Churches Buying Houses: Bad Idea, or Disaster?

Although this practice has declined, it used to be the case that churches often provided housing to their ministers. When ministers move frequently, holding onto the house saves the pastor the costs associated with buying and selling, and thus lowers the cost to the church of compensating a pastor. When housing costs are rising, it can also be advantageous to the church to buy a house and hold onto it, especially if the community does not subject church property to property taxes.

However, this practice can be misunderstood (or, for that matter, abused) and leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth. Consider this headline:

California diocese buys $2.3M home for retiring bishop

Chances are, it sounded like an extravagance.

As it happens, the diocese is located in Mountain View, California, where the average house costs “over $1 million.” (Perhaps a lot more, judging from current Zillow listings.) When this bishop dies (he’s 73) the property will still belong to the church, and maybe then it will be worth $5 million.

But who considers that when they read the headline? More likely, they ask themselves what’s wrong when the church misdirects money that could be given to the poor. (Although people might want to be careful asking that question.)

I’m not sure buying the house for a bishop is the best use of the money. But it might be. I don’t know. But I would have been reluctant to make that purchase, because sometimes the facts don’t matter as much as the optics. And optics is just another way of saying “witness.”

Our neighbors are going to judge the Church not based on sound economic thinking but based on a first impression. What kind of impression do we want to give them?

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