Showing posts with label change management. Show all posts
Showing posts with label change management. Show all posts

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Of Clergy and Contracts: What Grace Church Needs to Know Before it Hires the Next Rector



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.”



Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Why Grace Church is Doomed to Fail



I’ve written about this before, but with litigation now ramping up against perjuring priest Bob Malm, his family, Grace Church, and the diocese, I am reflecting anew on why the parish and diocese are unlikely to spring back from the hot mess that Bob leaves behind.

As I see it, the problem is that the diocese and parish simply don’t get it. As in they don’t understand how to fix the underlying problems.

In recent years, even the Catholic church, long famous for trying to play hardball against anyone who called it to account, has learned that this approach simply makes things worse. Yes, the Catholic Church managed to buy years — some would say decades — of time with its coverups and no-hold barred litigation. But the day of reckoning has arrived, and it’s looking ugly. Yes, some dioceses have tried to restructure so as to place assets beyond the reach of creditors, and more than one diocese appears to be trying to play games with its cemeteries and other, less visible assets. But no matter how you parse it, Rome is shedding members in all directions, and even the Vatican itself appears poised to run a deficit. And I would be prepared to bet that very few of those leaving the Catholic Church will ever come back.

By contrast, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia remains locked in a 1970’s approach to issues. When in doubt, deny everything. Then litigate, litigate, litigate, and hope you can sweep what’s left under the rug.

The problem is that conflict and misconduct don’t get resolved this way. Indeed, Bob Malm was a master at denying, avoiding, equivocating and doing everything in his power to to avoid addressing conflict or problems, even going so far as to lie in order to avoid dealing with things. But instead of taking the approach that perjuring priest Bob Malm is gone, and it’s a new day at Grace where people tell the truth and deal openly and honestly with conflict, the diocese is playing the very same games. That includes claiming that perjury is okay as long as no criminal charges result.

Sadly enough, there are still parishioners who like and admire Bob. And that’s likely to continue until the diocese has the integrity to openly disclose perjuring priest Bob Malm’s misconduct. Or, as the Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban notes in her book on misconduct, it is only through disclosure that the church heals. Absent this, churches will, almost without exception, hold onto patterns of dysfunction that will extend for decades.

Unfortunately, this level of integrity simply doesn’t exist, either at Mayo House or the parish vestry. From the bishops, to JP Causey, right on down, it’s all about protecting the organization and its turf, versus doing what’s right. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” simply doesn’t apply. Instead, the diocese and parish cling to, “It’s our lie, and our church, and we’ll do whatever we damn well want, thank you. And your response will be, ‘Thank you Sir, may I have another?’” Even at the vestry, there’s the whole, “well, people liked Bob—do we really want to go there?,” routine.

That also poses a problem for the next rector. Remember the old joke about not wanting to join any club that would have me as a member? Well, the same holds true for Grace. Specifically, any rector worth having is going to want to know that steps have been taken to come to terms with the past, to heal, to learn, and to grow. With that not happening, good candidates are going to take a pass. As one priest said to me about Grace, “God help whoever’s next. You couldn’t pay me enough.”

Nor is Michael Guy going to cut it. While he seems to be more sincere than was perjuring priest Bob Malm, his positive comments and his hints about forgiveness fall far short of what it is going to take to get the parish back on track.

Even worse, those candidates who might be willing to work with these problems face a further challenge, which is that the parish likely will still be in litigation one year after perjuring priest Bob Malm’s departure. Indeed, with litigation only now ramping up, we are probably at least a year away from any sort of outcome, which puts things close to the two-year mark. And for the record, I am not backing down any time soon. But then, five years into this conflict, folks hopefully realize that already. If nothing else, I outlasted Bob, and I can outlast Grace.

Nor do I think that Bishop Goff or the other fat cats at Mayo House have the integrity to admit that they are wrong. Yes, they might say pretty words in order to try to shut down the conflict, but actually owning up to the mess they have made of things and bringing in experts to fix it? You’ll sooner see a snowman in the fierce flames of the furnace room of hell on a hot day. In fact, one of the reasons for the current state of affairs is that, when Pat Wingo went on sabbatical, he had offered in writing that I could reach out to Bishop Goff if I needed help working through issues with Bob. That’s exactly what I did, only to have Susan take a pass. Meanwhile, Shannon Johnston, with his amazing ability to screw things up, had already sent out a letter in support of Bob, while ignoring my response to him.

