Showing posts with label Fanny Belanger. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fanny Belanger. Show all posts

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Hiring a New Assistant: Problems on Planet Malm

In light of Fanny Belanger’s resignation, there’s a conundrum facing inhabitants of Planet Malm. The issue is whether to replace Fanny and if so, how? As in, how do you find someone willing to take the job who’s not a drooler?

The answers to these questions will not come easily, and there are no clear right or wrong answers.

First, let’s look at the financial implications. On the plus side, not having an assistant rector frees up much-needed cash at a time when the cost of health care insurance can be expected to increase sharply. Moreover, diocesan policy forbids shifting all the costs to employees, so that isn’t a solution. 

At the same time, revenue will remain soft at a time when the church is proposing borrowing as much as $600,000, but is not throwing off the cash to support loan payments. Compounding the dilemma are several factors:
  1. The parish has become dangerously reliant on a handful of major donors, all now retired. 
  2. The average age of parishioners is trending upwards.
  3. Younger parishioners typically are not giving at the levels of previous generations.
  4. The physical plant will require major infusions of cash over the next five to ten years in amounts far in excess of the amount that will be required to provide the school with a new HVAC system
On the downside, not hiring a replacement creates issues with workload and pastoral care. Dysfunctional Bob has never been one to break a sweat, unless it involves lumbering along as a “Clydesdale” in a marathon. (The term refers to runners weighing in at 200 pounds or more. With the extra weight, Clydesdales are a slow lot.)  So, there is a need for someone to provide a pastoral presence at coffee hour, Shrine Mont, Thanksgiving, and myriad other events, and it’s rare indeed for Bob to fill that role. And a meaningful pastoral presence is doubly important just now, when participation in parish events is dwindling due to the financial effect on parishioners of declining giving and participation, many of whom have been struggling to make up for the loss of approximately 120 pledging units.

Nor is Bob going to cut into his vacation time to offset the loss of an assistant. Even serious HR issues are put on hold when it comes to Bob’s vacation, so it’s a safe bet that option’s off the table. Ditto for working the extra hours that would be required to fly the Jolly Roger at the hypothermia shelter, Carpenter’s Shelter, and myriad other parish activities.

Interwoven with budget issues is the matter of Dysfunctional Bob’s compensation. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, Bob is paid at a level consistent with some of the highest ranking bishops in The Episcopal Church, but the parish sees few if any benefits from having such a highly compensated rector. Yes, Bob can be affable when he chooses to be, and he can put on a good show of appearing hyper-confident, but that is about it. And these days, you can get an MDiv with a PhD, and a published one at that, for 100K all in. That’s a great deal less than Bob is paid, so Bob quickly winds up looking like a pretty bad deal for the church. 

These perceptional issues will undoubtedly factor into parishioner reactions when Bob and vestry members roll though asking for increases in giving, especially of the magnitude that will be required to keep the parish afloat in the coming years. Or in other words, asking for additional money is a tall order when so much of it is squandered on providing Dysfunctional Bob with the lifestyle to which he is accustomed. Bob lives a life of relative ease, with a month at the beach every year, lots of additional time off every year, plenty of opportunity to jog and play golf on a regular basis, and pricy private schools for his kids, at a time when many American families, including plenty within the parish, are struggling to make ends meet. Nor is the almost $200K a year that the parish shells out for Bob enough to keep him in solid financial condition; at the time of his accident, I wound up personally offering to guarantee payment of the bill to install the handrails on the steps outside Bob’s personal residence, as there was concern on multiple fronts that Bob wouldn’t be able to come up with the cash. That’s a sad testament to Bob’s self-indulgent ways.

Into that heady mix you have the unhealthy dynamics within the parish. In the past, those dynamics typically weren’t obvious until folks had been around for a while and served on the vestry or altar guild, and even then the issues might not be obvious. But now, thanks to Bob’s conflict with me, the issues are out there for all the world to see, including the really nasty way parishioners talk about others, and the way Bob Malm talks about parishioners. Just check out the emails on this site, and elsewhere on the web. Nothing even remotely Christian about much of the discourse, and anyone can see firsthand parishioners urging me to commit suicide, others disclosing confidential giving information, still others telling multiple lies about what transpired, as well as the shockingly inappropriate comments of clergy. Even the vestry’s talking points falsely tell parishioners that I left on my own. Having a vestry that tells untruths of that sort is simply appalling.

