Sunday, October 6, 2019

Heaven Help Us: More on Interims and Organizational Narcissism




In earlier posts, I discussed organizational narcissism and the challenges it poses for an interim and Grace church. This article more fully explores these concepts, with an emphasis on the difficulties organizations face when they seek to change.

So what is organizational narcissism? (Note that we are here referring to the high self-esteem variant. There are others.)

A concept in organizational psychology, the term describes an organization that is unable to behave ethically because it lacks a moral identity. While such organizations may not be intentionally unethical, they become self-obsessed and use a sense of entitlement, denial, and rationalizations to justify anything they do. Source: Duchon, D. & Drake, B. J Bus Ethics (2009) 85: 301. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-008-9771-7. As a result, the organization is blind to its flaws and weaknesses.

While academic research into organizational narcissism in churches is limited, experts are in agreement on two key points:
  1. Such organizations find it profoundly hard to change.
  2. While narcissistic organizations may adopt ethics and other policies, such efforts will have little effect.
Industrial psychologists also note that such organizations often are headed by a narcissist, in many instances adopting their persona. And all organizations, just like humans, have personalities, learned behaviors, and ways to respond to stress, problems, and challenges. In short, organizations have personalities, and can choose to act in an ethical manner, or not.

And so it is with Grace. Bob Malm and the church both, in my opinion, lack moral identities. Both use a sense of entitlement, denial and rationalizations to justify anything they do. Both have behaved in ways that to outsiders are shocking and unethical, including:
  • Committing perjury
  • Making false police reports
  • Proferring false statements of fact and law in court
  • Trying to subpoena a dying woman in violation of state law
  • Referring to those entrusted to their pastoral care as “domestic terrorists,” “sick,” “twisted,” and “sad individual[s], starving for attention.” (Projection, anyone?)
  • Lying to members
Indeed, one of the reasons that Grace church has gotten away with these behaviors to the extent it has is that these behaviors are so over the top; few readily believe that a church would engage in such conduct, particularly in a hierarchical organization like The Episcopal Church.

Similarly, just like an individual narcissist, Grace church demonstrates little introspection, either on an individual or collective level. For example, parishioners fail to see the laughable irony when they leave Mass on Sunday, having just made their confession, and flip off protesters. Nor has there been any organizational demand for accountability by Dysfunctional Bob or Sugarland Chiow. Indeed, the parish saw the former off with a celebration of his 30 years of “ministry.” Yes, there were many good aspects of Bob’s tenure, but any situation in which it’s okay to commit perjury and bully the dying is hardly cause for celebration, even when taken as a whole.

So where does that leave things? Like the alcoholic who tells herself that, “I can stop any time,” Grace church is in denial. Beautiful liturgy and cordial relations with fellow parishioners mask the underlying reality, which is that the parish is a hot mess. And just as narcissists create a false image for themselves that they present to others, so too does Grace Church create a beautiful illusion of a friendly, welcoming place.

Moreover, just as telling an alcoholic that she has a problem rarely goes well, so too will the interim who steps into the breach discover that efforts to fix problems at Grace are unwelcome. First will come the inevitable comparisons to Bob, then the fun and games with the altar guild and choir, eventually leading to the new person being declared the source of all the church’s woes. “Things were fine when Bob was here, so it’s obviously the interim’s fault,” will be the refrain, conveniently forgetting that things were far from fine.

Even worse, the one person who potentially could help the parish move through these issues has checked out. Much like the bishop had to write a letter  to ask parishioners not to visit Bob Malm during his recovery unless specifically asked to do so, Susan Goff may be the one person who could step in, speak at a parish meeting, ask people to tone it down, to be open to new approaches, and to fix long-standing problems. But with +Shannon having weighed in to express his full support of Dysfunctional Bob, doing so involves an implicit repudiation Goff’s none-too-successful predecessor. Nor is the diocese great at issues of this sort: Even on how way out the door, +Shannon proclaimed that everything was going well at the diocese, despite the fact it clearly was not.

Additionally, +Goff refuses to respond to emails about Bob’s misconduct and reneged on Pat Wingo’s offer to be a resource following our meeting in Fredericksburg, Thus, she has scant credibility and zero first-hand knowledge of my issues, or the larger issues in the parish, which center on power, abuse, respect, the baptismal covenant, and the notion of being the Body of Christ. And after providing the diocese with multiple opportunities to help work towards reconciliation, I want nothing to do with those knuckleheads. Indeed, the diocese appears best suited to meaningless liturgies and laments over slavery and racial injustice, and reflections on reproductive rights. Real social justice has proven repeatedly to “not be of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Plus, with membership in The Episcopal Church plummeting, these days the church is too small for anyone to care what it thinks anyway.

My advice to interims: Think twice. Even a highly skilled and very determined expert in interim ministry faces a daunting task, plenty of stress and anxiety, and potentially lasting damage to her or his personal and professional reputation.