You have to hand it to Bob Malm, Sugarland Chiow, the Grace vestry and the diocese: None of them have half the common sense God gave a goat. Not Christian ethics, not Christ-like behavior. Just good old-fashioned common sense, like don’t stick your finger in a light socket. Or don’t dive into a swimming pool if you’re not sure there’s water in it. Or don’t wander around in the dark if you don’t know where the stairs are.
Specifically, I’m thinking of my conflict with Bob Malm. Both Bob and the parish would have been far better off had Bob heeded my July 2014 warning to quit the fun and games. Or if they had taken me up on my offer in 2015 to settle our dispute in exchange for nothing more than an agreement to leave me alone; through Sugarland, Bob refused my offer.
Then there’s the matter of our previous ceasefire. Bob specifically agreed that he understood that our agreement only extended to me. Not to Mike, not to Mom, not to others. Yet in no time flat he was back to his fun and games, trying to manipulate people on all fronts.
Then there’s the matter of Bob Malm’s perjury. Did he really think that was going to work? His daughter Lindsey allegedly called the police over a post on Fairfax Underground that she didn’t like, and next thing you know Bob has pulled the parish in right behind Lindsey. Smooth move, Bob.
Then we got to Sugarland’s inflammatory rhetoric and courtroom fabrications. Because court filings generally are open to public inspection, much of that is now a public record, available for all the world to see. Did he really think calling me a “domestic terrorist” was going to help the church? Folks seeing that sort of nonsense wind up rolling their eyes and heading for a church with a slightly more, um, Christian ethos. Or leaving church altogether.
And of course the diocese has trashed its own reputation by claiming that clergy perjury is okay unless criminal charges are involved. Facially amoral positions such as this make clear that the diocese is nothing but a badly run nonprofit. Same for the blind eye the diocese turned towards Bob Malm and his efforts to drag a dying woman into court. Did anyone really think that would end well for Bob, the parish or diocese?
In short, there’s nothing even arguably Christian about Bob, the parish or the diocese. One has only to look at their conduct to realize that the Episcopal church is morally bankrupt and mired in the filth of its own hypocrisy. As a result, I predict that, absent a sea change, the forecast that TEC will have no Sunday worshippers in 30 years will come true much sooner for Grace Episcopal and the diocese.
There’s simply no longer any good reason to be a member of The Episcopal Church.
Earlier today, I sent defense counsel by bill of particulars in my lawsuit against Grace Episcopal Church, Susan Goff, and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Following are the relevant screen caps. Several additional actions will be filed in the coming days.
Yesterday, someone associated with Grace Episcopal posted several abusive comments on my change.org petition. I’ve included a screen cap below. And while I have turned these over to the police, as Virginia law makes direct contact of this sort potentially criminal, there’s a larger point here.
The larger point is that, even on a petition involving a dying person, people at Grace Church think this sort of thing is okay. And even having lost almost 1/3 of the church’s pledging units, a 33 percent decline in the church budget since 2008, and a 17 percent decline in attendance, they still don’t get it.
People at Grace Episcopal actually think this sort of behavior is okay for Christians. And they have absolutely no clue why 2/3 of people under age 30 have no use for organized religion, and why 1/3 are actively hostile to religion.
My advice: Avoid Grace Church at all costs. This is just the tip of the iceberg. And avoid Bob Malm—given his attitude and comments about parishioners, it should come as no surprise that people think this sort of childishness is okay.
As we move into 2020, I am now preparing the forms for several additional lawsuits, including one that is directed to a member of Bob Malm’s immediate family. I anticipate filing in the next 20 to 30 days.
In talking the matter over with colleagues, one asked me how I felt about suing a priest. My answer was twofold: 1) Bob is a priest in title only, and 2) Having resorted to court and committed perjury in an effort to shut down scrutiny of his conduct, Bob Malm was foolish indeed if he thought the litigation would end there. So I have no issues with suing Bob or members of his family.
And yes, I anticipate naming Grace Church as a defendant in at least one further case.
As we move into 2020, signs abound of financial trouble at Grace church. These include further declines in pledging, which I believe are due in large part to a growing awareness of just how toxic Grace Church has become.
