Watson: Don’t sell the parsonage

Jul 17, 2017 by

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When I accepted my current position, I considered the parsonage a drawback and only a temporary housing option. After four years watching my work and the market, I am convinced the parsonage, though its popularity has declined, will be a critical part of the church’s future in post-Christendom.

Hillary Watson

Watson

Selling the parsonage can be a boon to a struggling church — adding cash flow, reducing maintenance demands and allowing the congregation to focus on visioning. There’s also a perception that pastors want “housing choice” or see it beneath themselves to be renters.

But real estate is one of the best investments a congregation can make. It extends their influence in the community. In Evanston, Ill., Reba Place Church and its intentional community have, through long-term real estate holdings, slowed gentrification by providing affordable rent to nonchurch members in buildings the intentional community is not currently occupying.

The housing market has been volatile in the last decade. On average, housing prices in the U.S. have rebounded from pre-2008 levels, which can tempt churches to sell. But that average hides an uneven rebound. High-demand areas — especially cities like Seattle and San Francisco — are above pre-recession levels, while other places still creep toward pre-recession value.

If a congregation’s parsonage is in either category, there is no reason to sell. In a high market, you’ll have difficulty attracting a qualified, seminary-educated pastor who can afford the home prices. The pastor will have to rent without accruing equity at similarly expensive rates or purchase a home at a distance from the congregation.

A pastor commuting long distances loses personal time in an already-strained profession and is unable to fulfill many churches’ desire to connect with the local community.

If your congregation is below pre-2008 levels, a pastor may be able to purchase affordably. But nationally, the market for affordable, “starter” and “downsizing” homes is hot and requires a speedy purchase. A pastor transitioning into a new region may struggle to get a foothold in the affordable market. And it may not be near the church building.

The most compelling reason to keep a parsonage, however, is that the rate of homeownership is lower than it’s been in 50 years and keeps dropping. Many pastors don’t have the money to purchase, and an invitation into even a moderately wealthy region can be difficult to accept. This is doubly true for young pastors carrying education debts. As the rate of pastoral retirements increases, churches will find steep competition to recruit young pastors, and a parsonage may be a regrettable but necessary deciding factor.

Initially, I thought my own 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath parsonage too bulky for my needs. Instead, it’s been a blessing, where I can share space with peer-roommates, have a zero-minute commute to work and cultivate a garden I would never find in another rental.

Why would a pastor choose a housing arrangement with no equity?

My congregation has added equity into the salary package — as Mennonite Church USA recommends in salary guidelines. It’s been a win-win for the congregation, as we both benefit from my proximity and access to affordable housing.

For congregations considering selling, I recommend holding through one or two more pastoral search cycles, ensuring equity is part of a salary package and waiting to see where future forces drive the church.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago and blogs at gatheringthestones.com.


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