Among the guests at Dysfunctional Bob’s final service at Grace, slated for September 29, is the Episcopal bishop of Virginia. That may be a good sign, but it carries with it enormous risks. It also underscores the diocese’s role in supporting and covering up Bob Malm’s repeated incidents of misconduct, including his perjury.
On the one hand, the presence of the bishop may indicate that the diocese is taking the ungodly mess at Grace seriously. If Grace Church is to become healthy and survive, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done, and the diocese needs to be a missional partner in making that happen.
At the same time, the messaging here is both tricky and vital. The bishop cannot be seen to be dissing Dysfunctional Bob, but at the same time must be careful not to praise the many problems within the church, including bickering, shunning, and the utter disregard for the baptismal covenant evinced by many, including Dysfunctional Bob, Sugarland Chiow, and the parish vestry. Indeed, my conclusion is that Grace is not a church, but instead a religion club, with dynamics modeled on a college fraternity or sorority. Thus, the task at hand is not just to recover from the problems of Bob Malm’s tenure—it’s actually to build a church from what is now a social organization.
Complicating matters is the fact that Bob continues to try to tug on people’s heartstrings in order to convince them that his departure is a great loss, on a par with the stages of dying identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This, from a priest whose response when people leave the parish due to conflict with him is, “Why should I give a fuck? People transfer all the time.” But the reality is the same goes for clergy, and Bob’s departure is long, long overdue. Moreover, while Bob would not agree with this statement, the years of dysfunction in the parish office, his refusal to supervise staff, his efforts to avoid dealing with staff issues by lying to vestry members, his failure to comply with denominational requirements like having a parish finance manual, his ongoing violation of church canons, and his sense of superiority and entitlement render Bob’s track record as rector sub-par, at best. And to parallel Bob’s statement about departing parishioners, priests transfer all the time, except that in healthy parishes it doesn’t take 30 years for this to happen.
As a result, the bishop can help by providing a vision of the future that focuses on hope, growth, unity, and cooperation. While Bob’s goal may be to pull in every last bit of adulation, the bishop can temper things by pointing people’s focus towards things that matter.
The wrinkle in things, of course, is that the diocese still refuses to recognize or address Bob’s multiple incidents of misconduct, including his perjury, but instead insists on covering them up. Thus, no matter how skillfully the diocese handles Bob’s retirement and the subsequent interim period, there remains an elephant in the living room. No one will take Grace Church, the diocese, or the bishop seriously as long as diocesan officials cover up Bob Malm’s perjury. Yes, parishioners may defer to the bishop, but the larger outside world still sees a dysfunctional organization that has lost any claim to ethical relevance.
Meanwhile, the bishop’s presence reinforces the hypocrisy of diocesan officials. Grace Church is important enough to warrant a visit from the bishop at Bob’s farewell, but not important enough to address Bob’s perjury or the other severe problems that lurk right behind the scenes. It’s also fair to point out, as previously discussed, that the diocese’s track record when it comes to clergy transitions is mixed, at best. And when it bollixes things, often due to bad advice from J.P. Causey, the diocese has shown an unparalleled ability to leave a disaster in its wake.
I can also assure all involved that my efforts to publicize Bob’s misconduct and the diocese’s ensuing cover-up will not stop with Bob’s retirement. People need to understand that while the diocese talks a good game, and likes to gas on about the baptismal covenant, there is no substance to any of it, The reality is that even criminal activity such as perjury is okay for Episcopal clergy, as long as they’re not convicted.
So, the bishop can roll through, pointy hat and crozier in tow, and put on a good show, but it does nothing to correct the underlying moral bankruptcy of the parish, the diocese or The Episcopal Church. These issues cannot be ignored, glossed over, or be treated as matters that hopefully resolve themselves over time. Only when these issues are addressed will there be any hope for the future.