Finding affordable housing is a daily challenge for the Rev. Mary Sulerud, a recruiting officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
Like many longtime Washington area residents, Sulerud bought her home in 1990, when prices were lower. But she lives the challenge every day at work, where she helps find homes for newly hired rectors and other officials of the diocese's 93 churches and 20 schools. The diocese employs almost 200 members of the clergy, including about 14 newcomers -- new rectors and the soon-to-be ordained -- who need roofs over their heads.
"To be middle-class these days in Washington means there are housing affordability issues," said Sulerud, whose formal title is canon for deployment. "The cost is formidable. This is one of the most intense concerns we have."
The limited availability of low-cost housing has long been a concern for the area's priests, ministers, rabbis and imams, who have raised concerns about the stress placed on people struggling to make hefty rent or mortgage payments. Religious leaders have lobbied to keep low-cost housing, administered senior housing complexes and joined task forces to help promote the construction of apartments. But now, with home and apartment prices near record highs, clergy members themselves are feeling the pinch.
Not every faith is equally affected. Some religions have a tradition of providing housing to the clergy, such as Roman Catholic priests, who typically live in rectories on the grounds of their parishes or in residence houses provided by their religious orders. Episcopalians have a custom of rectory homes -- think of the English vicarages in Jane Austen novels. Many Methodist churches do the same but call such a residence a "manse." Buddhists house their monks and nuns within their temple complexes.
But even institutions that provide accommodations to their top clergy members struggle with the impact of the problem on their support staff.
"I say to myself, 'How do people afford to live here?' " said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. Some co-workers have considered moving away because of the expense, she said.
As in all religious matters, it is difficult to make easy generalizations about clergy housing. People worship differently, and they have different expectations of their spiritual mentors. Some expect their religious leaders to subsist austerely, in genteel poverty, a form of suffering in this life for a better payoff in the next.
But others compensate their clergy "like CEOs of companies, where they are competing like in the private sector for top-notch people," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.
Others are somewhere in the middle. In the Muslim faith, imams are expected to live well -- but not too well, said Farhanahz Ellis, assistant to the imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center in Sterling, a masjid, or mosque, that has a membership of 7,000.
"It's the community's duty to support the imam, to give him such a peace of mind that he doesn't need to worry about supporting himself or his family," Ellis said. "He should be able to live well, but not frugally and not overwhelmingly rich."
The congregations themselves balance the expense against their expectations. Ministers in most Protestant congregations and imams who lead mosques are supported by their flocks. High housing costs mean the religious organizations must pay them more to keep them properly housed, particularly if they have families, and if the congregations want them to live close to their places of worship.
Orthodox Jews have an even more difficult, and potentially costly, problem. Their rabbis must be close enough to the synagogue to be able to walk there for Sabbath services, because their faith does not permit Orthodox Jews to drive cars on holy days. In other words, synagogues in places with high real estate costs need to spend more on salaries to compensate rabbis.
Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of the Ohev Sholom-National Synagogue in the District's Shepherd Park neighborhood near Silver Spring, moved to Washington to take the position in September 2005. He is married with two children; he and his family rented an apartment nearby for more than a year, then bought a single-family house. He said that he was able to do so because his wife works, but that the high price of area housing was "certainly a challenge."
The cost underscored to him the difficulty not only for his own family, but also for his congregation. He wants to attract new members, especially young families. Many, however, are being priced out and are moving to areas such as Olney and Gaithersburg in search of affordable housing.
The federal government provides some assistance to clergy members, as well as to military personnel. The Internal Revenue Service makes a "housing allowance" provided by a congregation exempt from taxation, and churches help their religious leaders afford their homes more comfortably by giving them more of their income as a housing allowance and less as salary.
That IRS provision proved helpful to the Rev. Donna Claycomb, who was hired two years ago to be minister of the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in the District, moving there from North Carolina. She bought a "very small condo" in Columbia Heights, after a bidding war drove the cost $28,000 over the asking price.