Over the past two weeks, the number of pledging units has stalled out at 160, for a total just shy of $561,560. That’s a bad sign, for a variety of reasons:
In the past, pledges have continued to come in throughout the final weeks of the year. The lack of an increase during the past two weeks suggests that the pledge campaign has largely run its course.
While there are always a few additional pledges in the new year, the increase historically has ranged from 20-40 units. In recent years, the number of pledges has tended towards the lower end of that range. Moreover, late pledges tend to be smaller pledges. Thus, even assuming 30 additional pledges at an average of $3966, that’s only $118,980, for a total of $680,540. That’s a far cry from the $895,000 or more of past years, and leaves the church with gross annual revenue of approximately $830,540. Thus, the parish faces the prospect of draconian cuts to an already tight budget.
The underlying causes of the church’s decline remain unaddressed, which include a systemic culture of toxicity evinced by behavior that includes:
Bob Malm’s perjury
Suing members and calling them “domestic terrorists”
Sugarland Chiow’s multiple courtroom fabrications
Trying to drag a dying woman into court
The childish, malicious conduct of people like Alison Campbell and Lisa Medley
Members urging others to commit suicide
Unhealthy ways at every level of dealing with conflict
It will not be possible to begin the process of addressing these issues any time soon, as it will take some time for Michael Guy to settle in.
The legacy of 30 years of Bob Malm’s feckless and dysfunctional “leadership” won’t be erased overnight, or even in a year.
The transition process isn’t cheap, and Grace really needs to bring in paid outside experts to address its toxic culture. Even then, Bob Malm’s various misrepresentations about the underlying issues make change problematic, for it is hard to parse the challenges facing the church when prior leadership has engaged in manipulative conduct.
Real leadership is perilously thin in the parish. Indeed, when confronted with a toxic culture like that of Grace church, real leaders typically move on, versus turning a blind eye to unethical conduct such as bullying. And even those regarded as leaders in the parish have no qualms in talking about other people, versus talking to other people. That’s a big problem, and one has only to look at some of the comments from Kemp Williams and Jean Reed to see use how bad things have become in that department.
It can be difficult to ask members to increase giving when so much money has been squandered in the past on Bob Malm’s inflated salary, his $100,000 bonus, the tear-down of the rectory, his overly generous leave, and silliness like taking $3,000 from savings for a farewell party for Chris Byrnes—a Head of School that many teaching professionals do not regard as having been particularly effective, and who spent much of her time engaging in divisive empire building.
Things are complicated by well-intentioned but disingenuous comments like Jason Roberson’s statement in the November edition of Grace Notes, in which he falsely claimed that the church is “growing and flourishing.” It is doing neither, and such comments undercut confidence in the messaging coming from church leadership.
As discussed in previous posts, if the church really is to be a center for “outreach and healing,” it could start by contributing its fair share to the diocese. $80K a year is ridiculously low and far beneath the norms established by the diocese. Going forward, less money wasted on feckless clergy and more spent on outreach would be a good start.
Of course, financial issues are just one small outward manifestation of larger, structural issues. In other words, the church’s financial woes will only be resolved when it solves its spiritual and ethical woes. And with diocesan leadership that is prepared to support Bob Malm and Sugarland Chiow in their misconduct, it’s unlikely that this is going to happen.
There’s a good article on the Wartburg Watch this week, in which friend and fellow blogger Dee Parsons asks the question, why are so many SBC churches in the closet about their SBC affiliation? That got me to thinking—-what about churches that claim to be part of a denomination, but really aren’t? In other words, is Grace really an Episcopal church?
To be sure, at first blush Grace would appear to be fully an Episcopal church. Its governing documents, as poorly done as they are, contain the accession clause required under church canons. Most clergy are Episcopal. The hymnal and Book of Common Prayer are Episcopal. The bishop visits once a year and has to approve clergy hires. Even the sign out front says Episcopal.
