Showing posts with label Diocese of Virginia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Diocese of Virginia. Show all posts

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Grace Church: What Next?



The coming months will be an interesting time for Grace Church, as Bob Malm’s departure leads the church into what, for many members, will be uncharted waters. That raises several questions, including:
  • Near-term financial implications.
  • Strategic planning.
  • Diocesan role in the transition.
  • Most importantly, whether the parish will survive.
This post explores those issues.

Before going further, it’s important to recognize the context in which these issues occur. Not only did Dysfunctional Bob “serve” (and I use the word advisedly) for more than 30 years, but he brought with him a toxic blend: Ostensibly friendly, Bob was highly manipulative, narcissistic, and indolent. As a result, he believed he was an excellent rector, but the reality is that governance was and is a hot mess. Real leadership in the parish is virtually non-existent, and the way members interact with each other is appalling. Consider: This is a church where it’s okay to urge people to commit suicide. In other words, this is a toxic and seriously ill church.

Doubt it?  

Just look at the various emails I’ve posted in which parishioners and clergy discuss me. Lots of Jesus-babble, but no genuine concern at all. Layer Bob Malm’s perjury on top, Chiow’s treatment in court of our conflict as a personal vendetta, and the level of discourse between Bob Malm and the diocese, and this is one ugly, ugly place.

So it’s fair to say both that whoever comes next will have her or his hands full. At the same time, many of the resiliency traits of a healthy church are utterly missing in Grace Church. As a result, transition issues loom large, and there is very little room for error.

Financial Issues

Apropos near-term financial issues, it is common for parishes to see a decline in giving and participation in the midst of a transition. In the case of Holy Comforter in Vienna, for example, finances took a serious hit following the retirement of the rector a few years ago, declining at one point by almost a third. With Grace’s budget now perilously thin, it has little room to absorb a decline. Even a small decrease will necessitate eliminating staff, as most of the remaining costs are structural.

In this regard, the decision to replace the HVAC system in the school is problematic. Entirely tactical in nature, it utterly ignored the larger issue, which is that cost sharing with the school is increasingly untenable and a difficult case to make for parishioners. While it may have made sense in the 1950’s to build a complex now valued at more than $12 million dollars, it imposes huge burdens in a day and age when attending church no longer is normative. The building is huge, spectacularly energy inefficient, and little has been done to reduce energy costs. Even just the HID lights in the parking lot and auditorium are wildly expensive to operate, yet with all the hundreds of thousands being pored into HVAC, no one seems to have to foresight to fund the relatively minor costs to address these matters.

At the same time, asking a parish with fewer than 200 pledging units to share costs with the much larger school is a difficult sell. This is compounded by the Chris Byrne years, with her empire-building and other shenanigans. Chris’ short-sighted approach, and her indifference to the good of the entire organization, has caused lingering issues in some circles within the church.

So, it is likely that there will be a decline in revenue, especially since Dysfunctional Bob’s departure falls only weeks before the annual pledge season. That said, in this area, the parish is lucky, in that the remaining pledging units have proved highly reliable and willing to give sacrificially. And Bob’s compensation package (which also involved demolishing the rectory, a stupid move if there ever was one), was so spectacularly generous that there is some wiggle room, even for a highly qualified interim.

Of course, right behind this is the demographic reality: The Berrys, the Reeds, June Huber and Brad Bergmann, and the other generous long-time donors are all reaching ages where their current levels of giving won’t continue for too many more years. Meanwhile, younger families often find they cannot give at the levels older families can, particularly in light of the high cost of housing in the area and the cost of college for their children.

And, lest we ignore the elephant in the room, the years of conflict in the parish, including my dust-up with Dysfunctional Bob and Sugarland Chiow, are a powerful disincentive to young people joining the church. If nothing else, who wants to give to a church if the rector can unilaterally force you out? No one I know. So membership levels, both near- and long-term, are likely to decline.

No matter how all this plays out, near-term financial issues could quickly get hairy and will surely garner a lot of attention.

Governance and leadership

Another major challenge will be governance and leadership. There are very few real leaders left in the parish, and even those with otherwise good leadership instincts have been co-opted by Bob. Indeed, with Bob having interfered with vestry operations for many years, few even know how a vestry is supposed to work. Additionally, folks Bob has placed in leadership positions often have pursued their own interests and petty jealousies/animosities, versus serving the greater good. 