It cost "a ton of money," she said. "What I paid for my small condo would buy a large luxury home with a three-car garage in North Carolina."
Claycomb's financial burden came as a shock to the congregation, many of whom are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They hadn't purchased property in the District "in decades," she said. Claycomb asked the congregation to adjust the composition of her pay -- allowing her to switch part of it to her housing allowance -- which was enough to allow her to squeak through to the purchase.
Claycomb considers herself lucky because she found a place where she could afford to live only two miles from her church.
"If I'd come with a family, I never could have afforded to come here without a 30-minute or 40-minute commute to the church," she said. "Many of my colleagues live far from their churches and are spending a lot of time in their cars."
Most congregations prefer to have their clergy close by, Sulerud said. However, many church members haven't had to deal personally with the implications of high housing costs because they bought their houses so long ago. For them, the increase in housing values has been positive because their homes are worth more -- but when a longtime rector leaves the post, they have to face the negatives.
Sulerud meets with the vestry, a church's governing board, and reminds them how much houses cost in the neighborhood around the church.
"I usually say, 'Where would you like the person to live?" Then she asks them to visualize a map, with their church at its center, and mentally use a string attached to a pin to represent mileage. Then she asks them how far out they are willing to have their rector live. Should it be 15 miles or 30? Prince George's or Charles County?
" 'What do you imagine it will cost for the person to live here, or here?,' " she asks. "The nickel drops pretty quickly."
Episcopalians didn't deal with the issue in the past because they traditionally provided rectors with housing, sometimes beautiful residences, so they could live right by the church. Some still do.
But that approach fell out of favor about 15 years ago, when many Episcopal clerics reached retirement age without any buildup of equity. Some churches then sold those properties and began encouraging their rectors to use their tax-exempt housing allowances to purchase homes on their own. Until recently, this worked -- then high prices began to outstrip the housing allowances.
For congregations to provide more assistance, however, they would have to find a way to increase contributions to the church or to reduce spending in some other way, such as by offering fewer youth programs. Charity, unfortunately, has its limits.
"Church budgets represent the gifts of people sitting in the pews who do this out of the goodness of their hearts," Sulerud said.
Now many congregations wish they had a rectory, manse or parsonage to offer, as it would address the housing needs of the ministers and their families.
"Now if a manse is available, it makes things much easier," said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.
Given the expense of family housing, the Roman Catholic church has found that a celibate ministry has some practical administrative advantages. Not having to provide housing for a spouse and children gives churches much more flexibility to send clergy members where they are needed, when they are needed. Priests live at or near their churches, convenient to parishioners around the clock.
"Catholic churches are neighborhood-based, community-based," Gibbs said. "The priest lives in the community where he serves, and he is available to serve the community."
The Archdiocese of Washington is able to provide housing to almost all its clergy members because it is the largest single private landowner in the Washington area, second only to the federal government. The church purchased much of the land years ago when prices were lower, and has been bequeathed many parcels.
The archdiocese houses about 300 priests, including about 250 in the active ministry and others who are retired. It also provides housing to priests who are in Washington temporarily, attending classes at Catholic University in the District, for example.
Buddhist monks are also unmarried and are housed at or near the 10 Buddhist temples in the Washington area. Five monks, for example, live at the Buddhist Vihara Society on 16th Street NW in the District, residing in the same building as the shrine. They would like to have sleeping quarters separate from the temple, but real estate prices have risen too high, said Bhante Maharagama Dhammasiri, a monk who is president of the Washington Buddhist Vihara.
"In Washington, D.C., it is almost impossible to have that," he said, noting that the temple property was recently assessed at $1.4 million, which he called a "very high cost," particularly in comparison with the property's original purchase price of $30,000 in 1966. He said that the monks try to ask little of others.
"We don't want to be a burden on anybody," he said. "The Buddha said the monks must be easy to support."