Typical.

Neither does Grace have the necessary introspection. My bet is that the vestry will try to get a rector in in who’s good at conflict resolution and hope for the best. But given that she or he will not enjoy meaningful support from the diocese, nor have an accurate perspective on conflict within the parish, that dog won’t hunt. And the parish does not realize that it cannot win the current litigation. Yes, it could prevail in court, but that simply adds fuel to the fire and guarantees that the conflict will continue. (Not to mention giving that much more for me and others to write about.) Put in other words, Bob threw the parish under the bus, but folks are blinded to that reality by their loyalty to Bob and their reluctance to admit their own mistakes.

That brings up a final but important point: The diocese tends to try to convince itself that it knows how to fix conflict, so it is unlikely to bring in outside experts. That said, the diocese is spectacularly bad at dealing with conflict, and in the case of Grace Church, a full-fledged intervention is necessary. Outside resources need to come in, wade through the mess, then discuss specific steps towards normalcy, including:

- Talking to others, versus about others.
- Avoiding triangulation.
- Assuming good intent.
- Respecting all opinions and perspectives, even if they are unpopular.
- Backing away from the emotion inherent in conflict.
- Recognizing that, approached properly, conflict can be a profoundly positive experience.
- Establishing written norms.

In short, any sort of resolution starts with the diocese recognizing that Bob occupied the position of power, as is always the case with relationships between clergy and congregants. Thus, it is incumbent for the diocese to start the painful but necessary process of telling the truth, which includes the fact that clergy are always responsible for maintaining appropriate boundaries — always. And that includes not lying about your parishioners, as Bob has done in my case, trying to bully them, or engaging in Bob’s manipulative games. Or, for that matter, committing perjury.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Bishop Goff, come tear down Bob’s lies. Come tell the truth.”

We’ll wait.


Sunday, May 3, 2020

Why Grace’s Transition is Doomed to Fail

Grace Church has a problem. Not just one problem, but one really big problem. Specifically, the interim/transition process is not going to succeed.

To be fair, there are some incremental improvements under Michael Guy. But long-term success simply isn’t going to happen.

The problem is that Grace Church is an isolated system. Yes, it has some external interfaces with the diocese, but those are limited to information that flows through Michael Guy and the vestry. And that information is filtered via a constant, which is the family system in the parish.

What does that mean in practice? 

Primarily that the parish survey and other data obtained during the transition process reflects only the views of those who have stayed throughout Bob Malm’s reign of feckless, narcissistic indifference. Thus, survey results are inherently skewed towards those who think Grace Church is wonderful, or at least tolerable. That omits the experiences of the dozens of people who have left the parish in recent years. the loss of 1/3 of its pledging units, and the breach of trust evinced by Bob Malm’s decision to try to drag a dying woman into court, his perjury, his lies, his smear campaigns and more. And even otherwise sensible individuals either turn a blind eye to these issues, or actively provide support. 

Consider: Sugarland Chiow and his family remain members of the church and attend regularly, despite his written claims that the church is the victim of “domestic terrorism.” What kind of husband or parent exposes his wife and children to a situation that he claims involves “domestic terrorism?” One has to wonder.

Thus, as a closed system, members perpetuate the notion that all is well at Grace Church and resoundingly reject anyone who says otherwise. Anyone who disagrees gets tagged as “dysfunctional,” which is Bob Malm’s not-so-Christian label for anyone who disagrees with him. And folks like Jean Reed, Kemp Williams, and Kelly Gable feel free to wade in with their gossip and speculation — but never with any concern for the person they claim is “dysfunctional.” In short, Grace is a goofy loop of narcissistic self-ratification with no external reference point.

Nor will the diocese be of any help. It refuses to address the problems in the parish, and adamantly refuses to tell the truth, even going so far as to trot out the specious argument that Bob Malm is not perjurer on the grounds that he hasn’t been convicted. I guess the same logic applies to sexual misconduct: Clergy cannot, for example, be child molesters unless they have been convicted. After all, molesting children is illegal, right?\

The sad reality is that Grace Church needs truthtelling. It needs to see itself as others see it. It needs to understand that bullying, hateful comments, mobbing, gossip (the speculation about married men in the parish being gay is particularly ugly), and more are neither normal nor acceptable in a healthy church.

