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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — The Manse Show

Thanks to all the matriarchs who weighed in this week. You'd be amazed to learn that I only sent this question out yesterday, and we have a nice meaty feature for you this week!

How do y'all feel about living in a manse? My young friends tell me that "heck no, they won't go" if it involves a manse. My older friends tell me "don't even think about it." If no one wants them, why are churches hanging on to them as if they were the Holy Grail(s)? My church is in the throes of manse/no manse, so I'm wondering what others think. Is a manse an asset to the church or not? Is a manse an asset to the pastor - or not?

Our matriarch come back with the ambivalent-sounding, "Well, it depends." There are advantages and disadvantages. Your personal preferences can come into play. Your economic realities may also come into play. For instance, I'm not a minister, but let me tell you about buying my house. I can sum it up in one word.


On that note, says Karen, who has lived in two manses so far, "If your church is in a place where housing is really expensive, a manse may alllow you to live in that neighborhood even though it would be totally beyond your buying capacity otherwise. My new community has astronomically expensive housing. We are currently renting and trying to figure out if we can ever even hope to buy in town. If not, we'll be living and sending our kids to school in a whole different town and community than the one in which most congregation members live and send kids to school. I think in the case of a town/community with very high housing costs, a manse can be an important asset for the church and the pastor."

Jan also notes affordability as a major factor in evaluating whether to take up in a manse. "The manse of one church I know is in an impossibly expensive neighborhood and it's the only way most pastors could afford to live anywhere near the church building," she says. "Some churches insist on having the pastor live in the neighborhood which can be either very thoughtful or very controlling, depending on the congregation."

It can depend on where you are in your life, too. "Manses are usually quite close to the church. When I was young and single, I hated living next door to the church. When I had infants/toddlers/pre-schoolers it was WONDERFUL to be able to leap up from the dinner table three minutes before a meeting was supposed to start and walk the two blocks to the church," writes Karen. "Also. it can depend on whether you are a house proud/decorating nut kind of person. I'm much more into the vibe of a neighborhood than I am into my particular house. I hate decorating. I'm not that into gardening though I love a good veggie patch out back. Remodeling would send me right around the bend. I'm actually happy to have some of those things out of my hands, so I didn't mind living in a house where I did not have total creative control. But that would drive other people nuts."

Peripatetic Polar Bear lived in a manse for her first call--6 years. "I'm single, minimum paid. The only chance I have of living in an actual house is to live in a manse, so I loved it. I miss it. I loved being right next to everything. I loved not having to spend "my" time commuting; I loved being able to pop home for something in the middle of the day." Other benefits over renting and buying a home she mentions: You might not be responsible for big repairs, you don't have to come up with a downpayment or a security deposit, it's just plain easier...

Does it fit you?
What are your options if you don't live in a manse? Does it accommodate all of your housing needs? "If you're choosing between renting a crummy apartment in a building with a dozen grad students [or any number of other perhaps less desirable neighbors], or living in a manse, it's not a hard decision," writes PPB. "I think, though, that many clergy have spouses and partners who may work, and they may prefer to live in a nicer place than the church manse, or may prefer a different location/number of bedrooms, different school district, etc."

One of PPB's colleagues just took a call as an associate for youth "in a super-rich community that provides her with a manse that is actually a condo in a really lively development, with lots of singles and young couples around--a pool and tennis membership, and all the yard work covered by the condo association," she says. "They also buy an annual maintanence plan that covers all the repairs, including appliances. What a great decision on the church's part! (They bought the condo outright after selling a manse that was next door to the church.) It's perfect for most younger pastors, and if it isn't--renting a condo is a snap."

There's also a certain amount of convenience in having a manse available, says Singing Owl. "It was also a big advantage that, when moving to a new church, we knew that at the end of the road our home was waiting. So we could simply unload the U-Haul and get settled. It's very much less stressful than trying to rent, then look for a house, or whatever. Neither home was particularly nice, but not horrible either," she says.

So what's the bad news?
With all these perks of living in a manse (or parsonage, or rectory, or whatever it's called), why on earth would anyone have reservations?

