One of the most frequent—but unknown—content issues in conflict is the sale of the parsonage.
Though approximately two-thirds of all congregations have sold their parsonages to enable the pastor to have his own home, the remaining one-third may soon face that decision.
Given the mutual benefits of pastor-owned homes to both congregations and pastors, one might think that the sale of a parsonage would simply be an exchange of compensation for the pastor, a releasing of maintenance burden for the congregation, and a viable alternative for both.
But don’t be deceived. A parsonage is more than just a parsonage. It is…
- 1) A symbol of tradition.Often parsonages have been a part of the congregation’s life for years, sometimes longer than the bell tower or the sanctuary itself. In some cases, the congregation’s origins began in the parsonage living room or basement. Indeed, in some cases it may be “where it all began.”
- 2) An object of pride.Some members point to the parsonage with pride saying, “And that’s OUR parsonage.” Unfortunately, regardless of whether there has been regular maintenance and updating, the feeling of pride still persists especially among those members who had been around when the church first started.
- 3) A target of memories.“We helped build that parsonage.” “Remember when ole Joe did the plumbing and Mac did the electrical and….” Those who helped to build, finance, plan or otherwise prepare the parsonage for each successive pastor feel a sense of belonging in that parsonage because so many memories of working together, sacrificing together, and enjoying fellowship occurred in the parsonage.
- 4) An icon of power.Perhaps the greatest danger to be aware of in selling the parsonage. Give the memories, the pride, and other factors, parsonage maintenance and oversight tends to be a magnet for those who like to be in control. Such individuals will make no uncertain claims about “their” parsonage, while giving pastors unmistakable clear instructions, expectations and warnings to take care of the parsonage.
- 5) A seat and focus of pastoral manipulation and control.Antagonists may have no greater joy that not only disrupting the pastor’s public ministry at the church, but also disrupting into the pastor’s personal life as well.
Antagonists enjoy the sense of control over making decisions relative to pastors living conditions. Depriving pastors of choices relative to room colors, maintenance, carpets, etc., each act of permission granting or withholding simply reinforces the sense of power over the pastor.As parsonages are subject to budget constraints, pastors have little opportunity to feel as if any part of their life is really their own. Such sense can help contribute to a lack of self-differentiation.
If repairs are needed in the parsonage, antagonists may use such opportunities to gain prestige with the congregation by all their work work on behalf of the pastor. Claiming to do it because they “care”, such caring may merely be a camouflage for further meddling and invading the pastor’s privacy.
All this lends itself to making the pastor an object of seemingly endless manipulation. There is almost no end to the list of possibilities of real and imagined parsonage issues that antagonists can use to attack and discredit pastors.Such issues range from the wasteful use of utilities, having pets (too large, too small, too many, etc), the frequency and/or manner he cuts the grass, neglecting normal maintenance, etc. How many pastors have heard–directly or indirectly–comments such as,
- “The hot water went out last month, this month it’s the garbage disposal—I wonder what’s next month! Why does that pastor have to be so destructive!, We’ve spent a lot more time and money on this pastor fixing things than we’ve spent on all our previous pastors combined!”
- 6) A symbol of present and future congregational security.Churches, especially in the maintenance mode, generally try to conserve, save, and hoard anything necessary for a feeling of financial security. Perhaps real estate (such as the parsonage) conveys such security in an even greater way than meeting the budget. To sell the parsonage, some might reason, would be to undermine the security of our present and future ministry.
- 7) A symbol of congregational concern for pastoral security.“We can’t sell the parsonage. If we do, where will our next pastor live?” is but one of many comments demonstrating this concern.
For some churches, having a parsonage for their pastor is their way of showing that they want the pastor to be secure. They feel that if there’s no parsonage, the pastor will not have a home for himself and his family.