Then there’s the issue of ethics in the parish. Dysfunctional Bob can bloviate until his hair color washes out about how I’m dysfunctional, irrational and every other accusation he wants to level, but there are several irrefutable facts looming large:
  1. Bob is a priest who filed a civil case against a parishioner.
  2. Bob instructed church staff to exclude me and Mike from the church.
  3. Through his attorney, Bob tried to drag a dying woman into court.
  4. Acting through his attorney, Bob Malm lied in a written motion to the Alexandria Circuit Court about multiple things, including:
    • My allegedly having violated the existing protective order.
    • My service as a police officer.
    • My prior admission to the Pennsylvania bar.
In short, newly ordained clergy, which is who Bob usually hires as assistants, may well conclude this isn’t the place for them, even if just as a reputational issue. Similarly, parishioners may not feel like investing in the parish when it is the sort of place that tries to drag the dying into court. Behavior of this sort is not just unethical—it reflects badly on the entire parish.

On top of all these other factors, there’s the two-edged sword of Dysfunctional Bob’s false courtroom allegations. If, to use Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow’s phrase, candidates conclude mine is a case of “domestic terrorism,” potential assistant rectors well may conclude that they prefer a nice, quiet safe suburban parish, versus one where the rector and his attorney claim there’s a crazed terrorist running about. 

On the other hand, if candidates conclude that Bob and Jeff’s claims reflect questionable veracity on their parts, candidates may quickly decide they want to serve in a church that more nearly reflects Christian values.

Either way, Dysfunctional Bob and Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow have created a catch-22 situation for the parish, and one for which there’s no easy out. 

As if all this weren’t enough, more than one person connected with the parish has speculated that the conflict with Bob likely will result in additional litigation, with the potential for liability on the part of the parish. I don’t discount that possibility, particularly in light of the repeated instances of defamation coming from Dysfunctional Bob, and the defamation per se of his wife Leslie, who has accused me in writing of criminal activity. As a result, I have earmarked resources in case of that eventuality. But for parishioners, the possibility of further lawsuits must be a disconcerting factor as they evaluate their giving in the coming weeks for the fall pledge drive.

The cherry on top, of course, is that Dysfunctional Bob will have to make himself scarce within the next five years, and I have the funny feeling that the interim bishop well may approach Bob behind the scenes to encourage him to do that sooner, rather than later. Well-placed sources tell me Bob’s never been particularly well liked at Mayo House or the diocese at large, so as the diocese tries to get its act together in the wake of +Shannon’s tenure, Bob could easily wind up on the unwelcome list. But regardless of timing, Bob’s departure means that the parish will wind up dealing with an interim concurrently with major capital expenditures. And folks are still in denial—the vestry continues to try to convince itself that there’s no need for a capital campaign, that it can borrow the money for the HVAC work and repay it in five years, and more. Of course, those conclusions all overlook the fact that it’s not just the HVAC project that looms large—there are hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional work that needs to be done in the next five years.

No matter how you parse the issue, not a great environment, either for a newly minted priest, or for a well-established interim. Indeed, more than one priest I know has said you could not pay him/her enough to get involved in this colossal mess.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Fanny Belanger and the Winds of Change at Grace Episcopal Church Alexandria

As most members of St. Dysfunction aka Grace Episcopal Church know, Fanny Belanger is leaving as assistant rector of the parish after one year. The news probably spells further bad news for the church.

In times of trouble, it’s important to maintain stability. We saw that happen, for example, at St. Thomas’ McLean, when following the abrupt departure of the rector, the vocational deacon (truly a wonderful person), stayed after her originally planned date of retirement. She did this in order to afford stability to a parish that was in the midst of turmoil; the cost to her and her family was considerable, as she unexpectedly wound up with two mortgage payments for the better part of a year. That is an example of servant leadership, in which personal needs took second place to the needs of the parish.

In the case of Grace Church, the parish is sorely in need of relational and pastoral stability. Massive expenses, which until now have been ignored, are bearing down on the parish to the tune of millions of dollars. At the same time, Bob Malm, true to form, is not going to let a little thing like the welfare of his church intrude on the annual pilgrimage to Massachusetts. In fact, you can be damned sure he’ll take all the leave provided for in his otherwise largely irrelevant letter of agreement, and possibly more if he can find an excuse. (That ignores the fact that four weeks at the beach with Bob Malm sounds like hell on earth. Or maybe the furnace room of hell on a hot day.)