PPB notes that the biggest challenge with a manse is that "it's 'the church's house' —hence the women's guild can meet there, committee meetings should be held there, and of course the Sunday school can use the swingset. I think churches need to be really intentional about not letting these things happen. The manse is part of the compensation, and you shouldn't be able 'use it' any more than you can 'use' $10,000 of the pastor's salary."

Just the same, it happens, and privacy can be a real concern. "One issue with a manse—especially if you are a single woman—is that this means that someone/several someones in the congregation has a key to your house which, of course, is 'their house' and, depending on the culture of the congregation, you might find someone in your kitchen repairing the sink when you come home for lunch," says Jan. "I found that there was more of this when I was single because I was considered more helpless or something, and they weren't going to walk in on me and my husband if they 'dropped by' to check the water heater. Be careful of this."

Singing Owl has a funny story about this. "At our first church there was actually a short tunnel that led from the basement of the house to the basement of the church. This was actually a wonderful thing because it was the "northwoods" of Wisconsin and often bitterly cold. On a nasty day, it was possible to go to work without even stepping outside. Once, however, I was standing in the kitchen in my slip, doing a last-minute ironing on my dress. The basement door popped open and there stood an embarrassed and very confused teenaged boy--a visitor no less. He had gotten separated from his friend and had no idea he was about to open a door into a house and not into a church."

A home of your own
Manses seem to be disappearing of late. In my new church, the rectory is on the market and being used as a transitional shelter for a few homeless men in town. The equity of a manse can be leveraged for a capital campaign, or it can be rented out for ongoing income, either residential or commercial (I've seen several churches renting property to nonprofit health-care entities such as Hospice or a women's counseling service.) Jan writes, "Many congregations through the years have sold their manses specifically for the sake of the pastor's financial health. They sold the manse and used the proceeds to build a "housing fund" to help the pastor buy a home to build equity. Again, in expensive areas, some churches are regretting that they sold their manses because, even if they can help their pastor a little, it's not enough to live in the church neighborhood." But, as Singing Owl writes, "If you live in a manse all your ministry days you never develop equity in a home."

Keep telling me that. I just found out I need to do the $10,000 improvement to my driveway NOW instead of on my five-year plan...


  1. I live in a "Rectory" as it's called in my neck of the woods, and have for six years. The benefit, as stated, no repairs (although we have done some minor ones 'cuz we can and husband likes too), and no down payment. Also, for the church, it is easier on the budget to maintain a house they own and use it as part of the compensation than to pay a housing allowance.

    And, I have a congregation that understands well that the rectory is "my house" for as long as I live in it. I have dinner parties, but otherwise it is not used for church functions.

    The downfall, I have no equity. So moving to a new call where I'd have to buy a house, can't do that yet. I do have a 403B (tax free retirement fund intended for housing), so in time it will have enough to help my buy something.

    So. yes. there are benefits both ways, especially if the Church is in a pricy area, opens up the opportunity for who can be called to serve beyond either the older with savings or the "wealthy" (LOL, wealthy clergy)...or those with a home to sell.

    And renting. That is tough to do if you have pets, or more than one, or big ones.

  2. The church my husband and I serve sold the manse a year before we were called. On the one hand we were happy because we have enjoyed owning our own home and decorating however we desire. On the other hand we had to move to a town 10 miles away in order to afford a home. So we live in another city and county than the church community. Our daughter will go to a different school than the church kids, a good and bad thing.
    I think that a manse is an asset for many small churches who cannot afford a salary and housing allowance. Out of all the churches we "talked" with only two still had a manse and one was considering selling it.

  3. I've lived in a manse for 8 years. On the up side - no repairs (as already stated), nice street, good neighbors. On the down side - NO privacy. I live just across the driveway from the church. Someone forgets their key? The copier isn't working on Saturday? The thermostat isn't programmed right for the Saturday night AA group? Yep - at my back door, they are. I get questions about who my company was - strange car in the driveway, you know. And if we wanted to paint a bedroom - gotta ask permission first. And the equity issue grows larger every year that goes by that I'm not building one.

    Every situation is different. And every person's ability to cope with the pros and cons are as well.

