Showing posts with label interim clergy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label interim clergy. Show all posts

Monday, October 14, 2019

Word on the Street: Grace is Toxic

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.”

And that in a nutshell is Grace Church.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Looking for Jesus? You Won’t Find Him in the Discourse at Grace Church

As Grace Church prepares for Dysfunctional Bob’s departure and the arrival of an interim rector, one thing is painfully clear: Any interim brave enough (or perhaps foolish enough) to take the position has her work cut out for her. Specifically, after 30 years of Dysfunctional Bob and his sordid example, the way people in the church talk about each other, and to each other, is appalling.

To be sure, it took me a long time to spot this issue myself. Indeed, it was a member of the Grace Episcopal School staff, herself Episcopal, who pointed it out to me in 2014. Her exact words: “I would never belong to your church, and it’s because of the way people talk to each other. And it goes right to the top. And I’ll tell you right now, Bob will never say anything about it. And because he engages in a certain amount of it himself, he shows people that it’s alright.”

At the time, I foolishly came to Bob’s defense; it was more than a year later before I finally realized that she was absolutely correct.

Now, with the advantage of hindsight, and having seen firsthand that Dysfunctional Bob is morally bankrupt and a perjurer as well, I realize that this ugly discourse does indeed permeate every aspect of Grace Church. Whether it’s Alison Campbell and her fun and games with the altar guild; Lisa Medley and her bullying/bitchy behavior; Teresa Preston and her gestures that indicate she believes I’m mentally ill; Eric Waskowiscz, Amy Medrick and others with their one-gun salutes to Jesus, or Bob Malm in his emails to the vestry and the diocese, there is a profoundly un-Christian attitude within the church that comes to the surface when parishioners talk to each other.

Before we go further, I am not the only one to notice it. Kyle Babin, himself the target of bullying by choir members, called it an “evil spirit” at Grace Church.  Former member John Cunningham posted to Facebook, saying he left the parish due to bullying and other abusive conduct (screen cap below).

Additionally, folks at the Wartburg Watch commented on ugly comments from Lisa Medley and Leslie Malm; the former didn’t even have the courage to post under her name. Their comment: “[these parishioners] seem sane to themselves, they seem immature and hateful to outsiders looking at their behavior.” (Screen cap below)

Going right to the top, we have Dysfunctional Bob’s email to the vestry, in which he describes me as a “sad individual...starving for attention.” While this is an interesting bit of projection from Bob Malm, who regularly curries adulation in order to support his shaky sense of self, the fact the he feels comfortable talking about a former parishioner to the vestry in this manner is telling and illustrates the church culture that Bob has promoted during his 30 years with the parish. (Screen cap below.)

Of course, there also is the comment from a college-aged member of Lisa Medley’s family, in which she urges me to commit suicide. (Screen cap below.)

So what can an interim do to address this situation? Establishing written norms would be helpful, but unpacking and fixing 30 years’ of Dysfunctional Bob’s toxic behavior and lessons learned within the parish about conflict resolution will probably take professional intervention. Even then, it’s an uphill battle, and both the diocese and church members like to sweep such issues under the rug and deny that an issue exists. Indeed, toxic parishioners like Lisa Medley not only deny that an issue exists, but also attack anyone who raises these issues. (Screen cap below.)

It should also be noted that Dee Parsons, publisher of the Wartburg Watch, herself experienced Bob Malm’s efforts at bullying and manipulating her. First, Bob tried the noisy bluster approach, which didn’t work at all. Then he tried flattery. Then he tried manipulation, claiming that Dee had promised to take down any posts about me, all the while ignoring Dee’s recommendation to work towards reconciliation.

As one looks at other correspondence from within the parish, including Jean Reed’s speculation that I am mentally ill, as well as former friend Kemp Williams comments, one reaches the same conclusion that user Ishy, a commenter on the Wartburg Watch, came to as she asked church members:

“What kind of Christians are you? I don’t see any love or concern for Eric in your posts. I don’t see that you tried to do anything about it other than make sure Eric couldn’t come back either. (Emphasis added. Original in screen cap above.)

That conclusion holds true for Bishop Susan Goff on down to the Grace Church vestry and membership. Nowhere is there any evidence of any real concerns including for Mike and my other family members hurt by Bob Malm’s conduct, and that of the church. 

So, if you are a prospective interim and you are reading this, just know that if you take the job you are going to have one toxic mess on your hands, and one that requires professional outside intervention.

On the other hand, if you are a church leader reading this and contemplating hiring Bob Malm as supply clergy, you should know that this is part of the baggage that comes with Bob Malm. Caveat emptor.

