Ministry Life: The Parsonage
I’m getting dangerously close to 40, and I’ve spent all but eight of those years living in a ministry family—either as a minister’s daughter or wife. The ministry life is a unique experience, although it never seemed that way to me as a kid since it was all I had known. But there were some aspects that I knew made me different from my friends; things that occasionally reminded me that I sometimes lived in a very different world than that of my peers.
One of these aspects was…the parsonage.
Between the ages of 3 and 11, I lived in no less than five parsonages, or houses owned by a church for their ministry staff to live in. Six, if you count the house a church rented for us while the real church parsonage was getting a facelift. I never knew house-hunting as a young child. We just moved to a town and into the parsonage of whatever church was employing my dad as their youth minister.
It never bothered me that we didn’t get to choose the houses we lived in. Again, it was all I knew. My brother Brian and I still got to weigh in on important decisions, such as who got which bedroom and who the bathroom would be named after. (The bathroom name had to do with a rule my brother put in place and enforced. Whoever used the bathroom first in a new house got the bathroom named for them. We lived in houses with a “Brian’s bathroom” for years. On moving day at the last parsonage, I made it a point to use the bathroom before Brian did. When I proudly announced the news to Brian, he replied that he had changed the rule. So another three years using “Brian’s bathroom” for me.)
I liked all the houses we lived in. Most of them were nicer than what we could have afforded on our own. The first, which was owned by Taylor St. Church of Christ in Hobbs, New Mexico, had four bedrooms. It’s still the only four-bedroom house I’ve ever lived in. My mom used the room for her sewing machine, but as an avid “Brady Bunch” fan, I dreamed of our family getting an “Alice” and giving her that room. It was even near the kitchen, so it would have been perfect. Here I am (left) in the Hobbs house with friends at one of my birthday parties. Those of you who were at ACU when I was may recognize the blond girl in the red shirt. That's Christi Ravanelli Kerbers, my Hobbs bff.
The second church-owned house we lived in was owned by Country Club Rd. Church of Christ in Roswell, New Mexico. (Yes, THAT Roswell.) The house was OK, but after we moved in, something wonderful happened. Our church had a lovely new church building and the elders were convinced that the teens were going to destroy it and did not actually want teens hanging out in the building. (I’m sure that youth group felt deeply valued by those elders.) So the elders had our two-car garage converted into a teen room for our youth group. I was five, and having a huge space to run around in inside our house was fabulous. That’s when I realized cranky old elders weren’t all bad.
Then we moved to Big Spring, Texas, for my dad to work at 14th and Main Church of Christ. That’s when we moved into the house the church rented for us. I don’t remember it being that bad, but my mom says the elders’ wives who came to the house on moving day were mortified at what their husbands had rented for us. All I cared about was the huge tree in the front yard that was great for climbing, and the fact that a girl my age lived next door. That’s all 6-year-old kids want. A tree and a friend.
Then we got to move into that church’s actual parsonage. It was a much nicer brick house a few streets away. Here I am with my mom in that house:
Just a couple of months ago, Brian and a friend visited Big Spring and drove by this house. They stopped to take a picture and the current owner (14th and Main sold it long ago) came out to see what they were doing. Brian explained that he had lived there as a kid and she invited him in to look around. I was completely jealous. I loved that house and would love to see it again.
Then back to Lovington, New Mexico, where we had lived before Hobbs. The first time my dad worked at 3rd and Central Church of Christ, my parents had owned our house. But this time, we moved into the parsonage. This church actually owned two. We moved into the one across the street from the church while we waited for the preacher to finish building a house so he could leave the nicer, bigger parsonage open for us across town.
Living across the street from our church was a novelty that I probably would have gotten tired of eventually, but for the short time we were there, I thought it was cool. Here’s my dad, brother and me in the kitchen. This was 1979, if you couldn’t tell.
Being on time for things had never been so easy. My dad walked across the street to work every day. Church started at 9 a.m., so we walked out the front door at 9 a.m. After church, Brian and I just walked back across the street and didn’t have to wait for my parents to finish talking to everyone. That house had a large classroom building in our backyard, and we quickly got used to members of the youth group opening our gate and walking into our backyard for Bible class every Sunday. And, if my parents had an evening church function Brian and I didn’t particularly want to attend, they left us at home. (It was on one of these nights that Brian and I, ages 12 and 8, watched “Carrie” and scared ourselves to death. Our parents had no idea.)
The preacher finally finished building his new house and we got to move to the nicer parsonage, where I spent 4th, 5th and 6th grade. Then we moved to Beaumont, Texas, where the church had no parsonage. I was 11 and got to go house-hunting for the first time.
There are drawbacks to living in church-owned housing. The elders at each church had different rules. At one house, I couldn’t put posters up because they didn’t want holes in the walls. At the next house, the elders were fine with posters but they didn’t want our dog in the house. It was hard to keep up. When we moved into our Beaumont house, I asked my mom—out of habit—if the elders would mind if I put posters up. “This is OUR house,” she reminded me.
We only lived in one parsonage that was part of the church facility. In this kind of parsonage, establishing boundaries can be difficult. Other than a drunk banging on the outside door of my bedroom one night (it was a door we didn’t use—my dresser was in front of it), I don’t remember unwelcome visitors. But I have friends who have lived in parsonages who have nightmarish stories to tell of church members/staff/elders dropping in at all hours, or using the key to get in when the minister’s family is gone “just to check on things,” or church members who feel that paying for the house through their contributions entitles them to walk in any time without knocking, or just the general feeling of never being “off the clock.” I don’t know if my parents experienced any of this. I kind of liked being close to the church building and feeling as though we were in the middle of everything.
Parsonages can also do ministers a huge disservice by not allowing them to build up equity. Going from a parsonage to buying a house of our own in 1983 was not easy since we hadn’t accumulated equity with any of our previous houses. This is one good reason many churches have sold their parsonages in recent decades.
Chad has only been employed by two churches, and both of them have been parsonage-free. I like that. As an adult, I like picking out our own houses. But as a kid, each parsonage was a new adventure and, at least for a while, home.