At Home in Zion
Steven K. Gjerde on the Gift of Living in a Parsonage
It is early evening, and my family has just said the table prayer. I am starting to relax after a day of visiting the homebound, and my son eagerly tells me about his latest adventures at preschool. Suddenly, the doorbell rings.
“Oh, Pastor! I’m glad you’re home,” says the harried parishioner on our porch step. “I forgot to pick up my Sunday-school materials last Sunday, and the church is locked, so I was wondering if—oh, I’m sorry. Were you eating?”
Yes, we were eating, but soon enough I will trot across the gravel road and unlock the church as asked. When I return home, my wife will frown at me, my son will have drifted to a different conversation, and my dinner will be that much colder, but so it goes when a pastor lives, to the chagrin of his family, the pity of his friends, and the pleasure of God, in a parsonage.
Any parsonage-dweller knows the situation that I just described, as well as far more hair-raising ones.
My wife still shakes her head at the memory of water so rusty that it shocked the water inspector into an open-mouthed stare. I shudder at other memories, like the drunken man (a rumored child-molester) who came to our front door to speak with me, only to find my wife and children home alone. Living in a church-owned residence, especially if it is next door to the church, puts a pastor’s household in the crosshairs of public attention.
Understandably, many clergy and their families have chafed under that attention and grown to resent it. Nosy parishioners, demanding or stubborn property committees, and a fishbowl existence have frequently conspired to inflict harm on the parsonage family’s faith, happiness, and physical health. Such conditions are rightly called intolerable.
Perhaps that is why more and more Protestant pastors, and even some Roman Catholic priests, are choosing to purchase private homes. In my own denomination, fewer than one-third of all pastors live in a parsonage, turning a formerly common practice into the exception. Anecdotal evidence corroborates the statistic: Of the ten sister congregations in my area, only three still have a parsonage. The others have either dispensed with theirs or never owned one at all, and instead they offer various housing allowances and stipends.
In some places, pastors will use these allowances to purchase homes that are several miles, even an hour or so, away from their people. The example of a local Catholic parish illustrates the point: Casting his eyes beyond the busy downtown where he found himself, the priest converted his comely manse into meeting space before moving to the edge of a golf course. Many of his Protestant counterparts would applaud the decision.
The reasons cited for this clerical exodus usually include finances, family considerations, and an ambiguous category called “healthy boundaries.” One colleague, upon hearing that I lived in church property, did not even ask whether I liked it or not. She simply said, “Well, start saving now so you can get out of there.” She spoke as though I lived by the fleshpots of Egypt, and only required a monetary Moses to deliver me into the promised land.
Yet is it a promised land? Or is it captivity? Parsonage living has its dangers, of course. Unwelcome interruptions and bad plumbing are only the tip of the iceberg, and the financial benefits of owning a home are well known.
Yet something about driving to my study, and not simply walking to it, leaves me cold, like the marriage of a couple who live in separate homes. It seems to make the congregation less of a community, where someone actually lives and moves and has his being, and more of a business, even a storefront, as though the shepherd could tend the sheep-pen by day and head for the hills by night.
To be even more pointed, it seems strange that ministers of the apostolic Word should not live as the apostles lived. Did St. Paul buy a bachelor pad in Corinth? Or did St. John commute to Ephesus from Smyrna? Scripture and history indicate the opposite: Jesus said,
God sent his preachers into the homes of his people, an arrangement that not only sustained their ministry, but that also confirmed an important promise.
The apostles come from God, a gift for the ministry of peace. By abiding among the believers in one of their own homes, the apostles affirmed this gifted nature of their office. They said, “I am yours, and the peace I bring belongs in your homes!” So did the people who opened their homes thereby add an “amen” to the gift. The shepherds for the sheep, and the sheep for the shepherds: So Christ spoke, and so the Church lived.
How do today’s clergy make this same affirmation? They also come from Christ as a gift to his Church. How do they communicate this gift to their people?
Hard work alone cannot do it. For pastors to pledge themselves through hard work invites the old temptation of adopting highly visible projects and sacrifices while the humbler tasks of prayer, study, and visitation go neglected. It also makes the pastor’s pledge less a message of grace—“I am yours”—and more one of obligation—“You owe me. I am an essential person here.” Christ’s intention gets buried beneath sweat and guilt.
To live in the real spirit of their Chief Shepherd, clergy must hand over their very lives and livelihoods to the people. It’s a terrifying thing to do, risking injury and rejection, and this risk will especially worry a parson with family. Yet one very powerful, reasonable, and emblematic way of taking the risk and communicating the gift of their office is for pastors to live in a church’s home.
A person’s shelter represents his life like little else. By taking shelter in the parsonage, the pastor hands himself, even his family’s welfare, over to the means and good graces of his people. Moreover, it provides the people with a tangible, communal way of saying “amen” to the pastor and his ministry.
Housing allowances don’t cut it. They are something that church councils orchestrate and treasurers dispense. A real house, on the other hand, is something that all the people may see, and to which all may contribute. It is theirs, no longer to enter and depart as they please (for respecting a pastor and his family’s privacy is part of extending good hospitality), but still their home and their front door, to open (and close) as needed.
Many of my pastor friends—few, if any, of whom have ever lived in a parsonage—would take me to task on all this. Some would cite the changing times, others would engage me on questions of familial health and boundaries, and still others would make theological distinctions between apostle and pastor.
A Visible Emblem
The crucial point remains: All pastors must affirm for their people that they come from God as an utter gift. To take one part of their life (and a very crucial one, the very shelter of their households) and march it away from the people does not serve this purpose.
Protestants should especially consider the matter. Even where the Catholic rectory has become three offices, two storage units, and a neglected youth lounge, the priest will always have his vow of celibacy to demonstrate the apostolic nature of his office.
What do Protestant clergy possess? What visible emblem communicates that they have been swept up, mind, soul, and body, into a mission much older and grander than themselves? In the shadow of the parsonage’s demise, it is hard to see one.
How much better to stand in the windows of a parsonage—leaky, creaky, and small—and view the world from beneath the wing of God’s greatest creation ever. From that location, the thoughtless parishioner is found to be more considerate than first realized, and the parsonage family is regarded as holier than it will ever know. And when the pastor finally returns to his meal, the table is found to be friendlier, and the meal warmer, than he had first expected.
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