If you’re reading this, there’s a possibility you’re a prospective candidate for the position of rector at Grace Episcopal Church. And why not? It’s a friendly place, with passionate members, good ASA, a large budget (at least by Episcopal standards!), a gorgeous building, and proximity to the amenities of the greater Washington DC area. Not to mention Del Ray is a very cool place to live and to raise children.
But before you take the plunge, do your research. Not just the sort of research you’d do for any transition, but really dig deep. Northern Virginia is a pricy area, with lots of traffic congestion, and making the change is a big step. And it’s important to understand why, if you accept an offer, you’re inheriting a church that as of this writing has not one but six separate lawsuits against it and current/former members.
Even more important, though, is to recognize that not all that glitters is gold. On its surface, Grace Church is a wonderful place, but peel back the skin and you’ll discover an onion. And just as an onion, properly prepared, can be sweet and savory, conversely a raw onion be harsh, sharp, and bring you to tears.
And so it is with Grace, where there is a long and dismal record when it comes to conflict and community, including:
- Ignoring conflict, and hoping it will go away.
- Suppressing conflict, resulting in periodic eruptions of toxic behavior.
- Unwillingness on the part of the rector and others to listen and respond to valid concerns.
- A lack of Christian ethics in addressing conflict.
- Toxic family systems, in which “friendly” replaces “faithful.”
This situation is compounded by several factors:
- Unhealthy clericalism, in which members were deliberately encouraged to focus their time and attention on the rector (yes, that would be perjuring priest Bob Malm).
- An inappropriate role model on Bob Malm’s part, replete with lying, manipulation, and what Peter Barnes rightly termed “Bob Malm’s games.”
- An impotent diocese that, to this day, is utterly unwilling and incapable of responding to these concerns, does not understand the importance of dealing with these issues, nor the importance of its being involved.
- A transition process that has done next to nothing to address these issues.
- A tradition of rectors staying entirely too long, with the result that some, like Bob Malm, seemingly came to believe that the parish belonged to them, and they could make decisions by executive fiat.
- An unhealthy relationship between the rector and the vestry, including Bob Malm inappropriately tampering with the vestry’s selection of its executive committee. (As I have said many times, an up-or-down vote of an executive committee selected by Bob Malm in advance of the annual meeting is highly inappropriate. In American politics, it’s called election tampering and it is illegal.)
Before we go further, let’s take a look at biblical discussions of conflict. One of the most famous is set forth in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:23-24), in which Jesus says:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your [sibling] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your [sibling], and then come and offer your gift.
In other words, be open about conflict and work quickly towards resolution.
That contrasts sharply with Bob Malm, who repeatedly lied about issues and refused to discuss them during his tenure as rector. In fact, on more than one occasion, he responded to emailed concerns of mine by replying, “This is the last email you will receive responding to criticisms of me or Grace Church.”
So much for the Sermon on the Mount.
Other times, Bob was more indirect, trying to charm bomb his way out of things, or to shout others down in what appeared to be the classic narcissistic rage. For an example, just ask folks about Bob’s screaming fit at Lee Meeks over his concerns about governance issues for the Shrine Mont event. Neither helpful nor Christian, and a really bad example for which Bob never apologized or took responsibility. Nor was that Bob’s only screaming fit—he had a number of his little temper tantrums over the years, including during the 1994 building campaign.
Of course, after 30 years of Bob Malm, folks learned to emulate him. That’s a given, for over time, church family systems often adopt many of the characteristics of this rector, both for good and ill. You can see evidence of this in Kelly Gable’s defamatory email, which perjuring priest Bob Malm forwarded to Bishop Shannon, and which has since been republished. And the fact that the diocese thought this was something acceptable to send to Bob Malm’s attorney speaks volumes about both the ethics of the diocese, and its profound lack of common sense. If nothing else, anyone with half the common sense God gave a goat would have asked the question, “Are we sure this is true?”
If you’re a candidate for rector, you will also learn a lot by asking questions specific to my conflict with Bob Malm.
- “I see a lot of stuff from this Eric Bonetti character. Leaving aside assertions from within the church that he is mentally ill and a ‘domestic terrorist,’ what steps did the church take to resolve this matter directly with him?”
- “What was the vestry’s role in this conflict?”