Often, congregations will follow such stated concern for the pastor’s well-being with statements demonstrating the congregation’s long-term security concerns. “If we sell the parsonage, will we even be able to afford a pastor?” “If we don’t have a parsonage, will a pastor even accept a call to this congregation?” “If the pastor has his own home, will that make it harder for us to get rid of him if he doesn’t work out?”
These and other such comments potential add greater tension to the congregation’s parsonage anxieties.
- 8) A symbol of immediate access to the Pastor.One of the most surprising things when my congregation sold their “next-door-to-the-church” parsonage and I moved in to my own home was the dramatic rise in member phone calls. While in the parsonage, the congregation respectfully regarded my time at home. Thus, phone calls to my home were relatively few.
However, once I moved into my new home, our home phone appeared to ring “off the hook” for about six to eight weeks. My wife commented, “It’s almost as if they though you were moving away and they want to make sure you’re still here.”
Some antagonists outwardly expressed this same concern to others–including shut-in members. “Now that the pastor’s moved out of the parsonage, he probably won’t be here when you need him since he’s further away from the church.” Patiently answering the members’ many phone calls and giving concerned members the re-assurance that I would be there in pastoral need were two important actions to help allay these concerns.
- Some Recommendations
- 1) Keep the parsonage sale issue a congregational issue.
The manner by which a congregation provides compensation for the pastor is never a pastoral issue. Though they may welcome, encourage, and even honor the pastor’s request and input, it’s always the congregation’s issue.
From the congregation’s perspective, deciding whether it is best for them to retain or sell the parsonage should be made totally irrespective of the pastor, his expected tenure, etc. The congregational issue is simply “By what means is our ministry for the Lord best served relative to the pastor’s housing?” and then to fairly provide for housing in a fair and decent manner as they have determined.
- 2) Take your time!Be sure the congregation takes ample time—perhaps several months or longer—to study, communicate, recommend, and approve the sale of the parsonage.
Be especially wary of any hasty congregational decisions–whether approved by simple majority or by unanimous vote–not matter how well-intentioned. Any hasty congregational decision, no matter how strongly approved–even an unanimous decision–is a potential hotbed for conflict. Time is your best friend. Use it wisely.
- 3) Allow generous time intervals for the development of alternate housing compensation.Be sure to clarify repeatedly that the pastor’s cash housing allowance is not an increase in salary but rather an exchange of compensation methodology. Many people, especially antagonists, may think that the housing allowance is really is a pastoral “sleight of hand” raise and that the sale of the parsonage is really just the pastor’s way to “get rich quick by fleecing the flock” at the expense of the congregation’s security.
- 4) Consult pastors and officers of local congregations who have sold parsonages regarding their experiences.Some have sold parsonages without a hitch. Other congregations have nearly disbanded over the issue (cf. The Issue Is Not The Issue).. and even denominational executives, if necessary, to grant legitimacy and acceptance of the idea. Often congregations are not aware of what other congregations are doing or have done. Personal testimony from other churches will help settle congregational anxieties and fears, help allay potential credibility attacks on the pastor’s motives, and demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of selling or retaining a parsonage.
- 5) Keep the pastor out of the spotlight.Pastoral compensation is always a magnet of antagonism. Trusted lay leaders should lead the process from “square one” and do the research, ground work, comparison studies, congregational presentation, etc. The more leaders publicly involved, the better. If the pastor can’t stay out of the limelight due to a lack of willing/competent leaders, it may be best to delay until God raises up such leaders.
6) Go slowly, especially in conflicted congregations.
If the congregation has an active history of high level conflict (Level III or higher), this is probably the best indicator of the potential trouble surrounding the parsonage sale. Sometimes the trouble starts at the beginning of the process, sometimes at the time of the sale, and sometimes several months after the parsonage has been sold and members begin to grieve, have second thoughts, etc.
- 7) Perhaps the best time to discuss housing arrangements is at the time when the pastor is deliberating the possibility of serving in a new parish.Frank, honest, up-front and direct discussions on housing are a must for those pastors who intend to own their own home. When this can be done prior to acceptance of a call, it tends to clarify the issue in a greater way. If the pastor has been at the church for some time, people will inevitably ask various questions, “Why? Why now?” et al.
