Thursday, September 12, 2019

My Advice to Potential Interims: Run!





Analysis of the recent surge in traffic to this website reveals that a great many visitors to the site are clergy and others interested both in issues at Grace church and the possibility of serving as the interim rector. With that in mind, here is my advice to anyone considering serving as interim: Run. Like. Hell.

Let’s start with the lay of the land.

Problems in the Parish

Dysfunctional Bob “served” for more than 30 years. That in itself is an issue, because you’re not coming in after someone has made a hash of things for a few years, then moved on. Instead, you’ve got three decades of dysfunction, misfeasance and nonfeasance. As a result, only a handful of parishioners have known anything other than the so-called Planet Malm paradigm.

Why do I refer to the church as Planet Malm? The other handle sometimes used for the place, “Bobby Malm’s Playground,” speaks to that issue. Simply put, Grace Church is all about Bob Malm. He decides who serves on the Executive Committee, thus ensuring a rubber-stamp vestry. As a result, there’s zero accountability for Bob or church staff. No annual performance review, no annual mutual ministry review. Or, as one former assistant rector of the parish says, “Bob’s been getting away with murder for years.” And while Bob’s friendly, there is zero genuine concern for others. Instead, the church is all about meeting Bob’s needs

Bob’s also been very clever in playing to the whole “lay-driven church” thing. Bob claims, and rightly so, that laity at the church are responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the church. What this means is that things like church administration, facilities issues, and programmatic activities all fall to laity. In other words, Bob simply doesn’t get involved in the food pantry, Carpenter’s Shelter, planning Shrine Mont, or much of anything else. His role is liturgy, answering emails, and very limited pastoral care—as in Bob will show up for a few minutes, smile, chat, give you a hug and dash off.  But with a vestry that reports to Bob, and where Bob can bypass or overrule the vestry at any time, the result is that even basics, like ensuring that cash is handled appropriately, were ignored by Bob for much of his tenure. Consider: thousands of dollars in cash and stale checks were found in the office of a previous parish administrator following her departure. Are we really to assume that no one ever called to ask why these checks were never cashed? What does this tell people about the church, its clergy/staff, and its “stewardship?”

Moreover, Dysfunctional Bob uses this paradigm to dismiss anyone who claims he’s abusive, arguing that laity would not put up with things like gross mismanagement. But the reality is that laity has done exactly that for many years, lacking any meaningful recourse.

Predictably enough, Bob exploits this paradigm to his personal advantage. His annual compensation exceeds that of even top denominational officials, despite a demonstrably mediocre track record.  His insistence that the church tear down the rectory and help him buy a personal residence was a financially disastrous move for the parish, and one that he bullied through a reluctant vestry. And Bob pretty much comes and goes as he pleases.

It is in the matter of Bob’s 2014 bonus of $100,000 in the form of debt he owed the church that one really begins to understand this situation. “Negotiated” by two members of the executive committee directly with Bob (one’s husband is a regular golfing buddy of Bob’s), this was an outrageously large bonus for a feckless rector, particularly in light of the looming massive expenses facing the church. Yet members of the vestry supported the measure, with vestry member Lisa Medley even suggesting that the bonus be $200,000.

Why did vestry members make such an ill-advised decision? The answer is that, like many narcissists, Bob is good at turning on the superficial flattery and charm. He’s also very good at manipulating people and playing them against each other, with the result that conflict is rife in the parish.

Nor should one be misled by Bob’s claim that he doesn’t like conflict, which he trots out when faced with demands to address conflict within the parish. The reality is that his claim is true in part, in that he doesn’t like to do anything that will engender criticism. Yet the larger truth is that Bob often foments conflict among parishioners. His favorite tactic is to make himself out to be the friend, ally, and supporter, while claiming that others are hostile. As a result, people glob on to Bob, never realizing that he actually is the source of the underlying conflict. Much like Donald Trump, Bob exploits this paradigm to meet his own perceived needs, both oblivious and indifferent to the underlying harm he is causing the larger organization.

By now, astute readers will have concluded that, like Trump, Bob may be a narcissist. I believe that conclusion is spot on, and that Dysfunctional Bob exhibits other signs of possible narcissism and psychological maladjustment, including a propensity for lying. Whether it’s his claim that church office employees will be “retiring this year” (a lie he told repeatedly over the years), or his claims in writing, under oath, made with the advice of legal counsel that my mom or someone claiming to be her repeatedly made appointments with him and no-showed, Bob demonstrates a shocking lack of integrity, particularly for a priest.

In short. Bob’s tenure with the parish has produced a church that, not surprisingly, is much like him: Outwardly friendly and welcoming, while lacking inward faith and integrity, with a strong bias towards real or perceived self-interest, and willing to engage in virtually any behavior to meet its own needs.

Dysfunction at the Diocese

Things are no better at the diocese. Over the past few years, the diocese has repeatedly refused to deal with Bob Malm’s misconduct, even in the face of clear evidence that Bob has engaged in illegal activity. The latter includes perjury and deliberate misuse of restricted solicitations. Indeed, I am told by one church official that Bishop Shannon expressly understood that Bob’s misuse of funds was illegal, but still did not want to get involved.

The diocese also has ignored both church canons and the recommendations of its own officials. For instance, Title IV intake officer Rev. Randall Prior recommended that the church engage in conciliation of my conflict with Bob, only to be ignored by Bishop Shannon. In fact, when it did so, the diocese ignored the canonical requirement of providing written notice of its decision, instead simply falling silent. Hardly reassuring, especially coming from a diocese that had just spent seven years caterwauling to the courts about the canons and their applicability to dissidents who had left the organization.

