TIVERTON — Shortly after their worship service Sunday morning, Sept. 23, Amicable Church parishioners gathered and, “with great reluctance,” said their pastor, Reverend William Sterrett, voted to sell their 177-year-old parsonage.
The decision was at least four years in the making and followed a church task force report earlier this month that, after a year of study, recommended the sale. A 2007 task force had recommended just the opposite, he said.
The vote overwhelmingly favored the sale. On the books, he said, the church has 278 members, representing about 139 families. Church bylaws determine who is eligible to vote (generally tithing members) on such matters as the sale of the parsonage and other business. Not all eligible members voted. Rev. Sterrett said 43 members voted to authorize the sale, with 34 (79%) voting “yes,” 8 voting “no,” and one abstention.
“It’s a bittersweet decision, but realistic,” he said
“Like most churches our size, we are struggling,” he said. It’s about finances. Not so much that church revenues are declining, he said. In fact, at Amicable “there has been a 10 percent increase in pledge giving this year.”
What is happening is that church expenses are increasing. He gave as an example the increase in health insurance costs. When he started as pastor at Amicable in 1988, annual health insurance costs were $3,000. Now they’re a little over $17,000 and rising, he said.
Furthermore, maintaining a residential parsonage for a pastor appears to be a fading practice for churches. “It’s a national trend for clergy to own their own homes and for churches to pay a housing allowance. We are not creating or bucking a trend, we’re part of it,” Rev. Sterrett said.
For 20 years Rev. Sterrett lived in the parsonage at 3804 Main Road, just south of the church, and moved to his own home nearby in Tiverton in December, 2007. “I used to walk through the field along a path from the parsonage to the church,” he said.
Since he moved into his own home, Amicable has provided him with a housing allowance (intended to defray the costs for the home, heat, and telephone), which right now is about 55 percent of his base salary of about $42,000, but which will decline over the next few years to about 50 percent in 2015.
It’s all part of what is called a “clergy package,” Rev. Sterrett said. Included in the package are other benefits — part of FICA is paid for, and so are disability and life insurance, mileage, and professional as well as some educational expenses. The whole picture gets complicated, he said, because of the special IRS tax structure for clergy.
At the time he moved out of the parsonage, said Rev. Sterrett, “the church’s goal was that rental of the parsonage would cover the housing allowance.”
But just trying to keep tenants required extra effort. And other priorities emerged, such as maintenance. The four-bedroom parsonage, built in 1835, needed to be de-leaded, a new furnace had to be installed, baseboard heating was installed for a bedroom, and so on. The parsonage has a deck out back, and connects to a two-story barn with two stalls (for a horse and a cow) — “it was intelligently built,” Rev. Sterrett said.
“If it were just sentiment,” he said, “we’d keep the parsonage, but financially it doesn’t make sense to keep it. We are a church and don’t want to be a landlord or developer.”
So two years ago a survey was conducted and the property lines were redrawn. The parsonage sits on what town tax assessor records say is 2.19 acres of land, a short walk north of Tiverton Four Corners. For tax purposes, it was assessed in Dec. 31, 2011 at $91,600 for the land and $132,300 for the building ($223,900 total).
What will come next, Rev. Sterrett said, is that another task force will be created to handle the marketing, and to set a timeline and valuation. The proceeds of the sale will go directly into the church’s endowment, with the hope that the earnings from the funds will assist the housing allowance and operating budget.