When the pastor brings the wife and kid on staff, how should a church respond?

Leading a church can become ‘sticky’ have a hand in the action and a hand out for a paycheck.

By Ronald E. Keener

Many new church plants start out with several members of the family holding paid or volunteer positions. The wife heads up children’s work, a brother might be in charge of small groups, and as years go by, and the congregation grows, these people might remain and children may be added to other positions in the church.

All of this raises potential problems of supervision and management for the congregation and the elder board, if they are willing to give it a serious look. In examining the many issues involving family members on the staff and in paid positions of a congregation, Church Executive turned to Dr. Kent B. Rhodes, a consultant with The Family Business Consulting Group, LLC. [www.efamilybusi ness.com] He is based in Irvine, CA, and is a faculty member with Pepperdine University, where he teaches leadership and ethics.

His research interests include the interactions of mercy and justice within values-based organizations, ethical leadership and the influence of culture on values and faith formation.

He responded to questions from Church Executive:

What is nepotism and is it always a bad thing?

According to the Encarta World English Dictionary, nepotism is defined as “favoritism shown by somebody in power to relatives and friends, especially in appointing them to good positions.” The unspoken part of the definition might include “without regard to skill or job qualification.”

From this standpoint, yes, nepotism as a practice has several negative consequences in an organization. In healthy family-owned and run businesses, we understand that a best practice is for the business to develop a clear policy around the hiring of family members. These policies usually include specific skills, education and experience required for the job as well as a requirement of having worked successfully in an unrelated organization.

They also are clear that creating a job for a family member or hiring simply to give a family member a job generally results in negative consequences to the business and more often than not, to the extended family and employees.

When a company (church) leader puts relatives on the payroll and gives them meaningful duties, when does that begin to hurt the organization? What are the warning signs?

Of course, hiring a relative within itself doesn’t necessarily translate into harming the church. However, clearly if the relative would not be hired in a similar position with a similar company or church, then that is an immediate warning sign. Another would be if the level of theological or seminary education the family member brings is not in line with what might be expected for the position.

Still another is when the level of responsibility of the job is not in line with the family member’s experience. I think part of the potential harm in these circumstances is the message that is sent to church leadership and/or to members, even if the person making such appointments is a well-loved, effective pastor, the real question is whether or not a parent, for example, is putting the welfare of the child ahead of the organization.

How does nepotism affect non-relative employees in the company; will the other employees pull their punches, be less likely to speak their mind, defer to the founder’s son or daughter? Is there a way to avoid that?

In our experience with family who own and operate businesses, the message that often accompanies hiring family members is that owners or managers can’t be trusted to make fair judgments, that they may be more interested in their own welfare over the welfare of employees.

The impact is worse when regular employees find themselves having to “clean up” behind the unqualified family employee or when that employee brings unethical practices into the organization while more senior family members turn a blind eye. So trust becomes a significant issue, but not just with stakeholders or employees — it also can negatively impact relationships with other family members.

[For more on nepotism go to “When nepotism can be seen as a value to the large church,” by Robert Cubillos, and “Nepotism has present day approval,” an excerpt from the book In Praise of Nepotism (Doubleday, 2003), by Adam Bellow, both in the August 2007 issue of Church Executive.]

Doesn’t it all hinge on the CEO or pastor to enforce objectivity and impartiality?

Yes, along with a strong board, it does hinge on that. In our experience effective owners of successful family firms work diligently to create and adhere to board-enforced policies to help ensure impartiality and not just for the present but for future generations as well.

Don’t pastors’ wives have greater perceived influence on the direction and focus of the ministry? How can a family-run church deal with the “pillow talk”?

This is an important consideration. Understanding that to some extent “pillow talk” is inevitable, it also behooves a couple in leadership to create a shared understanding of confidentiality that makes sense for the larger community. I know in some cases, it is a relief to church members that the pastor’s wife has influence!

Are there steps a church board can take to give oversight to how relatives are involved in the administration or programming of a church?

Yes, we would encourage boards of any family firm to create operating and governing policies that protect the church (or firm) and its stakeholders from any perceived abuse of “power,” whether intended or not, from church leaders.

Is there a basis for the view that Scripture permits, even demands, that any family member who wants to work in the church can do so, and be compensated as well?

It is one thing to have a proud heritage of family involvement in a family firm or in ministry throughout generations, but it is another to claim scriptural support for family engagement in those ministries, particularly when a salary is involved. We have no account of any of Jesus’ apostles’ families continuing in their father’s footsteps, including Paul, who also worked as a tent maker to help make ends meet as he preached the gospel. As a former pastor and now member sitting in the pew, I’m not sure I am comfortable with the notion that Scripture might be used to justify the hiring of family simply because they are in a particular blood line.

