All In The Family?

Yesterday, the Out of Ur blog ran a post about one of the key reasons for the demise of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. The author of the post wrote, “A former Crystal Cathedral board member believes family dynamics led, in part, to the decline of the ministry.” After summarizing the low points of the long, messy decline of this particular megachurch, the writer asks readers to offer their responses to questions including

Would you want to be part of a church that’s essentially a family business? Are there strengths to this model we may not recognize? And what can be done to ensure ministries with leaders from the same family do not suffer the same fate as the Crystal Cathedral?

I posted a brief response at Our Of Ur referring to my experience a decade ago serving on the staff where most of the others on the paid staff were relatives that came from  two interconnected families. I did blog about the questions left in the wake of the experience a couple of years ago. In case you don’t feel like clicking over to read that post, I’ll summarize: Nepotism made working at the church a terrible, TERRIBLE experience.

After that experience, my husband and I have agreed that we will not join a congregation where multiple family members are paid staff or in leadership (elder) roles. If there is, say, a pair of family members receiving a paycheck or making directional decisions in a church, we will be asking lots of hard questions about how the congregation is protected from the potential toxicity of nepotism. Even if this spousal or parent-child pair is gifted by God to do the job, and they both happen to be the best choice for their respective positions, I have no qualms about asking questions like, “What safeguards are in place to make sure that these two family members cannot enforce their joint decisions on others? When was the last time one or both were told ‘no’? How did they handle it? What happens when others detect that they’ve shared sensitive information with one another after being specifically asked not to? Do you believe the decision-makers in the church have the will to remove one or both of them from their positions if need be? Why?”

(Yep. It was pretty terrible.)

I love seeing families working and worshiping together. But there are lots and lots of wonderful, God-honoring ways to do this that do not include allowing a family’s mortgage payment and electric bill to be solely on their church paycheck, or where a congregation becomes the stage upon which a family forms its identity.

I’d love your thoughts on this topic. Have you had a positive experience with a family-run church? What made it work?

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4 thoughts on “All In The Family?”

  1. Welcome to my world. Our parish of 174 years has ten families who are now eighth and ninth generation members. I recall (now humorously) when a particular individual was nominated for chairman of the congregation. He had served numerous leadership positions over thirty years but “he wasn’t born here.” My response, “We’ll be fine!”

    We have to take serious deliberate steps to prevent nepotism from raising its ugly head. Your questions and points are valid. When making decisions we have always made our conclusions by consensus. We will take our time if that’s what it takes for everyone to feel as if they are a part of the decision making process. Case in point, it took us six years before we began construction on our church expansion project.

    Over the years I’ve had to remind these fine people from the pulpit, “last names cease once you enter the church door”, and on occasion, “some of us are members by choice”. Particularly we need to be reminded that we are brothers and sisters by faith, not by blood. This will always be a challenge here, as occasionally I still here from a few, “I don’t have the right last name.”

    A particular challenge is found where we have a husband and wife teaching at our school. It’s worked well when we have asked the hard questions you have suggested. Being highly aware of these potential challenges calls for us to be extremely proactive. Thank you for addressing this topic.

  2. Recall my daughter commenting, “I can date anyone I want to because I’m not from here!” However, my great grandparents were married in the parish a few miles from here, so we might be related to the Scheuman clan.

  3. Your awareness and vigilance has probably nipped some of this business in the head over the years, though you won’t know this side of heaven how your efforts have perhaps changed the course of things and preserved the faith of some non-family members in your parish. It is a never-ending battle, I’m sure, but it is indeed an important one.

    Blessings, Pastor Dan. 🙂

  4. This is interesting. Coming from a 118-year-old rural church that ran for years on the impetus of a handful of families (and not only survived, but thrived!) I can’t help but ask the other question–how can family dynamics help? In the last 15 years my church has grown from a congregation of about 100 to one of over 700–in a town of 500 people, mind you–and they’ve done it primarily by hiring people who are already entrenched in the community. Not necessarily related to one another, but CLOSE! Also, on the mission field, you almost ALWAYS have a husband and wife working together, getting a paycheck from the same organization. And tribes in other cultures are organized along family lines. There are definitely inherent dangers, but family “dynasties” have their benefits too, if people don’t allow pride and self-interest to get the better of them, and if corruption is fastidiously avoided.

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