Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Thursday, August 15, 2019
Among the guests at Dysfunctional Bob’s final service at Grace, slated for September 29, is the Episcopal bishop of Virginia. That may be a good sign, but it carries with it enormous risks. It also underscores the diocese’s role in supporting and covering up Bob Malm’s repeated incidents of misconduct, including his perjury.
On the one hand, the presence of the bishop may indicate that the diocese is taking the ungodly mess at Grace seriously. If Grace Church is to become healthy and survive, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done, and the diocese needs to be a missional partner in making that happen.
At the same time, the messaging here is both tricky and vital. The bishop cannot be seen to be dissing Dysfunctional Bob, but at the same time must be careful not to praise the many problems within the church, including bickering, shunning, and the utter disregard for the baptismal covenant evinced by many, including Dysfunctional Bob, Sugarland Chiow, and the parish vestry. Indeed, my conclusion is that Grace is not a church, but instead a religion club, with dynamics modeled on a college fraternity or sorority. Thus, the task at hand is not just to recover from the problems of Bob Malm’s tenure—it’s actually to build a church from what is now a social organization.
Complicating matters is the fact that Bob continues to try to tug on people’s heartstrings in order to convince them that his departure is a great loss, on a par with the stages of dying identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. This, from a priest whose response when people leave the parish due to conflict with him is, “Why should I give a fuck? People transfer all the time.” But the reality is the same goes for clergy, and Bob’s departure is long, long overdue. Moreover, while Bob would not agree with this statement, the years of dysfunction in the parish office, his refusal to supervise staff, his efforts to avoid dealing with staff issues by lying to vestry members, his failure to comply with denominational requirements like having a parish finance manual, his ongoing violation of church canons, and his sense of superiority and entitlement render Bob’s track record as rector sub-par, at best. And to parallel Bob’s statement about departing parishioners, priests transfer all the time, except that in healthy parishes it doesn’t take 30 years for this to happen.
As a result, the bishop can help by providing a vision of the future that focuses on hope, growth, unity, and cooperation. While Bob’s goal may be to pull in every last bit of adulation, the bishop can temper things by pointing people’s focus towards things that matter.
The wrinkle in things, of course, is that the diocese still refuses to recognize or address Bob’s multiple incidents of misconduct, including his perjury, but instead insists on covering them up. Thus, no matter how skillfully the diocese handles Bob’s retirement and the subsequent interim period, there remains an elephant in the living room. No one will take Grace Church, the diocese, or the bishop seriously as long as diocesan officials cover up Bob Malm’s perjury. Yes, parishioners may defer to the bishop, but the larger outside world still sees a dysfunctional organization that has lost any claim to ethical relevance.
Meanwhile, the bishop’s presence reinforces the hypocrisy of diocesan officials. Grace Church is important enough to warrant a visit from the bishop at Bob’s farewell, but not important enough to address Bob’s perjury or the other severe problems that lurk right behind the scenes. It’s also fair to point out, as previously discussed, that the diocese’s track record when it comes to clergy transitions is mixed, at best. And when it bollixes things, often due to bad advice from J.P. Causey, the diocese has shown an unparalleled ability to leave a disaster in its wake.
I can also assure all involved that my efforts to publicize Bob’s misconduct and the diocese’s ensuing cover-up will not stop with Bob’s retirement. People need to understand that while the diocese talks a good game, and likes to gas on about the baptismal covenant, there is no substance to any of it, The reality is that even criminal activity such as perjury is okay for Episcopal clergy, as long as they’re not convicted.
So, the bishop can roll through, pointy hat and crozier in tow, and put on a good show, but it does nothing to correct the underlying moral bankruptcy of the parish, the diocese or The Episcopal Church. These issues cannot be ignored, glossed over, or be treated as matters that hopefully resolve themselves over time. Only when these issues are addressed will there be any hope for the future.
Saturday, July 27, 2019
Check out Bob Malm’s sermon from 7/21, found here. There are several issues with the sermon, one of which is disturbing and highly inappropriate. The latter involves Bob’s invocation of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’smodel of the five stages of grief in discussing his retirement.
First, the author of the book “Death and Dying” is not Elizabeth Kubler Ross, as cited in Bob’s sermon. It’s Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Moreover, given that she wrote the book at a time when women were often treated with disdain by the largely male medical profession, it might be nice to recognize the fact that the author was an MD. That said, Bob has never been one to type his own sermons, so he gets a pass on that one.
Second, Bob’s recollection of the book is inaccurate. Kübler-Ross’s book is not about the reactions of dying children, but rather about dying patients of every age, albeit with most of her subjects being adults. Indeed, in a subsequent book, Kübler-Ross noted that children have some profound differences in their views toward dying, most notably that children below a certain age cannot grasp the concept of the finality of death. This correlates with the differing physiological aspects of terminally ill children, with many becoming more animated as these move into the preactive phase of dying. This differs from adults, who typically become more withdrawn as they enter this phase.
