Life in a Fishbowl

By Dan Steigman

When I first began in the ministry, I lived in a church parsonage. It was a blessing to have it. Sure it was like living in a fishbowl, everybody seeing what we were doing and how we acted outside the church, but it was a fishbowl that allowed me to minister as God directed and put me in close contact with Him each day.

Are parsonages the bandits of the church world? After all, don’t they have notorious reputations? Many have been tested by time and pastors’ families that would have destroyed

the great pyramids. We all know those “Preacher’s Kids” are the meanest, most destructive, outgoing kids in the church.

All kidding aside, parsonages have been around a while and they have been well-used.  They often become worn from the constant influx of visitors, family members and projects that the pastor’s family is necessarily a part of. They can be one of the best purchases a church makes.

Parsonage Problems

There can also be problems with a parsonage. It needs to be maintained as if it were the show place of the church. Remember, the parsonage is where the pastor’s family will advertise to the unchurched world just how much the church loves and respects them. If the parsonage is in bad repair, the church is shamed.

A parsonage doesn’t have to be the newest, fanciest house in the congregation. If it is old but maintained well, the neighbors and members can see that it is a place that the church and pastor are proud of. Maintained means good appliances, working and adequate heating and cooling, acceptable roof and carpet and neat yards. All the things that average Americans would expect to have in their own homes.

You can’t imagine how it makes the pastor’s wife feel when she tries to use the oven and she can hardly pull open the door because it has broken hinges. If the church takes care of its parsonage, they may help to keep their parson! This may not seem spiritual, but when a man of God is under fire from his mate because of the condition of her castle, he will ultimately do what is necessary to keep his mate happy even if it means finding a new church with a better castle.

These days the trend is away from a church parsonage. It has become an albatross to many people. There is a high cost to owning a parsonage and the church must bear the burden of these costs each month. Property taxes are becoming outrageous and insurance is climbing unrealistically. Sometimes the pastor’s family, like my own, is just too big to fit in a small parsonage, so it must be used in other ways or remodeled.

Parsonage Benefits

A parsonage should be a benefit available to the pastor’s family but not a large knot around his neck. A man may have the ability to purchase his own home and build a nest egg for his retirement through it. Pastors have children who might enjoy an inheritance, and we don’t all die young. Some of us will live to a ripe old age and the benefits of personally owning a home can be many.

A parsonage can be a great tool. If a pastor has his own home, the church can become a landlord. This is not always fun, but it will help to make the pastor’s salary, if necessary.  A parsonage can be used to bring in another ministerial couple to help build the church. Wouldn’t it be nice to have more workers that are dedicated to building God’s house?

A man can be brought in on a part-time basis with only the parsonage and utilities as his immediate salary. In our area that is equivalent to about $1,000 per month. Common knowledge says that if he will work, he can be responsible for the increase in the congregation

that will pay a full-time salary for him within a year. Between the benefit of supplied rent and utilities and a part-time job, the man can meet his needs.

Maybe I’m impatient, but I would rather see a part-time minister help build the church now than wait until he could be paid a full-time salary to bring him on board. If the man feels a burden for the congregation and recognizes the situation up front, it can be a blessing for him and the church.

Parsonage Reality

What does a church gain from a parsonage? It has a ready home for the new pastor and his family, even if it is only temporary. It has a valuable asset that can be rented or sold depending on its location. It has a place that can be used to house a second minister and his family. It can be used as extra classroom or outreach space when not used as a home.

What does a church suffer from a parsonage? It can suffer an image problem if the parsonage is not maintained with pride and respect for God and the pastor’s family. It carries with it property taxes, insurance, repair bills and mortgage payments.  It may be in need of remodeling and repairs that cause high expenses to the church. It may not fit the needs of the pastor’s family well.

For me, a parsonage is a blessing when it sits near the church. Being able to get up in the early hours of the morning, when the rest of the world is sleeping, and meeting God at His altar gives me renewed peace and strength. Knowing that all my people will be able to find me when they really need to makes it well worthwhile.

Sure, there are reasons that parsonages are a pain. Sometimes people think that since it’s on the church property they can come in any time.  They may think things like, “Since the garage is empty this would be a great place to put the youth group.” All of these trials can be quite interesting. Time and training with the congregation will allow the pastor’s family privacy and security like anyone else’s. I get the parsonage locks re-keyed. Privacy is not impossible but it does take work.

Should a church go out and buy a parsonage tomorrow? Think and pray carefully about it. It is a major purchase that can put a small church into financial fret. Fret can be so burdensome on some congregations, they may lose sight of the weightier matters.  If, however, the church and the financing source agree that it is a wise move, then use your best business minds to do the research and find a home that will fit your needs today and for the foreseen future. Don’t buy a two-bedroom, one-bath house.  Purchase or build at least a three-bedroom, two-bath home and try to find a plan that allows for expansion, if necessary.  Pastors often move while the congregation remains. The house must fit the needs of more than one family in the future.

Life in a fishbowl isn’t all that bad if the water’s kept clean and there’s plenty of food. Just remember, fishbowls always look better when you shine the glass.