Killeen Bible Church had a solid plan in place. The leaders decided in 2008 that two pastors would share the pulpit after the man who planted the church 30 years ago retired to teach in a seminary. One pastor, recognized by the church as an elder, was already preaching regularly. The other led a fledgling church in South Dakota and planned to move back into the heart of Texas, where he had been discipled by the church’s long-time pastor. The plan made a lot of sense.
But it didn’t happen. The pastor in South Dakota owned a home. Everyone expected it would sell quickly, because the Lord had evidently called him to move. But after 10 months, the house still did not sell. And he could not afford the huge loss he would sustain by cutting the asking price.
Finally, the pastor and elders reached a mutual agreement in October 2009 to stop the process. The pastor in South Dakota stayed home and planted a church. Though their plans changed, everyone agreed that the sovereign hand of God had redirected them.
“When you believe in God’s decretive will, it’s not hard to deal with changed plans,” said Brian Thom, preaching elder at Killeen Bible Church.
God’s will may not always be evident to us. But it is clear that the sluggish economy and housing market have affected pastoral searches. Firms that help churches connect with clergy looking for new work report fewer open positions in part because pastors have lost so much money on their homes and cannot sell. This is a relatively new problem for the church. For at least the last 20 years, homes in much of the United States have appreciated in value just by standing. But recent reports question whether the heady days of equity gains above the inflation level are gone forever. Churches may even consider whether they should scrap housing allowances and return to parsonages.
Call Suspended By Risk
Tony Kroening, managing director for SIMA International, has conducted several high-profile pastoral searches. But previously he served as a pastor for 10 years after earning his MDiv at Bethel Seminary. So he understands the financial pressures pastors face, having spent that decade paying off seminary debt.
The last two years since the economy slowed have changed how his firm does business. In 2008 he worked on a staff of eight consultants who helped place pastors in churches. That staff has shrunk today to four and they supplement their work by serving faith-based nonprofits and Christian schools. Kroening and his team have also limited the type of positions they will recruit. In recent years they placed two associate pastors hired by churches who left behind their wives and children to sell the home. When the home did not sell after several months, the pastors resigned and moved back. Chastened by these experiences, Kroening said he will no longer help a church hire an associate pastor unless the church limits its search to nearby areas.
A growing church with means may be able to provide an extra $50,000 to $100,000 to help a pastor relocate when he can’t sell his home. But smaller churches don’t have this option. And even larger churches can’t or won’t make such a sacrifice to fill associate or youth positions. Kroening said he worked with a megachurch in New York whose search came down to three candidates for a senior associate position. Two candidates dropped out of consideration when they couldn’t pay the price to move and took jobs closer to their homes or where they could buy less expensive housing. Another church he knows considered 300 candidates, eventually narrowing the field to two. Due diligence eliminated one candidate. The other dropped out at the last minute, afraid to make the move because he would take a huge hit when selling his house.
“There may be lots of pastors out there feeling a sense of call to move,” Kroening said. “But that call isn’t strong enough to make them take the financial risk.”
Not Just a Housing Problem
Pastors living in homes whose values have decreased probably also lost money in their investments. Kroening said he’s talked with many churches where the senior pastor has postponed talk of succession. The same is happening in corporations and nonprofits. Leaders who lost money in their retirement accounts have found a new incentive to stick around for a couple more years than they originally planned. Meanwhile, elder boards who recognize their churches have stalled are not happy with the pastor’s decision to prolong his tenure, Kroening said. This factor contributes to even fewer open pastoral positions in a market already weakened by the housing collapse.
Churches might be in a different position today if more still housed their pastors in parsonages. Threatened with burnout, pastors have been counseled to separate their home and church life. Parsonages, often located near the church, make erecting such boundaries more difficult. Plus, financial planners advise pastors to take advantage of the tax benefits that come with a housing allowance and build equity.
But new economic realities may alter this thinking. The New York Times surveyed analysts in August and reported that home ownership is not expected to pay off in the foreseeable the future the way it did between 1950 and 2008. “More than likely,” David Sreitfeld wrote, “that era is gone for good.” Going forward, housing values may only keep pace with inflation. If this analysis is true, then the parsonage may return. Churches may even recruit younger pastors burned by the market in recent years with the incentive of free housing. Now would certainly be the time for such churches to buy low.
Perhaps the shift has already begun. Donna White, who recruits for the Dingman Company, represented one church in an especially high-priced real-estate market that initially offered a generous housing allowance for its next senior pastor. Leaders opted instead to buy a parsonage and offer the pastor a compensation package that enabled him to build equity in the home.
“This was more cost effective both for the church and for the new pastor,” White said, “and probably provided a tax benefit to a group of members who could assist with the purchase.”
Not every church can afford this option, though, especially since giving has declined. According to Kroening, churches are looking for ways to save money by cutting staff. Middle management, particularly executive pastors, have been deemed expendable by many churches. The overall unemployment rate for pastors actually remains low. But the ranks of the unemployed clergy have clearly grown. According to The Wall Street Journal, 5,000 clergy said they couldn’t find a job in 2009. Only 3,000 said so in 2007. Even fewer, 2,000, reported likewise in 2005. An oft-cited downside to parsonages is that when a pastor loses his job, his family also loses their home.
The recession has affected some regions more than others. Some areas especially hard hit by unemployment, leading to a depressed housing market, may never recover. Kroening said he was surprised during a recent search to field applications from so many qualified, experienced pastors from Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. He realized several of these pastors recognized the prospects are dim for church growth in these Rust Belt states that are losing population. Growth-oriented pastors want to go where the people are going.
For now, at least, the housing crunch prevents many people from going anywhere. U.S. Census data on mobility indicate fewer Americans are moving than anytime since they began tracking these statistics after World War II. Pastors often worry about the stress sustained by their families due to frequent moves. Now, however, they are enduring a different sort of stress. Many want to move but own homes they can’t sell. They must weigh job satisfaction against providing for their families. They pray God’s will be done and wait for home values to finally bottom out.