Is there a difference between entering family employment (experimentation, entry, expansion, as your firm calls it) in the corporate setting than in a congregation?

First, at a fundamental level, a church is not a business and particularly it is not a family-owned and operated business. Balancing what is best for the business and family in a family business can be an ongoing challenge. Our consistent experience has taught us that when decisions are made primarily for the benefit of the business, those decisions also wind up being what is best for the family as well. I think this is wise advice for pastors, elders and boards of churches too.

Where does a father — it’s usually a man — go wrong in engaging an adult child in the business, even in the church?

Yes, it is an ongoing struggle for some parents to objectively see their children’s strengths and weaknesses within a family firm context. A common mistake is to hire a son or daughter without regard to actual qualifications or impact on employees. For example, one family with whom I recently worked was struggling with employee morale and productivity primarily because a son had been hired as a manager with little experience. He also didn’t adhere to expected work hours, coming and going as he pleased, while the job actually required full time, on-site engagement.

Talking as you do about going through stages for a company, tools — like mentors, coaches, 360 degree feedback, individual learning plans, peer support groups — seems all so objective and rational and business-like. But churches don’t have a history (or inclination) of operating that way, especially when family are involved. What do you suggest?

It is true that a church has a very different reason for its existence over a company. One is to presumably further the Kingdom of the Lord while the other is designed to financially provide for a family’s basic financial needs on one end of the spectrum or create wealth on the other end. Since churches often engage operating systems that resemble systems a business might have in place, it may be wise to also apply other leadership best practices in the operations of the work simply under the continued category of faithful stewardship.

What’s your observation about the validity and strength of boards of directors (or elder boards) in matters of family involvement in the enterprise, especially when the pastor is the founder?

In doing extensive work with boards of both non-profit and for profit firms,  I believe a board’s involvement to support, listen, give wise counsel and provide accountability is crucial to the success of any organization. Founders hopefully come to that realization sooner than later.

There’s the common statistic that only one in three family businesses survive into the second generation. You may not have data, but do churches likely have a better average when a son succeeds the father?

That’s an interesting question. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that churches do have a better average, but my assumption would be that is because those churches have also given thought to ability of the son or daughter to succeed their father in that work and ministry. This is certainly one factor in family firms that successfully transition to subsequent generations.

Very often the pastor who follows the founder (whether a relative or not) can find the shoes hard to fill. What should the founder be doing to ensure strong transition and successful succession — whether a family member or not?

According to one of the founders of the Family Business Consulting Group, there are several important things a founder should keep in mind in order to ensure strong and successful succession. A couple of these points most salient for pastors would include:
•    Succession is a process not an event
•    Present the firm as an option, not an obligation. “Many parents hope that their children will want to follow in their footsteps, but some fall into the trap of overselling the need to follow the family tradition.”

What are the issues when there is more than one second generation member, who wants to be engaged in the ministry?

Again, if the children are qualified for open positions within the church and have ministered successfully outside of his or her parent’s church, most issues can be managed effectively, unless one child is treated differently from the other, which is a completely different scenario.

It seems that some form of conflict resolution needs to be in place in a family business. What would you suggest for a church and especially one that has siblings involved?

We understand that engaging a written policy and agreement of how family members will interact with each other and with staff and other stakeholders when there is disagreement is helpful.


One illustration of the church as a family business is the ministry of Robert H. and Arvella Schuller and their Crystal Cathedral Ministries. Not only have family members — son, daughters and spouses — been on the payroll of the church, but the father writes that Scripture supports the claim of family members to a paid staff position. Some who have seen the document would dispute that theological interpretation.

In the past two years the ministry has undergone internal dissention and the son, Robert A. Schuller, who succeeded his father as senior pastor, was fired two years later by the father. Today Robert Anthony Schuller heads up a media communications company and his sister Sheila Schuller Coleman is directing leader, with her father, now again senior pastor.

An eight-page document, “The Schuller Family in Ministry Portfolio, October 2001, Updated October 2007,” that came to Church Executive, details the theological basis of the Schuller family for many family members who are in management and on the payroll.


2 Responses to “When the pastor brings the wife and kid on staff, how should a church respond?”

  1. Felix Espinal

    My question is more regarding board of directors or leadership pastoral team which would be the same.
    The question will be two-fold, is it legal under corporation policies to have more than one family member, in this case husband and wife to be both the President and vice President of a nonprofit, Church.

    The next question is can a husband and wife be the lead Pastor / senior pastor &
    The wife be the assistant Pastor to the pastor when there are other several pastors, is it ethical and practical.

    Thank you


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