As a result, folks in the parish will have to learn how to be leaders. At the same time, some who now regard themselves as leaders will have to either change their ways or wind up on the sidelines if the parish is to become healthy. Given 30 years’ of entrenched interests, the latter will take a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea.

It should be particularly interesting to observe the vestry as it gears up for the January annual meeting. A real election of vestry officers, without Dysfunctional Bob making the decisions? Imagine that. And basic requirements of The Episcopal Church, like a finance manual, were still not in place last time I checked, even after 30 years of Bob Malm, so there will plenty to do for upcoming vestries.

Of longer-term importance will be the need for strategic planning. While I urged Bob repeatedly to begin that process, he neither understood what it meant, nor was in any way supportive. But if you don’t know where you plan to be in 20 years, you surely will get there, and Grace Church doesn’t even plan tactically, let alone strategically.

Of course, these changes will prove off-putting for many, so I think there is little doubt that some parishioners will fly the coop.

Diocesan Role

Here’s where things get interesting. Traditionally, Episcopal parishes have an interim, whose job it is to help the transition to a new priest. Many question whether this is sensible, or whether it works, with some, including my fellow Episcopal Cafe contributor George Clifford, urging a more corporate approach.

On the one hand, Grace probably needs a good interim. Given the hot mess that Dysfunctional Bob leaves behind, and the fact that almost no one at the church realizes what a mess it is, someone with excellent change management and transitional skills is needed. Indeed, more than one wag has pointed out that the primary job of an interim at Grace will be to exorcise the baleful specter of Bob Malm. And more than one highly qualified interim has said that s/he wouldn’t touch Grace with a 20-foot pole.

That said, I suspect the only interim who could survive Grace Church would be a retired bishop. In that regard, the church’s endemic clericalism will provide some much-needed armor to members of the Pointy Hats Club. In addition, a bishop with knowledge of Episcopal norms, including governance practices and conflict resolution, could really stabilize things.

On the other hand, the diocese’s ability to screw things up is unparalleled. Even Canon Mary Thorpe, who has handled the diocese’s transition issues in the past, can be spectacularly clueless. Indeed, I well remember when she told one parish, traumatized by clergy misconduct, that no one wanted to apply to be rector because they were “damaged goods.” 

Moreover, I very much doubt that the diocese fully understands just how screwed up Grace Church is. So I think it as likely as not that the diocese will simply make things worse. After all, this is a diocese that thinks it’s okay for clergy to commit criminal offenses so long as they aren’t convicted. Why would anyone conclude that the diocese won’t bollix these transition issues?

Long-Term Issues and Parish Survival

If by now you’ve concluded that I am dubious that the parish will survive, you’re spot on. My belief is that the odds are slightly in favor of survival, but not by much.

The problems and risks are myriad. As I mentioned above, while the diocese has had some real successes in transition, including at the Falls Church and Epiphany Herndon, overall it has shown itself to be both spectacularly incompetent and utterly lacking in ethics when it is challenged. This lack of leadership at the diocesan level creates a high risk of failure at Grace Church.

Additionally, Grace has been wallowing in its beautiful but toxic stained glass cesspool for many years. Whether members have the introspection and the courage to change is doubtful.

Compounding things is the damage of more than 4 years of conflict with yours truly. This has occurred very much in the public sphere, and it’s probably fair to say that the reputation of all involved has been irreparably damaged—an outcome that experts warn is almost a given in a badly handled Title IV clergy disciplinary case. And there were at least five cases involving Bob, and possibly more.

Ironically, things haven’t really changed from our meeting in Fredericksburg. Those angered by Bob’s conduct, that of the parish, and that of the diocese have not changed their views; indeed, Bob’s decision to try to go to court further cemented their hostility. Several are now dead or otherwise out of the picture, including my mother and grandmother, so reconciliation in that sphere is now impossible. And others choose to have nothing further to do with the diocese, including Mike. (BTW, if +Shannon reads this, I’d point out you never did follow-up with a note to Mike, nor with the fall follow-up meeting we discussed. No loss.)

There’s also no way to remove all the negative press that’s out there. I long ago made sure of that, and it’s not unfair. Just as the trauma caused by Bob’s conduct won’t ever entirely go away, neither should the documentation.

