When Your Dad is the Minister…..

Dear Sister,

Do you think normal people ever think about what it’s like to live in a manse? To be the daughter of a pastor/vicar/rector/minister? Do they ever wonder what it feels like?

I found one of my old diaries recently. I had written: “Went to bed early with a headache. Downstairs I can hear the whole church singing, praying and praising God. I hate every single one of them.”

That sounds rather shocking now, but is it such an unusual thing for a teenager to write? I think not. Of course, one of the main problems is that people forget that the pastor’s kids ARE just normal teenagers. They will wear unusual clothes, be moody, be late for church, etc etc. It’s just that everyone notices them.

I remember someone describing life in the manse as being like living in a goldfish bowl. The world watches you swim. Of course, what they forget is that the pastor’s family also gets to have the whole world in their home. We see everything. I guess this makes for a valuable life experience – I doubt there is a single pastor’s kid who is naive about people. We have seen it all.

That can make attending church quite hard. Especially if the church provides a house with thin walls. Children have good ears, they see and hear a surprising amount. So they know that the sweet old man who gives out hymn books has a drinking problem, the nice bloke who fixed the church roof hits his wife and the lady who plays the tambourine is having marriage problems. It can be hard to get past those things. They do see the good stuff too – the pensioner who saves a little each week to give to the KidsClub, the lady with a terminal illness who helps with the youth group, the old man who prays for you every day, just because you are the pastor’s kid. The person who donates a dishwasher to the manse.

Ah yes, the manse. Do you remember? It is very odd. You are given a house to live in. In a Baptist church, it has been bought and paid for by the members, which is a huge financial burden for them and they have usually bought the best property that they could. But we, as children of the minister, have very little appreciation of this. To us it is just the house where we were told to live. You have no choice in this, it might be exactly what you love, or not. You just have to be grateful.

Then there is the living in it bit. It is your home, your private place. But it is also the church property, people have a ‘right’ to meet there before carol singing, to walk upstairs to use the loo when they’re at a prayer meeting, to hold discussion groups there. You are involved in everything, whether you want to be or not.

Then there’s the maintenance of the property. Before a minister moves in, the church usually fixes it up pretty well. They paint the walls, mend the leaking roof, maybe even put in a new kitchen. Again, it’s all done by volunteers and the money is raised from within the church. But children don’t think about this, not even quite old ones. The work is often done without actually asking the new minister what he would like because it’s usually done when the old one leaves, before they even know who is moving in. Then the minister arrives and…….well, nothing really. That’s it. Manse is finished.

I recall sleeping next to a window with a small hole in it. I wore a woolly hat to bed in the Winter. I remember sitting on the floor heating vent to read because the house was so cold. And I remember that horrible cold being the topic for one of the jokes at a church social, that my parent’s ‘always opened all the windows before we had visitors to try and get new heating for the manse’. They smiled politely, I think we just looked at each other.

But I have to be fair, I do understand how it happens. After Mum and Dad moved to their next church, I stayed at our ‘teenage’ church. I didn’t really think about the manse much. The church meetings were told if something major needed repairing and that was it. Until one day I was there and happened to use the upstairs bathroom. The same upstairs bathroom that I had used when living there over twenty years before (and it wasn’t new then.) Lots of avocado plastic. I was a bit shocked. Yes, it still all seemed to work but really? Who has a bathroom well over twenty years old and isn’t planning to change it?

The trouble is, no one really thinks about the manse. Churches need a ‘manse officer’, someone with a nice house themselves who every so often thinks about what the manse might need in terms of an update. Someone who is friends with the family, who can listen to them when they say they are cold or would love a tv point in the bedroom or better internet service.

Of course, it probably comes down to money. Churches are busy spending money on good works, they want to just keep their buildings functioning, they don’t really think beyond that. Plus the minister gets to live in the manse rent free, which most people see as a massive perk, almost a ‘free handout’ in some eyes.

Some people also view his expenses, his petrol allowance, phone bill, etc which are paid by the church, as part of his salary. I wonder how teachers would feel if they had to provide all their own paper and then it was reimbursed as part of their pay, if doctors bought their own medicines. There can be few experiences as awkward as sitting in a meeting while people discuss how much your father earns. Opting to stand outside in a cold hall while the discussion takes place doesn’t feel a whole lot better.

They forget, of course, that if the minister, who is usually an intelligent person (I’ve never yet met a thick minister) had a secular job, he would be earning many multiples of what a minister earns. They forget that when he retires, he will be homeless, not having lived anywhere for long enough to qualify for council housing and not paid enough to save for rent on a decent property. They forget that his children will probably stay at school and want to go to uni and how much that costs (I have written an article about the costs of sending your child to uni. Perhaps every church who employs a minister with student children should read this. Look under ‘Mystery of Money’ in the menu bar above.) They forget that while they go to France for their holiday, the minister usually camps in rainy England (and has to forego his holiday if someone dies.) They forget that Christmas and Easter are hugely busy times for the minister, not a break when he gets to spend time with his family, that the phone never stops ringing, that you can never watch a whole television programme without someone ‘just popping in’. They forget that weddings are not ‘fun events’ but extra work, which like funerals, have to be fitted into the week alongside all the normal visiting and meetings that already make for a full-time job. They forget that although the minister has a strong calling from God, is sure of his role, this does not necessarily extend to his children, they have no choice in their father’s profession.

Church houses tend to be used for meetings and studying, so are often large. This is especially true in the Anglican church, which owns large (cold) vicarages. I have heard some people suggest that to ‘properly relate to the poor people in our area’ the minister should live in a cheap house. I have never seen a single one of those people sell their own house and live in a caravan so they can relate to the very poorest people in society. Not one.

What did we learn from that I wonder? I guess we learned that God takes care of his own – we did get unexpected Christmas gifts from random people, we did see a charity provide housing for Mum and Dad when Dad retired, we did learn that you can live on very little money.

The hardest part for me wasn’t the money though, it was hearing people criticise Dad. Everyone has a view about the minister, he is employed by the church, so everyone has a right to express that view. Even when his sermon WAS long and boring, he was still my Dad, I didn’t want to hear other people moan about him.

The time thing was hard too. Dad wasn’t there much. He would always give time to the person who was depressed, or the one fighting an addiction, or the one with marriage problems, the one dying. Even if it clashed with our school play or we needed a lift somewhere (no money in a minister’s budget for two cars so the children can’t learn to drive.) I think we lost out on Dad’s time, the church always came first.

That’s why, when he died, his Thanksgiving Service/Funeral was so special. It lasted hours and the whole world came. So many people spoke about how Dad had helped them, how their marriage had been saved, or he had helped their mother while she died or he had brought someone a little closer to God. It was a long service, I expect everyone was wishing it would hurry up and end. But I didn’t. I felt like those people owed me time. And I needed to hear, to know that all the things that we had given up, gone without, were not without purpose.

Being a minister’s kid is hard. Churches should spend more time thinking about them. But it’s not a waste. God doesn’t owe anyone, not in the end.

Take care,
Anne xx

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