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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Manse Privacy and Personal Boundaries

Many of us have, at one time or another, dealt with parishioners who had difficulty respecting our personal boundaries. If we're single, maybe it's our dating habits that seem fair game for inquiry. If we're married with children, perhaps our family life begins to feel on display. Perhaps nowhere is this issue more difficult than in regards to a parsonage, manse, or rectory (or "pastorium" as it was called when I pastored in South Georgia). When the pastor lives on church property, it becomes easier for some congregants to disregard their pastor's privacy. Our question this week comes from a pastor whose small and loving congregation can't seem to stop snooping. Read on!

I'm a tentmaking lay pastor for a tiny church an hour from my home. The compensation includes a tiny manse. Without it, I wouldn't be able to serve this church, because it sits high in the mountains and on a lot of winter Sunday mornings, you simply can't get here from anywhere.

The ministry itself is almost pure joy; the manse is a two-fold problem. First, the propane heater has not been working properly. After my grown children were alerted by the carbon monoxide detector on Christmas Eve, I insisted that it be repaired or replaced. Compared to death, the other potential problems are small, but they include burning down the manse or flooding it when the pipes break — not entirely minor issues. Resolving that issue has involved several expensive trips by an apparently inept HVAC company, but I think that now it's finally fixed.

However, two older members of my congregation have developed the habit of checking on the heat every day, and while they're here, they also check the contents of the fridge, the drawers and occasionally the wastebaskets. For all I know, they're scoping out the sheets as well! My husband is not amused. He's the father of those grown kids, so it's not like we have an illicit relationship, but he would like to be able to keep beer in the fridge to drink when he finishes shoveling the foot of snow that appears like clockwork every Saturday. We don't have anything to hide; I guess my real objection is that it's very disconcerting to be trusted with their prayer concerns but not with managing my life and their building. They have left the freezer door ajar (and this is a community that has no food store!), tidied my toiletries, replaced the tissue roll because they thought it was too small, and commented on my reading material.

They have a legitimate reason to be concerned about the heater, but all my attempts to discuss privacy have been laughed off. We have not personnel or pastor-relations committee; we're such a small congregation that all our groups are committees of the whole. Officially, the steering team (we are a mission church, not a chartered congregation) has set boundaries, but these are elderly people who simply do what they want and probably don't realize they shouldn't. They have been staunch supporters of this church since it was resurrected 20 years ago; they have poured their souls and their pocketbooks into keeping it going. 

Any ideas on *another* way to go about this? I've exhausted all the possibilities I can think of, and this week, there was a note IN the shower reminding me that I was nearly out of soap and had none left in the vanity. (Heaven forbid the preacher should show up rinsed but not lathered!) I believe they feel their actions are expressions of care for me, but I'm at my wits' end!

Jennifer writes:

Bless their hearts…and yours! It sounds like you’re serving an extremely loving congregation with some over-functioning folks!

I’d suggest inviting the two older adults who are checking the heat (as well as on everything else under the sun!) to a cordial meeting with tea or lunch or ice cream and love on them for caring for you. They need to know that you believe that they are caring for your wellbeing, as well as the condition of the manse.  Then, I’d firmly and loving say, “I’m so glad that you care for all of this, but going through my personal belongings, even though they’re stashed in your church manse, really feels like a violation of my privacy. How can we work this out so that I can truly feel at home in the manse, while I’m there?”  See what they say, and be ready to offer what would make you comfortable. Speaking the truth in love should work well.  If they’re checking every day, perhaps you could give them a schedule of when you’re NOT there, and suggest that those would be the only times to check the heat…and only the heat! Best of luck with this….

Mompriest offers:

I lived in a rectory (Episcopal term for manse, a church owned house for the clergy) for 7 years when I was the Rector of a small church. The rectory was on the same plot of land as the church, each on one end of 4 acres with only parking lot and grass in between. I was truly blessed in the years I lived there because the congregation understood that while I lived there the house was "my" house. It was there responsibility for all major repairs, we managed little ones - things my husband or I could easily do. We had an account at a local hardware store to purchase materials for any repairs we made. We had professionals take care of major repairs. Except invitations to social event at the rectory no parishioners ever came into the house or made a repair after we moved in.
I realize some small places like to make repairs as inexpensively as possible, and that means doing it themselves. Some congregations think of the manse as "theirs" and feel entitled to investigate - but this is not appropriate so long as you live there. If you have a diocesan, regional, synod, or judicatory for your area find out if they have any official guidelines for clergy/congregation management of manse. Regardless you will need to work with the leadership of the congregation and develop appropriate boundaries and guidelines. Share with them how it feels to have folks wander through your living area and checking the fridge and bedrooms. And remind them that since the manse is part of your compensation it is your private living space as long as you are the clergy person for this church. To my understanding, and in the guidelines of my denomination, it is clearly stated in the clergy/congregation contract that the manse is the private home of the clergy for as long as the clergy is there.

Once you and the leadership team have worked out some guidelines publish them someplace. I don't know that you need to print them in the newsletter or mail them to folks, but if you have some sort of congregational protocol book or file it could go there. Then again, it may be that the leadership will need to mail it to all members of the congregation in a kindly worded letter. I hope this is worked out for you in a gentle compassionate way without a lot of congregational ownership issues rising to the surface.

And Sue writes:

I'm probably the wrong person to reply to this one, as I've never lived in a manse, but my partner has. The one thing he said when I was entering ministry was that he would support any ministry I wanted to do, but he would NEVER live in another manse - ever. Mostly for the same reasons listed by this week's questioner.