If the church shows strong resistance to selling the parsonage before the pastor begins his ministry in that place, the issue can be readily resolved by the pastor declining that congregation’s call. If the pastor has been at the congregation for some time, any conflict which might arise might cause inestimable harm to the pastor, the congregation, and to their prospects of ministry together.
- 8) If a congregation does not wish to sell the parsonage, be sure to investigate the possibility of starting a housing equity plan for the pastor’s sense of well-being in retirement.Many denominations have specific programs for housing equity plans. Some denominations, such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have been granted special tax-deferred status on housing equity accounts.Perhaps the greatest tragedy is when pastors who have lived in parsonages their whole lives, find that they lack the income and/or equity with which to purchase a decent house in which to live.
- 9) Before suggesting the purchase of a home, be sure that the area in which you purchase has an active housing market.More than one pastor has gotten “caught” with two house payments while waiting for their previous house in a small town or low-volume marketing neighborhood to be sold. In some areas it may be prudent for the pastor to live in a parsonage with some sort of housing equity arrangement from the congregation or by utilizing suggestion #10 below.
- 10) If you still really want a house…buy one on your own (if you can).A number of pastors, especially those with other sources of income (e.g. spouse, family, etc.) live in parsonages, knowing that selling the parsonage is not a viable option in their situation. Such pastors will often buy other property—a house, a duplex, a rental unit, a cottage on the lake, et al—without the congregation’s knowledge and use it as an investment. The greatest advantage of this is that when these pastors have a day off, they can really get away from the church!
- 11) Don’t buy until the coast is completely clear.If the congregation chooses to sell the parsonage or provide for the pastor to have his own home, don’t start looking for a home, make a purchase agreement, or outright buy a home until the congregation is totally settled on all items relating to housing compensation. Again, give the issue time. Patience at this stage will pay off in big dividends of trust, mental health, and enjoyment of long-term future ministry in that parish.
- What Will Happen In Your Congregation?
- No one knows.Some pastors report no problems at all when their congregations sold their parsonages.
Others, even having the backing of formal unanimous approval of well-attended congregational meetings, have told stories of how the “unanimous” vote turned sour to the point that the parsonage sale issues proliferated to cause them–or hundreds of members– to leave the congregation.
Sometimes the sale of a parsonage is simply a pastoral compensation change which a congregation may take in stride–and relief–to the joy and satisfaction to both pastor and congregation.
- In other conflicted congregations, it can be the focus of a full-scale congregational uprising and subsequent renewal. The most important thing, however, is to be aware of the explosive potential of a parsonage sale. It can make fast enemies out of friends. It can also raise hostilities and suppressed feelings among people feeling threatened by the loss of their parsonage.
- Pastors of some conflicted congregations may actually benefit from the sale of the parsonage.Though potentially painful, once the parsonage has sold, antagonists will have lost a very powerful means of control over the pastor and his personal life. The pastor may feel a greater degree of freedom to focus on ministry concerns without having to deal with the perpetual squeaky wheels of parsonage complaints and grievances which so often add unnecessary frustration to ministry.
- The sale of the parsonage may also bring about congregation renewal and sharpened ministry focus. As parsonage maintenance is no longer a congregational concern, the congregation, like the pastor, will become more focused on what needs to be done in the church… without being distracted by substantive and petty parsonage issues and the control games which may drive such issues..
- Parsonage for sale! What will you do? Just Be-aware before you proceed!
Editor’s Note: Edwin Friedman, in Generation to Generation, indicated that if conflict does arise, the parsonage never is the real issue (cf. Ministry Health article, The Issue Is Not The Issue). It’s just a “content” (or surface) issue which can be traced to other systemic causes. But, given the rich, tangible symbolism of the parsonage, it is one of the most common foci for conflict.