My church (in Salem, Illinois) is deciding whether to get a new parsonage for the new minister (coming to them July 1.) This is the seventh time I’ve worked with a church trying to buy or sell a parsonage. Ugh.
Parsonage: “a house for a parson.” Parson is a quaint English term for a pastor, priest, preacher… whichever term suits you. The only time I ever hear the word “parson” these days is at Christmas when people sing of Parson Brown in “Winter Wonderland.” In that song a talking snowman pretends to be a parson. This is why it’s always been hard for me to take anyone seriously who calls me a parson.
But parsonages are always a serious matter to me. Since my dad became a parson when I was two years old, and because I became a parson when I was only 18, I’ve lived in parsonages for all but about two years of my entire life. Even in retirement I’m living out of the Salem parsonage four days a week. A parsonage is a home owned (or rented) by the church and made available as a residence for the incumbent pastor. Parsonages make for interesting stories…
Methodist bishops like the idea of parsonages. It allows them to move pastors from town to town without risk that a pastor might be rendered homeless at a new assignment. Churches like parsonages to the extent that it allows them to pay their pastors less since a house is included in the job package. Pastors like parsonages to the extent that it doesn’t leave them stuck trying to buy or sell a house each time the bishop moves them, particularly in years when the housing market is difficult. But the interesting stories that go along with parsonages are seldom grounded in any of those “plus” reasons for having parsonages.
The first Wednesday after we had moved into our Dalton City parsonage, (I was in the fourth grade) we heard the front door open while we were eating supper. The footsteps headed toward the living room and then fell silent. When my dad got up to check it out he found Mrs. Walker sitting on our couch holding a book. She explained that she always came early for Wednesday prayer meeting and waited at the parsonage (next door to the church) until it was "prayin" time. She told my dad to go back to the kitchen and finish his supper so they wouldn’t be late.
Because a parsonage belongs to the church, and the trustees are your landlord, sometimes you don’t get repairs or upkeep in a timely manner. The best time to get improvements done is when you first move to a church, before they get to know you. Churches like to make a good first impression, and in the “honeymoon” period they will give the pastor something like three “parsonage wishes.” On several occasions I have had to use up one of those wishes in order to get rid of the green shag carpeting.
Pets can be a source of controversy, particularly when dogs or cats ruin carpets or wood floors. While pastors love their pets, trustees not so much. District superintendents sometimes get called in to mediate. The worst situation I ever knew about was the pastor who raised homing pigeons. It’s an interesting hobby. You load your pigeons in your truck, drive to another town, release them, and wait for them to all fly home and roost in your attic. How do you tell homing pigeons that the bishop has just moved them to a new town and that they should NOT go back to the old parsonage? I was grateful that I was never that guy’s successor.
My grandfather, who was a parson, served a church that happened to be attached to his parsonage. On Sunday mornings the old ladies’ Sunday School class met in my uncle’s bedroom. Jake was just out of high school at the time and it wasn’t the most ideal arrangement.
Some churches are very generous with their parsonages and provide ample privacy for the pastor. And they always give you the name of their “fix-it” guy, someone in the church you can call to make emergency repairs. The quality of their work is uneven, from church to church. In Glen Carbon, Bob Jones was thorough and practical, an ideal handyman. In another church I served, however, Clem was my go to guy. Clem was one of those “I think that will be good enough for now” kind of fellows. His definition of “good enough” always seemed quite peculiar to me.
In Clem’s defense, however, he didn’t have much to work with. I remember telling the lay leader of that church that they needed to think about getting a better parsonage someday. Its location, disrepair, and poor construction made it one of the worst parsonages in the conference. The lay leader’s response to me was dead serious: “If we got a better parsonage, how would the ministers know we didn’t like them?” That was the church that told me, upon my arrival, that they’d had to get rid of every minister the bishop had sent them since 1949.
As I make sure the Salem church follows all the legal and ecclesiastical rules for getting a new parsonage, I find myself grateful for all the parsonages of my life, despite the stories. I’ve lived in 5 parsonages provided to my dad while I was growing up and 13 parsonages provided me during my ministry. They were either houses I could not have afforded on my salary… or houses I would not have chosen. But each one became a home, some quicker than others. For a house to become a home, you have to do more than decorate and furnish it. You have to grow into it: accommodate yourself to your accommodations.
Houses will challenge you, surprise you, delight you, reform you. So, say a prayer for all who live in parsonages and all who tend to them: May all the pets behave, may the former pastor's pigeons not return, may Mrs. Walker not startle your wife, may everyone forgive each other, may the congregation be generous, and may this be the last parsonage switch I ever have to be in the middle of. Amen.