Wednesday, November 20, 2019

As Interim Starts at Grace Episcopal Alexandria, Questions Remain


As Grace Episcopal prepares to welcome the Rev. Michael B. Guy, Sr. as interim rector, questions remain about the parish’s direction and ability to transition successfully to a new rector.

First, some background. Guy is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, which is in full communion with The Episcopal Church. Formerly pastor at a predominantly African-American church in Baltimore, he also has served as interim senior pastor at Resurrection ELCA in North Arlington. Guy also is known to have participated in ecumenical activities with The Episcopal Church.

Meanwhile, Grace’s pledge season is under way. The usual loyal givers have pledged, with an average annual pledge increasing to just under $4,000. Others will follow suit, with final results based in some measure on how people feel about the church’s direction during the coming months. To the church’s credit, it appears to be stepping back from Bob Malm’s “let’s say as little as possible,” approach, which all but guarantees declines in giving. (Hint to Malmites who read this: Lack of transparency is deadly to churches.)

But will Grace fully welcome Guy? That remains to be seen. After 30 years of Dysfunctional Bob and his congenial but faith-free approach to Christianity, how will folks react to a rector who has no experience with the Anglo-Catholic tradition?

On the one hand, Guy’s loose denominational ties may stand him in good stead. More than one Episcopal priest with knowledge of the situation at Grace has said that there is not enough money in all of Christendom to convince them to serve as interim at Grace. Not only are 30 years of Malm’s feckless performance as rector a difficult precedent, but the organizational narcissism at Grace goes to its very core. And no one wants the ocean of conflict at Grace to attach to their professional reputation, particularly since the church’s precipitous decline in recent years places it at heightened risk of closure. So Guy’s distance from diocesan politics and other intra-church nonsense may be helpful.

On the other hand, there are indications that the inevitable comparisons to Malm already have begun. Guy clearly does not display the same interpersonal attributes as Bob, and his writing seems stiffer than Bob’s. At the same time, he appears to take his faith seriously, which is a profound change from Bob. And somehow I don’t see Guy staying up until the wee hours at Shrine Mont, loudly socializing as the people around him get plastered.

It also will be interesting to see how race plays out. While Grace has a long record of being inclusive, it has never had an African-American rector, as will be the case with Guy, and the percentage of minorities in the pews is shockingly low given the composition of the surrounding community. Nor is being a minority protection against conflict emanating from the altar guild and other special interest groups in the parish.

Most challenging, though, is dealing with the wake of Bob’s narcissism. For years, the whole modus operandi at the parish has been Bob drawing attention to himself, versus God, seeking adulation at every turn. Such an approach is toxic to the long-term health of any church, yet there is no sign that Guy,  the vestry, or the diocese recognize that this is the underlying challenge at the church. Nor is there any sign that they have the skill sets to address these problems. Moreover, the first time the good Christian ladies of the altar guild or choir feel that Guy has tramped on their toes, he’s going through the grist mill, rear end first.

Complicating things is the tendency in the diocese to sweep matters under the rug and hope that they will go away — an approach Bob used for any issue he didn’t feel like dealing with. Missing money? It will get resolved eventually. Utterly useless and ineffective staff? Don’t worry about it—they’ll be retiring this year. Misconduct by staff? It will have to wait until after my vacation.

But if the diocese and parish don’t deal with the elephant in the living room, sooner or later the elephant will get restless and ultimately demolish the living room. Nor would this be the first time that the diocese has said, and I quote, “Just hang in there ‘til we can get someone in there.”

In short, unless the parish and diocese are prepared to deal directly with these issues, it’s not too much longer before Grace church closes its doors for good.  Unfortunately, 30 years of Bob Malm may be an experience from which the parish simply cannot recover.