But scratch the surface and things aren’t so clear. Given its size, the parish makes only a token financial contribution to the diocese. Similarly, during Bob Malm’s tenure, the diocese did little to address issues in the church, thus allowing problems to fester for decades. (Ironically, the diocese is now in court trying to defend this situation, inter alia claiming that Bob Malm took me to court on his own. That ignores the more than 18 times Bob contacted the diocese about doing so, as well as his claim that the decision to take me to court was a form of “discipline” that he and other parish leadership decided to implement. Additionally, Bob received legal advice and other diocesan support for his efforts, including a letter of endorsement from Bishop Shannon Johnston.)
True, the church is inclusive in the sense of welcoming gays and lesbians. But it has never welcomed non-gender binaries or transgenders, and Bob Malm is very uncomfortable with these issues.
It is this latter aspect that is particularly troubling, and that is Bob Malm’s role in the parish. During this tenure, more than 1 out of every 5 dollars in church revenue went to Bob. Bob personally chose the executive committee, in violation of church canons. Even the nominally self-governing school allegedly restructured so that Bob could send his son James to school there—a claim that, if true, would be highly unethical.
Similarly, the demolition of the rectory—a decision made at Bob Malm’s insistence—wound up costing the church more than $2 million in the years that followed. And Bob was ruthless in ensuring he took every bit of leave available to him, with no regard for the welfare of the parish. Indeed, he once told me that issues with the parish administrator would have to wait, as he was going on vacation.
And so it is with Bob’s claims that I am mentally ill. While few if any parishioners knew or cared if I blogged about my experiences at Grace, Bob worked the traps hard to stir things up at the school, the diocese, and within in the parish with his fabrications.
At the very heart of the matter is Bob’s ongoing effort to obtain recognition and adulation from parishioners. While a healthy pastoral relationship points people to God, Bob points people to himself. In so doing, he routinely undercut relationships amongst parishioners, using derogatory language about almost all parishioners at one time or another. (Recall his references to Jan Spence as an “asshole,” and to Lisa Doelp as “like a little spy.”)
It is this paradigm, in which Bob created a parish in his own image, to reflect his personality and to meet his own needs, that led me to dub Grace Church “Planet Malm.”
In short, while the church is nominally Episcopal, its real reference point is Bob Malm. It is nothing more than a cult of personality, now missing the underlying personality. As such, it is not a church, but rather a religious club organized within The Episcopal Church.
Earlier today, the Alexandria General District court heard my motion to compel. It also received various motions from Diane DiBlasio, the attorney for Grace Episcopal, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and Bishop Susan Goff. The defense motions included a motion to dismiss with prejudice and a motion requesting a bill of particulars. The latter sets forth the reasons a plaintiff believes she or he has a legal cause of action.
The only motion on which the court ruled was the request to schedule a bill of particulars. Thus, I will be filing that pleading by the end of January, the defense will file its response by the end of February, and we will hold the next hearing in March.
Afterwards, I had a moment to chat with Diane, who is very professional and capable. My heads-up to her, which I hope informs her efforts and those of her clients, centers around Bob Malm’s perjury during the discovery phrase of my appeal. (Recall that Bob falsely claimed that my mom, or someone purporting to be her, “time after time” contacted him. This he cited as a primary reason he believed mom’s blog to really be mine.)
So, it will be interesting to see if the diocese, Bishop Goff, and Grace Episcopal want to defend Bob Malm’s perjury. That said, if past performance is any indicator, all three will do their utmost to defend his conduct.
It’s also interesting that defense counsel attempted to assert that this is an internal ecclesiastical matter. With the parish having taken the matter to court in the first place, it is difficult to conclude that this indeed is not subject to judicial review. That said, in fairness to defense counsel, she had little to go on.
As Grace church begins the lengthy process of transition, there are some positive signs. The church, diocese, and vestry deserve kudos for these changes.
First and foremost, we see the wardens and vestry finally assuming their proper role under the Episcopal canons. Instead of Bob Malm personally choosing the executive committee, which is a violation of the canons, and then controlling decisions via his hand-chosen inner circle, we are seeing the wardens and vestry actually exercising leadership as they communicate with the parish, make decisions, and try to map out a path forward for the parish.
