By Daniel Schantz
Heaven is probably not the word my mother would use to describe the seven parsonages I lived in, growing up in the 1950s. But, being a child, I was utterly unaware of the things that drove my mother to the brink of breakdown: carpets the color of dried blood, a 10-by-10 kitchen with no windows, and one bathroom for eight people.
I was much too busy having fun to notice details like that. Anywhere was Heaven to me, as long as we were all together.
A Perfect Misfit
In theory, a parsonage is a great idea. You had no house payment, no property taxes, and you spent zero time looking for the perfect neighborhood. In reality, the parsonage was a one-size-fits-none box, a “beige” house that had to serve 10 generations of preachers, whether they had one child or 13.
Many of them were fine homes, but they didn’t make sense. They had 10 rooms of space, but only one closet. Or, a beautiful kitchen, but no garage or attic, and the basement rivaled the fabled Parisian sewer system. You stored your winter clothes in the church basement.
Churches lured a minister with promises to transform this bargain barn into a Chateau Opulencis before he even arrived. Yet, all they really did was paint the kitchen (mustard yellow) and clean the toilets, often on the same day you were trying to move into the place.
Being a loaner, the parsonage came with a list of recommended behaviors for the family. You couldn’t even hang a calendar without three board meetings: one for the preacher to present his need for a calendar, one to discuss the reality of this need, and a third to arrange funding and placement.
Early on, we children learned to ignore all these papal edicts and to live as if we owned the place. After all, with one exception, we never lived in the same parsonage longer than two years. After that, it was habeus corpus. (You may have the body.) With six children running around, almost anything could happen, and at such times my parents were relieved to know they did not own the place.
At Sabina, Ohio, for example, my older brother Tommy was going through the amateur rocket-scientist stage, made famous in the movie October Sky. In an old chemistry book he found the formula for making gunpowder, the perfect fuel. The local druggist sold him the ingredients for a few dollars, and he proceeded to make a dishpan of the diabolical dust—enough to blow up a city block.
Then, he mounted his lead-pipe rocket in the workbench vise in our basement and test-fired it. It was a dramatic run, and the house smelled of sulphur for three weeks, but Mom forgave him, realizing how much worse it could have turned out.
While Tommy was consorting with Jules Verne, I was hoping to become the world’s greatest fisherman. In an old magazine I came across a secret formula for a powerful fish bait oil. “If you put a drop of this on your bait,” the magazine said, “you will attract fish from miles around.”
I followed the directions precisely, stuffing bits of fish into small jars of water and vegetable oil, hoping to make enough that I could sell it for $10 a drop and become rich. I added the secret ingredient (sugar) and closed the lids tightly, then tossed them back into the crawl space under the house to age the required 60 days.
Unfortunately I forgot about the jars, and a couple weeks later the contents fermented, then exploded, filling the house with the odor of rotten fish.
Visitors to our home came to expect a variety of aromas, and they learned to ask no questions.
Most parsonages were located close to the church, making them handy for everyone. Especially everyone.
Whenever we came home from church, we never knew who might be in our house: a mother, nursing her baby in our bathroom; a Sunday school class, meeting around our kitchen table; or a lady lying on the couch, sleeping off a migraine. Church members thought of the parsonage as “their” house, because, after all, they were members, weren’t they? Privacy and parsonage are two words that never appear together in world literature, and with good reason.
The parsonage at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, was more than handy—it was actually attached to the back of the church building. Weddings, funerals, and board meetings were all clearly audible to us as we went about our daily business. It never occurred to us that if we could hear them, then they could hear us just as plainly.
In those days, funerals were often held in the church. The casket would be delivered the day before, and there it would sit, in front of the Communion table, all night. My mother was never able to sleep, knowing that a dead body was just on the other side of the bedroom wall. We kids, however, loved the idea of having our own personal corpse to play with. It drew out our Edgar Allan Poe instincts. We would run into the dark building, scream at the top of our lungs, then run out, over and over and over.
Because the parsonage was supposed to be a community showpiece, the yard had to be clean and mowed at all times. But with six yard apes at work, our yard always resembled the aftermath of Macy’s Parade.
Likewise, preacher’s kids were supposed to be showpieces, and if not, they would be reported to the church board.
At Lawrenceburg, the “cat lady” lived next door to us. The back of her house was a screened-in porch, filled with high-priced angora cats.
I hated her slithery cats, and the way she lavished them with kisses. One day, one of her fluffy felines got out and wandered into our backyard, where I was painting my go-cart with fluorescent orange paint. When the cat kept getting in the way, I slathered it with orange paint and sent it howling homeward.
My parents apologized for me, but I think they were really on my side.
The doorbell of our parsonage seemed to ring about every 15 minutes, and it was like a game of “guess who?” I never knew what to expect when I opened the front door.
Lots of panhandlers came by, having found our name in the yellow pages under “Soft-touch Preachers.” Young couples dropped in, to be married in our living room, or to be counseled against divorce. My mother, who started life poor, had a big heart for people I thought should be locked up. She always managed to offer good advice and a plateful of brownies.
Evangelists, like George Stansberry, stayed at our house, and my interest in ministry came from such giants of faith as Moses, Jesus, and George.
Missionaries were especially welcome, because they had stories to tell. Like the one about a snake so big he drank a lake dry. Or the story of river baptisms where crocodiles ate half the baptismal candidates before they could be raised to new life.
Never were visitors more welcome than at Christmas, because they brought gifts. Even the most difficult and hateful church member had the decency to bring by a canister of chocolates or cheeses . . . a jar of hardtack candy (my favorite), or a card with money in it. We lived for months on our Christmas “take.”
Community businesses courted the preacher’s business. This was back when ministers were respected, rather than suspected. Their choice of gifts was always amusing.
The funeral director brought a bottle of champagne. The banker brought a mechanical ashtray and some cigars. The ashtray had a button you pushed to open a trapdoor for the ashes to fall into. Dad gave it to us kids, and it was our favorite toy that year. We went all over the house, making small items disappear with the push of a button.
The most “quaint” parsonage we lived in was at New Antioch, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. The kitchen sink was equipped with an old hand pump that drew water from a cistern. Whenever I heard my mother let out a shriek, I knew she had pumped up a fishing worm or a toad. Our toilet was an outhouse, and I got trapped in it during a fierce thunderstorm. I spent the time praying for a better place in which to die, preferably at a later date.
Yet, the happiest memories of my life center around New Antioch. Whenever I am sad, I go back to New Antioch in my mind. I pick apples from the orchard next door, or wander through the meadow out back. I gather pink, popcorn blossoms of sweet peas for my mother, or climb up on the shed and recall my first attempt to fly with a two-by-four airplane. I had my first garden at New Antioch, and the hollyhocks were gorgeous, just like the ones I see outside my study window.
A visitor came to our little church, a professor from Cincinnati Bible Seminary. He came to our house for lunch. He had a little girl, the same age as me, and she had red curls that bounced when she walked. We played in the front yard, climbing the maple tree, and jumping out of it.
I never saw her again, until I was a student at Great Lakes Bible College in the 1960s. Her father had transferred to this college, and he was my teacher. In the third year of my training, I married the little girl with the red curls. Did I say “seven Heavens?” I meant, “eight,” counting her.
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri. This review of his life in a parsonage first appeared in CHRISTIAN STANDARD January 28, 2007.