Saturday, August 23, 2008

Parsonages & Itineracy: Out of Date or Just Ignored?

I cleaned our house today - I usually do this earlier in the week, but schedules never quite worked out for that to happen. Our house is three years old - built new right after I moved to Reidland. It's hard to believe three years has gone by. As you can see in the picture, we live in a very fine house.

Even though the house is still like new, there are a few things that need some attention. I contracted someone today to clean the gutters and pressure-wash the deck, which will need staining before it weathers too much more. I need to remove some mulch and replace it around the perimeter of the house where the landscaping is. Our church was very gracious in building a new parsonage, and I am going to do my best to be sure we keep it looking new. My family has always covenanted to leave the parsonages we lived in in better shape than when we moved in them.

I've been lucky throughout the years that I've never moved into a less-than-standard house. No house is perfect, but there weren't holes in the bathroom floors or leaky roofs or substandard wiring in them like some of the horror stories I have heard from others over the years.

However, I have to confess that some of my colleagues have given all of us pastors a bad name over the years. It is hard to believe, but some pastors simply trash their parsonages. They not only don't clean them, but they don't bother to repair them and alert folks to needed repairs. The word gets out that "You don't want to follow so-and-so, because you won't be able to move in to your house for two weeks - it won't be fit to live in!" It's been my experience that most church trustees are more than happy to address parsonage issues if you and the your family show an interest in maintaining and even improving it.

Some pastors resist such help - they see such as an intrusion of their privacy. While folks can certainly snoop more than they should, churches have a valid right to keep their property and assets in good condition... and if they've had previous (or present) pastors who don't take care of their parsonages, churches get understandably nervous, or even resentful, when yearly inspections or maintenance are not met with open arms by pastors and parsonage families. As a result, when it comes time to make a decision on whether to build a new parsonage, renovate a present one, or offer a housing allowance, the housing allowance is often chosen.

In our conference, parsonages are becoming an endangered species; more and more churches are moving toward a housing allowance. Financially, of course, this is advantageous to pastors - it allows them to build up equity. But from the point-of-view of the United Methodist itineracy, it can be disastrous: it puts another variable in a system that already has a lot of variables. In my Annual Conference, folks in Memphis tend to stay in Memphis - which ties the hands of the cabinet in making appointments. Add to that the "We have a house that we'd have to buy/sell" argument, or "We haven't amortized our house yet" plea, and it puts another kink into the itineracy - maybe a pastor needs to move, maybe a church needs the pastor to move, or both - but the pastor's finances (or lack of them!) end up making the final decision... something that the parsonage system eliminates. Add to that the fact that the spouse may have a job that they can't or don't want to leave, and itineracy becomes nearly impossible.

As a result, a multi-tiered itineracy becomes a reality. Our large membership churches are already in a tier by themselves. The next tier are churches who offer housing allowances, particularly in metropolitan areas: the advantage here is that pastors can be moved around in metro areas without worry about a pastor having to sell a house - they can usually keep the present house they live in. And then there are churches with parsonages. The advantage is that there are no homes to sell or buy, and pastors in this category are much more mobile and able to itinerate from farther distances away.

The snafu is when someone moves from one situation to another: you either have to buy a house, or sell a house. In our conference, that can happen with relatively short notice - and in this present economy, the housing market is very poor. Our parsonage is located in a new housing development of Paducah, and there are three houses for sale on our street... and they have been up for sale for nearly six months. The absolute worst case scenario is moving from an appointment that has a housing allowance to another appointment that has a housing allowance, and buying a house at your new location and being unable to sell the house in your previous location.

I'm not naive enough to think that other professions don't have this problem, but in theory, the itinerancy was designed to be able to deploy clergy to serve every church in an annual conference, sometimes very quickly. Parsonages helped the itineracy in this regard.

Given the increased difficulty of making pastoral appointments, and the present realities of parsonages, housing allowances, and two-income and two-profession families, it seems that United Methodism needs to do some thinking and rethinking.
  1. Is the itineracy really just dead - and should we bury it?
  2. If not, are we still committed to itinerant ministry?
  3. If so, do we need to reconsider the move toward housing allowances as the norm?
  4. Do we need to hold pastors financially accountable for damages, and insist on yearly inspections with D.S.'s present?
  5. Or do we need to ditch the itineracy and go to a modified call system?

