Parsonages still top housing option


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

When Heather Hensarling moved to her new pastoral appointment, she didn’t have to search for a place to live.

Her housing was provided by St. Luke United Methodist Church in Jackson, where she was appointed to serve as pastor. However, a handful of pastors in the conference who relocated June 27 — “move day” — had to spend time searching for a home to purchase or a buyer for a home the pastor owned.

Hensarling has worked under both plans.

“One of the pluses of a parsonage is that it can be a matter of convenience,” she said the day after “move day,” when all conference pastors are expected to move to their new locations. “You don’t have to look for a place to live; it’s provided for you.

“Another advantage is what it does for the church to have that sense of pride and ownership in providing a safe and sacred space for the pastor and his or her family.”

Congregations in the United Methodist Church are expected to offer housing for their pastors. Traditionally that has meant the church owned a parsonage. However, some churches choose instead to give pastors a salary with housing allowance so they can purchase or rent their own home. While the practice of providing a housing allowance has increased steadily over the past several years, most United Methodist clergy still live in parsonages.

According to figures from the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, 74 percent of the full-time United Methodist clergy in the United States live in parsonages. The percentage is based on 2003 data, the latest available.

In the Southeastern Jurisdiction which includes the Mississippi Conference, 76 percent of full-time clergy live in parsonages. Mississippi reflects those numbers, with 74 percent living in parsonages. All 13 pastors in the Red Bird Missionary Conference live in parsonages. The next highest percentage is North Alabama with 89 percent in parsonages.

The Western Jurisdiction has the lowest percentage of pastors living in parsonages at 45 percent. 
Allowance advantages

However, a housing allowance does offer advantages to clergy.

“For the minister, the big picture is building some housing equity for years to come,” said the Rev. Jim Genesse of Long Beach First UMC. “That’s a nice benefit.”

That’s one of the reasons St. Matthews UMC in Madison recently sold its parsonage and now provides a housing allowance. Dr. Thais Tonorey, chair of the church’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee, said the change was made at the pastor’s request.

“He wanted to establish some equity of his own,” said Tonorey, who grew up living in parsonages. “One of the problems for a pastor is that they don’t get equity (living in parsonages). If something happens to the pastor, the family doesn’t have anything.”

Hensarling said having a housing allowance gives a pastor some private space. “Because we live such public lives, our home is very sacred,” she said. “Being able to choose where you live can sort of balance that public life.”

Genesse has experienced living in parsonages and his own home. When appointed to Jackson Christ UMC from a church in Booneville, Genesse had to come up with a down payment and furniture. However, when appointed to Long Beach, he moved back into a parsonage. He was able to sell his home in Jackson but also sold some furniture that he no longer needed. “In the different housing situations we’ve probably bought and sold two houses worth of furniture,” he said.

When considering the issue, churches and clergy can make just as many points for housing allowances as living in a parsonage.

By owning a home, pastors build equity toward having a permanent home when they retire. Owning a home also gives the pastor control over furnishings, decorating and maintenance. Most pastors have at least one story of haggling with a parsonage committee about the furnishings or condition of a parsonage.

That’s one of the reasons the Rev. Paul Luckett of Clinton has always opted for a housing allowance in his 20 years in ministry.

He pointed out that many church members become attached to parsonages because of donated items in the house. A pastor’s desire for a housing allowance can lead to dissension, Luckett said.

“The main goal is to promote Jesus Christ,” Luckett said. “You have to do things in a loving way to reach an agreement.”

From a church’s standpoint, paying a housing allowance relieves the church of paying a mortgage, insurance and other costs associated with home ownership. However, a housing allowance factors into clergy compensation and, therefore, apportionments. A parsonage is not considered compensation.

Location, location, location

Location can also be a factor for the church and pastor, especially in relation to the cost of housing. For example, in Madison County the median price for an owner-occupied home in 2000 was $117,000, according to figures from the 2000 Census. That figure is likely higher now. By comparison, the figure for DeSoto County was $103,100 but both figures have climbed. Housing in other areas isn't as expensive. The state's median cost was $71,400.

A random selection of counties reveals:

  • Adams County, $60,200
  • Alcorn County, $62,100
  • Clay County, $60,900
  • Hancock County, $92,500
  • Lauderdale County, $67,600
  • Lee County, $85,500
  • Pike County, $59,700
  • Washington County, $55,400

While homes in the Ridgeland-Madison area can be pricey, Tonorey said mid-range homes are available. “Our area is unique,” she said. “There are a lot of houses you could buy. In other places you would have to provide a house.”

Another location-related factor would be the ease of purchasing or selling a home. “I can see where in certain markets trying to purchase a home or trying to sell one could be very difficult,” Genesse said. “That would be an extra burden when they need to be worried about moving into their appointment or moving on to the next one.”

Genesse points to the Gulf Coast region as being a seller’s market in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “Coming to the coast right now, (buying a home) would be very difficult. There are no houses,” he said. “In my neighborhood houses have gone up 50 percent to 100 percent. They are selling as soon as they go on the market.”

Boyce Googe, Staff-Parish chair at Tupelo St. Luke UMC, said the most readily available housing in that area is upper end. Tupelo St. Luke owns a parsonage.

"We don't have enough mid-range housing: $110,000 to $150,000 homes," he said. "Most of the market is growing, and we're talking about $200,000 to $250,000. It would be difficult to find housing with the salaries that pastors in this area make."

Conferences within The United Methodist Church set the standards for their parsonages. In Mississippi, the conference offers guidelines for parsonages, but they are goals, not hard minimums.

Genesse and Hensarling said they like the idea of unfurnished parsonages. Both said churches could provide major appliances but let pastors provide their own furniture.

“We need to stop furnishing parsonages,” Hensarling said. “The pastor would be able to purchase things that are personal to you and your character.”