Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Parsonage Problems Edition

Post Author: Askie

lawnmowerDear Askie,

I’m in the process of transitioning to my next call, and am going to be living in the manse. This isn’t my first call, but it is my first call that comes with a manse… I’m concerned about making sure that this part of this call goes smoothly, especially because I’ve heard more than a few horror stories from clergy colleagues who have lived in manses that were poorly maintained, or who felt they never had any privacy, or that sort of thing. In fact, I would consider asking them to rent out the manse and give me a housing allowance instead, but I think that would ruffle a lot of feathers and the manse seems to be in good condition from what I can tell. Do you have any words of encouragement, and advice about what to talk with them about before I move in?

Long-Time Pastor, First-Time Manse-Dweller

Dear Manse-Dweller,

Oh, the dubious joys of church-provided housing! Many non-clergy folks think we’re getting a really great deal with these parsonages/manses/rectories/whatever-your-denomination-calls-them… But as your question suggests, it’s not always so easy, and it’s much more complicated than the “free housing” that many of our congregations, families, and friends think we receive.

It’s not all bad, though. In fact, there are some significant advantages to living in a manse! For itinerant ministers, and many interims, a manse can be a real blessing: if you have to move every few years, you don’t have to assume the financial risk and logistical nightmare of buying and selling homes quickly, or even the headache of searching for an acceptable rental. The manse gives you a ready-made solution. Manses are usually right in the church neighborhood, where you might not have been able to find housing at all, let alone on a tight schedule. If your church is in a wealthy area, a manse allows you to live in the midst of the community you serve regardless of your financial means.

Of course, the horror stories are real, and troublingly numerous. You’re wise to give some careful thought to potential issues, and to discuss them with your new church before you move in. As with so many things in ministry, clear and non-anxious communication can help to smooth the way, minimizing tension as manse maintenance and upkeep issues arise.

With thanks to my many manse-dwelling colleagues, Askie has collected a few points to consider as you prepare to move into the manse:

  • Safety first: Colleagues who have lived in old parsonages can’t emphasize this enough: your church must show you that the parsonage is lead-free before you move in. Most parsonages are older buildings, and lead paint is a serious health issue for any small children or pregnant women who may live in the parsonage until it is dealt with, so even if you’re single and childless, do us all a favor and be firm about this. The home needs to be tested, you need to see the results, and if lead is found, the church must complete lead abatement before you move in. They’re going to have to do it eventually, and it’s not getting any less expensive.
  • Money matters: You’ll want to sort out who will pay utilities. Think about electricity, water, gas, trash pick-up, phone, internet, and cable. If they’re picking up the tab on any or all of those, talk about what level of scrutiny is appropriate – are you going to have to defend yourself to the trustees every time they think you’re overdoing it with the air conditioning?
  • Lawn-mowing and snow-blowing: You’ll want to sort out in advance who is responsible for lawn care. If mowing and such are your job, you need to get on the same page about what level of diligence is expected. Set some appropriate expectations, keeping in mind that you may have less time, energy, and enthusiasm for lawn maintenance than some of your more zealous trustees. If you’re in a snowy area, you’ll also need to establish who is responsible for snow removal.
  • Functional furniture: Does the parsonage come furnished? If so, can you live with the furniture? Hopefully, furniture that is in bad repair or that doesn’t fit your needs be disposed of, donated, sold, or stored at the church’s expense. Talk through it before you get stuck with that antique organ and those rickety chairs in your living room.
  • Privacy please: You need to know who has keys to your home. If the list is excessively long, or there are any other concerns, the locks must be changed. You’ll also need to talk through expectations around privacy – who can come in, for what reasons, and with how much notice? Do they need your approval, or can they just tell you they’re coming?
  • Division of labor: You’ll want to discuss what maintenance you are responsible for, and what the church will handle. When you need a plumber, electrician, or other outside vendor for a repair, establish a standard for who will call that person. If a congregant is making the call on your behalf, put a reasonable time frame in writing, after which you get to make the call yourself. When your toilet breaks, nobody—no matter how diligent—will ever care as much as you about getting it fixed immediately.
  • (Possible) Tax Troubles: As you negotiate your compensation package (if you haven’t already), keep in mind that while you do not have to pay income tax on your manse, you do have to pay self-employment tax on its fair market value – that’s about 15% of what it would cost you to rent it. If your manse is a large, well-appointed home in a metropolitan area, it could land you with an additional tax burden of thousands of dollars. And if your congregation thinks that they can skimp on cash salary because they’re giving you “free housing,” you may find half of your paycheck (or more) going toward taxes on a mansion, when all you really need is a studio. So before you’re finished negotiating, talk to a tax professional, run the numbers, and make sure that you can live on your post-tax cash salary.
  • Home hospitality: The parsonage is sometimes considered not just a perk for the pastor, but an asset to be utilized by the whole congregation. Ask about what kind of hospitality you might be expected to provide: if Bible studies or board meetings typically take place in the manse, you need to know that. If the previous pastor always made the bathrooms available during the annual rummage sale, you need to know that. And if you’re going to be expected to host overnight guests on a regular basis, you definitely need to know that. Those might all be lovely ways that you’re willing to share in the ministry of the church… or maybe they just won’t work for you, so you’d better talk about it now.

 Working out the logistics of a manse can be tricky, Manse-Dweller, but there are resources at your disposal. If you have any questions or issues that need an outside perspective or expert advice, you would do well to contact a support person from your denomination for guidance. I hope that you have thoughtful and faithful conversations with your church, Manse-Dweller, and I hope that living in your first manse is a wonderful, ease-filled experience that enriches your ministry and gives us all hope for the church. And if it’s not, I hope you’re able to be loving and firm as you help your flock learn how to care for their pastor. God bless your home, Manse-Dweller, and God bless you.


Image by: Skitterphoto
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    This is a great checklist. I’ve lived in two rectories now and I have learned things can be renegotiated. Sometimes you have to live in a place for a while to get the benefits and drawbacks. I said I would cut the grass until I realized it was so thick I blew the motors on two electric lawnmowers and it took me 2.5 hours. I went back to them and said they were going to have to take back that responsibility. Just because it was agreed to at the beginning doesn’t mean it is permanent.

    Oh! One more thing. Keep a record of maintenance and schedule annual inspections, ideally with an outside person.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *