As Orthodox Christianity enters the 21st century, the reality of parish housing needs to be reconsidered. Parish housing in the early to mid part of this century may have been a blessing, but today it is a burden for clergy families across North America. We, who make up the lay membership of local parishes, must recognize the need to change this practice of clergy compensation.
The problem with parish housing today is that it traps clergy families in a cycle of economic dependency in a culture where clergy families need real economic freedom. A pastor who lives in parish housing is never given an opportunity to enjoy the economic and cultural fruits that come with home ownership. These fruits include equity and the peace of mind that comes with knowing the house you live in and care for is truly your own.
Today, many clergy families are in crisis due, in large part, to parish housing. Consider the fact that parish boards place a cash value on living in parish housing in addition to regular take-home compensation. Pastors are taxed at increasingly high rates while neither building equity nor being able to take the various tax deductions that homeowners enjoy. The long-term result for clergy families with children in college or clergy approaching retirement is catastrophic. A clergy family who raises children in parish housing for 25 years and retires has virtually none of the economic freedom or equity that a family that owns their own home has. The family also lives under the shadow of having no permanent home should the priest pass away unexpectedly.
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 does not exceed the low-income limit as defined by national demographics. There is something inherently wrong in a system where parishes report such high levels of compensation yet clergy families often live with no financial security and no permanent home.
It is my belief that the ongoing crisis of parish housing can be solved by a simple change in perspective. Parishes must realize that clergy families know how to use their resources far better than parish boards of administration do. Consider the hypothetical case of a parish that reports its priest's compensation in the range of $50,000 a year. If parish communities ended the practice of parish housing and provided that monetary benefit to the pastor directly rather than through a maze of "benefits," the long-term health of our clergy families would increase exponentially, and they would enjoy real economic freedom. (Likewise, they would enjoy less stress in the home, as statistics show that the greatest stressors on the modern family are economic ones.)
The administrative bureaucracy of parish boards would also be streamlined considerably. After all, how much time do we as members of a parish waste debating housing improvements and repairs when we can be discussing evangelism and education?
How we provide for our clergy and their families is a measure of our health as Orthodox Christians. The unfortunate reality of parish housing at the close of the 20th century is that it neither serves the parish nor the pastor and his family well. As we approach the season where Orthodox parishes across the country will be planning budgets and holding annual meetings, we are called--as stewards--to care for the Body of Christ and to use the resources God has given us in the best of all possible ways. Reforming the practice of parish housing is a necessary part of this stewardship, which must always honor the accomplishments of the past while understanding the needs of the future.