Parsonage or housing allowance?
Churches may help ministers with housing costs in a variety…
Parsonage walls don’t talk. But ministers and their families who have lived in homes owned by churches have stories to tell.
One minister told of an elder and his wife peering through binoculars from their own home across the street. Another recalled life in a two-bedroom trailer. Several remembered begging committees for paint and repairs and always settling for the cheapest appliances. Some also expressed gratitude for homes provided by small churches that couldn’t pay enough to cover housing.
Parsonages have been around since New Testament times when priests lived in temples. Later, early European Protestants insisted their ministers receive equal standing with the Roman Catholic priests who typically lived tax-free in or near the churches they served.
But the status of the once common perk has diminished over the years, and many believe that’s a good thing.
Data from the annual Ministers’ Salary Survey conducted by the Siburt Institute at Abilene Christian University in Texas indicates 1 in 4 full-time ministers receive a housing supplement (14 percent) or live in a parsonage (10 percent), and the five-year trend is downward.
Reality is more complicated than stories or statistics.
Some small, rural churches provide a parsonage because they can’t pay much, and providing a home gives ministers an incentive to accept a job or stay in one. Others keep parsonages because no other housing is available.
That’s the case in Jacksboro, Texas, a town of about 4,200 located 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
Bryan Bumpas serves with three other elders at the Jacksboro Church of Christ, a congregation of about 100. He’s been a member there for more than 35 years. His own house was blown away March 21, 2022, when an EF3 tornado hit the small community, destroying 80 homes and damaging 200 more, including 14 belonging to church members.
The result was virtually no inventory of homes even if a minister could afford one.
So instead, Bumpas said, Jacksboro recently refurbished its four-bedroom, ranch-style minister’s home built in about 1970 to get it ready for its next preacher, who will be the seventh in 43 years to live there.
The retired banker said elders once considered selling the property and increasing the minister’s salary. The tornado changed things.
“I don’t think anyone would reject the parsonage,” the elder said, “and if they did we would just sell it. It would be a very marketable property.”
“I don’t think anyone would reject the parsonage, and if they did we would just sell it. It would be a very marketable property.”
“Affordable” and “available” are relative terms. And some churches in the high-end housing markets of major cities also provide a parsonage to enable ministers to live affordably and nearby.
Similar stories are told in Dallas, Honolulu, New York City, Denver and Southern California where the Canyon View Church of Christ in San Diego has two residences on its property: a small house used by the youth minister and a larger, recently renovated four-bedroom apartment above the church building for the lead minister. The apartment features a deck with a canyon view. Ministers may rent the homes from the church at about half the local rate and receive a housing allowance to support that.
Buying a comparable residence in San Diego would cost over $1 million, said Gilbert Oropeza, a Canyon View elder. One former minister did choose to buy a home and used his housing allowance toward that cost, Oropeza said, but “we wanted to make sure our ministers have a comfortable place to stay. It really does assist them in making a decision.”
As Roger Woods concludes 25 years of ministry with the Walled Lake Church of Christ in suburban Detroit, he has begun transitioning that role to Caleb Smith. Smith and his wife will move into the parsonage the Woods family occupied until a recent family gift and inheritance provided a down payment and a chance to move into their own home — albeit about half the size of the one owned by the church.
Smith, who interned at Walled Lake a decade ago, is returning to his wife’s hometown. She completed a doctorate in music at the University of Nebraska and will establish a private voice studio.
The elders have been “very up front,” Smith said, in urging them to set money aside. But “having the offer was huge — we didn’t have to find a house to move into up here.”
While Smith welcomes “a 20-step commute,” Woods enjoys the distance his new home provides.
“The building is always on your mind because you’re right next door to it,” the retiring preacher said of the parsonage. “It’s hard to separate, and having lived with it so long I didn’t realize it until we got that house — that 2-mile drive away is magic.”
Carl Feril and his wife, Janet, had a short commute at their first parsonage. After Carl graduated from the Bear Valley Bible Institute in Denver, the couple moved 30 miles north to Brighton. A member there provided a two-bedroom trailer as the minister’s home.
“It was a doozy,” Janet Feril recalled.
“We were 20 years old — Janet was 18. We didn’t have real high expectations, and they lived up to them,” Carl said, chuckling.
“We were 20 years old — Janet was 18. We didn’t have real high expectations, and they lived up to them.”
Over four decades spent in small, rural churches across Colorado and Kansas, the Ferils raised their three sons in parsonages of varying size.
Preaching school graduates didn’t expect to go to a large metroplex church, Carl said. “They believed they were probably going to preach in smaller churches or mission areas.”
And that’s what the Ferils did, for 47 years. In one small town the parsonage was something of a mansion built by a physician, complete with a long-abandoned Olympic-size pool. Janet describes it as “a hole in the ground for the kids to play in.”
