Some time ago, Bob Malm and the Grace vestry decided to quietly hide evidence of the damage caused by Dysfunctional Bob’s and Sugarland Chiow’s antics. This included both the real reasons for Fanny Belanger’s departure, as well as the continuing decline in attendance and giving caused by their misconduct. Hiding this information, however, was foolish, as it’s readily available from other sources, and it underscores the ongoing lack of candor and transparency in the parish’s governance.
Among the information that has quietly disappered in the past year or so:
Information in Grace Notes, the parish newslettter, about updates to the parish register. This information would have revealed that even long-time parish stalwarts, including people who have taken the three-year Education for Ministry course, have been departing the parish.
Vestry minutes, which would have revealed serious budgetary challenges caused by Dysfunctional Bob’s and Sugarland Chiow’s conduct, as well as ongoing discussions about how to deal with these issues.
Of course, the parish has never exactly been a model of transparency and good governance, in light of its customary violations of church canons regarding elections and eligibility for parish offices, its failure to publicly release its annual report, the lack of information on the annual agreed-upon procedures financial review, and the carefully controlled information that the vestry is allowed to see.
Into this mix comes the annual parochial report, one of the oldest bits of denominational reporting in the Episcopal Church. Published on the national church website every August, the results cover the prior calendar year, meaning that 2018 data just went live.
This report, required of every parish, is a key barometer of organizational health, and tracks membership, giving and worship. Of these three, the latter two are most telling, for membership is defined as rolling through at least three times a year, and giving some money to the parish. Thus, membership is loosely defined, and a parish can be growing in membership, even as it’s collapsing on other fronts.
In Grace’s case, worship attendance and giving have dropped to their lowest levels in more than a decade. Indeed, worship attendance mirrors the decline that occurred following Bob’s accident, while giving dropped sharply for the first time since Bob’s arrival as rector. Particularly troubling is the drop in worship attendance, or average Sunday attendance (ASA), which once stood at more than 350, but has now dropped to 250. With an almost 1/3 decline, this shows that the most basic function of the parish, divine worship, is collapsing.
Three factors compound these problems:
Lack of transparency has consistently been shown to erode church giving, and Bob Malm is permitting next to no meaningful information to reach church membership. Yes, vestry minutes are posted outside the church office, but the reality is that this affords little opportunity for meaningful review. Even Bob’s letter announcing his resignation is available by calling the church office for those who didn’t get a copy in the mail, which begs the question: Why isn’t it simply posted on the website? (I can assure readers that Bob’s efforts have done nothing to keep information from reaching me, so if that’s the issue, it’s been a total waste of time.)
The $70,000 annual debt service the church has incurred leaves the parish unable to fully fund its ministries and adequately care for members. With far too much of the budget going into keeping the building running, the church is in danger of no longer being a church, but instead being a museum in which religious services are held.
Bob’s departure, as in all cases where a rector of long standing leaves, will undoubtedly further erode giving and attendance.
Moreover, since the most recent report reflects 2018 data, the full effect of Dysfunctional Bob’s lawsuit and related perjury won’t be reported until August 2020. I anticipate that the results will be devastating.
At this point, I surely feel sympathy for the poor interim who inherits Bob Malm’s hot mess, as well as for loyal parishioners who are trying to ride out the storm.