Second, we are seeing the parish back away from Bob Malm’s knee-jerk instinct towards controlling and restricting the flow of information. This includes publishing pledge totals (versus deliberately vague information), and greater transparency about decision making.
The problem with Bob Malm’s approach is that secrecy is deadly to a voluntary organization like a church, which depends on the labor, giving and participation of members. Instead of accurate information, secrecy begets the ugly gossip that has roiled for years right behind the scenes at Grace church, ranging from rumors of affairs, to speculation about the sexual orientation of married persons, to claims that one person had a penile implant (seriously!). Such rumor and speculation may seem like harmless fun, but it’s ugly, damaging, hateful, and a powerful disincentive for outsiders to join the church. And it’s often used by persons like Alison Campbell when they want to play the Mean Girls game.
Ironically, Bob’s efforts to control information, which were intended to curtail my access to information, had zero effect on me, other than giving me one more topic to blog about. Data regarding parish giving and governance is readily available via other sources and, like all organizations, there are always plenty of internal sources to leak data. Indeed, more than one member has speculated that all the secrecy means there must be something to hide—which, given Bob’s perjury and other misconduct, is spot-on.
Going forward, the church would be well-served by returning to publishing vestry minutes. The reality is that posting this information on the bulletin board outside the office door does nothing. Yes, persons may glance at it, but no one is really going to glean much information as they try to read it standing in a busy hallway. Similarly, few are going to go to the trouble of contacting Amy Medrick, which in itself alerts clergy to their interest in governance issues.
Similarly, the parish annual report should be on the website. Not providing it keeps nothing secret, and I am well aware of the sharp declines under Bob Malm in pledging units, average Sunday attendance, and other barometers of parish health.
Same for the parish budget. As I have said in previous posts, both the budget and the so-called audit should be available on the website. Lisa Medley claims there is “complete transparency,” but that is absolute bullcrap. Indeed, the vestry does not see the audit engagement letter or the results, let alone parishioners, and existing safeguards were not adequate to prevent Richard Newman from being overpaid for many months, until Jeff Aaron spotted the issue. (I have always suspected that his disclosure of the matter resulted in Bob Malm shoving him out the door. Bob does not like it when his negligence comes to light.) Nor were they adequate to detect the thousands of dollars in unaccounted-for stale checks and cash found in the parish administrator’s office after she retired in 2014.
Keep in mind, too, that the parish will soon have to compile a parish portfolio as part of the search process. All this data needs to be included, and not in a glossed-over manner. The reality is that Bob Malm’s tenure ended with the parish in a period of precipitous, perhaps terminal, decline marked by conflict, outrageous clergy misconduct (aided and abetted by Sugarland Chiow and the vestry), declining giving and participation, and an utter lack of any sort of strategic plan or vision for the future. Indeed, during his final five years, even Malm’s admirers felt that he was thoroughly burned out, indifferent, and focused simply on paying the bills long enough to make it into retirement.
The good news in all of this is that the current wardens are well-suited to the task at hand, and hopefully future wardens will be as well. That said, there remain serious questions about the ability of the parish to recognize, let alone address, the mess left behind after 30 years of Bob Malm.
One of the noteworthy things about my conflict with Bob Malm and Grace Episcopal Church has been the extent of organizational narcissism in the church. This has been typified by the reactions of parishioners, who remain clueless about how their behavior appears to outsiders, while continuing to think that somehow it benefits the parish.
For example, consider the conduct of Sally Schneider, who rolled up to me one day and said, in her typically saccharine way, “Shame on you, Eric Bonetti,” repeating this several times. Sally has zero first-hand knowledge of the conflict, yet thinks she can wade in and pass judgment. Yet I’d be prepared to bet that she would not regard Bob Malm’s perjury as kosher, nor his attempt to drag a dying woman into court.
Similarly, Lisa Medley, who doesn’t even have the backbone to post comments under her own name, preferring instead handles like, “Long-time parishioner,” still can’t figure out why third parties look at her ad hominem attacks on me and respond with comments like, “This group of parishioners is circling the wagons and while they seem sane to themselves, they seem immature and hateful to outsiders who are looking at their behavior.”