Third, and most significantly, while it is important to care for parishioners at a time of change such as this, the reality is that clergy come and go. In fact, many contend that it is unhealthy for clergy to stay more than 7 to 10 years; when clergy stay longer, they often tend to feel an unhealthy ownership of a church, versus recognizing that they are there to serve the church and its members. But in either case, clergy are there to point members toward God, the divine. They are not there to point members to themselves. Thus, correlating one’s retirement with the grieving process that occurs with death is highly inappropriate.
To be fair, Kübler-Ross herself noted that her model not only applies to death, but to the grief that comes from relationships that end, jobs that end, and other forms of loss. But clergy are never friends, and it is not possible to have a healthy pastoral relationship and be friends with your parishioners. You may be friendly, and that is good, but you may not be friends. Thus, Bob’s retirement is the transition from one professional relationship to another professional relationship.
Moreover, if Grace’s search committee, the diocese, and the church’s members all work together, Bob’s retirement is an opportunity to build a healthier church in which conflict is handled appropriately, in which faith and friendly are not conflated, and in which healthy boundaries within the parish are established and maintained. In that context, members hopefully will learn that there is never a situation in which it is appropriate to urge others to commit suicide, or for clergy to commit perjury, or for a church to try to drag a dying woman into court. Or, for that matter, to bully each other. For any reason. Ever.
Above all, Bob Malm’s retirement is a chance for church members to put their faith into practice. The way people in the church talk to each other, and about each other, is highly inappropriate, contrary to the baptismal covenant, and contrary to Christian values.
Will members of Grace Church ultimately learn from the problems of the Malm era? The answer is that it will depend on their willingness to examine their conduct, their attitudes, their faith, both individually and collectively. Affection for Bob, which in many cases borders on idolatry, makes this a challenging proposition. But without this careful introspection, and specific plans to enact meaningful change, Grace Church will not last much longer.
Yes, Grace Church is inclusive, but if it’s not spiritually sound, why bother? There are far cheaper and less demanding ways to enjoy time with others, and without all the petty nonsense, gossip, and bullying that goes on at Grace Church. And while Bob has improved on his previous feckless management practices, Bob’s conduct and decisions during his tenure as rector have been profoundly damaging to the parish. (Sorry folks, it takes two to tango. Even if you think I am utterly evil in every way, Bob’s handling of our conflict has been stupid and unethical on myriad levels, not the least of which is his decision to engage in perjury. And yet again, just ask Bob for proof that Mom, or someone claiming to be her, ever set up an appointment with him. This was a complete and utter fabrication, made in writing, under oath, and with the advice of legal counsel Jeff Chiow. But more importantly, he’s taught people to disrespect each other, and in doing so to disrespect God.)
Bob Malm will soon be a memory, and for some a positive memory. But real churches are not built around their rector, and healthy churches view change not as a loss, but as opportunity for new and possibly better things.
In the meantime, lose the five stages of death and dying analogies. As Bob himself once said of Peter and Cheryl Barnes leaving (and this is a direct quote), “Why should I give a fuck? People come and go all the time. People transfer in and out of churches.”
And yes, there were witnesses.
Sunday, December 23, 2018
One of the things Dysfunctional Bob Malm is proud of is his reign as the longest-serving rector of Grace Church, aka St. Dysfunction. Yes, he pretends that one day he looked up and realized he’d grabbed the gold ring, but trust me, he knew all along. And in Bob’s case, staying 30 years, which will soon have happened, isn’t something to be proud of —indeed, it’s been tremendously damaging to the church.
So why did Bob stay so long? Clearly, he didn’t plan to do so. Not only did he initially structure the deal on his personal residence for 5 years, but after the vestry foolishly extended the loan it made to him to purchase the place, Bob signaled in writing that he hoped to move on. That didn’t happen, most likely because Dysfunctional Bob couldn’t find another church willing to pay him at a level at his current outrageous level—a level that equals or surpasses many Episcopal bishops.
Moreover, on many fronts Bob hasn’t exactly been successful as rector. While St. Dysfunction is large enough that some might term it a cardinal church, it’s been slowly declining for many years, losing buying power and active members. Bob’s response? Having folks leaflet homes at Potomac Yards one time and show up at Art on the Avenue a few times. Big deal.
Compare this with St. Mary’s Arlington. While I have issues with Andrew Merrow, who is thoroughly checked out on multiple fronts and can be an arrogant little twit in private, one has to give him credit: Parish revenues have grown 50 percent over the past 10 years.
Compare this with Grace Church’s stats under Dysfunctional Bob:
Keep in mind, too, that a flat budget over ten years is, in reality, a 16 percent decrease in purchasing power.
Nor is Bob playing it smart. Having lost 2 full-time priests since 2014, with no sign that this is going to change any time soon, Dysfunctional Bob is shutting down the church for the week after Christmas; there will be no weekday Masses until the new year. Not exactly a good way to appeal to the small but loyal group that attends these services, and many of whom date from the days when attending church was normative. But then, having worked so damned hard on Christmas Eve, Bob needs time to regroup. After all, it’s a long time until his month off in the summer.
Nor does Bob have the integrity and self-awareness needed to leave before he has stayed too long. This contrasts unfavorably with Rick Lord, former rector of Holy Comforter in Vienna, who was very upfront about the fact that it was time for him to go, even though he was on top of his game. (Bob hasn’t been on top of his game for many years.)
There are many additional signs that Bob has stayed too long. These include resistance to change (Bob’s middle name—right beside Dysfunction), a negative reaction to feedback, a feeling of ownership, a belief that the rules don’t apply to him, and the notion that he’s irreplaceable.
To more fully explore these ideas, check out the excellent article, “10 Signs the Pastor or Church Employee Has Been There Too Long,” written by Joe McKeever and available here. Although written from an SBC perspective, the article’s key truths are valid across denominations, and make clear that Dysfunctional Bob is the poster person for clergy who have stayed far too long.
Thursday, December 6, 2018
One of the fastest ways to run a church into the ground is for the pastor or rector to stay too long. That raises the question: Does Bob Malm realize he’s worn out his welcome? My guess is that he instinctively knows that he has indeed worn out his welcome, but he’s too narcissistic to readily admit this, even to himself.
In cases where clergy do overstay their welcome, the results can be devastating for the church. For example, the church where my offices were located was blessed with a beautiful physical plant, wealthy members, and a location in one of the nation’s most affluent suburbs. Yet, even with a generous endowment, the church struggled to hold on. Why? Because the previous rector had stayed too long, slowly draining the life from the church, until it became a “ghost church.”
Similarly, Bob Malm increasingly is a grim relic of the past. With only the vaguest notion of how a computer works, Bob has little concept of social media, the needs of modern churches, or even how most of his church’s members live. For example, Bob once remarked on the generosity of parishioners, while adding that few, if any, parishioners were millionaires. Yet the reality is that, given the cost of living in Northern Virginia and housing costs, he actually has quite a few millionaires in his parish. Indeed, if you have paid off your mortgage, chances are you’re a millionaire.
Bob also harkens back to a long-gone time when clericalism was the name of the game, and Episcopal priests were little mini-monarchs whose word went unquestioned, and who were regarded as pillars of the community. Today, of course, that is no longer true, and many, myself included, instinctively cringe when we see a man in clericals.
The demise of clericalism also means that church members increasingly want to see their clergy as separate but equal, versus separate and special. That means that people have little patience for clergy who, like Bob, think it’s adequate to poke their head in and say, “Great job!,” while never actually getting involved with the food pantry, the hypothermia shelter, work in Haiti, or any of the other myriad ways churches look beyond their walls.
Nor do clergy automatically get respect. Churchgoers expect clergy to live not perfect lives, but exemplary lives, while avoiding anything that smacks of hypocrisy. Trying to force parishioners out of church, falsely calling them “domestic terrorists,” and lying in court all while professing the love of Jesus and their enduring Christian faith doesn’t fool anyone, and churchgoers today will quickly back away from a church where this sort of dishonesty is okay. Empty Jesus-babble might have worked in the 1970’s, but it is completely counterproductive in 2018.
Neither do the things that Bob values resonate today. Most inwardly cringe at the whole elitist prep school routine, and while there are circles that do still value such things, most church members can’t really connect with this increasingly irrelevant section of society. Nor does Bob really have the resources to move in those circles. Yes, he may be a Hiller, but the reality is most families that send their kids to prep school aren’t getting sued for the kids’ unpaid dental bills. Same for the whole sports and big-man-on-campus routine. Leaving aside the fact that Bob’s rather too geriatric to play that card, today’s young people are more likely to value those, for example, who have a strong social media presence.
Where does that leave Bob Malm? I’d respond by saying that at this point Bob has made such a mess of things it’s better to not even try to fix things, but instead to just get the hell out of Dodge.
Of course, that won’t be easy, as Bob appears, like most narcissists, to be strongly wedded to the recognition and adulation he receives at work, all the while being firmly convinced that he doesn’t need anyone else—an amusing notion for someone whose very livelihood depends on the generosity of others. And Bob is very good at pulling otherwise sensible people into his web of narcissistic machinations, getting what he needs from them, and discarding them when his needs have been met. Hardly a Christian worldview, or a recipe for long-term church health.
In the meantime, it’s interesting: Folks like Jeff Chiow, who are probably quite sensible and respected in other areas of their life, are utterly blind to the mess that Grace Church is fast becoming, or their role in creating that mess. Yet behind the scenes, Grace Church continues to quickly unravel, and may not even wind up with 200 pledging units this year.
In short, Grace Church is in a bad way, and no amount of generosity on the part of its members will be adequate to fix that mess, or to undo the problems Bob and his minions have created for the church.