  4. If you'll allow a comment from your friendly lawyer, let me point out another disadvantage of living in a manse. Which is that it doesn't give the pastor the opportunity to build equity that can be used to buy a retirement home at the end of the career.

    Also there are substantial tax breaks for pastors who are given a "manse allowance" in lieu of a manse as part of their call package. Your friendly accountant or local tax attorney can explain them to you.

    In the Houston area very few manses remain as pastors prefer receiving a manse allowance and bargain for it.

  5. I live in a manse, or as mentioned we would be living in unsuitable accomodation or out of town- the church are pretty good- although we hold some meetings here it is our choice and there is no question of it being primarily the churches property and therefore they can use it. Our home life and privacy are accepted.

    Like mompriest I have no equity... there are swings and roundabouts in this situation- but for me it is good- also the Methodist Church UK have strict rules about upkeep etc so it does not fall into dis-repair!

  6. I am also in a rectory and things are good. Also negotiated to have "housing equity" as part of my salary/retirement package... so If I do move to another parish and need to buy a home, there's something to draw on.

    The "holy" curtains we "inherited" well now that's another story... but we all have issues right?

  7. We lived in a manse during our first call. Unfortunately, the beautiful, 200-year-old house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This meant that no repairs were done quickly or cheaply. It was a lovely home, but it was not a great experience living there. And I could see the sanctuary out of my bedroom window. Not all that romantic, trust me.

  8. Rev Dave & I are living in the manse of his church. The manse at my church was sold a few years ago during my predecessor's time. I echo what QG said about equity and the tax benefits. I remember one of my seminary friends boasting that his new call had a manse - "all the benefits of owning and renting!" he rejoiced. No, I said, you will not be building equity. When Dave and I got married, my personnel committee decided to put half of my housing allowance into a 403b so that when and if the time comes that we decide to move to the town where my church is, we will have a substantial downpayment.

    The church here purchased the manse at about the same time that the denomination was encouraging congregations to sell the manses. We have lots of rural/small town congregations in Wyoming, and finding housing is a problem. I can see that it is a benefit to the congregation and a newly called pastor not to have to worry about finding housing.

    In regards to repairs, I can only say that that is a mixed blessing. One of the things that we ran into is that the elder in charge of buildings & grounds appeared to be reluctant to make repairs becaues of issues with Rev Dave. When I moved in after we got married, the hot water heater was in desperate need of replacement. I couldn't get through a shower and shaving my legs without the water running cold. And that left Rev Dave waiting an hour or so for there to be hot water again. The building & grounds elder response was that we "needed to take shorter showers." Seriously. I still can't quite get over that one (can you tell? It's been 6 mos). But there were other issues there, and thankfully (this sounds weird to say) he has left the church. Now, the person responsible for buildings & grounds does a great job. But, he also runs his own business, he and his wife have two small kids, and at the end of the day or on the weekend doing small repairs at the manse is the last thing on his mind. And that's understandable, but not ideal.

    I guess the thing that I've noticed is that the church has expected us to accept certain things in our living arrangement with the "church's home" that they themselves wouldn't accept with their own home. I doubt when they have major plumbing problems they call so-and-so's brother-in-law who comes over the course of a few evenings after his other job to work on the home. They simply make a phone call to a plumber and get the job done. But they seem unwilling to do that for us.

    Thanks for letting me vent. I hate sounding so ungracious, when I should be grateful for even a roof over my head.

  9. Rev Kim--

    You don't sound ungrateful to me. The congregation is treating you and Rev Dave in an unprofessional manner. I just hate it when churches try to "poor boy" the pastors.

  10. Rev Kim. Indeed you are not ungrateful. It would seem the congregation is treating you like second class citizens... It's not right. I have a clause in my contract that allows me to spend up to $500.00 without "approval." Which would cover something like a plumber visit or a new hot water heater, or some emergency call. The congregation needs to do a better job of caring for you. I think Rev. Dave needs to get a few of the leaders of the parish, whom he trusts and has a good relationship with, and begin that process.

    This may sound harsh or unfair. Tone and tenor is so difficult to convey via the written word. I only mean to be clear and concise, not harsh.

  11. I live in a manse - we call it a parsonage. I am a young, single male, this is my first call, I'm straight out of seminary, and it's right across the street from the church.