The same holds true for Alison Campbell, who tells people that she is “just the messenger,” even as she uses the altar guild and others to try to cause trouble within the parish. She may think that somehow she’s benefitting the parish, Kelly Gable, or others, but the reality is she’s simply showing herself to be childish and hateful, while underscoring that Grace is toxic.
Then we come to the Kemp Williams and Jean Reeds of the place, who are happy to gossip within the church about others and their perceptions of them, yet see no need to discuss those issues directly with the persons involved. Just spend a few minutes searching this blog and you will find examples of their truly ugly comments.
Also among the better examples of toxic behavior at Grace Church are the comments from a twenty-something in the parish, who urged me to commit suicide in the post below.
And of course, we cannot forget Sugarland Chiow, with his multiple false statements of law and fact to the courts, his inflammatory rhetoric, and his various courtroom fabrications, including that I never practiced law. Jeff claims that the church is threatened by “domestic terrorism,” yet brings his wife and children there on a regular basis.
Nor can we forget Big Bad Bob, with his lying under oath (aka perjury), his lies to parishioners, and his false police reports. Truly, the ugly stuff rolls downhill.
Even more problematic is the fact that this sort of behavior is, for many, acceptable within the church. This underscores the organizational narcissism that exists at every level in the church. Yes, attendance and giving are at record lows in the parish, and yes, one-third of pledging units have stopped pledging in recent years. And many have left the parish altogether, preferring somewhere where the Ten Commandments aren’t just a bit of arcane trivia. But the fact remains that many continue to provide financial and other support for this toxic mess. Nor have any of the people identified above ever taken responsibility for their own conduct.
Thus far, parish leaders also have ignored the many things that could be done to address these issues. For example, the vestry could adopt a statement of normative behaviors, making clear the type of conduct that rightly should be present in any church. It could specifically address bullying. It could bring in outside experts in addressing conflict. Yet none of these things have happened, nor have they been discussed in any meaningful way.
Will Michael Guy and the vestry be up to the task? Can they drain the swamp that is Grace Episcopal?
With my lawsuit now filed against Grace Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and Susan Goff, an interesting question arises: Will Sugarland Chiow resume his ethically questionable behavior? Past incidents include:
Apparently signing off on the vestry’s talking points, which claimed that Mike and I left the parish on our own, despite the fact Jeff knew otherwise.
Making up a fake church shooting in the nonexistent town of Sugarland Texas.
Falsely telling the Venango courts he had a valid subpoena, and continuing to do so even after he was shown, in writing, the relevant statutory provisions.
Lying to the Alexandria Circuit Court by telling it I had never been licensed as an attorney, nor served as a police officer.
Failing to disclose his client Bob Malm’s perjury, including lying by taking words out of context.
Claiming he had thoroughly read Mom’s blog, yet telling the motions court that he was unaware that she was dying.
Disregarding a court order compelling his client Bob Malm to state how he allegedly had been threatened.
Repeated use of improper, inflammatory language, including referring to the case as one of “domestic terrorism.”
Abuse of process.
Deliberate efforts to use my sexual orientation to try to embarrass and discredit me.
Irrelevant references to mass shootings wholly unconnected with the case at hand.
I recently had lunch with several clergy friends of mine. It was a good time and I was careful not to bring up the matter of Grace Church, for fear of putting friends in an awkward place.
That said, it was not long before the topic came up. I played fair and tried to remain non-committal, instead listening carefully, acknowledging what was said, and hoping not to incentivize further conversation on the topic. Yet the topic quickly grew legs and took over most of our time together.
The upshot was that the more experienced and knowledgable the speaker, the less willing they were to even consider an interim call with the parish. “The place needs a whole lot of work,” said one retired priest. “But those of us who know how to do that sort of work have been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it. At this point, I don’t feel like dealing with the legacy of Bob Malm.”
Younger clergy took a more nuanced approach. “I think it could be a good place to cut your teeth,” said one priest, a former mental health professional. “But it could go south quickly and it would take years to recover,” she quickly added. “You’d probably have to transfer to a diocese on the west coast to rebuild your reputation.”
