In it for the long haul

Post Author: Carol Howard Merritt

We’ve been in our home for a year now. In actuality, it’s been almost two years, but that first year, this didn’t feel like our home. We were renting. Now we own our home (or at least part of it), and I feel settled.

I am a nester. Not in the sense that I like to clean, but in the sense that I like to decorate and I don’t like to move. I love to hammer nails into the plaster. I am the one who buys the paint entitled “late tomato red.” In our last home, my husband and I embellished our upstairs with the designs of the Ndebele tribe of South Africa.

I am from the South. I feel artistically alive when I travel along Rainbow Row in Charleston, the French Quarter in New Orleans, and the Mexican color of East Austin, and I want my home to reflect that vibrancy. I despise the white walls and beige carpet of rental property (For this reason alone, I could never be Methodist. The denomination would surely defrock me after they saw what I had done to the parsonage).

Our house does, in fact, still have the walls of an institution, except for the kitchen, which is a magnificent pumpkin. I’ve picked out the colors for the rest of the house, which I plan to transform, bit by bit. I’ve got time. We’re not going anywhere soon; at least we’re not planning on it. I am an AP, and the average life span of Associates is only two to three years, but I hope to beat the odds because I love the church so much.

Ed White’s research demonstrates that long-term pastorates create healthier congregations. I would suggest that a pastor’s particular housing situation is a key factor in how long the pastor can stay.

(A note to non-churchy bloggers: There’s a popular myth out there that all pastors are living a grand and fabulous life, cashing in your sacrificial offerings to buy an array of Lexus vehicles. Um…that’s not usually the case. There are only a handful of Rick Warrens out there. Most often, we can’t afford to buy a modest home in the same neighborhood in which our church is located.)

In our economy, especially if you’re under the age of forty, and even if you have school loans and credit card debt, you’ll want to buy a home. Maybe not at this moment, when the real estate bubble seems to be bursting, but when the market stabilizes, try to make the investment. Even though it seems crazy to go into more debt when you already have so much, if you can swing it, buying a home has tax benefits (for clergy) and it’s the best way to build your equity. If you do it now, you might even be able to retire someday.

If you need help to buy your home, and you’re looking into a loan or shared equity agreement with your congregation, please don’t enter into this contract lightly. The church (I hate to say it) can rip you off mightily. I don’t understand the motivation behind this. I think they’re just looking out for the good of the religious institution, but there are simply different business models out there–some favor the employee and some favor the church. While I was researching this topic, I was horrified to find out the contracts that different pastors had signed.

There are some basic things you’ll want to look for and avoid (This list is particularly from the clergy’s perspective; there are many element which the church will also want to examine.):

  • If it is a low-interest loan that the church or institution’s offering, check your bank. Sometimes you can get an even better rate at the bank, and then your housing won’t necessarily be tied to your place of employment.
  • Find out the source of the money. If the source is the church, fine. If the source is a private loan from a member, don’t accept it. The pastor/parishioner/borrower/lender relationship is way too complicated. Even with the best intentions, it is a setup that’s ripe for abuse.
  • If you are entering into a shared equity loan agreement, make sure that the ratio of money put into the home at the beginning (including the debt incurred) is the same ratio that you get out when you sell. In other words, if you are taking out a $70,000 mortgage and the church is putting in a $70,000 down payment, then when you sell the home, each party needs to make a 50% profit, or take a 50% loss.
  • Make sure the loss is shared by both parties. I have talked to pastors who agreed to deals in which they share the profits with the church, but the pastor absorbs all the loss. This is not acceptable.
  • Allow for home improvements. As the pastor puts more money into the home, then the shared equity ratio should change. There are basic calculations for this.

I could go on and on, but you’re probably already asleep. If you are not, and you want to hear more, just let me know in the comments.

It is very tempting to sign away, trusting that the church has your best interest in mind, especially when you’re excited about starting a particular ministry. But, in the years to come, if you do sign a bad deal, your embarrassment will grow, your resentment will fester, and that’s not good for anyone. It is definitely not good for the long-term pastorate.

Rev. Carol Howard Merritt (@CarolHoward) is a PC(USA) minister, noted author, and keynote speaker, especially on the topic of ministering in a new generation. Carol has served Presbyterian (USA) churches in the swamps of Cajun Louisiana, a bayside village in Rhode Island, and an urban neighborhood of Washington, DC, and is an Adjunct Faculty member at Dubuque Theological Seminary.

She is the award-winning author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation, and Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church, and a frequent contributor to books, websites, magazines, and journals. She is also a regular writer at the Christian Century where her blog is hosted.

Carol is married to Rev. Brian Merritt. When not at a podium, pulpit, or an airport, Carol can be found in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her daughter, Calla.

Image by: Scott Webb
Used with permission
4 replies
  1. Carol Howard Merritt says:

    Actually, I am really bad at jumping into what’s offered. Negotiating–especially when I love the job–is not my strength. I had to negotiate this one after I was at the church for a few months. It was tough.

  2. stephanie says:

    I had to laugh because I am a nester and a Methodist… so i’ve gotten creative with how to make the church-owned house into my home.

  3. Susan O says:

    As a chaplain type, I’ve never had the option of borrowing from the church for a down payment. But should that ever be my reality, I’m glad I read this. I think my tendency, otherwise, would be to jump into anything offered! Thanks!

  4. Susan O says:

    As a chaplain type, I’ve never had the option of borrowing from the church for a down payment. But should that ever be my reality, I’m glad I read this. I think my tendency, otherwise, would be to jump into anything offered! Thanks!


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