No Small Calling: Livin’ In A Parsonage, Part 1

When we were first looking into moving into a small town to pastor a small church, one of the things that made us nervous was the prospect of living in a church-owned parsonage.  We had heard some horror stories over the years about pastors living in church housing (in fact, a friend had recently removed himself from consideration for a position after seeing the house being offered).  So we held out some fear that we would be asked to live in a dilapidated shack where a key-wielding deacon would walk right in whenever he pleased like it was the fellowship hall.

Instead, we live in a home that is at least as nice as the one we still own and lease out back in Fort Worth.  We have our privacy, and both our family and the house is well taken care of.  And there is no way we could afford to pastor here without the benefit of the house.  It’s a good situation for both us and our church.

So over the next couple of posts, I want to pull from my own experience and the experiences (both good and bad) from others I know to first give guidelines for churches when it comes to parsonages and then for the prospective small-town pastor.

It seems to be a trend that fewer churches are offering a parsonage as part of the compensation package.  I think it’s a mistake to abandon the parsonage as a ministry strategy in town and country settings.  Instead, here are four reasons why small-town congregations should invest in quality housing for their pastors.

1 – A parsonage can turn a part-time position into a full-time position

I recently heard from a friend who is in contact with various churches about pastoral positions.  A church in a rural town was talking to him, and he asked if they offered a parsonage.  They said that they had recently sold it.  This is a church averaging just a few dozen on Sunday mornings, hoping to have a pastor come and be full-time.  My friend is rightly skeptical that they can support his family without offering housing.

Now, I know that there are some who believe that being bivocational is actually preferable for a small church (I happen to believe that, for various reasons, most pastors would be more successful being full-time in a small-town context, but that’s a post for another time).  Still, most churches would prefer their pastor did not have to work another job to make ends meet.  A parsonage drastically reduces the amount of annual budget needed to support a full-time pastor.

Even in larger churches where the church can pay the pastor enough to pay his own mortgage, a parsonage can be a means to support a part-time staff person the church could not otherwise afford.  A house plus a small stipend can be a very budget-friendly to bring in an additional staff person that is going through school or has another part-time job.

2 – A parsonage is affordable

Many churches keep cash reserves large enough to pay cash for a house in a small town, where property values are often such that an average neighborhood home can be purchased for well under $100,000.  These cash reserves are often just there as a sort of security blanket against a “rainy day,” rather than a specific purpose.  Even if the reserves aren’t large enough to pay for the house outright, it would be enough to make a down payment that would make the mortgage smaller than the value added by offering housing to your pastor.

One reason that churches sell off their parsonage is that the property has fallen into disrepair.  That doesn’t need to be the case.  An unfortunate fact of small-town church life is that the pastor position can often stay vacant for a year or more at a time between pastors.  My church invested the money that would otherwise be budgeted for pastor salary back into the parsonage during the interval.  The result was that we moved into a house that, in some ways, seemed almost new, even though it was built before World War II.

3 – A parsonage can be an expression of love and appreciation for your pastor

One seminary professor told us a story of his first pastor position in a rural setting where the church leadership refused to make basic repairs to the plumbing, directing their young pastor to learn how to manipulate the system so that it would imitate its proper function.  He was reminded constantly that the house belonged to the church, not to him.  The result was that he constantly felt like a visitor in his own home.

I pray that this situation is not typical, and I don’t believe that it exemplifies the experience of most pastors.  A parsonage belongs to the church, but it should be given freely as a place where a pastor and his family are invited to make a home.  This invitation is communicated by giving the pastor and family the privacy anyone would expect for their own home, by keeping the property well-maintained and responding to needs for repairs promptly.  The pastor and family should feel welcome to have pets, decorate, keep a garden, and make other reasonable decisions about the home and its appearance without oversight or “suggestions.”  If possible, it is preferable for the house to be separate from the church property, rather than on the church grounds; this separation helps maintain healthy boundaries.

When a pastor and his wife and children do not hesitate to call the parsonage “our house,” they are able to be at home.  This sense of being at home is central to what it means to belong and to feel secure, appreciated, and loved.

4 – A parsonage makes transitions easier for both the church and the pastor

One of the hardest things about taking a job in a new town is figuring out where you’re going to live.  It begins with the search, then the endless debates on what is most important, what is acceptable, what is unacceptable, and which neighborhood and home fits your needs the best.  Then comes the long process of home-buying.  If a church offers a quality home in a good location, these questions are answered before they begin.  The house search will not delay a pastor from arriving on the field.

At the other end, it also makes departure less complicated, too.  I have written extensively in this space how important it is for small-town pastors to put down roots and plan to stay for a while in the towns where God has called them.  But the decision to stay or go should not depend on the realities of the housing market.  Small towns often have homes that are easy to purchase but next to impossible to sell.  Churches should try to avoid putting their pastors in a position where they have to buy a property that will cling to them long after they are ready to move on to another place of ministry.

I consider the situation we enjoy in our parsonage to be close to the ideal.  Our church has provided a place that is inviting both for our family and for anyone we welcome into our home.  My children can’t imagine living anywhere else.  Not all pastors have that experience.  Whether your experience was good or bad, I’d like to know your thoughts, too.

What made you feel at home?  What could the church have done to make your experience better? If you are contemplating going to a small-town setting, what concerns do you have about living in a parsonage?

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