At this point, one thing is abundantly clear. Not only was hiring perjuring priest Bob Malm a major mistake, but the terms and conditions of his employment exacerbated the situation. That raises the question: How can the vestry avoid repeating the mistakes of the past?
Let’s start with the selection process. One of the things that went wrong when perjuring priest Bob Malm was hired was that the selection committee went for the bright, shiny penny. With a degree from Yale, what some say are good looks, full-time experience with the Anglo-Catholic arm of the church, good preaching skills, and an uncanny ability to tell people what they want to hear, Bob Malm looked good both on paper and in person.
But the church might do better with the well-worn dollar bill that’s been in circulation for a while. Far better to have a priest who’s an average preacher, but works her backside off and genuinely loves God and other people, than the bright shiny penny that decamps to the beach for a month every summer and considers this a God-given right as he recuperates from the grueling work of playing golf every weekend.
Speaking of, the selection committee should be highly alert to possible narcissists as candidates. Most of the evidence suggests that at least 30 percent of clergy are narcissists, and the last thing that the parish needs is a narcissist in the role. So it would be wise to read everything out there on this issue and inwardly digest the material. In the meantime, be alert to the candidate who is too good to be true, who appears polished, poised, articulate and very “put together.” Remember, the store front is not the store, and you are looking for someone whose “store” is full of treasure, not the person whose storefront was metaphorically designed by I.M. Pei, but utterly decayed and empty once you step inside. You need a servant leader, not a matinee idol.
On a related note, it is difficult to dig too deeply when vetting candidates. In Bob’s case, there were some warning signs that were not picked up. Per Bob himself, one of his parishioners at his church in Portsmouth ran for the vestry solely in order to “see what you’re going to do to our church.” While I have the advantage of hindsight, and while there will always be naysayers in every church, seemingly minor criticisms like this should be taken seriously and, if possible, responded to with follow-up questions like, “Why do you say that? What specifically are your concerns?” If I remember correctly, the parishioner who said this was an old guy at the time, but he was remarkably insightful, and I believe he spotted the warning signs early on. So the selection committee is well advised to ask, ask, ask and ask some more. Yes, there is the issue of confidentiality, but with less than 2 million members, the church is small enough that there is lots of feedback out there.
Once a finalist is selected, it’s important to lay the groundwork for success via structure and framework. This includes making it crystal clear that, other than selection of the senior warden, there are no circumstances in which the rector gets to choose the executive committee. That is a vestry decision, and The Episcopal Church is a representative democracy, not a monarchy. In fact, were this a US election, this would be election rigging, and would be treated as a felony.
It’s also clear that, thanks to a compromised vestry, there was damned little oversight of perjuring priest Bob Malm and Sugarland Chiow. Both caused severe and lasting reputational damage to the parish, and the role of the vestry was confined largely to rocking back, nodding in sage agreement, and letting things play out. And Bob played that for all he was worth, for when he wanted air cover, he put issues in front of the vestry. But when he wanted something inappropriate, like to force Mike out of the parish, he sought no counsel from the vestry. So clear written guidelines should be established regarding engaging in legal action, criteria for dropping individuals from church membership rolls (already set forth in the canons, BTW), and more. (One suggestion: No volunteer attorneys. Just like the priest whose doctor is a member of the parish, there is an inherent boundary issue and conflict of interest, and Sugarland’s spectacularly ill-advised conduct illustrates the problems that can and will arise when using volunteer litigation counsel. The fact that, to this day, Sugarland doesn’t appear to have any issues with his conduct illustrates just how toxic this paradigm can be.)
One way to deal with these issues is to require and enforce a contractual provision mandating a mutual ministry review on at least an annual basis. Those are not the same as performance reviews, and the vestry should conduct one at least twice a year, in writing, with the full vestry involved. These provisions need to be incorporated into a letter of agreement and need to result in meaningful action. In other words, if clergy do not fulfill their letter of agreement, including but not limited to taking leave in excess of that permitted under the agreement, the rector needs to be held accountable. That includes, if need be, a parting of the ways.
The vestry also should insist on a strategic plan, in writing, with measurable, verifiable steps towards specific results. Thus, the usual hoo-ha involving things like, “Follow the Holy Spirit,” doesn’t count. “Growing the budget by 10 percent” does.
Speaking of, it is essential that the church learn how to deal appropriately with conflict. Unfortunately, the diocese and vestry have largely taken a pass on that during the transition process, with the result that this will fall to the nest rector, who may or may not be willing and able to make this happen. But outside experts need to be brought in, and there should be written normative behaviors. The mobbing, bullying, gossip and defamation are out of control, and if they are not addressed Grace Episcopal Alexandria, the clergy perjury parish, will be gone sooner rather than later. I’d add that people need to learn to talk to each other, not about each other. One way to accomplish this is to establish written norms. A good set has been developed by the diocese of Southern Virginia and can be found in PDF here. (Before you dismiss this out of hand, this is a church that is so sick that members think it’s okay to urge others to commit suicide. Not to mention publicly disclosing confidential giving and more.)