So how will the church gain perspective? A good start is being going outside the church’s closed system and surveying the world outside its doors. What do school staff think about the church? Former members? Members of other parishes? Church members in other denominations? What would former members say if asked why they left? What are their thoughts on how the church responds to conflict? Such data should be requested both via the website and in-person listening sessions.

(I’ll give you a hint: It is entirely inappropriate for clergy to try to label people who disagree with them as “dysfunctional”. It’s even more inappropriate to make those statements in emails to diocesan officials. And still more inappropriate for Shannon “Two-Faced” Johnston to accept these sorts of communications from clergy. See below.)



Much of the feedback that would come in would be unsettling. Some would be downright ugly, as it reflects Bob’s ugly conduct. But as Bob Malm said in his communication to the Grace vestry, when he disseminated his facially untruthful “talking points,” “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” 

As things stand, Grace Church, its leadership and the diocese are wedded to Bob Malm’s perjury and other misconduct. As such, they are imprisoned by the toxic legacy of Bob Malm.


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Jason Roberson Pulls a Bob Malm and Argues Alternative Facts

At a time when Grace church is dealing with record declines in giving and participation, there are multiple ways to deal with the situation. Some ways likely will be successful; others not. But one strategy is guaranteed to fail, and that is to argue “alternative facts,” as Jason Roberson attempts to do in the November edition of the church newsletter, Grace Notes. 

Specifically, it’s neither useful, nor helpful, nor truthful, to claim that the parish is “growing and flourishing.” It is not. Not financially, not numerically, not spiritually.

Indeed, it’s in a state of precipitous decline, brought about by years of Bob Malm’s feckless performance as rector and toxic conduct at various levels within the parish, including:
  • Committing perjury, as Bob has done with the assistance and support of Sugarland Chiow and the vestry.
  • Lying to the parish and others by claiming that Mike and I left on our own, as the vestry did via messaging supplied by Bob Malm and Sugarland Chiow.
  • Trying to drag a dying woman into court.
On top of that, I hate to break it to Jason, but folks are not looking at doubling down on their pledges. Or, as one parishioner said to me, “If the church has enough money to pay [church office staff] to sit on their fat asses, do nothing all day, and give me attitude, it doesn’t need my money.”

Same for $3,000 farewell parties for heads of school, rectors who make 200K and are at the beach for a month every summer (but to my knowledge never once turned up, for example, at Carpenter’s Shelter), and the church generally living above its means for years. And let’s not forget that 2014 bonus of 100K the church paid to Bob Malm, which was entirely inappropriate. (One knucklehead, Lisa Medley, asked at the relevant vestry meeting if the amount could be increased to $200,000. “Private inurement,” anyone?)

DC is expensive, and many in this area haven’t had a vacation in years. Even fewer spend a month at the beach each summer. Many in the parish already are tapped out, and few want to dig even deeper to help out. 

Nor should the church count on planned giving as a bailout. Even those of us without kids have folks we want to care for when we are gone, and for many that does not include a church that engages in toxic behavior or turns a blind eye to its rector committing perjury in court.

So, for those still reading, I will tell you what really needs to happen.

First, the church needs to become healthy in every way and truly become a center for healing. Healthy relationships with each other, with God, and with the church’s past, parts of which are remarkably ugly and un-Christian, all are part of the deal. And it needs to take a healthy approach to the challenges facing it, which includes not trying to sweep them under the rug or arguing alternative facts. In other words, don’t claim the church is “growing and flourishing.”

Second, the parish needs to become a real center for outreach. The old Episcopal approach of metaphorically putting a bucket by the sea and waiting for the fish to jump in simply is not working. Three percent of budget for outreach is a joke, even with the food pantry and Haiti being off-budget. And while you’re at it, honor your commitment to the diocese. 70K a year doesn’t cut it.

Third, Grace needs to make a commitment to grow. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, most churches grow just about as much as they choose to grow, and this is simply something that has never been a priority for the church. And no, Art on the Avenue and a few extra signs on the lawn are not going to cut it.

