I once worked at a church where most of the leadership team had the same last name.
In fact, the pastor’s wife signed my salary checks, which was weird since she wasn’t officially on staff in any way or even part of the leadership board of elders.
I understand that when you start a business or even a church, your whole family is involved. You need your spouse to be on board and you may even need them to work for you for free while you get things launched.
I understand that. But what I’m talking about is much deeper, and much more dangerous to a business, organization, government office, and especially a church.
Nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. That’s from Dictionary.com, in case you wanted to know.
The Seth version says “It’s how control freaks stay in control.” But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
As a church, this is a negative practice in which the bad almost always outweighs the good. Even if the pastor’s kid deserves the job, I hope to convince you that nepotism should still be avoided, lest you have to discipline your nephew in front of everyone Michael Scott style.
In this clip, Luke is Michael’s nephew and he hired Luke as a favor. This clip is an exaggeration of course with a ridiculous ending, but if you watch the episode, you can see much of what I’m about to discuss play out.
A Biblical reason this is a bad idea
Before jumping into the practical, there’s a Biblical command to look at first. James chapter 2 has some things to say about favoritism, which is the root of Nepotism. In verses 1-4, it says:
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
This is an illustration about rich and poor, but when he says “suppose” then we know it can be applied to other situations. Discriminating against the poor isn’t the only thing this story applies to. It applies to favoritism across the board.
Then he goes on to say in 8-9:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
“But if you show favoritism, you sin…”
It is clear to me that showing favoritism, even to your own kids by giving them jobs in your church or business that they may not be super qualified for, is forbidden in Scripture and something a practicing Christian should not do. Yet, it is fairly common.
Some churches try to get away with it by putting the family in another department where they aren’t on the same team or at the same campus (if you’re a multisite), but it all kinda works out the same in the end. I’ve seen it. Usually one, if not all, of the following 8 issues will most likely arise.
The Negative Effects of Nepotism on your Church
If an appeal to Scripture doesn’t do it for you, here are some of the more practical issues that nepotism creates in your church or organization that you will want to avoid.
Nepotism decreases staff morale
Staff who are not part of the “inner circle” of the family, will always feel negatively about an organization that participates in nepotism. I’ll get into the specifics of what that means below, but just overall, it creates a sense of foreboding in many areas of your staff culture that feel unapproachable or unchangeable.
But I mean, I guess there are some people who are happy working in a place where they have no control over their future and no chance of advancement, right?
Nepotism creates feedback barriers
How can I give you honest feedback about your son if I don’t think he’s good at his job? Or even if I think he’s mostly good but could improve in some areas? I can’t. No one feels like they can, especially if the boss family tend to be defensive about it.
Also, don’t think that just because you’ve told people to be honest with you about them that they will be. I’ve heard people say “Well, I’m just as hard on my family on staff as I am with everybody else.”
No…no you’re not. Why?
Almost no one can be unbiased when family is involved
You might think that you will treat your son or daughter or nephew on staff the same as anyone else, but you have to be incredibly naive to think that. Family ALWAYS gets more grace than staff with different last names than the leadership. Always.
Can you imagine as an aunt having to fire your nephew? How will you face your sibling? Think it will make Christmas even more awkward? You bet. So you’ll avoid it. If you’re an Enneagram 7 or 9, this already sounds terrifying to you. If you’re a 3 or 8 you’re probably like, meh, sounds fun.
The only exceptions are when the family isn’t on the normal spectrum of kindness with each other. If there is a history of turmoil, then it may just be par for the course but honestly, why would you invite that kind of drama into your staff culture anyway?
Nepotism dangerously gives too much influence to a family
When a pastor and his wife work together, they end up having discussions at home about work that affect others. Without realizing it, these discussions become official meetings that cut important voices out of the conversation.
This isn’t a good thing. One family should not have that much control over decisions made at your church. They will almost always stick together, even when they’re wrong.
A friend told me about how the team dynamic changed drastically when his boss, the senior pastor, added his wife to the same staff team with them. Things were decided over the weekend and he was expected to simply carry out his marching orders. True, high-capacity leaders want to own the vision with you, not just robotically carry it out.
He eventually left that 14k member church to pursue real estate and he’s doing great.
Hiring and Firing become a package deal
It’s tough to keep working at a church after you husband or wife has been fired from that same church. What happens if the one you fired gets another job at another church in another city? They’re both gone. Husbands and wives are a package deal, as technically, they should be.
Now instead of having to hire one replacement, you may have multiple replacements. This definitely influences your decision-making and may cause you to wait too long to fire or move someone to a new position instead of being the leader you need to be.
When it’s extended family, there are exceptions, but it’s a little weird when a family member with bad blood is in the ear of the staff member still there. There’s just a lot of ways that can go wrong. (And it usually does)
Increases chances of bad blood or even lawsuits
Statistically speaking, nepotism makes your church more open to lawsuits for firing or passing over someone who was more qualified for a job that you gave to a family member. It calls your judgement into question and could call you to court should they feel strongly enough about it.
If things don’t progress to litigation, there’s usually some bad blood because of nepotism. That staff member who was passed over may talk to other employees and spread dissent. It’s not right to do that, but they’re also not necessarily wrong in their assessment of the situation, so it sows doubt on you as a leader.
Not to mention, they don’t really have to do any of that because people will draw these conclusions themselves most of the time. It sets a tone that others on staff should expect the same and could lower their motivation.
Creates barriers of advancement
As I just said, some may be more qualified to be the worship leader or head of connections ministries but can’t ever advance to it because that position is held by a family member of the pastor. The pastor isn’t going to fire their family and give the job to you just because you’d be better at it than they would. Family positions are like Supreme Court Justices: lifelong appointments until they either die or retire.
I would assume you want the best person for the role to have it. If not, then what are we even doing?
Inferior work product.
Those elevated because of relationships usually are under-qualified for the position. And if that’s not the case for you, congratulations! You’re different!
But most beneficiaries of nepotism are not appointed to their desired roles because of expertise, experience, or talent, but because they are related to the pastor or leader somehow. Therefore, the work suffers.
And what work is that? The work of reaching people with the Gospel. That’s what suffers. Shouldn’t that work deserve our best efforts?
I was once criticized because I tried to “lead through my expertise rather than my relationships.”
What a ridiculous statement.
Relationships are important, but when you’re doing Kingdom work, expertise matters. You do the best work you can because it has eternal impact and we should all care about doing that work better and better.
Nepotism stands in the way of that quality work.
Nepotism puts someone over your youth ministry because they are your son-in-law, not because they are the best choice for discipling students to follow Jesus. Those students are now robbed of the quality leadership and teaching because Joe Bob married your daughter and can’t hold a job.
But why churches seem to reject expertise as a qualification for leadership is seriously another blog for another day!
To sum up
At the end of the day, nepotism is a disease of the modern church. It seems innocent enough, especially when the family your church leadership hires seems decent at the job, but it’s still a major issue in most of the examples I’ve laid out here.
It’s just not worth it. Personally, I think it silences many voices on your team that would be there to offer you a perspective of ministry you otherwise would not see. That’s a real shame, because I believe gaining different perspectives increases empathy and understanding, qualities vital for a healthy ministry.
How have you seen nepotism work in your experiences? I’d love to hear your stories, whether good or bad, in the comments!
Seth has been in ministry for over 20 years, recently serving as Communications Director at a thriving church in North Dallas. He is also the host of The Seminary of Hard Knocks podcast, blogs at sethmuse.com, and has his Masters of Arts in Media and Communications from Dallas Theological Seminary. Seth specializes in helping church communicators use social media and content marketing to find common ground with their audience to empower them for spiritual growth.