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.
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.
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.
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.
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.