Yup, there’s been a sighting. No, it’s not Nessie. It’s not the Abominable Snowman. It’s something far, far scarier. It’s Chris Byrnes, former head of school at Grace, who’s recently been sighted at St. Paul’s Alexandria as interim head of the preschool.
For starters, well-placed sources tell me that Chris has been hiring. That’s a curious thing. Last I heard, the pandemic was still raging. Church was still virtual. And giving at churches was still way down.
Indeed, I have been told that the St. Paul’s preschool is projecting a potential budget deficit of $100,000, or roughly 6 percent of the church’s pre-COVID plate and pledge income as reported for 2018. Yes, those numbers can and probably will change, but 100K or anywhere close to it is alarming just now.
So why on this green earth would Chris need to hire? Doesn’t any well-run organization try to align expenditures with income? Do vestry members know that the church, which is not a separate legal entity, will be on the hook for the loss? Do church members know? Are they good with subsidizing the preschool? Surely at a time like this there are plenty of other demands on church revenues. I can only say that, if the preschool is going to run a deficit like this, there needs to be whole lot of transparency and good governance as part of the deal.
Yet it appears that Chris is acting in a manner consistent with her tenure at Grace Episcopal School, which can scarcely be called a high water mark of good governance and Christian conduct. There, Chris was famous for empire building and an approach that can best be described as “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.” The result was unnecessary tension between the church and school, tensions among school staff, and more. In short, neither good governance, nor helpful to the life of the church.
For example, in one case, Chris decided to do an end-run around the Grace vestry in order to bring a for-profit summer camp in to the building for the summer. She did so by hitting perjuring priest Bob Malm up directly, and I am told by school staff she did so deliberately in order to circumvent vestry scrutiny. But providing space to a for-profit is a per se violation of written parish policy, yet Chris allegedly signed the contract before the vestry even knew about it. This sort of manipulation and triangulation is highly inappropriate and damaging to relationships within church, and should not be tolerated, ignored, or condoned. In short, it is the opposite of good governance, and the opposite of how a healthy church should function. Nor should church employees like Chris knowingly violate written church policy; to do so is a breach of their fiduciary duty they owe the church as a matter of law. (No doubt it comes as a shock to learn that funds from the for-profit summer school did not go to the church.)
Even more disturbing is the fact that the for-profit summer camp did not follow diocesan guidelines for the protection of children. Kids were allowed to roam the building without supervision, and without two unrelated adults present at all times. This is in express violation of diocesan and parish policy, and as such is a serious legal and moral risk. Even worse, the school is not a separate legal entity, so Chris’ disregard for church policy places the church itself at risk.Meanwhile, there were repeated instances of damage to the building, and to my knowledge the church was never reimbursed. And when, as a warden I asked about the added costs related to the summer camp’s use of the building that fell to the church, Chris replied that she had “made arrangements.” That passive-aggressive response was arrogant, inappropriate, disruptive, disrespectful, and unhelpful. And it was an approach that was all too common.
In one particularly alarming case involving the summer camp, a little boy was trapped in the men’s room by the motion activated lights; when they turned off, he could not find his way out, and I found him screaming and crying in terror. The camp counselor was nonchalant, saying, “I wondered where he had gone,” despite the fact she was almost certainly within earshot of his desperate cries for help. And Chris did not seem all that concerned by the little boy’s terror, despite the fact that he apparently had been trapped for 90 minutes.Needless to say, I was apoplectic, and the experience haunts me to this day. No child should go through that.
But what was most troubling was what I perceived to be Chris’ penchant for triangulation and manipulation. Far too often, Chris forgot that she was a parish employee, instead trying to come in and tell church leadership how things were going to come down. And as illustrated by the discussion of the for-profit summer camp, Chris was not above forum shopping to get the results she wanted.
Nor was she above conduct of questionable veracity. On more than one occasion, I asked Chris not to manually adjust valves on the HVAC system, yet she did so anyway, then pretended that she had no idea what I was talking about. The result was thousands of dollars in unnecessary HVAC expenses, and it should come as no surprise that Chris didn’t have the integrity to step up to the plate and pay the resulting bills.
Chris also was interesting on the issue of cost sharing between the church and the school. For example, she would demand to see line item detail on phone bills, on the alleged basis that the school was paying for others’ long distance calls. But phone lines were a flat rate that included long distance, and I think she knew that. My belief was that her real reason for wanting the bills was to see who was calling whom. And while Chris would try to nickel and dime the school’s portion of cost sharing, when I deliberately let funds through that were in the school’s favor, she didn’t say a word. (I donated earmarked funds to offset the cost of my experiment.)
