The word “nepotism” originated in the Middle Ages, when some Catholic popes and bishops, who had taken vows of chastity and therefore usually had no children of their own, gave their nephews (sometimes illegitimate sons) positions of preference in the church. But this isn’t just an old problem in the Catholic Church; it’s also a problem in the Evangelical church. Many churches are rampant with nepotism. A brief look at the names of the staff on a church’s web site or Sunday bulletin reveals far too many people with the same last names!
Nepotism is favoritism shown by somebody in power to relatives and friends, especially in appointing them to good positions without regard to objective evaluation of skill or qualification. Nepotism is natural in that almost everyone wants to help out those close to them. Especially in a small, close knit operation, or a family business, it’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to help your family out, but what happens when there’s a better qualified candidate? What happens when that family member doesn’t carry his or her weight or commits an indiscretion? What happens if the job outgrows their skill and abilities?
Robert Cubillos, business administrator at Rolling Hills Covenant Church in, Rolling Hills Estates, CA writes, “The consideration and hiring of an employee who is closely connected—by a blood relation—to another employee can cause a great deal of concern for churches…Nepotism can create a group of people who are insular and self-referential; they are insulated from outside scrutiny and opinion and are allied together by powerful allegiances to each other.”
Some of the problems associated with nepotism are even seen in the Bible. The spirit of nepotism is seen in the mother of James and John who lobbied Jesus to let her two sons sit at his left and right in his kingdom. The dangers of nepotism are seen in Eli, a priest in Israel, who failed to deal with the incompetence and indiscretion of his two sons serving in the same position (2 Samuel 2). It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t appoint one family member to be among the Twelve. James, the Lord’s brother, did become a leader in the Jerusalem church, but not until after the ascension.
Certainly this isn’t a black and white issue. There are no clear biblical commands against hiring family members, although there are warnings against showing partiality (1 Timothy 5:21). Furthermore, spiritual gifts are not passed down through families but sovereignly distributed by the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:3-8). Paul encouraged Timothy to appoint elders according to godly character rather than family connections (1 Timothy 3:1-7).
Here are some of the problems associated with nepotism in churches: First, we could end up hiring someone who is unqualified for the job and therefore doesn’t perform well. When we do that, it certainly doesn’t help our relative! We should ask if they would be hired in a similar position at a similar church. Second, nepotism can create frustration and disrespect towards church leadership when they perceive that favoritism played a part in either hiring or advancement. Third, there can be a lack of freedom among coworkers to honestly express their opinions about the spouse or child of a senior leader or elder. Fourth, it’s human nature to favor our own family and it’s near impossible to be completely objective about your own spouse or child. Fifth, the perception of favoritism and/or a financial motive behind the hiring of a family member can hurt a leader’s credibility. At the very least, the practice of nepotism gives the appearance to outsiders that the pastor is building a family kingdom at the church’s expense. In regard to the stewardship of a financial offering, Paul wrote, “…taking precaution so that no one will discredit us in our administration of this generous gift; for we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor. 8:20-21).
I believe it’s important for many churches to rethink their staffing policies. At the very least, they should establish clear policies at the elder level about fair hiring processes and operating procedures. They should avoid having family members report to family members. If they do hire a family member, they should start them at the bottom. There’s a story in Hollywood about a legendary talk show host who brought his son into the company, but he didn’t start him out in management. He started him out in the painting department as a set painter. That generated so much respect both for the host and his son, that story is still being talked about today.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has established a very helpful sample policy for churches regarding nepotism: “XYZ Ministry permits the employment of qualified relatives of employees, of the employee’s household, or immediate family as long as such employment does not, in the opinion of the Ministry, create actual conflicts of interest. For purposes of this policy, ‘qualified relative’ is defined as a spouse, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, first cousin, corresponding in-law, ‘step’ relation, or any member of the employee’s household. The Ministry will use sound judgment in the placement of related employees in accordance with the following guidelines:
- Individuals who are related by blood, marriage, or reside in the same household are permitted to work in the same Ministry department, provided no direct reporting or supervisor to subordinate relationship exists. That is, no employee is permitted to work within ‘the chain of command’ when one relative’s work responsibilities, salary, hours, career progress, benefits, or other terms and conditions of employment could be influenced by the other relative.
- Related employees may have no influence over the wages, hours, benefits, career progress and other terms and conditions of the other related staff members.
- Employees who marry while employed, or become part of the same household are treated in accordance with these guidelines. That is, if in the opinion of the Ministry a conflict arises as a result of the relationship, one of the employees may be transferred at the earliest practicable time.”