24 May 2011

In praise of parsonages

A few weeks ago, a former pastor of our church who recently fell asleep in Jesus was interred here. The day before the service, his family arrived at the old stomping grounds. Broke into the old apartment . . . this is where we used to live . . . .

So we invited them in. This wasn't one of those courtesy open houses so everybody from church can see that you're not trashing the place and you pretty much figure no one's going to ask to go upstairs (NB: they might). These people grew up here. They were in no way forward or presumptuous, but even I can cipher serviceably enough to figure out that this was more their house than ours. We warned them that we live here and we have five kids, and then we opened every last door. It was nice. :) And how else would we ever have learned that there actually IS a laundry chute?

(An aside before I get all up in your grill. The previous lady of this house told me that to clean one ill-placed window, she would lay a plank from the balcony railing to the window sill, climb out on it over the stairs, and scrub suspended between heaven and earth. Let me tell you, neither that window nor its blinds--which I have given many a resigned thought--are getting cleaned as long as I'm this place's sorry excuse for the lady.)

On to your grill. In seminary there was a general impression that you didn't want a parsonage. It wasn't your house. Church people would expect to be able to come in all the time. They wouldn't take care of problems. They'd pick ugly paint. They wouldn't replace carpets. Oh, those awful church people, whoever they are! And equity, won't someone think of equity??

Here are the disclaimers: as I've confessed before, I'm not exactly an HGTV junkie. Decorative aesthetics are nowhere near the top of my domestic priority list. There are some things about this house that would probably make more attentive homemakers completely freak out, whereas I merely find them funny. There also isn't a white-glove committee from the Ladies Aid stopping in to inspect my mantles for proper dusting. If something needs to be fixed or we want to change something, not only is it not a big deal, but someone from church usually comes over to help. I'm not talking about the horror stories.

But outside of the horror stories, I've got to give the bad parsonage press a hearty MEH. There is no way our parish would be able to offer a salary that could have landed us in a house like this, which allows us to quarter a growing number of people more than comfortably. I have a hard time imagining many congregations of our beloved Synod (at least, not the kind that would call my beloved husband) putting us up so well from a paycheck. And I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb (or a plank 12 feet over my stairs) to suggest that getting out of debt profundis may be of greater relevance to most fresh-faced seminary graduates than more advanced financial achievements like equity.

As for the parsonage horror stories themselves: I recently heard another from someone. If this particular incident had happened to me, in this parsonage, with this congregation, it would not have bothered me in the least. Again, I would have found it funny. I don't know what the context was; I'm sure there was plenty of back story involved. I'm guessing it had a lot more to do with the parish than the parsonage proper. It's hard to imagine a messed up parish and a bad parsonage situation not being pretty tangled up in each other.

Since we've lived here, we've had rocks thrown at our bedroom window in the middle of the night (the phone wasn't working), dozens of centerpieces constructed in our dining room and stored in our living room several times, other large items stored in our garage to the exclusion of our car, use made of our dryer and clothesline, calls from the school requesting clean underoos in a kindergarten size, and various other zany events. Yesterday afternoon someone stopped by to see if we had a hair dryer they could use to defrost a church refrigerator. (Not only do I have a hair dryer, but I also almost never have time to use it, so no rush! Thanks for defrosting over there!) To us these aren't horror or even grumpy stories. They're funny stories about our church and its good and hardworking people, among whom we feel blessed to count ourselves. It wouldn't occur to me to call them grumpy stories if I hadn't heard similar tales classified as such by other pastors' wives.

So there's also some back story on the pro-parsonage side. There's some merit to our very house being owned by the people charged with our care, whose care in turn has been charged to the pastor who lives in it. In our case, it's like a good marriage, where both parties' default position is respect and care; where the conversation starts with "Not to be nosy, but can we help you with that busted screen?" and "Come on in, you're always welcome, and look out for the bowls on the floor because the little guys have been cooking" rather than "What makes you think you can just show up here?" and "Who owns this house anyway?"

And really, who does own this house? They do. It's just true. And who would own our house if we owned it? Well . . . still not us. And who always needs a lesson in humility? I do.

One other thing: although there are trustees here, the congregation's care of our house is not something that happens on some totally official, corporate level. Someone visits and notices the ants which we were perfectly willing to live with; she calls an exterminator. Someone else stops by with his tiller when he's making the rounds in the spring. Someone who does like HGTV can't sleep knowing that the paint in our kitchen is chipping and she repaints for us. Someone who knows one of our kids loves gardening buys a monster cantaloupe and puts it in that kid's squash plant as a joke. Etc.

There's more to be said about this, but as usual I've gone on way too long. I'm glad we're here, and I'm glad we're in a parsonage. I know it doesn't always work out this well.


Lucy said...

Amen! Nothing like a parsonage to keep you humble.

Reb. Mary said...

