When the Church is Your Landlord

Divine Details

Whether you call it a manse,
a parsonage, a rectory, or a vicarage, a church-owned pastor’s house
is a complicated edifice in the lives of both clergy and congregation. 
The first place I lived after graduating from seminary was a beautiful,
early 19th century brick manse owned by the small Kentucky
congregation my husband and I served as co-pastors.  We loved the
wide, oaken floors, the high, wainscoted ceilings, and the way our Christmas
tree glowed and twinkled through the leaded-glass windows that looked
onto the Main Street of our antebellum town. 

If only that were all to report! 
But there was more:  the infestation of more than a dozen bats
who swooped and swirled in our parlor after flying down our chimney
to escape a thunderstorm.  The property committee merely shrugged
when they learned that the cost to eradicate the bats via an exterminator
would be $50 per bat – so my husband and our little grey kitten learned
to capture the bats in a canvas bag and release them out-of-doors. 
Not your typical pastoral duties.  We also fretted over menacing
black mold that gathered in the plaster walls and the ways the windows
rattled and leaked cold air all winter.  And don’t even ask about
the antique plumbing!  When we moved to our next call and our own
home, even with a hefty mortgage, I breathed a sigh of relief over not
having to call a church member/contractor when I wanted to install a
new dishwasher or have the air conditioning unit serviced.

Other young clergy women have
had similar mixed experiences when living in church-owned housing. 
A few of the downsides?  Some of the most mentioned problems listed
in an informal survey of young clergy women were:

  • lack of privacy because the manse is so close to the church;
  • church members feeling as though they could use the manse for church-related activities;
  • no renovations done due to budgetary issues or even apathy on the part of church leaders;
  • little time for cleaning or repairs between one clergy family leaving and the next family moving in (this was especially mentioned by our United Methodist sisters);
  • clergy not building equity in a home they own themselves;
  • no established policies for maintenance and repairs between clergy and building committees.

In researching for this article,
I heard some true horror stories, including one where a pregnant young
clergy woman was expected to live in dangerous and unsanitary rectory
for weeks without any aid from her congregation.  These things
should not have to happen.

Not all experiences of vicarage
living are negative ones.  Living in an historic home that is conveniently
located was mentioned as a great experience for a number of young clergy
women.  Many YCW do not have the money to purchase their own homes
right out of seminary, so having an all-expenses paid home is a relief
to many living on small clergy salaries. I know that we were glad not
to have to purchase a home in a small town where we may not have been
able to sell easily when we moved.  Others who live in cities with
high costs-of-living could not afford to rent a home if not subsidized
by the financial backing of the congregation.  Many mentioned appreciating
that repairs and other expenses were not their responsibility but the
duty of the church board and financial teams within the congregation.

One of the best bits of input
I received is a “Dos and Don’ts” list, helpfully provided by YCW
and grown-up PK (pastor’s kid!) Rev. Rebecca Page Lesley, Presbyterian
pastor from Suffolk, Virginia:

“Do’s and don’ts”:

Do be sure that people
are aware that this is your home, not just some church property and
that privacy is of utmost importance. Be sure they understand that it
is not an extension of your office. (Also find out just who has keys
to the place!)

Don’t be intimidated to ask for reasonable improvements. If the
space is not comfortable, you will be less effective at work since your
‘retreat’ is not a happy place to come home to and recharge.

Do find out what they’ll want to approve and what you can do
on your own. Some churches are far more controlling than others. In
some cases, you may just have to wait a couple of years for the board
to rotate over. 

Do consider leading your church in a discernment process about
getting rid of the manse (ok, not practical for everyone, but I think
a housing allowance is so much better!) and putting the sale $$ in a
high yield account from which to draw the allowance (tax deductible
for the pastor, by the way).”

All young clergy women seem
to agree that finding living arrangements with enough privacy and with
appropriate boundaries is the most fulfilling way to enjoy our not-at-church
hours.  For some, a parsonage is an easy and inexpensive way to
live, especially in a small or a costly community.  For others,
negotiating a housing allowance and purchasing or renting the home of
one’s choice is a more sanity-saving way to live.  Whatever you
work out with your congregation, be sure to consider how your decision
will affect the clergy who serve in your place in the future. 
Find ways to invite your congregation into your life (if not your living
spaces) so you can model healthy and appropriate ways to live in community
as the body of Christ.

1 reply
  1. Elizabeth T.
    Elizabeth T. says:

    Thanks for the tips! I would also advise that ladies negotiate the lawn and snow care. I faced a church that expected me to buy my own snow blower and lawn mower! (I have always lived in apartments since Seminary.)
    There’s something to be said for moving out if the church won’t play ball. When the church put up a constant fight, I declared we were spending way too much energy fighting over the Rectory. When my husband got a new job, we moved closer to his job. I commute now. The church had to rent the rectory. 8 months later, they are much happier. (So are we.) If the Rectory is draining your energy in the constant fighting or if it makes you sick, MOVE! I promise it’ll be okay.


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