Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Picking Your Brains: Pets, Parsonages, and our Ministry

I am aware that several of my readers (you know, all three or so of you) are also pet owners, so I thought that you all might be a good source of insight for me. This question falls into the vein of "if I do go back to the parish, what could I do differently to make sure this sort of situation doesn't happen again?"

When we moved into the SJ parsonage in June 2006, Harry and I had one dog. His name was Woody, and he was our baby...I freely admit that we treated him like a child. Of course he lived in the house with us, because neither Harry or myself had ever considered any other alternative. In November 2006, we added Simon to our family. He was six weeks old and I actually brought him home from a church event (long story). From the beginning, Harry and I made every effort to make sure that the dogs did not damage the parsonage (cleaning up from any messes, keeping them off church-owned furniture, crate-training Simon). We did give them free reign over the yard, after installing one of those underground fences.

At first, I took Woody to the office with me and to a church event held outside. I also brought him to one night of VBS, but as I heard later (two months later), that didn't go over well. I think people were kind of "weirded out" by me even bringing Woody to the outside event and to the office. In the culture of that area, pets just weren't a major part of peoples' lives. They almost always lived outside, sometimes chained up except for brief walks, and I know some owners only saw their pets once every few days.

Like everything at SJ, it seemed like a fairly minor thing until about a year or so later, when all you-know-what began to break loose. They (meaning my parsonage committee) accused the dogs (Woody had died by this point, but he was still considered a guilty party) of ruining the boxwoods in front of the parsonage by peeing on them (NOTE: I have a very brown thumb and no one told me that dog urine could kill boxwoods) and demanded that I replace them. They had a hissy fit because Simon jumped on the sofa one time as they were leaving (he was forbidden from doing so, but still did it occasionally and the sofa WAS. IN. PERFECT. CONDITION). Basically, they acted like my dogs had destroyed their precious parsonage, or were in the process of doing so. In reality (both our opinion and the observations of other visitors), the parsonage was in as good shape as it had been when we moved in (except for the boxwoods, but can I interject that we had TWO very dry summers which might have contributed to their demise). When we moved out, there were no complaints about the condition of the parsonage, and my successor (who doesn't live in the SJ parsonage) said that from what she heard, the church was "very pleased" with the condition of the parsonage (not surprising, since we had the floors waxed and the upholstery and rugs shampooed, as well as a thorough cleaning).

The church made it clear that the next time a pastor lived in the parsonage, they were going to request/demand that any pets be outside all the time AND that any dogs be "tied up out back." I don't think they'll have much luck with that (I would laugh in their face and then demand either a housing allowance, a policy change, or another appointment). have you all handled pet issues in the parsonage? Have you ever run into any problems? Their reaction seems a little extreme and unyielding to me, especially since we really tried to respect their property. I realize that it was all part of the larger Drama, but is there anything that I missed? I've already decided that if I go back to the local church, I will push for a housing allowance if at all possible. If I do wind up in a parsonage, the parsonage committee and I will establish upfront what their/our expectations are in terms of care, upkeep, and pet policy.


Anonymous said...

My husband has a saying of sorts... if they don't like dogs... they probably don't like people either. (It takes him a lot more words) I think he's right. If folks don't like dogs... they probably have difficulty in relationships with people. Think about it. Dogs give love and affection unconditionally. Humans don't. You see our reasoning.

The whole thing about the dogs... was just another way to show you that they were ready for you to move on... that you didn't fit their expectation. You didn't do anything wrong... and actually did more than most would.

As far as a parsonage... in general... I wouldn't live in one. The parsonage is like the cemetery... it's "theirs." You have to be uber-respectful of "their" stuff. So... you work all day for them... you pray for them... your life is centered on caring for them... and you come home... at night... and have to take care of their stuff (even if it is ratty). When do you get to have a safe haven??? Never.

As pastors... we live in a fishbowl... and living in the parsonage just puts the fishbowl in the center of the living room... where you can be watched more closely. Go for the housing allowance.

Diane said...

Most conferences that mandate parsonages have a thorough "Parsonage Guidelines" document that addresses the rights/responsibilities of clergy/churches. If your conference doesn't have one, then tactfully suggest to the Cabinet, Clergy Support Team, or Clergy Spouses Group that they push for one (or write one themselves that can then be adopted by the annual conference). They can use other conferences' parsonage guidelines as a model, if they need to.

When my conference adopted ours (10years ago), they also took a survey to listen to all of the horror stories and see what did work well.

A conference document like that can protect you ("Yes, I HAVE A RIGHT to a dog. Yes, if necessary, I will pay for damage when I move. Now mind your own business and get to work making this place handicap accessible!") and give you some guidance in your interactions with the Parsonage Committee.

Wounded and Healing said...

Diane- Actually, our conference does have such a document. It also has a "Guidelines for Pastoral Expectations" document, and every member of my PPR had a copy of it. I pointed out things from it in several instances (vacation time, hours per week, etc). The problem is, it just doesn't get enforced. Of course, it really doesn't mention anything about pets, just general upkeep being the church's responsibility and the pastor being responsible for damages.

Diane said...

Not mentioning pets seems like a pretty big gap in the policy! Pet agreements are part of standard apartment/house leases, and it would help if you could get the church hierarchy to back you up... although I realize the church hierarchy sometimes fails on a massive scale.

And in your case, there seems to be not much you could do except get the heck out of Dodge...
I doubt that your dogs were the central issue, just another area for the congregants to assert control.