Lastly, if you are a prospective member, it is important to know that right behind the beautiful, friendly exterior, this is the sort of internal rot that runs rampant at Grace Church. If you join the parish, this is part of the package deal. To quote Proverbs, “in the tongue is the power of life and death.”

Grace Church is just plain bad karma.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Grace Episcopal: Predictions for the Coming Year

Years ago, a regular at Grace Church offered the observation that he “didn’t want to be there when Bob Malm leaves.”  While I am confident that he does not consider Bob Malm to be a narcissist, nor given it a whole lot of thought, he stumbled onto something. Instinctively, he recognized that, after years of Bob Malm’s self-centered antics and manipulation of members and the vestry, taking Bob out of the mix will result in bedlam. And on that score, that individual is spot on.

As is typical in such situations, far too many parishioners regard their goal as meeting Bob’s approval. Indeed, as one former assistant rector put it, “There is such a sense of shame among those women when something goes wrong at the altar guild.” That’s both telling and appalling, for serving God should never come with shame. Yet the altar guild acts like an organizational narcissist, worried above all about how things look, and protecting its perceived collective interests, versus attending to the common good of the parish.

How does the altar guild enforce its priorities? By treating any perceived deviation as grounds for shunning, ostracism, and criticism. Hardly indicative that its true purpose is serving God.

Similarly, both the choir and the vestry far too often engage in bad behavior when members feel threatened. The same is true for church staff, which historically has had no issue with yelling at church members or otherwise engaging in inappropriate conduct. 

Nor are church members generally immune from these trends. Whether it’s gossiping about one member’s alleged penile implant, issues within Bob Malm’s family, or married members who are rumored to be conducting homosexual affairs on the side, things get ugly right beneath the surface. And of course, there are issues like Lisa Medley’s disclosure of confidential giving, documented on The Wartburg Watch, that underscore just how toxic the parish really is. Moreover, members feel it is their prerogative to wade into conflict and punish the person they believe is the offender by gossip, bullying, and social exclusion. (Yes, I am referring inter alia to Alison Campbell, Jan Spence, and Lisa Medley.)

So, from this ugly mix, the Perjurer-in-Chief, Bob Malm, is set to leave. His departure will set in motion a jockeying for power at every level. As part of this, whoever the interim is will face strong headwinds, including both being compared to Bob Malm, and when he or she does stuff that varies with “the way we’ve always done things,” being confronted with the bullying, shunning, and other misconduct that is part and parcel of life at Grace Church.

This underscores the larger issue, which is that church members will need to explore the promise and problems of Bob Malm’s tenure with the parish. Doing so will face tremendous resistance, as the traditional way the parish handles such things is to ignore them and shove them under the rug. So the problem is two-fold: Both unlearning harmful approaches to dealing with conflict, and then dealing with the underlying issues themselves. And keep in mind that these issues have had 30 years to fester; unlearning them won’t happen in three weeks, or even three years.

Then there’s the ethical component of parish life. Grace is a church is which it’s okay for the rector to commit perjury, to subpoena the dying, to file false police reports, and to engage in truly ugly rhetoric. With Jeff Chiow and Bob Malm as role models, it’s difficult to know even where to begin. Certainly, the legacy they leave serves as a dismal role model for children, and it’s going to be difficult to attract new church members with this as part of the church’s history. And Jeff remains active at the parish, which means he undoubtedly will try to defend and justify his actions, despite the damage they have caused to the parish.

Giving also wil be an issue. With more than 1/3 of pledging units gone, the remaining donors have stepped up their giving. But time and demographics are running against the parish, and the church has never understood that in order to grow, you have to make a commitment to grow. 

Nor does the parish have a vision of the future. Yes, members jealously guard their prerogatives and the things that are important to them, but beyond that, the church has an entirely tactical worldview. Even the HVAC project was simply ignored until events forced the church’s hand, despite the fact that there have been dozens of warning signs in recent years. So the church will have to decide whether it wants to grow, and what it wants to be in its future, or it can continue on in swimming in its ever smaller stained glass cesspool, blissfully unaware that the waters are toxic and it is slowly. So, this will be a point of contention, but the good old days of living for today are fast coming to a close.

Of course, all this change means that members will revert to type, so conflict will loom large during the coming year. As a result, both attendance and giving likely will decline, and some members who leave during the coming months will never return.

Will Grace Church make it? There’s reason to doubt it.

But no matter how things pan out, there will be some serious fireworks in the year ahead.

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.