In Fanny’s case, most assistant rectors stay for three years. That’s not a bad approach, as assistant rectors are much like employees in other settings—their first year largely is spent learning the ropes, and they don’t bring a ton of value until they’re well into their second year. And parish life is a complex thing—there are lots of ins and outs to learn, and it’s common to make mistakes as clergy get acclimated to a new parish. So, it is not clear that, in the greater scheme of things, Fanny’s time with the parish produced much lasting benefit to either side.

At the same time, Bob Malm cannot serve more than another five years per church canons absent permission from the bishop, and the latter rarely is granted. Even five years, though, probably is not a good thing, as there’s little doubt that Bob is burned out, and his missteps in pursuing litigation against a dying woman have made clear to even Bob’s most ardent supporters just how thin his personal faith truly is. Or, as one friend puts it, “Bob knows the words, but not the song.” And Jeff Chiow’s malevolent advocacy, which can only be done at the direction of his client, underscores the systemic issues in the church. All of which is a nice way of saying that the church is toxic, and the toxic sludge is bubbling to the surface, spilling out in all directions.

So what next? 

One key thing will be to find an assistant rector with really good spiritual and change management skills. When Bob does fly the coop, there will be a whole lot of turmoil in the parish, as many have never experienced anyone else in that position. And given Bob’s willingness to both tolerate and encourage bad behavior among church members (including setting his own bad example), you can be sure there will be plenty of people who won’t exactly show kindness to each other. In short, things are going to get ugly, and it will take a brave soul, particularly as an interim, to say, “That’s not how we show love to one another.”

Things will be excarbated by the fact that there will be plenty of work on the physical plant that needs to be done, and major projects likely will still be afoot when Bob does retire. To make matters worse, Bob’s aloof approach to things will make it very difficult to forge consensus on priorities and funding prior to that time. And, as always, there is absolutely no vision for the future, no strategic planning (and very little tactical planning), and next to no outreach. (A few banners and Art on the Avenue do not outreach make. Sorry to spring it on you, folks.)

There’s another wrinkle in things, which is that a new bishop is in the mix. My feeling is that history will judge +Shannon to have been the right bishop for the extended litigation with the CANA crowd, but a very poor fit when it comes to other issues, including supervision of clergy and staff and organizational dynamics. (I was impressed by the way he started to “slip past” issues when the search for a third bishop came screeching to a halt. What was initially posited as issues that included leadership very quickly became matters involving staff learning to work together. That sort of lip service to accountability, accompanied by the quick brush-off of real issues, is all too common in The Episcopal Church. The reality is that organizations take their cue from the top. Or, as one church staff member said of problems at St. Dysfunction aka Grace Episcopal Church, “and it goes right to the top,” referring to Bob Malm.)

Hopefully, the standing committee will have the wisdom to call a bishop who is both good at organizational dynamics, and a genuinely loving, spiritual person. Bishop Shannon’s great failing has been his willingness to tolerate bad conduct among the clergy and staff he supervises, versus saying, “That’s not how we do things around here.” There’s also a tremendous need for transparency—far too many diocesan decisions are made behind closed doors. And the new bishop would improve things on a great many fronts by reaching out to those who have been hurt by the diocese — including my mother, in the unlikely event she is still alive — and trying to fix things. Of course, doing so requires more than saying, “I’m sorry.” It requires restitution and repentance — an effort to actually fix the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, +Shannon, like many in The Episcopal Church, has a deeply flawed theology of forgiveness and accountability. Not to mention an almost total lack of understanding of the church’s disciplinary canons.

The good news for Grace Church is that there are many deeply committed members. With the right interim, healthy guidance and support from a healthy diocese, and the right choice for rector, Grace may well make it. At the same time, things certainly could go the other way. Another Bob Malm, who is cordial but lacks any real faith, will be a disaster, and may well spell the end of the parish. And it will be vital that whoever comes next focuses first on the needs of the parish, versus Bob’s approach of seemingly believing that he’s somehow special and thus entitled. As in entitled to ignore the parts of his job that he doesn’t like. Or demanding that the church pay for his seedy personal residence.

In short, going forward the parish simply cannot afford another rector whose primary focus appears to be on his own needs and wants. Instead, it is going to require a rector who digs in, gets to know people one-on-one, strives to meet their needs, helps them grow spiritually, and who leads by example. The days of paying for a bishop, but getting the equivalent of a long-term interim priest, are fast drawing to a close. The parish will be a very different place in another 10 years, if it is still around, and you can quote me on that.