The important thing here, though, is to recognize that this sort of conflict is only possible in a toxic parish. Healthy churches don’t sue parishioners, don’t have clergy who engage in perjury, or have church members as attorneys who engage in inflammatory rhetoric or untruthful statements of law and fact in their pleadings. Indeed, the fact that even the church vestry lied to parishioners underscores how spectacularly toxic the parish has become. (I am referring specifically to the “talking points” the vestry prepared that claimed that I left on my own. If that is the case, why then did Bob Malm find it necessary to send us an email telling us we were unwelcome? And why would Bob specifically reference Mike?)

At the end of the day, survival will require a sea change at Grace Church. If the parish tries to cling to the same old, same old, its days indeed are numbered. And given the church’s recent conduct, that would not be a bad thing. Any place where the rector commits perjury with the support of the vestry and subpoenas the dying is hardly a place that reflects the Christian values that it purports to hold.


Saturday, June 8, 2019

More Media Coverage Coming!

Breaking news! More media coverage of Dysfunctional Bob, Sugarland Chiow, and the #fakechristians crowd at Grace Episcopal. 

Coming July 4 weekend, to a media outlet near you!




Friday, May 10, 2019

DioVA Response to Abuse Mirrors Failures in Church of England

As many now know, an independent commission in the UK recently released a scathing report on abuse in the Church of England. The report had its genesis in allegations of abuse involving Bishop Ball, who had ties that extended all the way to the British royal family.

Sadly, the report sounds very much like the Diocese of Virginia and the way the latter handles allegations of clergy misconduct, particularly in regard to Bob Malm’s ongoing abuse of power. Indeed, change the names and you have my experience, almost verbatim.

Noting that the Church of England had, in multiple cases, protected its reputation at the expense of victims, it went on to outline in damning terms an ongoing series of reprehensible moral failures, including:
  • Discounting Ball’s conduct as “trivial and insignificant” while displaying “callous indifference” to the complaints of victims.
  • Delaying a proper investigation into the matter for two decades.
  • Failing to have sufficient regard for the well-being of those injured by Ball’s abuse.
  • Issuing an unconvincing apology.
  • Giving a popular priest preferential treatment, while demonstrating a lack of compassion for the victims.
This willingness to utterly disregard all moral and ethical reference points when convenient appears to me to be endemic in organized religion, and particularly prevalent in The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Indeed, the only thing the latter appears to do well is to litigate over property. But without love or compassion, or genuine concern for others, why bother? The litigation, which I foolishly supported, was a complete waste of time and money. In short, it was the proverbial case of two bald men fighting over a comb.

Here’s a screen cap summarizing the findings in the Church of England report.





Friday, October 19, 2018

Grace Church: Corrupt Organization?

A family member of mine works professionally in the study of corrupt organizations. This means that he studies organizations on behalf of the government that either were formed for an illegal or corrupt purpose — like the Cosa Nostra — or have become a corrupt organization. The latter may be independent groups, like a bank that launders money, or parts of a larger organization, like the local chapter of a nonprofit that has been turned from charitable purposes to unethical or illegal purposes.

That raises the question: Is Grace Episcopal Church a corrupt organization? While I will leave it to the reader to form her or his own conclusions, there are some startling similarities between the traits of a corrupt organization and Grace Episcopal Church, aka St. Dysfunction.

For example, corrupt organizations often:
  • Are built around one central, charismatic figure, even when, on paper, offering allegiance to a larger organization or principle. In Grace’s case, I believe this would be Bob Malm.
  • Have broken lines of authority, in which boards and other persons or entitities have little real power. In Grace’s case, Bob Malm appoints the executive committee in violation of church canons. By controlling the executive committee, Bob ensures there is little independent oversight of his conduct. Moreover, Bob de facto claims the right to, for example, terminate membership in the parish in contravention of church canons.
  • Operates to the benefit of a small, select group of people, or one person. In Grace’s case, Bob Malm’s outrageously generous compensation package, which consumes about 20 percent of all church revenue, is an issue. Further, within the parish there is a real awareness of who’s “in” and who’s not, with some even going so far as to refer to an “A list,” “B list,” etc., — the very thing Jesus would have deplored.
  • Are quick to exact revenge on anyone who questions the organization, whether through shunning, legal maneuvers, or illegal conduct. In Grace’s case, Bob instructed staff to exclude us, engaged in smear campaigns, and even went so far as to try to drag my mother, dying of COPD, into court.
  • Act in ways counter to their professed values, while seeing no disconnect between the two. In Grace’s case, shunning, bullying, mobbing, and bullying a dying woman stand in marked contrast to the church’s purported values of compassion, humility, and kindness. Similarly, Bob Malm’s sermons ask questions like, “Will our children have faith?,” while he seemingly evinces very few real Christian values, and his wife and adult children even fewer such mores.
  • Engage in showy expressions of triumphalism. In Grace’s case, just listen to Bob Malm’s ludicrous video, made during a joint event with the local Methodist church, about how what makes Grace “so amazing” is how it cares for everyone. Hate to spring it on you, folks, but that should be normative for a church, and I doubt if you asked Mom she’d say that Grace Church or Bob Malm have shown any care for her.
  • Make claims about how members are participants are part of a special group. In Grace’s case, Bob Malm even talks about “taking a part of Grace with you,” but as with triumphalism, there is nothing special about the parish, at least not in a positive way.
  • Appeal to the senses via showy displays of weaponry, clothing, or belongings. In Grace’s case, the extravagant altar flower arrangements, the showy altarware, and at one time impressive vestments all operate to impress and create a sense of exceptionalism.
So, if you are thinking about pledging this year, or are sizing up Grace Episcopal Church as a possible church home, be alert to the possibility that all that glitters may not be gold. Or highly polished brass, for that matter. And ask yourself if you really want to subside a clergy compensation package of almost 200K a year, and more than a month’s annual vacation, at a time when the church is running a deficit.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

