Of Manses and Housing Allowances

With excitement we unlocked the
front door of our house. Not a house
owned by the church, in which we
were invited to make our home. No, this
house was ours (or at least we and the bank
owned it together). After eighteen years living
in manses, this was what we wanted: to buy
a house of our own.

A variety of names identify the churchowned
houses in which ministers and their
families live: manse, rectory, parsonage. Over
the past few decades, many congregations
have sold their church-owned house, opting
to pay a housing allowance so the minister
can acquire his/her own residence. Looking
at my own denomination, The Presbyterian
Church in Canada, the number of congregations
maintaining manses fell from 669 in
1977, to 507 in 1992, to 225 in 2007; a reduction
of two-thirds in three decades.

The manse versus housing allowance
debate often involves financial questions
like the benefit to clergy in gaining housing
equity and the elimination of maintenance
costs incurred by congregations when providing
a manse. Rarely is there reflection
on the pastoral and theological implications
of manses and housing allowances.
Maintaining a manse forms a congregation
in ways different from the formation undergone
by congregations paying housing
allowances. Likewise, living in a manse
forms ministers differently from their colleagues
who own their residences.

When Israel arrived in the Promised
Land, eleven of the tribes were given hereditary
land. The Levites, Israel’s professional
religious workers, received no such inheritance.
The land, “flowing with milk and
honey” was the sign that God’s promise had
been fulfilled. It provided financial security,
food, clothing, and a place for Israel to live.
The Levites, however, had no land to call
their own. They depended on the generosity
of those who had land. An Old Testament
refrain is the call to provide food for widows
and orphans along with the alien (stranger)
and the Levite, the latter two being landless
groups within Israel. What the Israelites gave
(the tithe) was the Levites’ inheritance from
the land (Numbers 18:21, 24, 26 and Deuteronomy
18:1).

Living on the generosity of others forms
people. The receiver may become hard and
bitter. Or being on the receiving end of other
people’s generosity can fill the recipient with
gratitude for the gift given, for it is an honor
to receive God’s grace from the hand of another.
The Levites, as bearers of the story of
God, brought God’s grace to the people of Israel.
The rest of Israel did not merely receive
God’s grace, but in providing for the Levites
they also were givers of God’s grace. In this
mutual giving and receiving, the Levites and
the other tribes became interdependent, woven
into a community of faith.

When earlier we had moved into a manse
at the start of ministry in a new-to-us congregation,
there had been a concerted congregational
effort to fill the cupboards with
welcome gifts–staples like milk, eggs, and
bread; some cleaning supplies; and always
home-made jams. When we stepped into the
house we owned, no such welcome was waiting.
How could there be? The lawyer had the
key and would release it only to us as owners
of the house. When we needed some work
done on our manse, one phone call to the
handyman who knew the manse’s idiosyncrasies
and the problem would be solved. We
missed the connection that living in a manse created between the people of the congregation
and ourselves.

This is not to say living in a manse had
been all joy and bliss. At times it took quite
a while for things to be fixed. We learned to
get by with things that, we told ourselves, we
would not have tolerated in a house we owned.
Frustrations arose on both sides when utility
bills were higher than expected and the billpayers
wondered if the minister and family
were frugal enough. We had, at times, shed
tears over the unwillingness of congregational
leaders to allow changes in the manse that
appeared to us to be quite minor.

In the messiness of living in a manse
the minister is formed. People capable of
great generosity at one moment choose to
act ungraciously a few days later. And to
these same people the minister is called to
show grace. Grace is not neat and clean;
it is messy like life is. Living in this interdependent
relationship with a congregation,
ministers learn that grace requires patience
and trust that God is at work. In paying
and receiving a housing allowance there is
less space for the messiness of grace. In the
messiness of manses, grace-filled discipleship
is tested, tried, and refined.

Becoming a homeowner changed me.
I was aware of every up-and-down in the
housing market. Had we paid too much?
If God called us to another congregation,
would we at least get our down payment back
if we sold the house? I was becoming focused
on things in what is sometimes called “the
real world.”

While serving a congregation that provided
a manse, I was leading a discussion with
a profession of faith class on Christian views
of money. I issued a strong call for financial
generosity, including tithing. The following
week, a 14-year-old told me what I had said
was irrelevant because by living in a manse
I did not understand “real world” things like
mortgage payments and utility bills. Tithing
made sense only in the unreal world in which
I lived. The young person was most likely repeating
what she had heard at home.

The Levites did not live in the “real world”
either. The gifts the people brought to support
the Levites were called the Levites’
inheritance. Going further, Deuteronomy
10:9 declares, “the LORD (Yahweh) is their
inheritance.” The Levites were invited to live
in the joy of knowing Yahweh was their inheritance,
their hope in life and their comfort
in death. Israel’s history reveals that
the land was unworthy of the people’s trust
for it could be so easily lost. Yahweh was
their only secure inheritance. The Levites
in their landless state pointed to the more
real world of Yahweh’s faithful reign.

Blessed are ministers and their families
who, while living in manses, challenge
Christians to claim an inheritance more secure
than owning a house. Those with no
real estate in this world point beyond the
“real world” of mortgages to the more real
world of God’s coming Kingdom–a Kingdom
where there will be no electric bills for
God will be our light.

Peter Bush is the Teaching Elder at Westwood Presbyterian
Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His In Dying We
Are Born: The Challenge and The Hope of Congregations

(Alban) was published in 2008.