“Location, location, location!”
Anyone in the real estate business recognizes that mantra. When buying and selling a piece of property, location is the one thing that matters above all else. But for many pastors, it seems that this truism has been forgotten.
During the more than 11 years I spent working for Maryland/Delaware Baptists, I talked with multiple pastors who did not live in the community where their church family was located. The longest commute involved more than an hour of driving! There were multiple reasons given for why they could not or would not live in the very communities their church existed to reach, but I found it strange that so many would isolate themselves in this way.
Then came 2016 and my call to serve in the West Virginia panhandle and I faced that temptation myself. In my area, the opportunities were vast when it came to relocation because our church reaches a regional audience. Beyond the small town of 2,000 people where our campus is located is a region that includes two state lines and over 100,000 people. Visit us on any Sunday and you will see license plates, not only from West Virginia, but Virginia, Maryland, and even a few from Washington, D.C. So from the standpoint of our church, my family could have realistically moved to almost any of those areas and still been considered “residents.” Our temptation at that moment was to get further away from the church into a cheaper housing market, taking the equity from our Maryland home and buying a much less expensive house in Berkeley County (a 20 minute drive from our campus). We’d be out of debt in less than 10 years. It was a plan that would have made Dave Ramsey proud! But in this case, it wasn’t God’s plan.
We know it wasn’t His plan because of the burden he immediately gave us for Shepherdstown, where our campus is located. In the end, we purchased a home just outside of town limits. It’s less than 10 minutes from our campus and within walking distance to nearby Shepherd University. We wanted to touch the lives of students—especially internationals (whose families remained abroad) who chose to study in the United States. We wanted to be part of a community that was tied inextricably to our church’s physical footprint. We concluded there was simply no way to do it if we commuted to those needs every day instead of living among those needs. God had made it clear. We were to move to Shepherdstown.
So chances are, I won’t be out of debt in 10 years. Homes are considerably more expensive where we live. Furthermore, I live as the pastor of a large church in the very small town where that church is located. Sometimes it’s truly creepy how magnified the “fishbowl” is when you are in that context.
Through our relocation experience, and the multiple conversations I’ve had with pastors over the years that preceded that move, I’ve discovered three major barriers that often keep pastors from shepherding where they live, and living where they shepherd.
In many ministry contexts, pastors think they simply can’t afford to live in the area. One conversation I had years ago was with a pastor who commuted 45 minutes in order to save $75,000 on his house purchase. And in some cases, this decision is completely understandable. We pastors aren’t known for our large salaries. But before you quickly dismiss the idea of living where you serve because of the cost of living, consider what your options might be. Some churches are willing to help their pastor with a home loan in order to have them live in the community. Many high cost communities also have special programs for those in lower income brackets. And above it all, if God has led you to live and minister in a particular area, He will provide a way for you to do it.
That said, there are situations in which the cost is truly prohibitive, and no on should do something financially foolish if they truly can’t afford to live in a specific area. But before you too quickly conclude you can’t, make sure you have explored all the options available to you.
Many pastors think that if they want any privacy at all they must live outside the area where they minister. I get that. We had been in our home less than two days when we discovered one church member two doors down, and another living in the opposite cul de sac. When we go to the local grocery store, we “build in time” for the conversations we know are likely to take place when we see familiar faces. Yes, privacy can be a concern in a situation like ours. But sometimes we are so concerned with protecting our privacy that we forget to cultivate community.
In our case, we have chosen to be thankful for how close we are to our congregation and community rather than resentful that we can’t go to the market without seeing someone we know. It doesn’t mean we don’t need our space, so we ensure that with simple things like a privacy fence in our back yard and occasional dates out of the area. If we just want “family time,” we drive 45 minutes away to nearby Frederick, Maryland. When we come home, we come home to a community for which we are truly thankful!
My point is that proximity and privacy don’t have to be enemies. If the fish bowl is a problem, then get out of it every once in a while. But don’t avoid it at the cost of building substantive, local relationships.
Ignoring “opportunity cost”
Opportunity cost is defined as the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. In other words, when you choose A over B, you gain the benefits of that choice, but you also lose any potential benefits that might have been yours had you chosen B. When it comes to the choice of where you will live as a pastor, there is always an opportunity cost.
A few weeks ago I became a guest columnist for the Shepherdstown Chronicle, a local paper with wide distribution in the panhandle. This is a great opportunity to use a very effective local pipeline to connect our church and community. When I hung up with the editor, my first thought was a conversation with one of our church members about whether we should actually live in West Virginia when we relocated. Less than five minutes from my driveway is the Potomac River and the Maryland state line. We could have remained Maryland residents and been just as close to the church! But for many of our local residents, that four minute drive may as well be to the other side of the world. There is simply no way the guest columnist opportunity would have been offered had I been a Maryland resident.
So, when making a decision about where to live related to your ministry field, don’t only think about what you gain; think about what you might lose.
If you are a pastor moving to a new ministry, remember that God has called you to both a place and a people. Like Jesus, who incarnated Himself among us in a particular context, our call isn’t to “find the best deal,” or wall ourselves off from the rest of the world. It is to strategically place ourselves where we can make the most impact! So choose a location that will allow you to shepherd where you live, and live where you shepherd.
This article was contributed by Joel Rainey, lead pastor of Covenant Church, Shepherdstown, West Virginia.