From another humble(d) parsonage dweller: yes, yes, yes! I've often wondered, looking back, why on earth we were all so keen to see "parsonage:none" on those first Call docs, especially when none of us could have afforded a house anyway. When Rev. husband accepted Call 2, I was beyond relieved to see "parsonage: provided" ;).

But--won't you kinda miss the ants?

Katy said...

And did you mention 80,000+ in mortgage debt is overrated?

For those of our procreating convictions and tendencies, though, I sympathize with a pastor's wife with a 2-bedroom range to deal with.

Emily Cook said...

Our parsonage experience has been wonderful as well. What a blessing, among so many, that someone else mows our lawn! It would take four hours out of my husbands already crazy schedule to do this! And yesterday, dear members brought us THREE raised-bed gardens, filled them with dirt and gave me tons of advice on what to do next (I NEED that advice badly!)

It is wonderful to be cared-for by the church family that we care for.

Mrs Gregory said...

When my husband asked me to date him, he listed off five reasons why a relationship might not work out. (He likes to plan ahead.) One was that he has heard horror stories that pastors' wives don't like living in parsonages, and as a future pastor, he may have to live in a parsonage oe day. He said something about "not getting to choose the colors of your walls" or something.

I was not Lutheran, nor did I know about parsonages, but I knew he was worth marrying, red walls or blue. I may have laughed at him at that moment.

And now he is a pastor, and we own our own house (or one-fourth of it) and it doesn't make a bit of difference to me, as long as he is my hubby.

Dakotapam said...

I miss our parsonage. . .portable dishwasher and all.

Now we live in our "own" home. Equity schmequity, the place needs work. However, I've spent the last two years pregnant and raising twins, our excess money goes to Lutheran School tuition, and our property taxes just went up.

I miss our parsonage. Which our last congregation sold after dh took this Call. (That makes me sad too, as it was built for the church)

Emommy said...

We were blessed with a "parsonage:none" on my husband's call docs just about five years ago, and we thought it would be terrific to buy a fixer-upper and, well, fix it up. We're finally done with the major work after five years, and that--among many other things--has led me to conclude the following about parsonages: If you have one, be thankful. Carrying a mortgage with student debt, plus having to budget for minor or major renovations, really slows down the getting-out-of-debt climb. And living in a parsonage just might help you to get close with your congregation because they actually feel connected to your (private?!) lives. If you don't have a parsonage, be thankful. Though the work has been long and tedious, my husband has learned more hands-on skills (and gained more stress-reducing physical labor) that we could have ever thought. We also have realized that living in a parsonage, in our particular situation, would have greatly exacerbated issues my husband has had to deal with in the past few years (as R so gently pointed out). We're thankful for where we are. But I'd be happy to live in a parsonage someday if God would put us into one.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for this post, Rebekah! We are blessed with a parsonage, and while it looks a little like it probably did for the last 20-30 years (at least. No one under the age of 60 has lived here for quite a while, let alone young children), there is a considerable amount of money in the parsonage fund, and four wonderful people on a "parsonage walkthrough" committee. I can live with just about everything, though, for a beautiful "free" house, the size of which we'd never be able to afford otherwise.

Though those windows in my house that I'd need a plank for are never getting cleaned either. Holy crow! What a brave woman!

The Mama said...

Our first Call had a parsonage and there were a lot of things we liked about it. We had outgrown it, though. Our current parish had us buy a house- and it's a dream house. Really! All the room we could want and then some.

But I still will always have fond memories of our parsonage.

Kristi said...

I love reading about this! You ladies are awesome! :)

Leah said...

I appreciate the spirit in which this was written.

Leah said...

I'm so sick of looking for housing on our own...

We've been in a vicarage this year, and it was a wonderful change. I would much rather have someone say, "Here is where you will live. Enjoy!"

Wing It Mom said...

I love our parsonage! In our first call, the only housing we could afford was a two bedroom 800 square foot duplex that turned out to be in a bad part of town. Of course renting a place from St. Louis when said place is in Texas doesn't give you an advantage on these things...Not that drug dealers and sex offenders aren't people too, but... We were so thrilled when we got here and there was a beautiful parsonage in a great neighborhood! What a blessing!

ζωὴν περισσὸν said...

Having lived in congregation-provided housing seven times to date, I can say that for the most part I have been very thankful for all the benefits. And life in the so-called "fishbowl" can be okay or it can be really miserable depending on how the people handle it. The day I was caught fresh from the shower in my bathrobe and towel when I had a trustee and repairman at the door, they were more embarrassed than I. ;o)

I am, however, very very very thankful that my own family has not had to live in the snake-infested place with the open sewer behind it. Which place I called home during my high school years as a PK. The best thing that came from that experience is the perspective it has given me ever since. If ever I am tempted to complain about some aspect of parsonage life, which honestly happens only rarely, I chide myself... "Well, at LEAST there are no snakes!"