While in Kansas, the couple earned college degrees. She went to work in the health care industry. Carl completed a master’s in marriage and family therapy that allowed him to work two days a week in a clinic for extra income.
In their 40s, they began aggressively saving for retirement, investing half of Janet’s income. They eventually purchased a home in St. John, Kan., a town of about 1,200 located 100 miles northwest of Wichita. They will retire there. But first they spent a year traveling in a motor home, no doubt nicer than the mobile home they occupied decades before.
“My sons would tell you I am instinctively cheap,” the minister said. But frugality and discipline paid off for the Ferils. Carl knows ministers his own age who are less fortunate. One friend opted out of Social Security with the notion he’d put money away for retirement.
“Only he never put any money away,” Carl said, and now his friend has to keep preaching because with no Social Security, no home and no nest egg, he has no place to live and no source of income.
“A part of that was really poor decisions,” Carl said, “but a part of it is not having his own house.”
Sixty-two percent of ministers responding to the Siburt Institute survey do not receive a retirement benefit, and about a third (32 percent) have opted out of Social Security. Thus, the ability to build equity through home ownership is, for many, their best hope for retirement.
Most Christian universities today provide at minimum a unit on ministry basics including financial considerations, and a few offer a course. Such training may at least help students get a feel for what they don’t know and need to seek help with. But those in the system for many years may not have had that advantage.
Still, for ministers just starting out, or who have always lived in a parsonage, a church-owned home makes a small salary more viable, if they are aware of the pitfalls.
Shawn Johnson and his wife, Robyn, serve the Church of Christ in Claude, Texas, near Amarillo. They don’t fear a homeless retirement because Robyn comes from a ranching family, and eventually the couple will retire to the ranch.
They know ministers who are not so fortunate. “Many will be trapped,” Shawn said, “and will always need to be in a congregation with a parsonage, or they’re going to be in trouble.”
The Johnsons also ministered in Chico, Ranger and Cisco, all rural Texas communities. Like the Ferils, they raised their children in small-town parsonages.
For children, such a life can feel a bit rootless. “One of the negatives is no place feels like home to them,” Robyn said, “and if he loses his job they’ve lost their home as well — and that’s happened to us.”
“Many will be trapped and will always need to be in a congregation with a parsonage, or they’re going to be in trouble.”
Shawn lost his job twice as a preacher. Once they owned a house, but the other time “they wanted us out within three months because they would have someone else come in — but that’s a challenge,” he said. “A painful challenge.”
The couple married after graduating from ACU in 1989. Shawn earned a bachelor’s degree in Greek and subsequently completed an M.S., M.Div., and D.Min. from the university, where he coordinates the small church section at the annual Summit lectures.
Related: Parsonage or housing allowance?
None of the churches where they’ve served provided health insurance or retirement, and most expected them to do upkeep on the houses even though salaries weren’t adequate for that. Still, Shawn is committed to work in small, rural churches.
“Even when I say something negative about the parsonage, these are still the people I enjoy being with. I might dream of having a nicer place to live, but I’m content with every spot I have been in,” he said. “If I were to move another 50 times I would always choose a smaller, rural congregation.”
“Even when I say something negative about the parsonage, these are still the people I enjoy being with. I might dream of having a nicer place to live, but I’m content with every spot I have been in.”
Trey Morgan has been at a rural church for 21 years, as well. But with a Sunday attendance of 350 in a town of 6,000, the Childress Church of Christ in the Texas Panhandle is different than most.
Morgan’s experience with parsonage life there has been positive, in part because of decisions made by Childress elders years ago.
“We had a parsonage when we moved here,” Morgan said. “After about 12 years, the eldership, who was very good and kind to us, said, ‘We realize you don’t have any equity. This is not a good thing for you. We’re going to go back and give you about 5 percent equity on the house for every year you stay, and at 20 years it will be yours.’”
A contract was drawn up by a lawyer, and at 20 years the house became the Morgans’. “There were some tax implications. But if done the right way you don’t have to pay nearly as much. Even a gift you have to pay taxes on,” Morgan said.
The plan proved a wise one. Morgan soon will move to Lubbock, Texas, closer to children and grandchildren. He’ll preach for the Sunset Church of Christ and own a home, thanks to selling the appreciated house in Childress.
Mike Henderson, a retired physician and Childress elder, gives credit for the plan to Robert Carter, “a really wise elder” who died two years ago. Carter told fellow elders that with a parsonage and no means of building equity, a person could “preach the Gospel for 40 years and then not have a place to live.”
“We didn’t want to see someone like Trey wind up like that,” Henderson said. “He’s very loved here, and everyone understands his reason for moving.”
The Childress elders have no plans to buy another parsonage.
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