by Karen Shaw
Is nepotism good or bad? A look at the practical issues and what the Bible has to say about the topic.
The son of the duck is a floater,” say the Arabs. English speakers put it differently: “A chip off the old block” or “Like father, like son.” In most cultures, people look for family resemblances in character and ability, not just in physical features.
It is not surprising, then, that in many countries it is the norm that the successor of a church leader comes from that leader’s family, and in many societies the leadership of new ministries is routinely entrusted to the relatives of people with positions in the same denominational or mission network.
Over my twenty-plus years in the Middle East, I and other expat workers have found this pattern disturbing, but most local church people take it for granted. Let’s look at both sides of the issue.
The Problems of Nepotism
Nepotism has a bad name, and with good reason. Even leaders who themselves make a habit of handing on ministry positions to relatives can identify a plethora of problems with this practice—when someone else is doing it! Drawbacks of in-house ministry include:
• Ministry may become a means of maintaining family power and control rather than genuine service to others.
• The practice of routinely assigning positions to family members assumes de facto that God’s choice will conform to that of the family patriarch, and that the gifts and calling given to non-family members are relatively unimportant.
• Gifted people who are not members of the dynasty have a choice of resigning themselves to second-class status in the church or mission, launching guerilla attacks on the family, or leaving. Genuine teamwork is not an option.
• Sometimes, incompetent or mediocre people end up in leadership because of family connections. It is as though the demands of the Kingdom of God are secondary to those of the family.
• Families often justify the selection of their own by denigrating others unfairly.
• Family members come to have a sense of entitlement.
• Often, there is inadequate accountability, especially when the unethical practices of the individual enhance the power, prestige, or pockets of the entire clan.
• Family members become defensive and even hostile when they are criticized for favoritism, and an atmosphere develops in which issues of money, de facto decision-making patterns and placements cannot be discussed transparently.
• Nepotism and patronage often walk hand in hand so that help and empowerment of non-family members is conditional upon loyalty to the family and perpetuating the family’s right to power.
• Non-family who believe themselves called to ministry feel (and often are) shut out. Converts, whose zeal and inside understanding are invaluable for mission, are the most likely to be unable to find a toehold in the structure.
• Sometimes, the security of family environments can result in a backward and inward-looking parochialism and an inability to be innovative. Nepotism speeds up the process of institutionalization and ossification, since those who have grown up in the system know only one way of doing things.
Advantages of Family Networks
A Western journalist once accused a Middle Eastern leader of giving all of the key cabinet positions to relatives. The Arab was perplexed. He responded, “Of course I am going to give these positions to people I know and trust!” In fact, there is no word for “nepotism” in Arabic. Working with the family is simply common sense. Many Christian leaders around the world would likewise prefer to be surrounded and succeeded by family in ministry. Westerners tend to impugn sinister motives to this pattern and fail to notice some of the advantages, including:
1. Loyalty. In tribal societies, leaders are assumed to fit into one of three roles: patriarch/patron, loyal sub-leader, or usurper. Senior pastors and directors of missions face the very real possibility that anyone to whom they delegate even a little authority may shortly conduct a coup d’état. Family loyalty means “relative” security.
2. Shared values. Shared values are essential to the success of an endeavor. As with kidney transplants, there is no guarantee that members of the same clan will fit with the established values, but it is far more likely than in the case of non-relatives.
3. Face-saving discipline. When the junior leader is a relative, the senior leader may enjoy the support of the family or clan in enforcing standards and resolving conflicts. Correction is more easily received in a homey context of unconditional love, and if tensions arise, they can be kept confidential, avoiding embarrassment to the parties involved and the ministry as a whole.
4. Communication and inside knowledge. Knowledge is power, and effective organizations are characterized by efficient internal communication of information, intentions, and attitudes. It is quicker and easier to stay informed when one lives with one’s co-workers or shares with them an extended social network. Family members are usually better able to anticipate the preferences, decisions, and actions, and to read the non-verbal cues of co-workers from the family than are others.
5. Smooth succession. One learns a great deal about pastoral ministry by growing up in a parsonage. It is natural that children who admire their parental role models will slip into the same profession, having already gained the instruction, skills, and networks of their parents, either intentionally or by osmosis. Congregants who felt loyalty to the pastor find it easier to transfer that loyalty to the pastor’s relative than to an outsider, particularly if the pastor has hinted or stated his or her desire to be succeeded by that relative. They know that the new pastor will not change things too much. Although it is by no means assured, nepotism has many times resulted in a smooth transition.
The Bible and Ministry as Family Business
The Bible and sound doctrine should put the brakes on the tendency to assume that family members are to be preferred for ministry positions. God calls the people he chooses based upon his mercy and wisdom, regularly choosing the unexpected and rejecting those considered entitled by virtue of their place in the family. The gifts necessary for leadership are distributed as the Spirit wills.
Chronic nepotism also calls into question the biblical doctrine of the Church. The true Church is the Church of Jesus Christ, and membership and leadership should be based primarily upon relationship to him, and not some earthly chief. The apostolic Church strongly affirmed the full and equal church membership of all believers, regardless of background, and the Aramaic-speaking apostles’ first recorded decision after Pentecost was to designate seven Greek-speakers as strategic leaders in the Jerusalem church.
Nevertheless, God created the family and has a history of working with families as units. God called Abraham and made his offspring channels of blessing to the world. In the Old Testament, the priesthood was hereditary, and so was kingship of God’s people, at least after the death of Saul. Moses’ brother, Aaron, was the high priest by God’s choice. Jesus chose two pairs of brothers among his disciples, and three of these four comprised his inner circle. One would have expected Peter to be the primary leader of the church in Jerusalem, but it is clear from Acts that Jesus’ brother, James, filled that role, despite his having disbelieved until after the resurrection of Jesus.
If God took into account the social networks of families when choosing his servants, we would be foolish to disregard their importance when working in collective cultures.
Empowering Non-family Ministers
There is no one more desperate and miserable than the person called and gifted by God who, because of a lack of family connections, has one door of ministry after another shut in his or her face. Nor is there anything more damaging to the Church of Jesus Christ.
Yet this is the experience of hundreds of potential Christian leaders around the world. I hear reports frequently from fine, proven servants of Christ that they have been excluded and driven to choose between being silenced or leaving their church or mission and going independent. Either of these choices weakens the Church. What can be done?
There are no easy answers. However, the following suggestions have been tried successfully in collective cultures.
• Find senior leaders who are willing to “adopt” young potential leaders from outside the established family networks. Paul made this his practice (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4). Among the senior leaders most open to this idea are those who are spiritually mature, childless, or themselves from outside the reigning families.
• Provide gifted outsiders with all of the encouragement, mentoring, training, and connections you can. Everyone entering ministry need this sort of support, but only some will get it from home.
• Consider arranging the marriage of a promising outsider with a suitable member of one of the influential families. In the long term this could expand the influence of the family, but it is a well-tested short-term solution. For many women globally, this is the only realistic option.
• Urge those who are forced by exclusion into parachurch or independent ministries to leave as graciously as possible; it is easier to re-enter a door one has not slammed shut.
Share Your Wisdom!
These few suggestions are presented with a view to stimulating discussion among mission practitioners. Perhaps you have experience in working in situations where family networks dominate and gifted non-family members are disregarded. What have you found actually works in your setting? I would like to hear your experiences through email.
Dr. Karen Shaw teaches cross-cultural ministry at ABTS in Lebanon, where her husband, Perry, also teaches. Their son hopes to be a pure mathematician, their daughter a veterinarian. Share your insights on this topic with her via email: email@example.com.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 134-135. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.