I also got feedback from multiple vendors that they perceived Chris to be a control freak. While I cannot independently verify that, I heard similar comments from school staff.
There also were issues with space sharing, with Chris on multiple occasions trying to take over space belonging to church ministries through subterfuge. Again: the school itself is a church ministry. As an employee, Chris had no business playing these games.
It’s also interesting that although vestry members had both the right and the legal obligation to see school financials and board minutes, Chris did her best to keep such information from the vestry. Yet transparency, including salary information, should be a hallmark of any well-run non-profit. Thus, I had grave concerns about Chris’ financial disclosures and governance practices, and those concerns continue to this day.
Nor did I find Chris’ fun and games to be helpful. If she had a concern with disclosure, the appropriate way to address it was to speak at a vestry meeting. Behind the scenes antics, triangulation, and other silliness is unhelpful, childish, and would have gotten Chris fired in any well-run organization. But then no one has ever accused Grace Church, the clergy perjury parish, of being well-run.
Well-placed sources say that at least one church leader at St. Paul’s has already resigned due to Chris’ antics, and I am prepared to bet that there will be others, and additional discord, when all is said and done. Certainly, the search consultants who were brought in following Chris’ departure got an earful, and I am prepared to bet they, or others connected with the search process, would be willing to share feedback with St. Paul’s.
While we’re on the topic, how exactly does one operate a socially distanced preschool? Some health experts have said they believe reopening schools will be catastrophic, particularly in light of the juxtaposition with the annual influenza season. And it seems to me even more problematic in light of the high percentage of folks at St. Paul’s over age 65 or otherwise at risk.
If nothing else, were I on the vestry I would want answers to these questions. Nothing is more important than the safety of parishioners, their families, and friends, and those served by the church. The last thing the church needs is a COVID-19 outbreak emerging from the preschool.
I’m also curious about Chris’ path to St. Paul’s.
My understanding is that she was a facilities coordinator at Episcopal High School, which would seem to be inconsistent with her previous experience as a school administrator. But then, church members who had spent years as school administrators were none too keen on Chris during her tenure with Grace, noting her propensity to brush off unexpected visitors, to work with her office door closed, and to otherwise close herself off from the ebb and flow of life within the school. In short, Chris was not thought to exhibit the warmth, the openness, and the interest in others needed to encourage a lively, vibrant school environment that fosters respect, joy and inclusion.
Perhaps this explains the odd back and forth between purported early childhood experience, school administration, and facilities management. Nor am I aware of any hands-on teaching experience at EHS, yet some are under the impression that Chris taught a computer class while there. I would welcome any clarification that others might provide on these issues, especially since I know of few facilities coordinators who teach classes.
It’s also worth noting that Chris’s LinkedIn profile doesn’t reflect the fact that she retired from Grace — replete with a $6K barbecue for her farewell; the church stupidly paid its half from savings. Perhaps the $6K would have been better spend on the education of the children whose parents pay $20K a year for the privilege of sending their children to Grace Episcopal School. If nothing else, sorry folks, I work too hard to donate money to subsidize $6K farewell parties at church. I’d gladly give the funds to help the homeless or maintain the building, but a picnic? Not so much. If Grace Church has that kind of money lying around, it doesn’t need my funds.
At the end of the day, rather than appointing Chris, a purported interim, to the school’s executive committee, church leaders would be far better off asking why she’s hiring additional staff when the preschool already is facing a deficit. Or why, at a time when St. Rita’s, Alfred Street Baptist, and Grace Episcopal School were all chowing down at the COVID-19 stimulus feed trough, Chris Byrnes, with her many years of experience, wasn’t leading the charge to get St. Paul’s access to stimulus funds? Perhaps instead of hiring, Chris should have been working to increase funding. (I base that comment on ProPublica’s database of COVID-19 grant recipients, which does not show St. Paul’s as getting any funds. If stimulus funds did in fact reach St. Paul’s, I would be happy to receive that clarification.)
Of course, there’s also the Biblical argument, too often forgotten in The Episcopal Church. Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them,” but I do not see Chris’ conduct as being reflective in any way of a healthy relationship with God or others. It certainly does not foster the sort of respect that should be normative within a church.
So why is St. Paul’s not asking tough questions? And why are highly skilled lay leaders resigning, allegedly due to their interactions with Chris?
Folks, this is not what church is supposed to be about.