See for Yourself: Bob Malm Lobbies Diocese to Initiate Legal Action to Shut Down Criticism

This is a great email. In it, we see Bob Malm, never a fan of free speech, try to talk the diocese into doing what he cannot, which is to develop a legal strategy to suppress First-Amendment protected criticism of Bob, the church, and the diocese. Meanwhile, Bob tries to trade on the tragedy in Florida to make his case.

Sounds to me like Bob Malm is right in there with the Donald: The First Amendment only applies to media you deem not to be “fake news.” 

“We can’t allow...?” Since when did Bob Malm have authority over free speech rights in Northern Virginia? So what? Next the brown shirts show up at my door? And note how Bob proposes to silence critics other than me via a “proactive strategy.” 

Scary stuff, more suited to the Russian Federation or Nazi Germany than to the United States.




Friday, June 15, 2018

Why +Johnston’s Recent Announcement is An Epic Fail

In a recent letter sent to the diocese of Virginia, Bishop Shannon Johnston provided additional information on his recent announcement that he will be asking the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center to help address internal issues at Mayo House, diocesan headquarters; as well as his intent to retire sooner rather than later. The bad news, though, is that the announcement makes clear that issues at the diocese will not be resolved under Johnston.

The problem arises from the bishop’s efforts to frame the issue. In his letter, he states that the diocese is not involved in moral or legal scandal, and that the diocese is “right on target” with its programs and ministry.

So let’s parse these issues.

Apropos the issue of moral challenges, we’re dealing with a diocese that is so clueless that it has said, in writing, that it has no issue with shunning and other non-sexual clergy abuse. Whoa! That’s serious stuff. Shunning can be profoundly traumatic to victims, and +Johnston is okay with it? That right there speaks volumes to his leadership and his moral compass.

Nor is this his only disciplinary screw-up. The diocese thoroughly bollixed its handling of a clergy disciplinary case in Northern VA, resulting in lasting trauma to the parish in question. Meanwhile, while I am not at liberty to share the specifics, there are other, very serious allegations swirling around +Shannon and Title IV; these involve third parties entirely unrelated to me.

Even the aborted decision to call a bishop suffragen implicates moral issues. Is it ethical to waste the time, money and resources of all parties, only to suddenly announce that you’re not ready to make a decision? Didn’t +Shannon himself say that he’s been considering retirement for many months? If he was already headed down this path, why did he not hold off on this decision from the get-go? The reality is that the bishop’s decision in this matter is both ethically thin and suggests that +Shannon has been blundering along, clueless until now, unaware that he’s got an issue right under his nose.