    I love it.

    My commuting time is next to nothing, thus I can sleep later :). It's a house, which can be a bit to take care of at times, but if any big problem happens, help is just a phone call away. The church is absolutely great as far as boundaries go. There are no meetings here, nothing is stored here (except for the riding lawn mower/snow blower in the garage), members have been good about not randomly coming over for me to let them into the church.

    Because of this parsonage, I am able to live in the town where I serve, in a house, and have a dog. It has been a great thing for me, and I'm glad that my church has held on to it.

  12. This congregation is (IMHO) still best served by retaining their manse. They are a settlement charge so may times their ministers will not be in a place to be purchasing. ALso the market here is very soft so the minister runs a real risk of being stuck with a home he/she can;t sell. The rental market for suitable housing is negligible.

    THe congregation here has been well trained. THey do not ask to hold meetings here, they do not generally come asking for building access, and the first thing they said when I arrived wsa "we don't know how many keys to the door are out there" and put a new lock in.

    THat being said the house is small for a family, is under insulated, and has what the PResbytery SEcretary calls "the smallest manse bathroom in Presbytery".

  13. The equity thing is an issue... though, in my denomination (episcopal) some places have started doing "equity allowances" - like the 403(b) accounts mentioned above. Those are mostly in places where housing costs are sky-high, and priests couldn't live in the neighborhood without being idependently wealthy.

  14. Sorry about the length of my last post. Guess I had alot to get off my chest. Thanks for the kind thoughts and good advice. We will definitely keep those in mind when we look at terms of call for next year.

  15. I'm with Gord. I'd hate to have my money sunk into a house here and then not be able to sell it when the time comes to leave. It happens all the time. And really no suitable rentals here unless I go for college housing.

    It helps that my parsonage is two blocks away from the church, so it's harder to just pop in or to have meetings here, but as a young single woman, there are of course the security issues. The parsonage phone number is on the church sign...the parsonage address is in the phone book under the church...when people call information for the church, they give out the parsonage number, not the actual church number.

    (That last problem, however, is actually how my boyfriend managed to track down my phone number to ask me out, so it's had its pluses.)

  16. I'm looking to move from chaplaincy to parish ministry, and probably to move geographically at least 1,500 miles. It's easier to think of simply landing in a rectory than renting (with three large dogs) or buying (before my husband will have a chance to find the right job, wherever we land). The equity thing is a concern, of course. I'm hoping we'll sell our present house and sink the proceeds into a tiny, no-ocean-view condo on the South Carolina shore ... All we could afford I'm afraid, but better than nothin'!

  17. I currently live in a manse and could write enough to fill a blog, but I just HAD to say that envisioning the kid's face in the kitchen with Abi had me actually guffawing!

  18. Our pastor and his wife live in a parsonage right next door to the church -- very convenient for him, for all the reasons that have been mentioned, and also convenient for our geographically isolated parish (in the far corner of our county, at least 18 miles away from any incorporated community in any direction).

    I heard that the spouse of a previous pastor there had absolutely refused to live in the parsonage, so they purchased a house in the next community. Apart from logistical issues, the congregation felt as if the couple's rejection of the parsonage was a rejection of them; that they were too "uppity" to live in the same neighborhood as the parishoners.

  19. As a PK, three of the four houses I grew up in were manses. None of them were terrible, but some were better than others. One had awful red and black, stained and cracked linoleum that they refused to replace the whole 5.5 years we lived there. They next one gutted and remodeled the kitchen when we moved in and later recarpeted the whole downstairs in preparation for my wedding.
    That being said, my parents had no equity when my father retired a few years ago. They are living in a condo that belonged to my great-grandparents and stayed in the family for rental income after their deaths. Basically, they're living on the charity of my grandmother, which they hate. They're not sure how long they'll have to wait to be able to aford a house.
    People know better now about the effects that living in manses have, especially on retired ministers. Manses are great for all the reasons listed, but they can have some devistating effects later on if you don't plan well, or like so many, just don't know better.

