Thursday, August 20, 2020

Grace Episcopal Alexandria and Conflict: A Study in Failure

Grace Episcopal Church


When an Episcopal church initiates a search for a new rector, one of the things it typically does is to complete an OTM profile. OTM stands for Office of Transition Ministry, and the latter maintains an online database for candidates, located at www.otmportfolio.com.


While we can explore some of the challenges inhere in the church’s current deployment system in future posts, and there are many, for now I want to focus on a specific issue, which is the question asked in OTM parish profiles about conflict. Here, for your reference, is a screen cap.


This is an important question, for all faith communities experience conflict. Handled well, conflict can be an engine for growth and change. Handled poorly, conflict has been the undoing of many churches.

Before we go further, let’s acknowledge a reality: Most churches are bad at conflict. And most clergy are conflict avoidant.

That said, even with those disclaimers, Grace Church is a disaster when it comes to conflict. Or, as one parish employee puts it: “I would never belong to your church. And it’s because of the way people talk to each other. And it goes right to the top. And I’ll tell you right now: He’ll never say anything about it. And because he engages in a certain amount of it himself, he shows people it’s okay.”

Before you ask yes, that person expressly was referring to perjuring priest Bob Malm. In fact, when I foolishly disagreed, the response was, “You’d have to prove it by me.”

As all know, I eventually had to eat my words.

But more importantly, it needs to be shared that Grace has a long track record of inappropriate responses to conflict, ranging from avoiding dealing with it, to encouraging it, to trying to use conflict as a way to control others. Indeed, perjuring priest Bob Malm often encouraged conflict, playing people one against another. Sometimes, he did so overtly. Other times, it was more covert, taking the form of ugly omments, like referring to Jan Spence as an “asshole,” and Lisa Doelp as “like a little spy.” Of course, the lesson from this is that if the rector can do it, so can you.

Perjuring priest Bob Malm also had a curious idea, which is that people should solve their problems directly. But in cases involving bullying, which happens far too often at Grace Church, by definition one party has more real or perceived power than the other. Thus, it is almost impossible for the bully and the bullied to negotiate, for they do not occupy an even playing field. It’s also worth noting that he did not take his own advice, for perjuring priest Bob Malm tried to pull both the diocese and the courts into our conflict, with disastrous results that continue to this day.

Of course, in cases of conflict by church staff, and by parishioners, it’s profoundly foolish to ignore the issue, as perjuring priest Bob Malm did for virtually his entire tenure. In this day and age, of precipitously declining church attendance, it’s far too easy for folks to walk and simply never come back. Yet Bob was so convinced that he and Grace Church were special that he felt comfortable trying to force others out of church. And he fought tooth and nail to avoid dealing with inappropriate by church staff, which tells us something right there.

On a related note, Grace Church also has an ugly record of toxic responses to conflict, including:
  • Sugarland Chiow’s inflammatory courtroom pleadings and fake places, fake events, and even fake hashtags
  • Bob Malm’s perjury
  • The many times parishioners have flipped me the one-gun salute to Jesus
  • The lies from Lisa Medley, Leslie Malm, and others
  • A college-aged parishioner urging me to commit suicide
  • Trying to drag a dying woman into court
  • Kelly Motormouth Gable’s defamation
But even more disturbing than the conduct itself is the fact that parishioners see nothing wrong with this sort of conduct. Truly, behavior that should have no role in a church and shocking transgressions of even the most basic standards of ethical conduct.

Of course, it goes further: The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has said in writing that it will only get involved if perjuring priest Bob Malm is brought up on criminal charges. Nor is the diocese prepared to support a priest in charge; it wants to treat Grace as just another transition. Thus, Grace Episcopal Alexandria is profoundly dysfunctional, as is the diocese itself, for there is zero recognition of its own toxicity.

Nor are the diocese and parish prepared to accept accountability. Indeed, even now they are trying to defend their conduct in court, which demonstrates the fact that they believe their conduct is defensible.

It is not. Any priest considering applying for the rector position at Grace Church indeed is foolish to deliberately expose herself to such profoundly inappropriate normative behavior in a place that purports to be a church. I’d also add that I’d be prepared to bet that the parish soft-pedaled its answer to the question about conflict; I just don’t see the church having the integrity to admit that it is a place where it’s okay, for example, to urge others to commit suicide.

Or, to answer the OTM question, Grace Church doesn’t address conflict. It simply engages in it. And it has learned nothing from its experiences.