In my ministry, I have been privileged to serve as Pastor of four wonderful churches–three with parsonages and one without. When living in a parsonage, I sometimes felt the desire for a home to call my very own. Asking others about drapes, carpets and repairs made me feel like I lived in a nice apartment with a friendly landlord, but clearly had no authority to make the place my own because, of course, it wasn’t. I was thrilled to finally enter the world of mortgages about twelve years ago.
But there is one very significant occasion when living in a parsonage can make a lot of sense, both from the standpoint of the church and the minister. The transition from one ministry to another, with all of its associated hassles, is simplified greatly by the presence of at least one parsonage in the equation–either the church where the minister is departing or the church where the minister is arriving. In such situations, there is only one real estate transaction to manage, rather than two.
Over the past twenty or thirty years, many churches got out of the parsonage business, with the most prominent argument often being that “the pastor ought to have the opportunity to build up some equity of his own.” This philosophy makes sense when I consider the house my father bought in 1970 for $45,000 and sold in 1982 for $120,000. He often told me that was the best investment he ever made. When he went to heaven, I bought a nice house in 2006, anticipating the same kind of real estate opportunity.
The housing market crash of 2008 affected many parts of the country far more dramatically than the South, but nevertheless, housing values are about a third lower than they were previously. The result is that many, many people find themselves underwater, which is to say that they owe less on their house than when they bought it, but they owe considerably more on their house than current market values will permit them to earn in a sale.
Listening to the plight of fellow SBC Voices commenters here, it grieves my soul that one minister would need to sell his library to manage such a transition, or that another would be strapped with taxes due to a short sale. (When your mortgage company allows you to sell your house for less than your mortgage payoff, the IRS treats the difference as income to you and taxes you on it, even though you really didn’t receive any actual money from which to withdraw a portion and pay those taxes. The income is on paper only, but the taxes are real.)
A minister of another denomination in our town was called to a church in Florida, but had to remain here for more than a year before his house sold. Frankly, very few ministers can manage the situation of purchasing two houses at the same time, which is not to say that the problem is limited to ministers. A football coach who moved away from our community did not sell his house until three years later.
Because the housing market today makes minister relocation so much more difficult, and because the dream of affording the minister the “opportunity to earn equity” comes with a nightmare called the “opportunity to lose equity,” perhaps it is time for churches to reconsider the value of the parsonage, for if one exists on either end of the transition, the minister is free to move while only paying one mortgage rather than two.
The church parsonage just might be an idea whose time has come…again.