Is Hiring Family Members a Good Idea?

January 13, 2014 — 2 Comments

Do you have family members on your team?  Are you happy about how that’s working, or do you feel you’ve made a mistake?

This is a common topic in church staffing and is often loaded with a “back story” that is worthy of a screenplay and might even make a good reality TV show. Without knowing your full story it’s dangerous to give general guidance and principles, but I will offer my best thoughts from years of experience.

Here’s a quick case study. A church averaging 550 in attendance takes a sudden and sharp decline in giving. In more than six months the giving trend has not turned around. The board requires the pastor to layoff at least two staff members in order to help make budget. The staff member who is struggling the most is the part time director of the nursery. She is a wonderful person but has difficulty recruiting volunteers and keeping them encouraged. The awkward thing is that this person is the pastor’s wife, and it is known that they need the extra income. What would you do?

Back to the question. Is it smart to hire a relative? My answer is yes, IF the person is really good at what they do.  But you are wise to go slow. Don’t be quick to hire a family member because you know and trust them. That’s good, but trust me on this, it is MUCH MORE difficult to FIRE a family member than to hire one.

I can tell you many current stories of churches that have family on staff and it’s a nightmare. One pastor has his aging parents on staff leading global missions. They are sweet people, and basically just lead a few sightseeing tours. It’s a mess and he won’t make the hard call. Another pastor hired his wife to be the executive pastor and the staff can’t stand her. Two top staff quit, but no one will speak up because everyone is afraid of her, apparently including the pastor.  Another pastor hired his son to be the minister to students. The youth group has “grown” from 80 students down to about 35. Dad won’t make the tough call.

Of course it doesn’t always go badly. There are many success stories! You may have one of those good stories at your church.  We have family on staff at 12Stone® Church, and they all do a great job.  But we make those family hires sparingly, very slowly, and with much thought and prayer. We also waited until the church was nearly 5,000 in attendance before we allowed any staff hiring other than temporary part time project help. Now past 13,000 in average attendance, it’s not quite as critical of an issue because the larger the church the more able you are to absorb any question or criticism about family on staff, as long as you don’t allow any favoritism.

There are several things you can do to help lower any impression of nepotism as well as safeguard against the potential realities of nepotism. Here’s a quick list:

1.  Don’t hire family as your first choice.

Under the right circumstances a family hire can be good, but it should not be your initial preference. It is more common that the risks outweigh the rewards when you hire a relative. Just because it’s easy, and you may have high trust with the family member, doesn’t mean they are the right person, let alone the best person for the job.

2.  If you do hire family, they better be really good.

You may consider this discrimination, but I recommend that if you hire a family member that they must actually be more qualified than any other candidate. Not just equal or good, but the best by far. This helps eliminate any notion of nepotism. When people see that the employee’s contribution is outstanding, questions of favoritism decrease, and gratitude for good hiring wisdom increases.

3.  If you are the pastor, don’t hire your spouse in the finance department.

I know you would not hire someone you don’t trust. In fact, one of the top reasons pastors hire family is because they do trust them, but no one is above temptation. When you hire a family member into any position that involves the church checkbook, accounting, or finance in general, it is highly likely that you are raising concerns. Candidly, it’s usually a bad idea. You may be the exception, but be careful.

4.  Don’t make a family member a direct report.

Intermingling marriage pressures, staff pressures, leadership pressures and ministry in general is not a good idea. It’s impossible to be completely unbiased in these situations. I have seen it work, but I can count the success stories on one hand from hundreds of failed attempts. It starts out with a great dream and vision of a partnership made in heaven and often turns into a nightmare. When it doesn’t work, no one knows how to get out of it. It’s like a staff divorce and that’s a mess, so it’s allowed to continue and the church suffers for it.

5.  Never hire family for reasons of benevolence.

Love, grace, generosity and kindness are all wonderful virtues, but terrible reasons to hire someone. You may have a family member who needs extra money, or just needs a little help until they can get back on their feet, or maybe they just really want to work at the church. That’s a terrible reason to hire someone and will nearly always backfire and hurt you and the church in the long run.

6.  It’s not a good idea to hire a spouse of a board member.

I’ve considered hiring the spouse of a board member at 12Stone to be part of the ministry staff, but we haven’t done it. Our board spouses are sharp, gifted and talented, but again, that doesn’t make it a good idea to hire them. It will often cloud decision-making, and especially when it comes to budget issues and decisions about ministry design. Not to mention legal issues related to conflict of interest.

7.  Don’t pay family members higher than other staff members.

This may seem obvious, but I need to at least give a quick mention that it’s not wise to pay relatives higher than other employees. Pay family members just exactly the same as you would any other person on staff and only if they are doing a good job. This is another reason it’s not wise to have a family member as a direct report, because it’s nearly impossible to conduct an impartial performance review.

8.  Have the tough conversation up front.

You will serve your team and your church well if you will have the difficult conversation before you make the hire, even if it’s awkward. Set up an informal meeting over coffee with the person you are considering hiring and with their spouse if they are married. This is the time to get everything on the table from crystal clear expectations to the fact that you will fire them if it doesn’t work out. Then ask, “Can you handle that?” Nothing fully prepares a family member for being “let go,” but they will remember that conversation and it will help minimize the hurt, and therefore help in the healing process.

9.  If it’s your first family member, seek the board’s blessing.

It’s important to have your church board philosophically aligned with you on the topic of hiring family. I would never hire family if the board did not approve of the idea in general. There is room for difference of opinions and differing levels of enthusiasm, but it’s essential that there is overall alignment.

You might be thinking, wow Dan, you are really down on hiring family. No, that’s not it. We do have a few family members on staff at 12Stone. I just know that it’s more common for a family on staff not to work well, than for you to have a great experience. I’m writing in hopes that you will be careful. Go slow. Be wise, and make good decisions. And then we can all thank God for the family members who do become great staff members.

  • patrick kelly

    Agree with your thoughts Dan. It’s hard to think of a lot of extra upside to hiring a family over another really well qualified applicant but there are plenty of additional pitfalls! That being said we recently hired a family member on our staff and had a lot of discussion ahead of the offer that was in line with your 9 points. Good stuff!

    One additional thought… If you are already on staff and it’s your family member being considered for a position, don’t pressure or promote the decision. It’s best to take a low profile and stay clear of the hiring process if possible. That was a huge plus in our situation.

  • Daniel Hawks

    Pastor, thank you for this post. This is good stuff to remember.
    What do think about a husband/wife co-lead pastor situation? It seems like you are talking more about the family members being under one another.