  20. I need to clarify that I had great maintenance in the manse I lived in. I wish more churches simply bought maintanence plans rather than doing it themselves! The townhouse and then apartment (I'm downwardly mobile) that I've rented since leaving the lovely manse have both had them, and it's so much easier to call the management company than it is to call the actual owner of the place. For one, management companies have plumbers, electricians and handypersons on staff. For two, you don't get the stupid, "take shorter showers" responses. I don't get why churches would want to be involved in that day to day management of a house.

  21. The trend around here is for churches that own manses to rent them out, since pastors here tend to reject the idea of living in the church parking lot.

    This is troubling for it's own reasons, since churches then are in the real estate/rental/landlord business, which is very tricky legal/tax terrain. But for some churches, the $800-$1000 a month they get for rental is what makes it possible for them to pay a full-time pastor.

    It is also very hard to sell some manses because of the whole shared driveway/parking lot issue. (Not to mention church members who simply refuse to let go of any church property.)

    Every seminary friend I know who lived in a manse has had horror stories about the housing conditions that church members expect their pastor to live with, conditions that they themselves would not tolerate for five minutes. To those of you with good experiences, hats off!

  22. Building equity sounds great, and in the recent housing run-up seems like a no brainer, BUT a house is like any other investment, it can lose value. And if you aren't staying for a long time (isn't the average pastorate under 7 years?) your chance of losing money rather than building equity increases.

    We've moved 4 times during the past 20 years and only made money on a house once.

  23. A class mate of mine whose partner was also in ministry once said she had found a way to get things repaired/repainted/redone.

    SHe would simply have some of teh key ladies in teh Women's group over for tea. Often they would look around and be scandalized by what they saw.

  24. I never knew the manse was such an emotional issue until I suggested that I didn't want to live in it anymore. Silly me - in spades.

    No one should ever live in a manse unless the church is paying a home equity allowance in addition to providing the manse. It's a justice issue - none of the congregation would want to live in a cardboard box under the freeway when they retire. Why should it be all right for the pastor to do so?

    It would be one thing if churches were paying such generous salaries that pastors could afford to live, raise kids, do continuing ed, have a car and occasionally go out to McDonalds - and put money away in a 401K for retirement. Until that day - either insist on home ownership (and by the way, churches should also be providing no interest downpayments to help their pastors live in high housing cost areas) or insist on a home equity allowance. And - take my word for it - all this needs to happen up front. It definitely isn't easier down the road.

    It's really hard to pastor a church with love and compassion when the manse bathroom has been leaking for months and the church hasn't bothered to fix it. My advice - be your own landlord.

  25. Gord:love it!

    Pastornines: Amen!

  26. I have to admit that I find this conversation about equity as a right/justice issue troubling. I have no equity. I've never earned enough money to buy a house. And I'm single so there's no spouse to kick into the income.

    I don't expect to be living under a bridge when I retire, either.

  27. Exactly. When I was a layperson our pastor got a housing allowance as well as living in the manse. When he left after 7 years he had a tidy sum. Much more than anyone else who had bought at that time would have, given that the market hadn't appreciated at all and in the first years of a mortgage you mostly are paying interest. Somehow that didn't seem quite fair either.

  28. I lived in a parsonage for the duration of my first call (4.5 years). The first half of that was in a mobile home (which I kind of hated). The second half of that was in a very nice house the church purchased (it was a new congregation that had not previously had the capital - or the need - for a parsonage).

    For me, it was definitely a great deal - it was a small, rural town where I had no interest in owning property. Given how bad the market there is, I would probably still be trying to unload that house 6 1/2 years later! The fact that all my repair needs were automatically taken care of (as opposed to now, when it's up to me and dh! - and we are a bit slow!) was a huge plus. And the guys in the church took turns coming over to mow whenever they noticed the grass needed it. Some might find such things annoying - but it was a great help to me. The church and I had very clear boundaries - no one else helped themselves to my house, and we certainly didn't have church meetings in my home.

    All of that said, when I finally got the chance to own my own home (in my current call), I jumped at it. The fact is, though, I'm quite concerned about loss of equity in the current market - and the fact that my house needs several thousand dollars worth of repairs and no one but me is responsible for that. In some ways, I think it would be nice if we were in a parsonage instead....