Even more disturbingly, the diocese has said that there’s no point in its getting involved, as reconciliation is not possible. But reconciliation is not the only goal of church disciplinary canons; justice is also an objective. Nor did the diocese ever ask if I wanted to be reconciled with Bob. I don’t, as reconcilation is neither possible nor desirable when dealing with someone with Bob’s level of dysfunction.

In short, the diocese is part and parcel of the problem, for it is dysfunction at the diocese that has allowed the mess at Grace Church to take on a life of its own.

Trouble at Grace, a Stained Glass Slice of Paradise

So what does all this mean for an interim and the stained glass slice of paradise that is Grace Church?

Primarily, it means that problems within the parish will not not easily fixed. Part of the problem is that the issues that loom largest for the church are actually symptoms of bigger problems. For example, plummeting revenue and attendance at the church are seen by members of the church as themselves being challenges, while the real issues are the causes of these declines. These causes include organizational narcissism, troubled interpersonal relationships, and a lack of understanding what it means to be the Body of Christ. In other words, the parish has become much like Dysfunctional Bob: outwardly friendly, but in a narcissistic way, with all sorts of meanness right behind the scenes and a lack of self-awareness. Church members simply do not see that the place is toxic.

Predictably enough, people are very used to Bob’s way of doing things, and change will be met with resistance, a lack of understanding, and a lack of charity. (Keep in mind this is a church and diocese in which Bob Malm writes to diocesan officials, calling me “sick” and “twisted.”) Yet at the same time the challenge is to become a church, versus a religion club. This is a sea change akin to the challenges that faced The Falls Church and the Church of the Epiphany following the property recovery litigation, and it’s a massive effort, complicated by the fact that there is no external enemy akin to the “Orthodox Anglicans.”

In the case of my conflict with Bob, which in many ways is the least of the church’s problems, Bob’s all-out effort to pull members of the church in to the conflict and to create fear among parishioners, complete with his ridiculous BS about mental illness and “single-button emergency transmitters,” etc., will make it very hard for folks to reverse course and approach the issue with clarity. Even otherwise intelligent, reasonable people have fallen prey to Bob’s manipulation, and few appear to see how laughable it is to claim to be “servants of Christ,” while failing to show any love or compassion for those who are the subjects of their gossip and speculation. It’s also worth noting that I am allegedly neither the first nor the second person that Bob has tried to push out of the church; long-time members say this is a pattern of behavior on Bob’s part.

Even more laughable are people like David Crosby, who see fit to lecture me on being hateful, yet turn a blind eye to Bob Malm’s perjury. But I can say with certainty that neither David, nor anyone else at Grace, has ever seen evidence of those alleged appointments that Mom — or someone claiming to be her — made with Bob Malm. Yet David and many others continue to support a priest who commits perjury and bullies the dying. In other words, Bob may not literally be getting away with murder, but he is literally getting away with perjury.

At the same time, any potential interim faces a grim reality, which is that the diocese, which should be leading the charge to fix things at Grace, is worse than no help at all. Diocesan officials are fine with Bob’s perjury and bullying of a dying woman, and have refused to address Bob’s forcing Mike out of the Christian faith. So the diocese is not going to provide air cover and lacks the ethical underpinnings to act as an honest broker going forward. Moreover, given the track record of diocesan officials, it would be difficult for anyone to take the diocese seriously at this point, even if it attempts that role. Indeed, the role of the diocese seems best confined to lamenting slavery and reflecting on reproductive rights, versus actually addressing real-world conflict. And the diocese lacks the self-awareness and Christian ethics needed to examine its own extensive role, both in my conflict with Bob and with the larger mess that is Grace Church, to wade in, accept responsibility, and fix things. Nor does the diocese have a great track record in that regard, for it made a hash of things over at St. Thomas’ McLean and managed to violate virtually every best practice out there regarding care for a church injured by allegations of misconduct, while conveniently ignoring church canons as well.

Of course, as Bob likes to say, “Charity starts at home.” While this is an ironic statement for a priest whose noisy fights with his wife are legendary, it underscores the reality that a denomination that cannot fix problems in its own house is unlikely to be able to do much to fix the issues in the world around it.

In closing

In closing, problems at Grace church far exceed the scope of a single post. These problems start with a lack of introspection, and are threaded through every aspect of church life, up to and including the diocese itself. Moreover, they go back many years, meaning that no interim, no matter how skilled or diligent, can fully resolve all or even most of these issues. Much like an alcoholic, who can only get better when he or she hits bottom and decides it’s time to change, so too can Grace Church only become healthy once it has hit rock bottom and decides something has to give. And for this to be successful, the diocese must also embrace a healthy approach, both to the parish and to its relationship with the parish. 

The analogy to an alcoholic goes even further. Much like the drunk who lashes out at those who try to intervene, potential interims need to understand that members of the parish will have no compunction against trying to obstruct their efforts, or throwing them under the bus. One has only to look at the ugly comments coming from within the church, including the college-aged parishioner who urged me to commit suicide, to realize just how sick Grace Church really is. And the Jean Reeds of the place can bloviate all they want to about defamation, etc., but Bob Malm’s perjury, his manipulative behavior, his bullying, and even the comments from the parishioner about suicide are all documented in writing.

Fixing the mess at Grace Church is a Herculean task, and I have yet to meet the interim who is up to the challenge. But if you are a prospective interim and considering taking on the job, I urge you to do your homework before signing on the dotted line. You are in for a rough and rocky road.