What’s wrong with Nepotism?

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:1-2)

Heather and I had the privilege of attending a marriage retreat at Camp Ironwood in Newberry Springs California last weekend. Camp Ironwood is an amazing oasis of spiritual encouragement in the middle of the California desert. The camp has been around for 48 years and is going strong. It was founded by Walt Brock in 1972. The current camp director is Sam Brock, the son of the founder. Sam and his wife Cindy picked us up from the Las Vegas airport on Thursday. We had a wonderful time of fellowship as we drove past one of the largest solar energy farms in the world, a couple of mines, a ton of Joshua Trees, and miles and miles of desert sand. All this scenery was set against the beautiful background of cascading mountains. 

The retreat was a tremendous blessing to us! God provided a wonderful group of 40 couples from the southwest. Heather and I won 3rd place in the couples’ challenge (making and flying paper airplanes through various obstacles), went on an evening hayride to gaze at the stars without the glare of city lights, enjoyed a couple’s banquet that included steak tips and skits, and drove around the desert in our own quad machine built for two (a fringe benefit enjoyed by the guest speakers). It was a great experience!

The father-son connection at Camp Ironwood in CA reminded me of my own experience at Family Baptist Church in Minneapolis. It gave Sam and me plenty to talk about. Both of us have the privilege of serving as successors of our fathers’ ministries. Both Walt Brock and Lee Ormiston are visionary entrepreneurs. Both men have a passion to reach the lost for Christ. Both modeled unbelievable creativity and ingenuity in difficult settings. Both have been recipients of God’s abundant blessing. And I am delighted to inform you that both men are still alive and present in the ministries they founded. 

Which leads me to ask the question: “What’s wrong with nepotism?” Why did so many people warn me against working with or succeeding my dad? I think it is because it sounds wise to keep ministry and family separate. The argument is that you don’t want to cloud your familial relationships with ministry pursuits. While we have experienced some role adjustments in the first four months ministering at Family Baptist together, it hasn’t hurt our father-son relationship. It has only strengthened it!  

In a 2015 article from the Atlantic: “Like Father, Like Son: How Much Nepotism Is Too Much?” author Joe Pinsker shines some light on the impact of parents on children:

"More than one-fifth of employed American men who grew up in the same household as their fathers wind up in the same workplace as them by the time they turn 30."

How exactly are these job-inheritance patterns perpetuated? One answer—an incomplete one, but still an important one—is household culture. An auto mechanic will instill different interests in his children than will an architect, and a child exposed to, say, tinkering, might be more prone to spending time in the garage than at the drafting table. “In the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse,” wrote David Grusky, a professor at Stanford, with three other sociologists in a 2011 article “we can imagine the engineer’s family talked mainly about why the building failed structurally, whereas the sociologist’s family talked mainly about why there is terrorism.” Generational torch-passing takes place gradually and is folded into daily routines. It’s about watching Shark Tank as a family. It’s about talking mergers and acquisitions at the dinner table.

But household culture has another important effect that runs deeper than just skill sets and hobbies. Sociologists have argued that a parent’s class and occupation can shape what his or her child hopes for in a job, and in life. For example, the daughter of an entrepreneur is more likely to seek autonomy in her professional endeavors, just as the son of a cubicle-dweller will fantasize about stability.

Taken as a whole, is this nepotistic system acceptable, or something to be resisted and dismantled?

I struggle to find any examples where nepotism is viewed in a positive light. If nepotism simply refers to unjust favoritism, I totally agree that the practice should be avoided at all costs. 

The Miram-Webster dictionary defines nepotism negatively as the “the unfair practice by a powerful person of giving jobs and other favors to relatives.”  Apparently, the word has Papal origins: 

During his papacy from 1471-1484, Sixtus IV granted many special favors to members of his family, in particular his nephews. This practice of papal favoritism was carried on by his successors, and in 1667 it was the subject of Gregorio Leti's book Il Nepotismo di Roma-titled in the English translation, The History of the Popes' Nephews. Shortly after the book's appearance, nepotism began to be used in English for the showing of special favor or unfair preference to any relative by someone in any position of power, be it ecclesiastical or not. (The "nep-" spelling is from nepote, a 17th-century variant of Italian nipote, meaning "nephew.")

But all of this background still provokes within me a series of questions: what if your close relative is qualified for the job? Isn’t it logical to think that those closest to you are more likely to align with you philosophically? Are we operating out of fear (by not hiring our relatives) or faith (by hiring people who we know are closely aligned with the vision and mission of an organization)? Why apply the term “nepotism” to any occasion when two relatives work in the same church, camp, business, or non-profit organization?  

Being related to someone should not disqualify them from official partnerships.  We must evaluate each candidate (especially pastors) based on their calling, character, and competency (I Timothy 3:1-7).  I am so grateful that Family Baptist Church chose to risk the stigma by calling me to serve as their next lead pastor!  I am also grateful that my dad chose to remain on the pastoral team in a part time capacity to help us reach the North Minneapolis community.  According to our conversations last weekend, Sam Brock feels the same way about his connection to his dad.

Let’s stop calling some of these appropriately discerned family connections nepotistic and start calling them strategic! It’s working for us!

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