I love Jennifer. After you read this post, you will understand why. She is gracious, gentle, the best twitter-cheerleader around, and she thinks a lot about all these sorts of downward mobility questions. The more this series goes on, the more I am impressed with how many people are deciding that the American Dream is far more crushing to our spirits than we realize. But even as we find freedom in living well with less, we still find the temptation to dream about more . . . Jennifer gives an honest portrayal of living in this reality, and I love learning from her.
Waking Up About the American Dream
Just over a year ago my family moved into a modest, old farmhouse in rural Texas. The simplicity of our home is reflected in the affordability of our rent. We have chosen to be content here, living below our means. It’s not that we’re that smart on our own, but because we learned the hard way about the cost of the American Dream.
Background: Housing Allowance
My husband is Lutheran pastor and in our denomination the expectation is that the church where he serves will provide our housing. Some congregations own a home, called a parsonage, that the pastor’s family can live in. Other churches give what is called a “housing allowance” which is just a fancy way of saying they pay their pastors more money so they can find their own housing. There are pros and cons and probably as many opinions about it as there are pastors. But the obvious issue with the housing allowance approach is that somehow the pastors have to find a place to live.
If you ask me, I like the parsonage deal because it takes the brainwork out of having to figure rents or payments or amortizations and all that. Give me a decent parsonage and I’m a happy pastor’s wife. But more than once we’ve gone to churches that have given us a housing allowance and then we had to use our heads.
The Costly Mistake
A number of years ago, my husband signed on at a church in South Florida. The church there gave us a housing allowance. We couldn’t find a place to live before we moved. We honestly did not have an address to give to the moving company that hauled all of our stuff from our roomy four-bedroom parsonage in Northern Indiana.
We drove south, arriving in the new town just ahead of the movers, and signed a lease on a tiny, one-bedroom apartment. We then rented a storage unit for the rest of our belongings. When the movers arrived, we had them put the bare essentials in the apartment and cram the rest in storage. Our son was less than a year old then, so we put his Pack-n-Play in our room and that was his bed for those months that we lived in the apartment.
I was smitten with the houses in the area and I wanted to use our housing allowance there to get a house of our very own. But remember the part where I said South Florida? Well, houses there came with price tags that far exceeded those of their Midwestern counterparts. Still, the church was willing to loan us the down payment to help us get into a house. And by my calculations…
Here were my calculations:
3 people + 1 bedroom apartment = Please don’t make me stay here!
Nice, Big Dream
I grew up in a nice, big house and I’ve always wanted to live in a house like that or even better. I’m a homebody. I like to be at home. I like to invite people into my home. I like to have overnight guests in my home. And the nicer the home, the bigger the home, the better off I felt I would be. So I let my dream of a big, nice home cloud my thinking about the (lack of) reasonability of us getting into the housing market in South Florida.
And there was this house…and it was in a less-expensive part of town…and I fell in love with it…and one thing led to another…and suddenly we found ourselves making an offer on the house.
Our offer was accepted, we got the loan from the church to make our down payment and we were fulfilling the American Dream! We were first-time homeowners! Of course, “ownership” in this case was a bit of an illusion. We borrowed money from the church so that we could borrow money from a bank so that we could have the opportunity to move into a house we signed a lot of papers about.
Barely Making It
In the months ahead we made big payments on our American Dream. And somehow there was always more month than money, as they say. The best I can say about that time in our lives is that somehow we squeaked by. We had to be creative and we dipped into resources that we didn’t want to deplete. But we got by. And for a combination of reasons we were not in the house very long before it was time for my husband to serve a new church in Ohio.
Selling the house was a trial because, not only had we bought our house in a seller’s market, we were then trying to sell it in a buyer’s market. We were fortunate that a friend saw the home as an investment opportunity and made an offer that would allow us to be free from the ownership of that home. We further depleted our reserves to take care of all the extra expenses associated with selling, but we were free.
Recovery and The Next Round
The church in Ohio where my husband served had a 3-bedroom parsonage that felt just right for our family–it was bigger than our American-Dream-home in South Florida, but smaller than our big parsonage in Northern Indiana. Again, we appreciated having the guess-work taken out of housing, especially after having judged so poorly in South Florida. We were in Ohio for a few years and restored a sense of homeostasis about our family finances.
When it came time to move to Texas for my husband’s current pastorate we were once again coming into a situation with a housing allowance. The church is in a small town and we worried about how exactly the housing situation would work. If we learned anything from our move to South Florida, it was that we needed to have appropriate housing in place before we even made our next cross-country move.
Some church members come from as many as 20 miles away for Sunday services at our church. Still, most live quite a bit closer and it is important for us to become a part of the community our church is in as much as possible. To do that we felt it would be best to live within 3-5 miles of the church. Fortunately, the church leadership resonated with our ideas about proximity and helped us find our current home:
Finally having made important progress on our financial situation we did not want to move backward again. And part of what we want to do with our finances is to be generous with others when needs arise. And that’s what downward mobility means to me. Trying to be content with what we have, not overextending financially beyond our means, allows us to freely part with means to partner with people, causes, and organizations that make a difference for others beyond our immediate ministry context. We want to be fully invested where we are while also supporting those who go places we are not currently called to go.
If we were still reaching for the nicest, biggest house, despite our financial limits, then we’d once again be owned by the American Dream. I still dream of a nicer, bigger house. But I’m awake enough now to realize the folly of our past decisions. I see now that overextending ourselves financially makes it nearly impossible to see needs beyond our own, let alone respond to them.
And so, this time we have chosen to live within our housing allowance. We are renting now, which itself seems like a downward move since we were homeowners once before! But the house we live in is quirky and cute and roomy and it works for us. There’s that little voice that says, “what about equity?” But I’m finding stability and generosity to be just fine.
Jennifer Clark Tinker is a Lutheran Deaconess living in rural Texas. She’s contemplative and discerning, yet bursts out laughing at a good joke–sometimes even in church where her husband is the pastor. Jennifer homeschools their kid and tries to bring out the best in him. Occasionally Jennifer ventures out of her small town to speak or preach at churches near and far–even churches that aren’t Lutheran! Jennifer’s blog is called Living Faith and she is a Spirituality Editor at Life & Liberty. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.