  29. What a great discussion! It depends, indeed.
    My first call church happened to be in the small city where I already lived and owned a house. The parsonage was not only in the driveway of the church and on a very busy street, but considerably smaller than my house on the other side of town (ten minutes at rush hour). While I was relieved to hear the church had tenants in the house and my living there was never raised, the landlord issues were terrible (and apparently continue to be after I am gone). For smaller churches, especially, you may not have church members with the skills to oversee a rental. It's not a great use of the pastor's time to chase down the rent.

  30. We lived in a manse for 15 years. It was our first call as a married couple. Although they painted, things needed attention and updating. The last 5 years we finally had central air, new carpeting after the we had to tape the stairs so our heels wouldn't catch in the holes and worn spots. The church did put in a new kitchen floor and bathroom floor.
    I have been so grateful that with this call we were able to purchase our own home, can decorate, make repairs, etc. as we desire. We both serve churches in other towns and some of LH's parisioners live in the town we live in. Neither church owned a manse!!!
    Now we have some equity building and a wonderful, comfortable new home to live in.
    I don't think I would ever want to live in a parsonage/manse again.

  31. Every point I might have made on the topic has already been made, but I'll still offer a testimony:

    Some 30 years or so ago, my grandmother, the pastor's wife, approached the church board and more or less demanded the opportunity to buy the parsonage from the church, recognizing that equity would be more them the key to a comfortable retirement.

    My grandfather was not thinking that far ahead -- he had no inkling of retiring at all, unless health required it, and he was still perfectly healthy at the time.

    My grandmother died of a brief bout with pneumonia before my grandfather ever retired, but her foresight has secured the resources for his care in what we anticipate will be an extended decline -- he's in the earlier stages of Alzheimer's right now. My dad, his power-of-attorney for both finances and health care, still has to pay careful attention to managing his affairs, but it is not nearly as stressful as it would be if they didn't have the nest egg that came almost entirely from the house.

    In a development unforeseen at the time my grandmother negotiated the parsonage purchase, some years later the church in question decided they wanted a younger pastor, and unceremoniously orchestrated grandpa's resignation. He wound up serving a smaller church in the same community, which didn't have the resources to provide housing. Having purchased their home significantly eased the trauma my grandparents experienced of being force out of their ministry. At least they weren't unemployed AND homeless.

    As many have noted, the optimal situation for any church and any pastor's family varies with the situation. But we, at least, are glad that the church board was receptive to my grandmother's overtures.

  32. lol at Singing Owl ... I was standing in the kitchen in my slip, doing a last-minute ironing on my dress. ... it could have been worse!

    In Finland living in a free home costs you a LOT in tax (unearned income) and you get a lower salary too - ... not sure how that applies to bishops though ... :)

  33. I love living in our church parsonage. It's more house than we need, and sometimes I wish it were more like four blocks rather than four miles from church, but we could never afford to live in Southern California any other way. We're also four miles from the beach... can't argue with that. :-)

    One thing I would add, though, is the tax thing. Living in a parsonage is not free, as you have to pay self employment taxes on the fair value of the parsonage. I didn't know that my first year, and was caught completely off guard. It adds up. It's not as much as rent, but pay close attention to the fair value, because you'll be paying 12+% of it to the federal government. Talk to your tax person about the parsonage early on.

  34. Well an interesting blog - what every happened to the biblical principle of not building up earthy mansons - seems some pastors are more interested in money that souls of late. Don't get me wrong - no pastor should live in a parsoange that is not equal or better than the average of the community they serve. But, our pastor has these grandeos ideas about a home that is 2-3 X the average of the community. As a result they expect a full time salary plus a full living allowance. Our church will spend all it makes to serve the pastor and have none left for ministry activities - this is wrong and not biblical.

    Is a pastorate a job or a real calling blessed by God? THe more we have issues related to finacing a pastors 'rich' habits the fewer people seem to be in our pews.

    If we focus on GOd the finacial items never become an issue.

    from a board trustees point of view

  35. Hi, Anonymous, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don't hear any of our other commenters suggesting that pastors deserve any sort of rich treatment, but rather that they hope the church will care enough to see to it that they are not disadvantaged in the present or in their retirement by having answered the call to ministry.


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