In 2016 my co-planter, Brian, and I launched New City Fellowship in Manassas, Virginia. Aside from college, we both spent the majority of our lives in this suburb of D.C., along with the majority of our immediate families. Depending on which way you look at it, this presented the exciting opportunity (or the terrifying prospect) of beginning a core team with family members on the roster. Through a lot of thought and prayer, we decided to welcome our immediate and extended family into this new church plant and have had everything from parents and in-laws to nieces and nephews as part of our church.
Perhaps you are planting in your home town and are considering welcoming your family on board. Will your family be a fruitful addition to your core team or are you headed for a Jerry Springer-style family meltdown? I hope these brief reflections can offer some guidance on planting a new church with your family.
Our first question always should be: What insight does the Bible have for us on this topic? While the Bible doesn’t have clear imperatives on whether or not to include your family on a core team, it certainly has some broad considerations for us to heed, both positive and negative.
Consider these examples from Scripture: Jesus Himself included two sets of brothers in his core group of disciples. Peter and Andrew went straight from a shared family business endeavor to a shared family ministry endeavor as they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Zebedee’s sons James and John received the same invitation – and when it came to discussing who would be the greatest, even their mother got involved! The entire family of the jailer in Acts 16 become the founding members of the church in Philippi.
We see no biblical prohibition from including immediate family members in church planting, with several examples to the contrary. Further, in these examples and others, God seems to be displaying His love of family and His desire to bring entire households into the kingdom.
But are there any cautions the Bible would offer us for including our immediate family in a task as important and sometimes complicated as planting a church?
Most certainly. In the case of James, John and their ambitious mother, we see conflict breaking out among the apostles. And we need to look no further than the books of Samuel to see the complications that come with mixing kingdom and family business. Eli’s sons make a mockery of the priesthood, Saul’s relationship with Jonathan is fractured over David and, of course, we have the conspiracy of Absalom against David as well. And while they were building the kingdom of Israel, not planting churches, we can observe quite regularly in the Old Testament that things get complicated when we intertwine leading God’s people and family relationships.
So what should we do? Plant a church with immediate family or not? Rather than giving a clear yes or no, I want to offer some pros and cons for both sides and conclude with just a few pieces of practical wisdom I have picked up along the way.
1. Displaying God’s Love of the Family
God loves to bring about His saving purposes through the institution of the family. Timothy’s faith was nurtured under the example of his mother and grandmother. We see salvation coming to entire households with the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10 and the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. How compelling would it be to show our communities and neighborhoods that God is not just in the business of saving individuals but entire households through families united together in church planting?
When starting a new church, you desperately need people you can rely on. Your core team is filled with people you are just getting to know, and who shouldn’t be trusted with big responsibilities until they have been tested. In planting with your family, you may have members who have a long track record of faithfulness. For example, my sister in law had worked in children’s ministry in other churches and was regularly reaching out with the gospel to kids in her neighborhood. Knowing this gave us high confidence in her ability to serve as our churches children’s ministry director.
3. Watching the people you love the most grow in Christ
There is no greater joy than watching people’s lives be transformed by the gospel. Watching it happen among your family is an extra bonus. I absolutely love baptizing people who have come to know Christ through our church plant. This past Sunday I had the great honor of baptizing my niece and nephew, who have been part of our church and children’s ministry for the past five years. I would hate to miss out on this privilege because I didn’t want to add any familial complexity in my church plant.
1. Putting Family Relationships at Risk
As sad as it is to admit, church planting often is riddled with fractured relationships. Paul is constantly addressing issues of conflict and disunity in his letters, and it doesn’t take long to watch these same issues take place in our new churches. Knowing that conflict comes with the territory in church planting, we should be very cautious about how this might affect our family relationships. In some cases, where the relationship already is vulnerable, it might be wise not to include family in your plant, especially in the early stages.
Having family members in your plant can open you up in two directions to the charge of partiality. One, by giving more opportunities to a family member than you might an ordinary church member. Two, by not giving the same opportunities to a family member that you would an ordinary church member. I’ve seen this work in both directions. You may be subject to either placing unfair limits or giving unfair privileges to those in your family.
3. Overloading your life in the church
One of the hardest aspects of vocational ministry is the amount of your life lived in one location. Most people have separate boxes for their family, friends, vocation and church. When you’re a pastor, all the aspects of your life show up in one place. You have to mix being a spiritual leader, boss, friend and, in this discussion, family member. It can be exhausting when a family member brings up an idea for the church over Thanksgiving dinner or a church complaint at a family birthday party. Letting family be family, apart from core team members, may be healthier for you in the long run.
If your immediate or extended family does end up joining your plant, here are a few practical pieces of advice.
First, whenever possible, try to have a degree of leadership separation between you and them. Have another pastor or team member oversee their spiritual needs or provide organizational oversight if they have a leadership role. I have had a pretty firm rule that I don’t provide pastoral care or staff oversight to people in my family.
Second, communicate with your family your need to set church matters aside when you are gathering for family functions. Communicate that you don’t want to discuss kids ministry or the church budget at the family pool party. (And be scrupulous about observing this rule yourself!)
Third, have a very clear conversation at the beginning of your church plant where you state: The family comes before the church. If at any point the church relationship is harming the family relationship, find another church for your family.
Finally, trust God! Whether you include your family in your plant, there will be a temptation toward anxiety and worry. It’s God’s church and He will provide the right people for the right role on your team. Pray, make wise choices and trust Him with the results!
Published May 16, 2022