Fourth, as a near-term tactical matter, the diocese needs to help by providing guidance in situations such as this. While Jason’s efforts were well-intended, it is exactly this sort of mistake that undercuts confidence in the transition and search process. Nor are existing internal vetting processes adequate—church staff and volunteers are simply too close to the issues to exercise the sort of independent judgment needed to avoid missteps of this sort.

So, I appreciate Jason’s positive spin, but it’s counterproductive to pretend that the church doesn’t have issues, or that it is not in decline. It has many serious challenges, some of which have been festering for decades. The sooner the church decides to look the monster right in the eyes, the sooner it can deal with the monster. But ignoring the monster won’t make it go away.

Ignoring the monster will simply result in the monster of decline consuming the church.

Jason Roberson Argues Alternative Facts





Sunday, September 29, 2019

Report from Dysfunctional Bob’s Final Day as Rector

Before we go further, two important reminders for parishioners and staff at Grace Episcopal, aka St. Dysfunction:
  1. When I am protesting, I am filming from at least two vantage points. That means that several of you are now part of internet history, and you and your vehicle, including your license plates, are now publicly posted as you fire off those one-gun salutes to Jesus. You’re also likely to feature prominently in the second release of my video, named Begin with Grace after the school recruiting video, which provides prospective members a first-hand look into parish dynamics. So, it was with great pleasure that I filmed Lisa Medley and five other people today — keep up the good work! They’ll know you are Christians by your love! (Viewers report they especially like the juxtaposition of my sign and parishioners firing off the one-gun salute. Something about really speaking to the church’s compassion.)


  2. Pursuant to Va. Code § 18.2-60.3, I have previously notified the church in writing that I do not want any further contact from members, staff, or diocesan officials. Under that statute, those of you who feel compelled to contact me anyway may face criminal charges for stalking. And if you don’t think I’m enough of a jerk to file charges, try me. 
On that happy note, I protested outside Grace today. It was a great day, and got a chance to talk with multiple neighbors of the church. Also present was the police unit I had requested in light of Bob Malm’s previous episode, in which he drove up to me, climbed out of his vehicle, and began screaming and threatening me. Needless to say, between that and Bob’s questionable connection with reality, including his false claim that he was repeatedly contacted by my mom or someone claiming to be her, I think there is a strong possibility that Bob may be both dangerous and mentally ill.

The unit sat across Russell Road from me and convinced one profoundly foolish parishioner that picking a fight was not a great idea. Leaving aside the obvious issues, coming up to me and yelling, or flipping me off, tends to undercut Dysfunctional Bob and Sugarland Chiow’s claim that people are frightened of me; few approach someone they believe to be dangerous and flip them off.

Speaking of, it is beyond stupid to flip people off while driving. If nothing else, more than one road rage incident has been caused by the ol’ one-gun salute to Jesus, and any police officer worth her or his salt would advise you not to do it. Get a clue, kids. Don’t try this at home.



On a more macro level, the conduct from parishioners that I documented today underscores one of Dysfunctional Bob’s great failings as rector. Specifically, he not only failed to teach effective conflict resolution, but through his example (and that of Sugarland Chiow) he taught parishioners that any sort of conduct is okay if you think it will help you get the upper hand. Lying, committing perjury, trying to drag the dying into court — from Malm’s perspective, it’s all good.