Now, let’s focus on conflict and change management. One thing is very clear, and that is that things are a hot mess at Mayo House. Yet bishop Shannon wades in, probably without any sort of independent, professional assessment in front of him, and proclaims that the diocese is “right on target,” that it’s doing things right, etc. But if conflict is out of control within Mayo House, that in itself tells you that this simply is not accurate. It’s the whole notion of a healthy mind in a healthy body. If Mayo House is unhealthy, so is the diocese, for a healthy diocese will work towards health in all its component parts. In fact, leaders set the tone and direction in any organization, and the fact that Bishop Shannon is just now figuring out he’s got a problem is, itself, a problem. That also tells me that Bishop Shannon is adept at shutting down feedback loops that would otherwise help him keep a finger on the pulse of the organization. This conclusion is buttressed by the fact that he’s already using his role to try to limit the perceived scope of the problems, versus being an active listener. Far better to send around a survey to the diocese, designed by outside, independent consultants, that asks the questions, “How are we doing? How can we improve?” I promise all involved that, if the diocese takes that approach, it will discover that things are not okay, and on multiple levels.

In short, this is a phase at which Bishop Shannon should tell folks at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, “I am open to any and all feedback, and commit to hearing it without concluding that such feedback is intended to cause harm. Retaliation for providing feedback will not be tolerated.”

In addition, the diocese would be well advised to establish normative behaviors at all levels, much like the excellent normative behaviors document produced by the diocese of Souther Virginia. Among the behaviors that should be expected:
  • All persons are treated with respect at all times, including in conversations about them that do not include them. My own experience is that +Shannon turns a blind eye to a shockingly negative level of discourse involving current and former members of the diocese, including me. (For example, I received a letter from the Rev. Caroline Parkinson that was shocking and appalling in its disparaging language and content. The fact +Shannon was copied on it tells me that diocesan clergy at all levels think this sort of thing is okay.)
  • Persons providing feedback are to be assumed to come from a place of good intent.
  • Clergy are held to the highest ethical and behavioral standards, and there will be consequences when this does not occur. In short, acccountability needs to be normative.
  • Feedback is welcomed and encouraged, even if it is unpleasant.
  • Providing feedback or criticism is safe and won’t result in retaliation.
  • Conflict will be addressed promptly and effectively.
As things stand, +Shannon has personally signed off on situations in which clergy retaliate when they are criticized. That tells me that the bishop suffers from some very serious leadership gaps.

In short, some of the issues I have seen in the diocese are so deep-rooted that it undoubtedly is best if +Shannon retires sooner rather than later. Even his recent letter to the diocese tells me that +Shannon is both a big part of the problem and unlikely to be capable of fully resolving the problems now facing the diocese. The only way he will be able to prove me wrong is by taking a radically different approach to things than what he has shown to date, and his recent letter makes clear that he’s already headed down a very different path.

See the full text of the letter below.

Bishop Shannon’s Update to the Diocesan Family
June 14, 2018
Dear Diocesan Family,
I am writing to you to follow up on the letter you received from me recently announcing the end of our search for a second bishop suffragan. Because of pressing circumstances that required immediate action for the sake of the candidates who were advancing in the process, coupled with the fact that some facts were not in place at the time, I was not in the position to offer much detail. Now that the Standing Committee has been briefed, and having a better take on our situation, I hope to provide some clarification since I am quite aware that there are many questions, not to mention much speculation and concern.
Please know that I, too, uphold transparency as a virtue. However, as every leader knows, there are times when full transparency is simply not feasible — and can also be irresponsible or even unkind. This is one of those times. I will not be able to answer every question, nor am I at liberty to do so. I know that this is frustrating, but here we are.
What I can say is this: We are NOT in the midst of any kind of impropriety or malfeasance, whether legal or moral. Moreover, our entire staff remains at work with dedication, purpose, and integrity, and remains fully committed, both personally and professionally. The ministries of the diocese are all right on target and still set a standard. I thank you for the many expressions of support and trust that we have received, and I am confident that we have the resources, the means, and the willingness to address the issues that have been raised.
Those issues are all about internal matters — administrative structure, workplace culture and relationships. Yes, the issues are serious, but we are not facing anything that can’t be made right again. As Bishop, I am utterly committed to that work.
Of course, the other matter I raised in my first letter is that for many months now I have been considering the options for my retirement. I can now tell you that for personal reasons I shall resign and retire earlier than I had planned (which is another reason not to elect a second suffragan at this time). I have not yet determined precisely when that will be, but I am looking toward the summer of next year, 2019. As there is much for Ellen and me to consider and learn about retiring, we are still in the stage of giving this a lot of thought, and I expect to be able to send you a fully detailed notice by the end of this month.
The bottom line is that our Diocese of Virginia remains a first-rate example of a fine Church in which to worship and serve. This is no less true now than it has ever been. We are the Body of Christ. Keep the faith!
Faithfully yours,
  
The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston
XIII Bishop of Virginia