An older priest, one with ties to Grace Church, quickly shot the notion down: “Bob’s never been popular with the Mayo House crowd, and he’s been getting away with murder for years. Your situation was inevitable, in that we all knew sooner or later Bob would go too far and self-destruct. But I’d be crazy to wade into that mess. No thanks! And you’d be crazy too. I’m just surprised it took so long for Bob to get to that point, and that he was so effective in pulling Mayo House in on his side.”
Later, she added, “It’s interesting. The diocese views [Eric] in many ways as public enemy number one, but in many ways you did them a big favor. The challenge is that the diocese now has to sort things out and so far it remains pretty damned clueless. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Several thousand calories per person later, as we made our way to the door, one very introspective priest said, “It’s just so sad. Such a beautiful church, friendly people. And so thoroughly messed up. I don’t imagine the coming few years will be pretty.”
I finally responded, “Yes, the building is beautiful. The church, not so much. But yeah, people are friendly. At least, right up until you disagree with them.”
Some time ago, I posted an example of a transparent church budget developed by a parish not too far from Grace. Included in the budget were line items for the compensation of each member of the clergy and staff, as well as sufficient detail to allow anyone who’s curious to learn more. Indeed, the church’s budget is published on the parish website for all the world to see.
This contrasts sharply with Grace Church, where former senior warden Lisa Medley shrilly proclaims there’s “total financial transparency.” (That’s in addition to her various lies about me.) That’s a remarkable claim, since:
The church is not audited (contrary to her claims).
Vestry members do not see the accounting firm’s engagement letter when it does its Agreed-Upon Procedures (AUP) review, which has no attestation value. In other words, it is not intended, nor is it likely to, uncover any sort of major issue.
Vestry members, contrary to law and church policy, do not see financials for the school, which constitutes 2/3 of the total annual budget.
There have been major payroll errors in the past that went undetected for months.
Thousands of dollars in unaccounted-for loose cash and stale checks were found in a former parish administrator’s office, with no explanation.
The church does not publicly release its vestry minutes, its financial reports, its budget, or its annual report.
The loan to Bob Malm was carried off the books for years, contrary to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
When factoring in depreciation, the parish has been running a deficit for many years.
There have been multiple illegal misuses of restricted solicitations.
Even the AUP was not completed in a timely manner in 2015–a fact not shared with the vestry.
In other words, if there indeed is total transparency at Grace church, then it follows that the Princess Porcine and other vestry members willfully turned a blind eye to the misuse of funds, the stale checks in the church office, the major payroll errors, and more.
So which is it?
Speaking of, below is a good example of financial transparency from the Church of the Holy Comforter in Vienna.
When was the last time Grace Church members saw data of this sort?
Oh, and this was sent to the entire parish email list.
So much for “complete financial transparency” at Grace.
And while we’re on the topic, Lisa Medley publishes details of people’s giving in cyberspace. How did she get that access? What kind of imbecile posts confidential giving information publicly? Did it not occur to the Princess Porcine that publicly showing that giving is NOT confidential is a powerful disincentive to further giving?
Yet another reason to avoid Grace Church, and to refrain from pledging.
If you’re a prospective interim rector at Grace Church and reading this, good for you.
I mean it—the fact that you’re doing your homework is a good sign.
A key observation from my years at Grace Church is that, like many toxic organizations, words don’t mean what you think they do. For example, you and I may think that “pastoral care” has one meaning, but look behind the curtain and it has come to mean something very different at Grace Church. That’s not surprising, as problematic clergy typically shift the narrative over time.
So, since my conflict with Bob Malm and the parish in many ways both illustrates and underscores the problems at the church, here are some questions you might ask of diocesan officials and vestry members before you take the plunge. And while the answers to some are damning indeed, and you may thus be tempted to discount the answers, I encourage you to really dig in and understand this information. My belief is that, if you do, you will have a fighting chance of fixing the mess that is Grace Church.
Here we go:
Did Bob Malm or the vestry ever discuss these issues one-on-one with Eric and his family? If so, what happened?
