Parsonage or housing allowance? Slow real estate market creates extra challenge for some clergy

6/19/2009

By Glenn Hannigan, Editor
North Georgia Advocate
 
It is safe to say that relocating to a new church is embedded in Stuart Greene’s DNA.

Greene, a third-generation United Methodist minister, is well versed in the procedures of moving from one church home to another.
 
“It has just always been part of my life,” Greene said. “We knew that every few years we were likely to move. As difficult as it can be to leave a church family behind, you go to a new place with the expectation that God has something special planned.”
 
But for Greene, and various other North Georgia ministers taking new appointments this month, 2009 presents a special set of challenges. And they are challenges his grandfather, Reynolds Greene, and his father, Reynolds Greene, Jr., never had to face.
 
For previous generations of United Methodist pastors, moving day was a straightforward process. You packed up your belongings in one parsonage and moved them into another one.  Not always simple, but certainly quick.
      
But next week when Greene moves to Sugarloaf UMC, in Gwinnett County, from Smyrna UMC, in Cobb County, he will not be simply swapping one parsonage for another.
 
“We’ll have to sell our home in Smyrna before we buy another one,” Greene said. “And in this real estate market, that is a challenge. I know I might be making the commute for a while, maybe a very long while, but I am prepared to do that.”
 
Greene, like an ever-increasing number of pastors in the North Georgia Conference, receives a housing allowance in lieu of living in a parsonage. In the past 10 years, the number of parsonages in North Georgia has been declining steadily, at a pace of around 40 a year.
 
In 1999, approximately 800 out of the 930 churches in the North Georgia Conference had parsonages. In 2009, that number has been virtually cut in half. When the economy was strong and the real estate market was booming, buying a home offered many financial benefits. In the recent real estate collapse, those benefits look far less appealing.
 
“There are certainly some aspects of being in a parsonage that make it simpler,” Greene said. “But there are still advantages in receiving a housing allowance. We just can’t afford to lose a lot of money on our home.”

That happened to Greene once before, when he sold his home in Conyers in 2004 to move to Smyrna. While that home was on the market, he endured a 90-mile daily commute. 
 
“It’s going to be a 70-mile round trip from Smyrna to Sugarloaf,” Greene said. “But I don’t have any alternative. We’ll just trust that God will show us mercy. I know how important it is for a pastor to live in the community he is serving. The sooner we are able to move to Sugarloaf the better.”
 
Gary Whetstone, who will be moving to Athens from Stone Mountain next week, is preparing for his eighth move in 31 years of ministry. He knows his move will be relatively simple this time. He is moving from one parsonage to another. 
 
Whetstone is leaving Mountain Park UMC to become superintendent of the Athens Elberton District.
 
“You knew when you joined the conference that living in a parsonage was part of the package,” Whetstone said. “That has changed some in recent years but you have to have the mindset that you are willing to go wherever you are sent. Overall, I feel like we have been very fortunate.”
 
Only once during his ministry has Whetstone received a housing allowance. He purchased a home in 1990, while serving as an associate in Sandy Springs. He held onto the property after moving into a parsonage in Mountain Park.
 
“We rent that home now,” he said. “Fortunately, it is in a good location and we don’t have to sell. The economy and real estate market have not made anything easy.”

Whetstone said that the increased popularity of housing allowances has added a layer of complication to the process of placing itinerant pastors. 
 
Bishop Mike Watson does not disagree.

“Housing is a factor in appointment-making, but it is only one factor to consider among many,” said the Bishop. “There are advantages and disadvantages for both congregations and pastors where there is either a parsonage or a housing allowance.  Economic realities fluctuate through the years.” 

Despite the tough realities of the current real estate market, and the prospect of facing a long commute for an extended time, Greene remains enthusiastic about his upcoming move.

“I’m very pumped up about it,” he said. “I am going with an expectation that great things will happen. I know that God has a plan.”

And, of course, there is always a chance that the real estate market might turn around before long.

This article appeared in the June 19 North Georgia Advocate. To subscribe visit www.ngumc.org/advocate.

Click here for the 2009 list of appointments.


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