On a related note, the parish needs to make peace with those it has hurt. Too often, churches treat past conflict as water over the damn, and simply try to move on. But until church members know what it is like to make restitution and engage in real peacemaking, they will never understand the heavy cost that the church pays when clergy and members engage in misconduct. That is not to say that everyone it has hurt can or will be willing to be part of the process; my mother went to her grave loathing perjuring priest Bob Malm and Grace Episcopal the clergy perjury parish. Similarly, Mike is absolutely unwilling to be part of any such conversation. But the effort needs to be made whenever possible.
The vestry also needs to be involved fully in governance. All members should see a real annual audit and engagement letter (NOT an AUP), and work to implement solutions recommended by the auditors. Similarly, with the school representing 2/3 of annual budget and expenses, the vestry needs to see school minutes, budgets, and financials. Yes, I get that there should be some independence from the parish, but vestry members do not fulfill their fiduciary duty when they are not involved at all. (Ironically, perjuring priest Bob Malm offered to include the school in his settlement proposal. Remind me again how the school got involved, please.) And there should be a written personnel manual, a finance manual (the latter is required by the canons), and formal training opportunities for staff. No one wants to work for a church that simply draws on skills, without doing anything to build them.
There needs to be transparency.That means publishing real budget numbers, including salaries, and treating the vestry as a full missional partner. Ironically, by trying to be all clever and sneaky, many parishioners imagined, for example, that perjuring priest Bob Malm earned more than he actually did. And failure to include line item detail resulted in Richard Newman getting overpaid for many months, and having to repay those funds. While I cannot prove it, I am convinced that Bob Malm tried to pay Richard more than had been approved by the vestry, and got his tail caught in the wringer when Jeff Aaron spotted the issue and brought it up. Had the latter not occurred, my belief is that Bob Malm thought no one would know the difference. And curiously, it was not long afterwards that Jeff’s relationship with perjuring priest Bob Malm seemingly started heading south. Meanwhile, Richard, hardly overpaid by any measure, wound up having to repay the funds, with the result that he got thrown under the bus big time.
It also would be wise to adopt written policies regarding inclusion, bullying, and whistleblowing and more. I brought the issue of bullying up to Elizabeth Legere long ago and was brushed off, but my conflict with perjuring priest Bob Malm would have been resolved early on had there been a written framework for doing so. Regrettably, the diocese is okay even with perjury, and the vestry and wardens at Grace under perjuring priest Bob Malm were paper tigers, despite the requirements the canons impose on both. (Speaking of, all involved should read the canons. Wardens have an express responsibility, for example, to be involved with the performance of staff. Perjuring priest Bob Malm may have refused to deal with those issues, but they are not ones that can be ignored.)
Tenure also is important, and it is not without good reason that rectors stay on average seven years. Staying too long may engender feelings that the parish is the rector’s, while causing burnout. Indeed, perjuring priest Bob Malm had said in writing at year 20 that he was ready to move on, but the issue appears to have been that no parish or organization out there was willing to shell out 200K a year. In other words, this was a bad case of the golden handcuffs. That was exacerbated by the profoundly foolish decision in 2014 to gift away 100K of the loan the church made to Bob in exchange for a de facto agreement to stay five years. Leaving aside the fact that this caused problems for both sides, at no point in time should any church staff garner a bonus of 100K. People give money to the church to be used for the glory of God, not to line perjuring priest Bob Malm’s pockets.
It also would be good to spend the first few years with a priest in charge, so that both sides can size the other up. Believe it or not, Grace will be no slice of paradise for whoever is next, and many will feel that any rector who does her job isn’t exactly heaven-sent, either. Formalizing review and assessment will prevent the usual Grace antics of the altar guild and choir ganging up on someone with whom they have issues, while priest-in-charge status allows either side to opt out if things are not a fit.
This also is an appropriate pivot point for the relationship with the bishops. Grace will not succeed absent appropriate support from the bishops, and the diocese’s past practice of sitting in splendid silence in the antebellum heap of Mayo House has been profoundly unhelpful. Written guidelines would help both sides engage in a more effective manner. And while most conflict can and should be resolved locally, there will be times when the diocese needs to be the neutral arbiter. Again, these guidelines need to be in writing, for the diocese has, in the past, shown itself to have a very short memory. Indeed, Pat Wingo offered that Susan Goff could help resolve any conflicts that came up after perjuring priest Bob Malm and I negotiated our ceasefire, but when I reached out to her for that very reason she took a pass in writing. That, of course, was when things went to hell in a hand-basket.
It’s also important not to panic. It is entirely possible, especially given the mess that perjuring priest Bob Malm leaves behind, that no viable candidate emerges in the first round. That’s okay, and it will happen when it happens. But the advice one hears in dating is spot on: Don’t look for Mr. Right. Be Mr. Right. Thus, Grace Church, the clergy perjury parish, has a lot of work to do, and it needs to get cracking. Indeed, as things stand, I am not sure the parish can or will survive, if for no other reason than it has neither the introspection nor the backbone to engage in self-examination.
Right now, Grace Episcopal the clergy perjury parish is what the canon to the ordinary unhelpfully describes as “damaged goods.” That may or may not change, but the only way for it to change is for folks at Grace Church, the clergy perjury parish, to take a long hard look at the church and their own actions, take things seriously, then ACT.
As one wit said long ago, “I am all for the Kingdom of God. But being Episcopal, I’d prefer that it come about without any unpleasant changes.”