As Orthodox Christianity enters the 21st century, the reality of parishhousing needs to be reconsidered. Parish housing in the early to mid part ofthis century may have been a blessing, but today it is a burden for clergyfamilies across North America. We, who make up the lay membership of localparishes, must recognize the need to change this practice of clergycompensation.
The problem with parish housing today is that it traps clergy families in acycle of economic dependency in a culture where clergy families need realeconomic freedom. A pastor who lives in parish housing is never given anopportunity to enjoy the economic and cultural fruits that come with homeownership. These fruits include equity and the peace of mind that comes withknowing the house you live in and care for is truly your own.
Today, many clergy families are in crisis due, in large part, to parishhousing. Consider the fact that parish boards place a cash value on livingin parish housing in addition to regular take-home compensation. Pastors aretaxed at increasingly high rates while neither building equity nor beingable totake the various tax deductions that homeowners enjoy. The long-term resultfor clergy families with children in college or clergy approachingretirement is catastrophic. A clergy family who raises children in parishhousing for 25 years and retires has virtually none of the economic freedomor equity that a family that owns their own home has. The family also livesunderthe shadow of having no permanent home should the priest pass awayunexpectedly.
In 1999, in the U.S., parish boards are reporting clergy compensation up to$70,000 annually, yet in most cases the net benefit for a clergy family doesnot exceed the low-income limit as defined by national demographics. Thereis something inherently wrong in a system where parishes report such highlevels of compensation yet clergy families often live with no financialsecurity and no permanent home.
It is my belief that the ongoing crisis of parish housing can be solved by asimple change in perspective. Parishes must realize that clergy familiesknow how to use their resources far better than parish boards ofadministration do. Consider the hypothetical case of a parish that reportsits priest's compensation in the range of $50,000 a year. If parishcommunities ended the practice of parish housing and provided that monetarybenefit to the pastor directly rather than through a maze of "benefits," thelong-term health of our clergy families would increase exponentially, andthey would enjoy real economic freedom. (Likewise, they would enjoy lessstress in the home, as statistics show that the greatest stressors on themodern family are economic ones.)
The administrative bureaucracy of parish boards would also be streamlinedconsiderably. After all, how much time do we as members of a parish wastedebating housing improvements and repairs when we can be discussingevangelism and education?
How we provide for our clergy and their families is a measure of our healthas Orthodox Christians. The unfortunate reality of parish housing at theclose of the 20th century is that it neither serves the parish nor thepastor and his family well. As we approach the season where Orthodoxparishes across the country will be planning budgets and holding annualmeetings, we are called--as stewards--to care for the Body of Christ and touse the resources God has given us in the best of all possible ways.Reforming the practice of parish housing is a necessary part of thisstewardship, which must always honor the accomplishments of the past whileunderstanding the needs of the future.