Monday, January 24, 2011

Don't Sell the Parsonage

My current mansion
I've lived in parsonages my whole ministry.  Most of them were not kept up well.  The practice was to ignore everything until there was a change of pastor and then spend a fortune making it livable for the next pastor (did they ever consider how unlivable it was for the pastor until then I wonder?)

That isn't actually the case where I am now.  It's a beautiful large, old house that has been kept up very well.  My luck I only get to stay here a couple of years as an interim.   It says in the history that the intention when this was built in 1910 to be "the finest parsonage in the ELC"  Even now they are very proud of their parsonage.  Imagine that, instead of resenting the pastor's house ("humph... I never had a dishwasher"), actually being proud of providing a nice house for your pastor.  This is a three point parish (that's three services every Sunday) in a small town where you have to drive an hour and half to get anywhere.  But this house outweighs all that and make this a much more attractive call. 

But most of the parsonages I have lived in have been sold.  One was actually moved away. And I think that's a BIG mistake. 

Yes I know most pastors want to own their own home.  Yes it would be more advantageous to the pastor tax wise.   That double dip housing allowance exemption AND interest deduction is very nice.  I used to take a clergy tax seminar every year  and he'd always use an example of a pastor owning his own home.  This imaginary guy made twice what I did but paid less taxes than me because of the double dip.  Yes when I retire I will very likely not be able to buy a house.

But I'm talking about the advantage to the CONGREGATION, not the pastor.  Because it's not always about US.  I can't speak for churches in large cities, I'm talking about the little church in podunk USA.  I interviewed in podunk.  They really wanted a pastor in town.  There's a lot of advantages to the pastor living in town, seeing folks at the post office, coffee shop, just walking around.  But they did not have a parsonage and I could not afford to buy a house.  And there were no houses to rent in that small town.  And even if I could afford a house I'd be nuts to buy a house that would likely take a LONG time to sell.  Who can afford TWO house payments?  But they thought it would be a great idea to sell their parsonage a few years back.  Oh and the housing allowance they were offering?  Not likely to cover a house payment and utilities.  

I think the mass selling off of parsonages of small town churches has led to their decline.  And I think maybe pastors insisting on the American dream of owning their own home bear some guilt in this.  Just saying.


  1. We, too, live in a well-maintained parsonage (albeit, without a dishwasher) owned by my husband's parish. The pastor who served before the one immediately before me (follow that?) bought the parsonage owned by my congregation. Now, they're in a situation where they needed a first-call pastor and had no place to house one. As you said, the housing allowance would certainly not be enough for a home--at least, not one in a decent, safe neighborhood. A parsonage would be a huge benefit to whomever follows me.

    Our bishop strongly DIScourages parishes from selling parsonages for exactly those reasons. The bishop immediately previous to him was just the opposite and, now, many parishes find themselves in situations identical to what you described. It's sad.

    Honestly, though, as thankful as I am to have the parsonage, I do yearn for the day when we might own our own place!

  2. I fall into the camp of "it depends" on whether a parsonage or housing allowance is best. In Podunk USA (rural or small town), a parsonage is best because of the conditions you mentioned. However, where I currently live (a mid-sized metro area), a housing allowance would certainly be appropriate because there are tons of rental options and the housing market is fairly good. I'm hoping for a housing allowance for my next appointment.

  3. Like I said, I'm talking about the small town/country church.

  4. You hit all the good reasons for a church to own a parsonage, and perhaps with how hard it is to sell houses these days, people will reconsider this. But it may well be that many of the parsonages were so old that it really was time to get rid of them instead of insisting that a pastor live in an old, cold house. My daughter would like to live in the parsonage provided by her church, but her husband's job provided housing on site, and he needs to be right there, so she is 6 miles from her churches.

    Regarding the poor condition of parsonages: I would guess that sometimes the pastor contributes to the problem by not bringing small problems to the council. Or maybe there isn't an independent building and grounds committee that makes a practice of looking after the church and parsonage regardless of what the pastor asks for. A pastor could start such a committee. If the pastor and spouse are up to it, having some gatherings at the parsonage can help people know what the condition of the building is really like. At our church, we've had work days at the parsonage that led people to see that some things weren't so great. Pastor's don't have to be complainers, but they can be proactive in having the church look after the parsonage.

    We were fortunate that the old, bad parsonage was sold and a somewhat more modern house with lots of privacy was purchased, right in town, about 20 years ago. So it isn't new, but it is being kept up.

