Thursday, December 6, 2018

Does Bob Malm Realize It’s Time to Retire? Inquiring Minds Want to Know.

One of the fastest ways to run a church into the ground is for the pastor or rector to stay too long. That raises the question: Does Bob Malm realize he’s worn out his welcome? My guess is that he instinctively knows that he has indeed worn out his welcome, but he’s too narcissistic to readily admit this, even to himself.

In cases where clergy do overstay their welcome, the results can be devastating for the church. For example, the church where my offices were located was blessed with a beautiful physical plant, wealthy members, and a location in one of the nation’s most affluent suburbs. Yet, even with a generous endowment, the church struggled to hold on. Why? Because the previous rector had stayed too long, slowly draining the life from the church, until it became a “ghost church.”

Similarly, Bob Malm increasingly is a grim relic of the past. With only the vaguest notion of how a computer works, Bob has little concept of social media, the needs of modern churches, or even how most of his church’s members live. For example, Bob once remarked on the generosity of parishioners, while adding that few, if any, parishioners were millionaires. Yet the reality is that, given the cost of living in Northern Virginia and housing costs, he actually has quite a few millionaires in his parish. Indeed, if you have paid off your mortgage, chances are you’re a millionaire.

Bob also harkens back to a long-gone time when clericalism was the name of the game, and Episcopal priests were little mini-monarchs whose word went unquestioned, and who were regarded as pillars of the community. Today, of course, that is no longer true, and many, myself included, instinctively cringe when we see a man in clericals.

The demise of clericalism also means that church members increasingly want to see their clergy as separate but equal, versus separate and special. That means that people have little patience for clergy who, like Bob, think it’s adequate to poke their head in and say, “Great job!,” while never actually getting involved with the food pantry, the hypothermia shelter, work in Haiti, or any of the other myriad ways churches look beyond their walls.

Nor do clergy automatically get respect. Churchgoers expect clergy to live not perfect lives, but exemplary lives, while avoiding anything that smacks of hypocrisy. Trying to force parishioners out of church, falsely calling them “domestic terrorists,” and lying in court all while professing the love of Jesus and their enduring Christian faith doesn’t fool anyone, and churchgoers today will quickly back away from a church where this sort of dishonesty is okay. Empty Jesus-babble might have worked in the 1970’s, but it is completely counterproductive in 2018.

Neither do the things that Bob values resonate today. Most inwardly cringe at the whole elitist prep school routine, and while there are circles that do still value such things, most church members can’t really connect with this increasingly irrelevant section of society. Nor does Bob really have the resources to move in those circles. Yes, he may be a Hiller, but the reality is most families that send their kids to prep school aren’t getting sued for the kids’ unpaid dental bills. Same for the whole sports and big-man-on-campus routine. Leaving aside the fact that Bob’s rather too geriatric to play that card, today’s young people are more likely to value those, for example, who have a strong social media presence.

Where does that leave Bob Malm? I’d respond by saying that at this point Bob has made such a mess of things it’s better to not even try to fix things, but instead to just get the hell out of Dodge. 

Of course, that won’t be easy, as Bob appears, like most narcissists, to be strongly wedded to the recognition and adulation he receives at work, all the while being firmly convinced that he doesn’t need anyone else—an amusing notion for someone whose very livelihood depends on the generosity of others. And Bob is very good at pulling otherwise sensible people into his web of narcissistic machinations, getting what he needs from them, and discarding them when his needs have been met. Hardly a Christian worldview, or a recipe for long-term church health.

In the meantime, it’s interesting: Folks like Jeff Chiow, who are probably quite sensible and respected in other areas of their life, are utterly blind to the mess that Grace Church is fast becoming, or their role in creating that mess. Yet behind the scenes, Grace Church continues to quickly unravel, and may not even wind up with 200 pledging units this year.

In short, Grace Church is in a bad way, and no amount of generosity on the part of its members will be adequate to fix that mess, or to undo the problems Bob and his minions have created for the church.