s spouse or partner if possible—if the spouse/partner has qualifications in a position of need. It’s seen as a positive recruiting tool that shows support for the prospective employee’s work-life balance. Yes, that means that the partner gets the inside track for a job that others might be (more) qualified for, but it’s part of the hiring process in many instances. Especially in high-cost areas, the family might need the two incomes.

    Yes, a church is the body of Christ—but it’s also an employer of ministry professionals. It can be possible to overthink this. What if, for example, one spouse is a great youth pastor and the other is a great worship leader and the church happens at the time to need both? Seems like hiring both could be a win-win.

  • NathanMichael

    “This individual grew up in the home of a master communicator, and had obviously learned the family business from the inside out.”

    This is exactly the advantage present in many professions, not just pastoral. I’m a PK now a pastor, so I understand this dynamic well. Growing up in the home of such a professional gives access to intense mentorship training of skill sets that are not easily – if ever – learned in a classroom. It does give the second (and beyond) generation a distinct advantage. Why penalize them for these extra skills and training? For sure there are examples nepotistic abuse. However, there are many more examples where the second generation are hired simply because they are good, they are the best candidates for the job. They have been mentored for a lifetime. Nothing wrong with that kind of learning.

  • Lynne Sykora Stadler

    I am so glad you are addressing this issue. The favoritism shown by church leaders is why I left the church. God has given everyone gifts that are meant to be used to further His kingdom, and when church leaders only allow those in their inner circle to use their gifts, God isn’t honored.

  • Lindsey Foote

    This issue bothers me as well, and it was interesting to read your thoughts on it. As in any action, it is the motive that makes it a sin or not. Motive for placing people in leadership, whether family or not, seems to be something to really bring to the Lord. My father is a music pastor, and i grew up singing in church. But when I was a kid, and even into high school and college, he was hesitant to give me solos or showcase me because he didnt want it to seem unfair. But that was also hard because why shouldn’t I be able to use my abilities to praise God and use my voice just because someone might think its favoritism? I actually didnt get a main part in our church musical BECAUSE i was a pastors kid. Should pasotrs kids have less opportunity because their parents are in leadership? It’s a fine line. I understand the issue, and like I said, it has bothered me as well to see people in leadership simply because of their connections, and not for any other reasons. But what about those who truly do have the spiritual gifts to leadwrship, teaching, etc.? Should they have to seek out a church different dromt heir family just so they can serve without jealousy or speculation? I went on to be a vocal major in college, and I now as an adult, i teach voice lessons and help to lead worship along with my husband at the church where my dad is the music pastor. Serving alingside my larenys in ministry has been one of the biggest blessings of my life. I have learned so much from watching them over the years, and growing up with parents in church leadership has prepared me for ministry in ways that it’s hard to learn in a classroom or seminary. So I think serving in the church with family can be God-honoring, as well as harmful, depending on the motivation behind the ministry choices. There are plenty of churches struggling with unhealthy ministries where no one is related to each other. If you look at the early church, there were family members serving together, even among the disciples. James, Jesus brother, even wrote a whole book in the Bible! And obviously all of the Levites, the leaders of the temple in the old testament, were all family members. So families serving together in minisrty can be effective, and even God-ordained. The big picture, i think, is that Satan wants to cripple the church in any way that he can. No matter our individual situations, we need to all be keeping watch and praying that he will not get a foothold. May Jesus Christ be praised.