  5. Oh I agree that pastors are part of the problem but I know I got tired of complaining and being ignored. As far as plumbing problems I learned to just call the plumber myself and hand over the bill. I also really don't appreciate the former pastor who promised that $300 a month utility allowance (for EVERYTHING) was fine for 10 years when the gas bill alone in the winter could be $400!

    Or when even things that didn't really bother me personally, like the fact that the hard water had ruined the dishwasher, ruined the toilet and the bathtub but when I suggested they buy a water softener, nothing would be done.

    And also what happens is that if the church shows they don't care about the house, well, the pastor doesn't try real hard to take care of it either. Oh dear, cat barfed on the carpet? Too bad.

    I guess its' really about more than a house.

  6. Being on church council made me realize how much WORK goes into maintaining real estate. I always thought I wanted to own a house, but by the time my husband said he wanted to go to seminary to become an ELCA pastor, I was more than ready to kiss the home ownership dream goodbye. Let all the maintenance work be somebody else's problem!

  7. The church I currently serve made a decision to sell its parsonage about 10 years ago (I've been there 7 and a half years). They felt that their mission could either be to maintain a house, or to afford a full-time minister. Because the cost of upkeep was just too much. The idea was that a full-time minister could help them be a more intentionally missional community. (They put the money in an endowment fund that was to cover my salary for X number of years.)

    It is a small town and the housing allowance pretty much covers our needs (but not all of them). I do worry about being able to sell the house when we leave. But I think they made the right choice. I don't think it's always the right choice, however.

    And yes, it isn't just about the house. If a church won't help tend to the needs of their property or care for their pastor appropriately, there's bigger problems. If it CAN'T, that's another issue, but one that also needs attention.

  8. There is a theological issue here, as well.

    Should a Christian pastor live in her or his own property when ministering to people?

    Scripture appears to recommend that we do not have such ties to a particular locality but that we should rely on the hospitality of those whom we serve. Living in such a paradigm does have an effect on a pastor's view of themselves and the people she or he lives among.

  9. Yes I was trying to get at that or some notion of sacrifice on the part of the pastor - I like the way you put it. With such stories abounding of pastor abuse, that's a hard sell but I know for sure the way back to good relationships between pastor and congregation does not begin with pastors demanding "rights" (or their own house)

  10. @Kate - being a single parent who is not the LEAST bit handy colors my view of home owning for sure. Other than the advantage of being able to have as many and whatever animals I choose, I never particularly wanted to be a homeowner.

  11. Of course, it's not so easy in practice, but one of the reasons Jesus says that we should lodge rather than buy is so that we can make a quick getaway, wiping the dust from our feet as we go :-)

  12. The Church of England - and the Methodist church, too - provides housing for its ministers; traditionally, C of E vicarages/rectories were huge, rambling old places, impossible to heat, and totally impractical once clergy stopped having money of their own. Many were sold off in the 1960s and replaced by hideous modern houses that had very little merit other than being practical!

  13. If the Metro NY Synod has learned nothing else in the last forty years (which is possible), it has learned this:

    If you are in a major metropolitan region -- New York, San Francisco, etc., including their first and second ring suburbs -- don't sell the parsonage. Ever. EVER. Unless you have, or the sale will provide, a truly humongous permanent endowment, and much of that income can be directed, permanently, toward housing a pastor

    And here's why: housing costs in cities like this are astronomical. Which means, simply put, that a small congregation without its own parsonage may never be able to pay a pastor enough money to make home ownership possible or rental even remotely attractive.

    On the other hand, a congregation that is dwindling, and can no longer afford to pay a pastor very much at all, may still find a candidate willing to work part time, while earning money at a secular job -- and housing can be an extremely valuable form of compensation.

    In a few rare cases, such as a church that owns a parsonage on the island of Manhattan, it is possible that the sale of a big old place may bring in an amount that permits the purchase of a reasonable alternative plus some working cash, or a permanent endowment. But very few parsonages occupy such valuable land.

  14. while we own a home now, I agree with you in most instances, about the big city (like NY or Sanfrancisco) as well as small towns. I lived in a parsonage in my first church; they would have been no place to rent or buy near the church, and I do think it's important to live near the church.

    And even though I'm glad my husband and I have a house now, it is harder to be mobile in this economy if you have to worry about selling.

    (although selling a home is not the only consideration when there are two incomes, etc.)

    my parsonage was well kept up and the congregation was proud of it. They sold it when I left, however, because they made a bigger parish with another congregation, and the second congregation had a newer parsonage.

  15. Amen. In the big city a parsonage is probably MORE valuable a resource than in other settings.

    Unfortunately, I've also seen a number of urban congregations make really poor real estate decisions, with an uncanny knack to buy high and sell low.