The Rev Lawrence Wick was sprinkling his lawn when a member of his congregation came by and said, "I noticed you're watering the lawn. Your water bill has been running pretty high you know."
That incident took place a few years ago when Wick, now pastor of Wilmette Lutheran Church in Wilmette, Ill., was the leader of a different congregation. As far as the Wick's are concerned, an incident like it will never happen again.
Before the Wicks agreed to move to Wilmette in 1974, they made it clear that instead of living in a church-owned parsonage, they wanted a housing allowance that would enable them to buy their own home.
The congregation bought the idea, rented out the parsonage and allowed the new pastor and his wife to experience the mixed blessings of home ownership.
Not long ago, Mrs. Wick addressed the spouses of future ministers at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.
"Get a job," she told them. "Build up a nest egg. And get your own house."
A minister in the Illinois Synod of the Lutheran Church in America, Wick said recently that 40 percent to 50 percent of the ministers in his synod have decided that a church-owned house does not necessarily make a good home. That percentage would be even higher, the Wilmette pastor speculated, if present mortgage rates and the high price of real estate did not put homes-of-their-own outside the reach of many clergy families.
Although the trend has gone the furthest in the Lutheran Church, a growing number of ministers in other Protestant denominations also are entering the real estate market.
Couples like the Reverands John and Carol Cory, for example.
He is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Oak Lawn, Ill., she is pastor of Ashburn United Methodist Church in Chicago.
When Mr. Cory was being interviewed for the Oak Lawn assignment, the couple expressed their desire not to live in the parsonage. "A committee was named to look into the idea, and eventually we worked things out," he said.
The idea was new for the congregation, but not for the Corys. They had been talking about it for quite a while.
"Some time ago," Mrs. Cory recalled, "I taught a course on planning for retirement. Naturally, I stressed the importance of early planning. We ended up taking our own advice."
For the Corys and the Wicks, the key word in their deliberations was "equity," a word they did not learn in seminary.
While the lay members of their congregations were building equity through real estate, the ministers were doing little to prepare financially for their future except to develop relatively small savings accounts. They realized they would arrive at their "golden years" with little gold and no home.
From the standpoint of ministers and their spouses, church executives and members of congregations, the days of churches without parsonage committees are filled with advantages and disadvantages.
Mr. Wick said: "I don't have to go to a committee before I can get a faucet fixed. We can live where we want to live. We can do whatever we want with the house. And we go through the same struggles our lay people are going through. I was especially happy by something that happened when I was a candidate for the library board (of the local government). Some objected to my candidacy by saying, 'You're not a taxpayer.' I was pleased to be able to report that I was indeed a taxpayer."
Before she made her decision, Mrs. Cory had to come to terms with a theological problem and a practical problem. She struggled with the ethics of "making a major investment in an economic system that is unjust." She also feared that "a lot of things a committee would fix would stay unfixed in a house we owned."
Church executives point to other problems. Sometimes it takes more arm-twisting to get a minister to move to another church when he lives in his own home. And sometimes the homeowning pastor is succeeded by a minister who prefers the parsonage system or does not have the wherewithal to make a down payment.