Right now, it seems to be that we are in the worst of all worlds where the above is concerned. Any ideas?



PamBG said...

We have an annual manse inspection here; sounds like that wouldn't be welcome by many of your colleagues?

'The system' in the UK probably means we'll never have allowances. For one thing, my circuit couldn't afford the cash-flow of a housing allowance, but the manse is already in place. For another, I'd be taxed on an allowance so I'd have to choose a house that was 75% as good as the manse.

I can see how this hinders itinerancy but I'm not sure if 'Allowances?' and 'Itinerancy?' aren't separate questions.

As I understand it, the point of itinerancy was to empower lay people and to stop meglomanical clergy building fiefdoms. I don't know what things are like in the US, but here in the UK, people want the church to provide them with a service - i.e. they want a 'professional' clergy and don't have time to be empowered by the church.

Itinerancy seems to result in a minister's effectiveness being curtailed just as it's gaining momentum. On the other hand, it does allow for a bad minister to be disposed of easily.

Our itinerancy may work somewhat differently than yours as we have a kind of 'national clearing system' of ministers up for reappointment and circuits looking for ministers. We don't normally just get sent somewhere on the say-so of our Chair (which I assume to be equivalent to a UMC Bishop in this instance.)

Brian Vinson said...

On the other hand, it does allow for a bad minister to be disposed of easily.

But it doesn't allow for this - it allows only for a bad minister to be moved easily. Disposal is a whole 'nother beast.

Steve said...

We do have annual inspections of clergy homes in the UMC. They are called parsonage walkthroughs and are conducted by a representative of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee and a representative of the Trustees, with the pastor conducting the tour. It's a friendly and expected way to stay on top of things. All clegy with parsonages are required to do this. (At least, that's the way it is in South Carolina; I guessed it was denomination-wide.)

"CAPTAIN DAVE" said...

IMHO, parsonages benefit the church and the itinerancy; housing allowances benefit the pastor and thwart the itinerancy. There's the difference... and why more churches are being coerced to go to housing allowances.

Anonymous said...

I think we need to move towards a modified itinerancy in the U.S., something more in line with the system the Episcopaleans and Lutherans use. I think this will better enable us to solve the ineffective pastor problem which, under an itinerant system, makes it difficult to remove people with a bad track record from ministry. However, this will not change the fact that some congregations will elect to use a church owned parsonage while others will use a housing allowance. In the Presbyterian Church USA larger congregations tend to use a housing allowance while smaller ones use a parsonage. Parsonages tend to have been paid for decades ago and are not subject to property tax which makes it a relatively inexpensive option for clergy housing.

Questing Parson said...

Having lived in the best and the worst and having followed the best and the worst, and as one of those old codgers who remember "how it used to be" you have really hit on an issue that is redefining our system.

Thanks for this.

Adam M. Roberts said...

grew up in parsonages, and at times it was incredibly frustrating. In a housing allowance situation now in N. GA and it's been very "empowering" and keeps the congregation from being my landlord. This is 100% a good thing. It does cost the church more in the long run, and it does build equity for the pastor. Certainly more beneficial to the pastor financially. The tax break involved with deducting interest can't be overlooked, it is truly a huge advantage. But I also really do believe that it brings peace and takes one more variable out of the pastor/congregational relationship and that's always a good thing.

In N. GA our bishop has become famous for saying, "housing allowance or parsonage is irrelevant when it comes to consideration of your appointment." In short, the DS's all made very clear to us that we'd better have our financial house in order and that if we have to move, it will be up to us to handle details concerning the house. That just means that you'd better be thinking re-sale when you buy as a UM pastor. Housing allowance is a good, good thing, I think, and so is longer appointment duration. Thanks for a good discussion of the topic Sky.

PamBG said...

But it doesn't allow for this - it allows only for a bad minister to be moved easily. Disposal is a whole 'nother beast.

Yes, true enough!