I am astonished at the appalling lack of boundaries here. I honestly don't know how to do more than you already have. All I can say is: Keep on setting those boundaries, and when they are broken (which appears to be almost daily!), remind the folks who are invading your private space that you are entitled to live a private life as well as a ministry life. It's sort of like banging a drum with a constant rhythm - even if you feel like they've heard it a hundred times - say it again. "My family and I need some level of privacy in order for me to minister appropriately to our congregation."

If that doesn't work - keep taking it back to the steering team over and over again until they get so tired of hearing it that THEY go to the couple that can't seem to stay out of your manse.

That's all I've got. I'm sorry I have so little wisdom here, but I'm beginning to understand even more why my partner refuses to live in a manse!


So, how about the rest of you? Anything you can share from personal experience? How do you draw appropriate lines while honoring the love behind such breeches? Please post your comments!



  1. It is my opinion that there are two things that need to happen with manses:

    1)change the locks when a new minister arrives and ensure that only the minister (and family) and a designated property person from the congregation have keys.
    2)treat the manse as you would a rental property. THis includes the clergy putting in a damage deposit (it happens that some clergy families leave manses in terrible condition beyond normal wear and tear). In many jurisdictions it also means that the landlord can only access the property with prior notice, and that the landlord is required to maintain the building to a minimum level (like keeping the heat working safely).

    These won;t solve all the boundary and privacy issues of small-town ministry but they will cover a lot of the manse issues.

    Of course you could always get a dog that is very protective of its territory and won't let anybody other than the family in....

  2. Well, bless their hearts! (for you from the South, you know what that means...)

    It sounds as if they really are trying to care for you and not really judge BUT can you have one without the other? They sound so much like my mother and my aunt the first couple of years I was married...

    I believe in "Speaking the Truth in Love" is really the way to go here. Make sure you let them know that you appreciate the love and care they have shown you. I love the idea of having tea with them. Excellent suggestion.

    Bless their hearts.

  3. Isn't that special? (another Southernism...)

    I believe a frank talk is in order... but part of me thinks that they won't really get it. Perhaps a proactive step (before the chat) is to go ahead and change the locks and give a key to a trusted (non-snoopervisory) person.

    Of course, one could always go visit them at 10:30 p.m. to make sure "they got home OK"... nah. That's passive aggressive. But seriously, I think there are other issues if they didn't get the polite suggestion of "we can take it from here now... thanks."


    P.S. You can always tell them the beer is for the slugs in your garden... LOL...

  4. Change the locks. Seriously. This is beyond the pale.

  5. This makes my hair hurt. So glad there is a forum for this person to get feedback...!

  6. Mary Beth - lol.

    Reverend Mommy - I know what "Bless their hearts" means, but that's only because I have secret southern informants who keep me up to date on the lexicon. :) Bless their hearts indeed.

  7. I had a seminary friend who began a new call with a new wife living in the rectory...only to discover that the shortest route from the parking to the church was through the rectory, and everyone except him and his wife thought that was a perfectly reasonable path :-o

    But even that didn't involve snooping. They really have gone beyond the level of loving care here and are being nosy in the extreme. I think changing the locks is definitely in order (who knows who else might have gotten hold of a key?), but they are doing this at such a high level that I doubt that hint would communicate anything. Seems like the honest and loving conversation AND new locks is your best bet.

  8. Thank you, all of you, for your thoughtful responses. This has been harder than having The Talk with my children!

    There's a bizarre invisible line. On one side of it, they just "don't get it," as Deb said. On the other side of it, they have terribly hurt feelings and just never manage to produce the key.They have probably seen set in their ways for more decades than I have been alive (and I'm not young!). The current situation is an improvement over having the key hanging on the porch for the whole town to utilize at will, and it's taken me since last September to get this far! (They were eventually receptive to my saying, "Sometimes I'm here alone and I'm afraid I'll forget to bring the key in," although they then began calling to remind me to lock the door.

    Changing the lock is a good idea, although a complicated one because not only will their feelings be hurt, but they'll unintentionally inflict great guilt by insisting that our impoverished church pay the tab. Maybe I'll pick up a replacement lockset before I go up tomorrow evening.

    These are wonderful people in every way; I think they're just so much more extroverted than we are that it never occurs to them that anyone wants privacy. They hear me say it, but they truly don't understand. That same stubbornness kept this tiny church open when Presbytery would have given up and sold the building, and I thank God for them every day, but oh, mercy!

    I hope you all know how much I appreciate RGBP! My weekday career is vastly different, so I'm in great need of guidance.

  9. Bless their hearts indeed. Wow. I am so sorry for all of this.
    I live in a manse now, but have had good boundaries set up in the past by other clergy. I do get the occasional "drop-in" but it is no worse than when I lived in an apartment at another parish.
    They are respectful of boundaries and do not come in when I am not here. We do have a "hidden key" but only a few folks know where it is.
    If work is to be done, I try to be here and stay.
    I wish you well in getting the situations corrected and hope all goes okay. Do try to rectify things for your sake and that of the next pastor who comes along.

  10. Dear anonymous, I'm so glad the comments here have been helpful! I hope you can find a happy resolution to the situation - and soon!

  11. I am stunned by the lack of boundaries, but I can also see how they think they are 'taking care' of you. But really, checking the toilet paper and the soap? That is beyond the pale.

    I think that thanking them profusely for their concern and gently letting them know that you need privacy is important--but may not be effective unless you also change the locks.

    I'm living in my second rectory; people here are very respecting of my privacy and like God says, no one goes in for any reason without my prior approval. And they take very good care of the property.

    I know that there is a lot of backlash against churches providing housing, and for some good reasons, but I am very grateful for it. I doubt my parish could continue to afford a full time priest if they had to pay an equivalent housing allowance. And I can't afford to buy. So it's win-win for us.

  12. Hee hee, RDM! Gord's been promoted!

    I was already starstruck at having The Magdalen among us and commenting...(Friday Fives)...


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