Looking forward, I have several observations:
  • The more Grace parishioners revert to type with the ad hominem attacks, the middle finger, etc., the more they prove my point, which is that Grace at its heart is a toxic church. And the more they prove my point, the faster Grace Church implodes. As for those who have given generously, in some cases for decades, I offer this fair warning: If the church does not address its issues, it will not be too many more years before Grace Church collapses due to declining membership, participation, and giving. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Since parishioners still have not figured it out, I am going to reiterate something I’ve said many times: The church cannot force people to quit speaking about their experiences with the parish. If the church thinks that suing former members, pushing Mike out of the church, lying under oath, calling other Christians “domestic terrorists,” and trying to drag a dying woman into court are okay, so be it. But then the church must live with the consequence, which is lasting reputational damage. And discussion of your conduct is protected by the First Amendment. However, defamation by church members, including public statements accusing me of alcoholism, having AIDS, and being mentally ill, are not. And those parishioners who believe that this conduct, along with urging me to commit suicide etc., will be effective in shutting me down are delusional.
  • Whoever the church chooses as an interim is in for a rough and bumpy ride, assuming the church actually takes things seriously and doesn’t just hire a seat warmer. But if the church does not take things seriously, it will be gone in the not-distant future. No one wants to join a church that bullies the dying and where members treat other the way people at Grace do. In other words, Grace Church is a hot mess, particularly in regard to organizational dynamics, and very little in the conduct of parishioners would suggest that this is the Body of Christ.
  • Parishioners have no idea how toxic their little stained glass cesspool really is. After 30 years of Dysfunctional Bob, much that passes as normative in the church would result in shock and horror elsewhere. Moreover, given the extent of organizational narcissism, it is going to be an uphill battle for an interim to convince people that this is the case.
  • There’s a fair amount of information out there about organizational narcissism, and parishioners and staff alike would be well-advised to read it. I’ll drop one leading hint: A big component is when an organization thinks it’s special. As when Bob Malm says, “I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much, [sic] when I suggest that at Grace Church we know, we practice “true religion”. [sic](Source: Sept. 3, 2017 sermon). And if Grace Church is an example of “true religion,” no thanks. You can keep it.
With that, off for a nice cool shower and some dinner.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

More Signs of Trouble from DioVA

As some of you know, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia recently announced that there will not be a vote on a Bishop Provisional at this weekend’s general convention. The news was released immediately following Sunday’s farewell reception for bishop Shannon, held at the Virginia Theological Seminary. 

Taken in light of recent events within the diocese, the announcement adds to the growing evidence that the diocese has serious governance issues. These include:
  1. The abrupt resignation this summer of Pat Wingo, who served as the bishop’s assistant, or canon to the ordinary.
  2. The collapse, not long after, of the search for a bishop adjutant, followed by the resignation of Bishop Shannon.
  3. Evidence of multiple bad decisions in the area of clergy discipline, including the diocese’s repeated failure to exercise appropriate supervision over Bob Malm, resulting in profound damage to the reputation of the church due to Bob’s claims of being threatened by terrorists, his decision to take a former parishioner to court, and his decision to try to drag an elderly dying woman into court.
  4. Multiple Title IV Disciplinary cases pending against Bishop Shannon, including one in which it is alleged that he acted to cover up repeated instances of sexual harassment by clergy under his supervision. (The office of the presiding bishop has refused on multiple occasions to update complainants on the status of their cases, raising the possibility of additional attempts at cover-up.)
  5. Signs of major conflict between the executive committee and the trustees of the funds. Not uncommon following litigation, such kerfuffles invariably end badly, and must be addressed immediately if they are to avoid snowballing.
  6. A bishop who, like many clergy, is conflict avoidant and tends to tell people what they want to hear. I have experienced this firsthand.
Of course, the handling of the search for a bishop provisional also is telling. The standing committee has been working on the matter since August 3, 2018, and no doubt knew it had a hot potato on its hands. Moreover, it was likely obvious from the get-go that the pool of applicants would be very limited, given that this is intended to be a three-year gig, the candidate must have previously served as a bishop, and must be under age 69 in order to comply with the canonically mandated retirement age of 72. All of this, at a time when a large number of bishop positions are open. Thus, it surely made sense to have both a Plan B and a Plan C in place, such that the diocese would not again have egg on its face if the search process ran into problems. Yet, here we sit, with the diocese now thoroughly covered in egg.

So, the more things change the more they stay the same. The diocese remains a hot mess, governance is in a shambles, and it’s the Wild, Wild West when it comes to clergy discipline within the diocese. And now, matters are compounded by a power vacuum at the top, for if there’s anything worse than an incompetent bishop, it’s governance via committee.

But the most telling sign of serious trouble in the diocese comes via the wry observation of a friend of mine, a Episcopal priest for more than 50 years. Many years ago, he said, “As a priest, you know you’re in trouble when the bishop starts saying nice things about you in public.” And so it is with Bishop Shannon, on whom the presiding bishop heaped fulsome praise following the announcement of his retirement.

Things surely are a hot mess in The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.






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.