In the church’s legal pleadings, Bob Malm and the church assert that Eric is mentally ill. How did they reach this conclusion? Did they ever discuss it with Eric? If they believed that Eric was mentally ill, did they ever attempt to arrange care for Eric?
In the court documents that Malm filed, one of the reasons he cited under oath for his belief that her blog is really Eric’s work is that Eric’s mother, Sigrid Yahner, or someone claiming to be her, repeatedly made appointments with Malm and no-showed. Eric claims this is a lie/perjury. Can I see records that show this really happened?
The diocese stated that it would not investigate Eric’s claim that Malm committed perjury unless the latter faced criminal charges. Is that normal policy for allegations of misconduct involving potentially criminal behavior? If not, why did the diocese take this approach?
Early in the conflict, Eric asked the diocese to mediate the conflict. The diocese dismissed this request outright. Why?
Eric claims that Bob Malm instructed church staff to exclude him and his husband from the parish and has an email that appears to show that this is the case. Yet the vestry’s talking points say Eric left on his own. Which is true and how do we know?
Some of Jeffery Chiow’s language in his court documents is over the top, like referring to the conflict as a case of “domestic terrorism,” calling Eric a “serial liar,” and more. Why did the church take this approach? Do you think it was helpful? Similarly, Malm refers to Eric in email to the diocese as “sick,” “twisted,” and “dysfunctional.” Did anyone at the diocese ever object to this? If not, why not?
Vestry minutes show that the vestry knew and approved of Bob’s efforts to take Eric to court. What was the vestry’s role in this matter? How did it effect oversight?
At one point, Eric alleged that the church had illegally misused memorial donations, yet the diocese refused to get involved. Is this normal practice when allegations of misuse of funds come to the attention of the diocese?
The diocese states in writing that these matters were investigated and resolved long ago and that the diocese fully supports Bob Malm. Who was the investigator? Is that person professionally trained as an investigator? Were the allegations of misuse of funds ever addressed by an auditor or law enforcement? Why does the diocese say the matter was resolved when the conflict clearly continues?
In light of the tremendous damage this conflict has caused the parish and the larger church, is it still the diocese’s position that it fully supports Bob Malm? Has bishop Goff ever sat down with Eric to try to understand this conflict?
From your perspective, can this conflict be resolved? What would it take to do so? Are there lessons learned from this conflict? How do you see this conflict affecting the parish a year from now? Ten years from now?
In earlier posts, I discussed organizational narcissism and the challenges it poses for an interim and Grace church. This article more fully explores these concepts, with an emphasis on the difficulties organizations face when they seek to change.
So what is organizational narcissism? (Note that we are here referring to the high self-esteem variant. There are others.)
A concept in organizational psychology, the term describes an organization that is unable to behave ethically because it lacks a moral identity. While such organizations may not be intentionally unethical, they become self-obsessed and use a sense of entitlement, denial, and rationalizations to justify anything they do. Source: Duchon, D. & Drake, B. J Bus Ethics (2009) 85: 301. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-008-9771-7. As a result, the organization is blind to its flaws and weaknesses.
While academic research into organizational narcissism in churches is limited, experts are in agreement on two key points:
Such organizations find it profoundly hard to change.
While narcissistic organizations may adopt ethics and other policies, such efforts will have little effect.
Industrial psychologists also note that such organizations often are headed by a narcissist, in many instances adopting their persona. And all organizations, just like humans, have personalities, learned behaviors, and ways to respond to stress, problems, and challenges. In short, organizations have personalities, and can choose to act in an ethical manner, or not.
And so it is with Grace. Bob Malm and the church both, in my opinion, lack moral identities. Both use a sense of entitlement, denial and rationalizations to justify anything they do. Both have behaved in ways that to outsiders are shocking and unethical, including:
Making false police reports
Proferring false statements of fact and law in court
Trying to subpoena a dying woman in violation of state law
Referring to those entrusted to their pastoral care as “domestic terrorists,” “sick,” “twisted,” and “sad individual[s], starving for attention.” (Projection, anyone?)
