Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Unseen Church Building

There is a place that exists that many church members have never visited.  There is place that is owned by the church that many don't even know where it is.  This place is the most used building out of all of the church's facilities.  It is used almost 16+ hours a day, and on some days all 24 hours.  You may have guessed what building I am talking about by now, but if not, it is your church's parsonage.

Last week we moved into a new parsonage at my current appointment.  We moved after ten short months after moving into the now "old parsonage."  It is a task I have lived through as an associate 10 years ago as well.  As we go through this process again, I am struck by a new realization.  The parsonage is the most used, most occupied, most unseen of all church facilities.

I have lived in a church parsonage/manse since August of 2002.  I have now lived in 6 church houses.  What I have learned is that the church only knows what you tell them about the parsonage.  It is almost at the whim of the pastor to either shed light on issues or let them go.  What this translates to is the horrible option of having to "complain" about the condition of the house you and your family live in to people who don't.  It is a unique and precarious place to dwell.

In a utopian appointment there would be a parsonage committee that met like they should.  This committee would be just nosy enough to stay ahead of all the fixes a house needs but not TOO nosy that they bang on your door at 6am every other Saturday.  There is a fine line but it is one that cannot be ignored.

Usually though (in my experience) it is ignored until something goes wrong or the pastor moves.  In my last appointment we had probably the healthiest parsonage committee which met at the parsonage twice a year.  One of those visits was the mandatory full inspection (this is in the United Methodist Church).  In each one of these meetings we would make a list of the small repairs or hick-ups that were happening in the parsonage and make a plan of action to remedy these issues.  Some chairs of the parsonage committee would be timely in fixing those; others not so much.  BUT, what I found to be key, is that someone else knew what was happening within the walls of the parsonage.

With my 10+ years of living in 6 different parsonages/manses here are some rules I and my wife have come up with that we live by:
1.      Leave the place better than you found it.  This means the yard, the storage closet, the bathrooms, and everywhere else.  If all ministers and their families lived this way, SO many problems would cease to exist during times of transitions.
2.      Get permission to fix something before you do it because it really isn't yours.  I dabble with DYI and I grew up with a father who had a rule, "If I can't fix it after three days of trying, then I'll call someone."  But before I run off to the appliance repair shop to buy the $15 sensor to make the dryer work, I check with my parsonage chair or trustee chair.  I do this not to annoy but to double check this is what they want me to do.  That is the church's dryer, not mine and if they would rather pay a repair person to come out, it is their job to make that decision.  Plus if something goes wrong, you have asked permission.
3.      It is the Church’s house but our home.  We make the place our own by putting up our art work, pictures, and using our furniture everywhere we can.  But we also know it is the church’s house.  We attempt to put good boundaries on what we do but also what we should not do.  This especially true when it comes to our two cats. 
4.      Show the house off.  I hate open houses but I do realize they are necessary.  I realize the idea comes out of an older generation but it does serve a purpose.  It gives the church confidence that you are taking care of your house but also enables the pastoral family to point out any flaws that need attention.  For example, in our last parsonage, no one really believed our neighbors owned most of what looked like our backyard.  Once they came out and saw the property lines they understood.
5.      Be willing to get your hands dirty.  I knew a pastor who told the Chair of Trustees that one of his jobs was to come over and change the air filters of the parsonage.  I don’t think that is in the Discipline.  Yes it is not your house, but be willing do plant flowers, change light bulbs, clean carpet after your pets and kids, and other things.  The church is not a butler/maid service BUT when it comes to big ticket and permanent items, it is there responsibility.

(Warning…a small rant ahead)
I have not found a parishioner who understands what it is like to live in a parsonage, unless they were part of a clergy family at one time.  Trying to explain to a person who owns their own home what it is like to committee approval to paint your kids bedroom is almost impossible.  As people have looked at our conference’s parsonage guidelines many think we have it pretty sweet.  Clergy families get a ‘free’ house to live in and all this furniture is provided.  Laity, please listen, it is a blessing and a curse.  It is really hard to make a house and neighborhood you didn’t choose your home.  It takes skill, care, and patience.  It can take a toll on relationships with children and spouses.  Please don’t assume because the house is ‘free’ it doesn’t cost the clergy family anything!  I have heard of people getting divorces and dealing will illnesses from the conditions pastors and their families have lived in/through.

Now I have found that the majority of my congregations truly care about the living conditions of their pastor and his/her family.  They want us to feel like we are at home.  I appreciate those people because they truly do care.  There are others who could care less. 

The fine line is that the parsonage is there (for those who don’t have a housing allowance) and it is a blessing and a curse.  It is the most used facility of all the church buildings but one almost no one would recognize as a church building.  Its invisibility can lead to decay and rot and at some moments peace and tranquility.  The line those that live there have to walk can be tedious and precarious.  However, out of all 6 I have lived in there is one thing in common.  Like it or not, I have called each my home.

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