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A Family Business: Examining the Practice of Nepotism in Churches

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Some of the largest and best-known Christian churches and ministries have been passed from parent to child. Billy and Franklin Graham of the North Carolina-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Joel and John Osteen of Lakewood Church in Texas. Jonathan and Jerry Falwell of Virginia’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. Rudolph McKissick Sr. and Jr. of Florida-based Bethel Church. And Paula White and son Brad Knight of Florida’s City of Destiny megachurch.

Three generations stand together at a 1994 Crusade: William Franklin “Will” IV, William “Franklin” III and William “Billy” Franklin Graham Jr. / Photo courtesy of BGEA

But it begs the question—does the potential conflict of interest make it unwise or unhealthy to run a ministry like a family business? On the other hand, a family member’s insider experience might prove invaluable.

“Nepotism in church leadership is not unhealthy until it is,” says Grady King, president of HOPE Network Ministries, a Texas-based organization that mentors church leaders. He says nepotism should generally be avoided, and when it IS necessary, clear boundaries are essential.

“Church leadership is inherently contextual and relational,” King adds. “When push comes to shove, nepotism often complicates conflict resolution and decision-making. It can intensify family tension and hinder open communication with and from the congregation.”

Smaller churches, however, may be limited in their options. King shared a personal example from his time serving as a lead minister in a church of 400. He chose his administrative assistant, who was the wife of one of the church’s elders. “Her maturity and personality, coupled with healthy boundaries, contributed to a healthy working relationship,” he recalls. “She was trusted and avoided situations where there was a potential for a conflict of interest.”

Ultimately, King says clear boundaries, communication, and openness are keys to relatives working together in ministry positions.

Carson Reed, an associate professor and dean of Abilene Christian University’s Graduate School of Theology, favors a policy-guided approach. Reed served for 30 years as a senior minister in three congregations before providing consulting services to dozens of churches as the executive director of Abilene’s Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. Reed reminds leadership teams to be proactive and have a written anti-nepotism policy—not to eliminate family connections, but to manage them.

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“Family connections in church or parachurch organizations can bring both positive and negative factors into play,” Reed says. “The critical element is whether they are named and managed appropriately.”

This means there needs to be a clear policy addressing whether a married couple or siblings can serve on a church staff—in which case, Reed’s answer would be, “perhaps.” Policies should also outline whether spouses or siblings can directly report to their spouse or sibling (“no”) and whether a spouse, sibling, parent, or in-law can serve on a governing board while their counterpart is also on staff (usually “no”). The latter point has one possible exception: the board member in question would not participate in annual reviews, hiring, firing matters or any other personnel matters regarding their family members.

These policies may be a good idea, but they are primarily obligatory as church leaders have the right to choose their successors. By structure, denominations have little oversight over that. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America both told MinistryWatch they don’t dictate the hiring practices of individual congregations.

SBC Media Relations Director Jon Wilke further noted the SBC is able to draw lines in the sand on some issues, but nepotism isn’t one of them. For example, the convention won’t allow churches with sex abusers or racists as pastors to be members.

When MinistryWatch asked the United Methodist Church (UMC) for its position, its public relations office pointed to the guidelines of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, a document defined as “outlining the law, doctrine, administration, organizational work and procedures” of the UMC. It mentions a few areas where immediate family members are not to serve: a) “as members of the pastor-parish relations committee” (¶258.2), b) “as members of the committee on nominations and leadership development” (¶258.2), and c) “as members of money-counting teams” (¶258.4).

The book also says no immediate family member of the pastor may serve on the finance committee (¶258.4) or related roles, and no close family member of any hired staff member should serve on the pastor-parish relations committee (¶258,2).

Asked directly whether these policies are required among UMC-member churches, the public relations representative said that only the General Conference—UMC’s policy-making body—speaks officially for the denomination as a whole, and it’s not scheduled to meet until 2024.

External to church denominations, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) doesn’t require ministries to adopt anti-nepotism policies for its transparency-focused accreditation program. However, it still offers a downloadable sample policy on its website as a resource.

Michael Martin, president and CEO of the ECFA, told MinistryWatch the organization encourages ministries to adopt appropriate policies, such as the one available on its website, after seeking professional advice.

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Shannon Cuthrell

Shannon Cuthrell is a journalist with a background covering business, technology and economic development. She has written for Business North Carolina magazine, WRAL TechWire, Charlotte Inno and EE Power, among other publications.