- “Who made the decision to subpoena his mother? How is this consistent with your Christian witness?”
- “Why did you refer to him as a ‘domestic terrorist’ in your pleadings? Were you concerned about how this would reflect on the church? Do you feel this was helpful?”
- “If you really believe he’s mentally ill, what steps did you take to help him?”
And be sure to ask why the diocese didn’t honor my initial request to mediate the dispute.
Yes, this is a lot to ask a search committee, and these questions aren’t in keeping with The Episcopal Church’s long tradition of ignoring conflict. But getting full, honest answers to these questions from multiple sources will give you a good idea of the dynamics at play, both in my conflict and within the parish as a whole. (Just look carefully at the answers you get. Just like perjuring priest Bob Malm, folks at Grace and at Mayo House are good at dissembly, obfuscation, blame-shifting, and blurring.)
Another worthwhile point of discussion would be to ask about the specifics of how perjuring priest Bob Malm got the parish to agree to help him buy a private residence. The move resulted is a loss to the parish of well over $1 million (see my post specifically about that topic). Nor were vestry members eager to go down this road; instead Bob bullied, cajoled, and weaseled his way to success, to the lasting detriment of the parish. In that context, it’s important to know that Bob allegedly remained in the room during the vestry vote on the subject; more than one vestry member said s/he voted for the deal because they were afraid Bob would force them out of the parish if they didn’t.
Yes, imagine that — perjuring priest Bob Malm forcing someone out of the body of Christ. And for the record, it’s not like Bob Malm busted his butt in return for his generous compensation package. In fact, he could scarcely be convinced to supervise parish staff, although he sure found plenty of time for the beach, running marathons, playing golf, and his trips “out of town.”
It’s also worth noting that members of the church have no concept of boundaries when it comes to their own behavior. Whether it’s Kelly Motormouth Gable’s defamation per se, Bob Malm’s perjury, or a certain recent college graduate urging me to commit suicide, this is a profoundly troubled parish—so much so that it actually thinks these behaviors are okay.
I’d also point out that longstanding problems of this sort are notoriously difficult to repair, both due to their longevity and because doing so requires parishioners to rethink their worldview. As the Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban notes, “If it can’t be conceived it can’t be perceived.” In short, very few at Grace Church are prepared to accept the fact that Bob Malm is a perjuring, manipulative scumbag, let alone prepared to deal with these issues. And you’ll wind up beating your head against the wall to convince people to approach these issues with an open mind, especially since the diocese and vestry are not prepared to tackle them head on via an outside, independent professional.
On a related note, I encourage you to ask both of the diocese and the search committee about what steps have been taken to fix things. The answer, you’ll discover, is damned little, because the diocese likes to take the approach of, “Just hang in there until we can get someone in there.” Nor are the fat cats at Mayo House above telling a parish facing a clergy transition coming on the heels of alleged clergy misconduct (with no hint of irony), “Well, you’re damaged merchandise.” In fact, you might even follow-up with the question, “What have you learned from all the recent conflict at the church?” The answer will be either, “Nothing,” or deflection and a bunch of the usual Jesus-babble, “Well, we pray for Mr. Bonetti regularly.” Uh-huh, right.
Know too that this laissez-faire approach to governance at the diocese comes from the very top, and seemingly encouraged by diocesan chancellor J.P. Causey. While even the CANA dissidents agree that J.P. is a good guy, he focuses on protecting the organization first, and doesn’t give a red rat’s rear end about church canons, or the lasting damage that occurs to the church and its members, when the diocese plays the sleeping beauty game and refuses to acknowlege or deal with conflict. And this has led to the meltdown with the trustees of the funds and other rampant conflict in the diocese. (If you’re new to the diocese, ask about that little brouhaha. It’s ugly.)
As the old saying goes, “conflict ignored is conflict multiplied,” and Bob Malm spent 30 years ignoring conflict. As a result, unhealthy conflict grew exponentially over that time, and now simmers right behind the church’s friendly facade, ready to boil over due to some silly perceived transgression, like ordering the wrong flowers for the altar guild. In short, toxic behavior has become normative.
In short, if you go to Grace Church, be prepared for a very, very rough go of it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And remember: If you are going to succeed, the diocese and the vestry need to get the ball rolling to clean up the mess at Grace Church, and you need buy-in at every level of the church.