In poker, there’s something called a “tell.” A tell is a behavior or expression that gives another player away. And there are several tells that serve as dead giveaways when dealing with Bob Malm. So, for whatever church is unlucky enough to have Bob in the future, here are a couple behaviors to watch out for.
First is the classic narcissistic rage, when Bob shouts and bellows in an effort to shut down criticism that threatens his ego. I’ve seen it several times, including:
- When Bob flew off the handle during a vestry meeting at Lee Meeks.
- When I criticized Bob for his indifference to disaffected parishioners leaving Grace Church.
- During Bob Malm’s tantrum along Russell Road when he drove up to me while I was protesting.
You’ll also notice that Bob deploys a less dramatic version of this tell when he’s feeling emotionally insecure. In those cases, he ramps up the volume and uses a harsh, threatening tone with the other person. I’ve heard this numerous times in his conversations with his wife, Leslie, and a few times when he’s felt threatened by me, including at the infamous personnel committee meeting where he went off on me.
Another of Dysfunctional Bob’s tells: He prefaces moments where he says something he doesn’t really believe with, “Well.” As in his response to my criticism of Bob’s shambolic approach to parish management during our meeting with Bishop Shannon, where Bob replied by saying, “Well, I’m sorry,” but offered no commitment to improving, nor any explanation for his feckless nonfeasance. Needless to say, he wasn’t sorry in the least. He simply wanted to end that part of the conversation and move on.
Another tell: Bob not only ignores church conflict, but appears to actually encourage it with his nasty comments, like referring to Jan Spence as an “asshole,” or his claims that Lisa Doelp is a “spy.” (He once claimed his kids caught Lisa going through their bedroom furniture in the rectory. Somehow, I very much doubt his story is true.) That said, look for Bob trying to have his cake and eat it too as when, on Kyle Babin’s last day as music director, Bob gave him a hug and apologized for the bullying he experienced at Grace church. But if Bob really had an issue with bullying, he would simply have called people on their behavior.
Of course, Bob’s tells are part of a second-tier defensive strategy. Like any good narcissist, Bob does his utmost to keep both accountability and criticism at bay. This he does through flattery and superficial charm, as well as by controlling the composition of the vestry’s executive committee. If you watch closely, he typically chooses someone as senior warden who either is a non-entity, indifferent to their vestry responsibilities, or blindly loyal. And in cases where Bob can manage all three, even better.
Grace Church, you’ve been played. But future churches with the foresight to look for the warning signs can take action early on to keep Bob from manipulating them. Look for Bob’s “tells.”
Forewarned is forearmed!