Lying to members
Indeed, one of the reasons that Grace church has gotten away with these behaviors to the extent it has is that these behaviors are so over the top; few readily believe that a church would engage in such conduct, particularly in a hierarchical organization like The Episcopal Church.
Similarly, just like an individual narcissist, Grace church demonstrates little introspection, either on an individual or collective level. For example, parishioners fail to see the laughable irony when they leave Mass on Sunday, having just made their confession, and flip off protesters. Nor has there been any organizational demand for accountability by Dysfunctional Bob or Sugarland Chiow. Indeed, the parish saw the former off with a celebration of his 30 years of “ministry.” Yes, there were many good aspects of Bob’s tenure, but any situation in which it’s okay to commit perjury and bully the dying is hardly cause for celebration, even when taken as a whole.
So where does that leave things? Like the alcoholic who tells herself that, “I can stop any time,” Grace church is in denial. Beautiful liturgy and cordial relations with fellow parishioners mask the underlying reality, which is that the parish is a hot mess. And just as narcissists create a false image for themselves that they present to others, so too does Grace Church create a beautiful illusion of a friendly, welcoming place.
Moreover, just as telling an alcoholic that she has a problem rarely goes well, so too will the interim who steps into the breach discover that efforts to fix problems at Grace are unwelcome. First will come the inevitable comparisons to Bob, then the fun and games with the altar guild and choir, eventually leading to the new person being declared the source of all the church’s woes. “Things were fine when Bob was here, so it’s obviously the interim’s fault,” will be the refrain, conveniently forgetting that things were far from fine.
Even worse, the one person who potentially could help the parish move through these issues has checked out. Much like the bishop had to write a letter to ask parishioners not to visit Bob Malm during his recovery unless specifically asked to do so, Susan Goff may be the one person who could step in, speak at a parish meeting, ask people to tone it down, to be open to new approaches, and to fix long-standing problems. But with +Shannon having weighed in to express his full support of Dysfunctional Bob, doing so involves an implicit repudiation Goff’s none-too-successful predecessor. Nor is the diocese great at issues of this sort: Even on how way out the door, +Shannon proclaimed that everything was going well at the diocese, despite the fact it clearly was not.
Additionally, +Goff refuses to respond to emails about Bob’s misconduct and reneged on Pat Wingo’s offer to be a resource following our meeting in Fredericksburg, Thus, she has scant credibility and zero first-hand knowledge of my issues, or the larger issues in the parish, which center on power, abuse, respect, the baptismal covenant, and the notion of being the Body of Christ. And after providing the diocese with multiple opportunities to help work towards reconciliation, I want nothing to do with those knuckleheads. Indeed, the diocese appears best suited to meaningless liturgies and laments over slavery and racial injustice, and reflections on reproductive rights. Real social justice has proven repeatedly to “not be of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Plus, with membership in The Episcopal Church plummeting, these days the church is too small for anyone to care what it thinks anyway.
My advice to interims: Think twice. Even a highly skilled and very determined expert in interim ministry faces a daunting task, plenty of stress and anxiety, and potentially lasting damage to her or his personal and professional reputation.
You really have to hand it to the crowd at Grace Episcopal: Even as the church implodes, they keep up the same ugly rhetoric that got them in trouble in the first place. Meanwhile, our good buddy Lisa G., aka Lisa Gardner, just can’t get it through her head that, even if everything she says were true, this isn’t the way to handle it. But hey, she’s a Christian.
She’s also profoundly stupid. If you’re going to post defamatory content, don’t proffer details that would identify yourself.
Nor does Lisa recognize that her argument is a tu quoque logical fallacy. No matter how you parse it, Bob Malm is a perjurer. Lisa can toss out every ad hominem attack out there, but Bob Malm is still a perjurer.
Wonder how long before Grace drops to 150 pledging units.
Prospective interims, beware. This sort of discourse is part and parcel of life at Grace Church following 30 years of Dysfunctional Bob.
Despite Dysfunctional Bob’s departure from Grace Church this Sunday, I will continue to protest and leaflet. Plans are to leaflet a stretch of King Street, as well as to protest at several of my favorite locations.