Showing posts with label vestry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vestry. Show all posts

Monday, October 7, 2019

Planning to Pledge This Fall? If So, Remember that Grace Episcopal’s Vestry Lies to Its Members

Know anyone else who’s gotten an email like this from Bob Malm?

And remind me, why exactly did Bob Malm direct Mike to leave?

Any church whose vestry lies to parishioners is one you should avoid at all costs.

My advice, worth exactly what you paid for it.

Friday, August 23, 2019

See for Yourself: Vestry Talking Points Demonstrate Questionable Veracity

When you elect people to a church vestry or board, you expect them to be honest and diligent, right? Well, in the case of the Grace Church vestry, you’d have just cause to ask tough questions about the former.

Attached is the vestry talking points document circulated about this conflict. In it are several questionable assertions:
  1. The document asserts that I left on my own. If that’s the case, why did Bob Malm feel the need to send an email to me and Mike, telling us we are unwelcome? And by did he instruct church staff and volunteers to exclude us? For the record, I didn’t transfer my membership until 2017. And it was not until 2018 that Mike and I asked to have our names removed from all Episcopal church records.
  2. If there is no truth to my concerns, why then do I have messages like the one that follows, from Peter Barnes, then senior warden, which was sent after one of Bob’s spates of inappropriate behavior. In it, Peter is very clear: “It’s Bob, not you.”
  3. As discussed elsewhere, at no point have I threatened anyone at Grace Church, and Bob knows it. Indeed, his actions, in which he tries to use his role as clergy to discredit me, claim that I am mentally ill, and stoke fears within the church prove the accuracy of my underlying contentions. 
  4. The use of inflammatory, prejudicial rhetoric in his pleadings, including his references to a non-existent church shooting in the equally non-existent town of “Sugarland Texas,” together with his treating this as a personal vendetta, underscores Jeff Chiow’s questionable ethics.
And, while I’m engaged in what Jeff  “Sugarland” Chiow delicately refers to as “ranting and raving,” for the love of the almighty, the header doesn’t get a question mark. Just because it references a question doesn’t make the clause a question. Sheesh.


Sunday, April 7, 2019

Lies from the Grace Vestry

Here’s another example of lies coming from Grace Church, this time from the vestry.

The first screen cap shows the vestry’s talking points, in which the vestry claims that I left the parish voluntarily. (Gotta love those “specific security measures,” — far better than “inchoate security measures.” And heaven knows—protesters are a HUGE risk to our national security. Who was the moron who came up with the First Amendment?)

The second is a written timeline from Dysfunctional Bob in which he states that I was removed from various church volunteer activities. That begs the issue—if I had already left “voluntarily,” why the need to “remove” me?

And here is Bob Malm’s email telling me to get lost, which tellingly includes Mike:

Apropos Bob’s denial of bullying behavior, the very fact that he’s lying about me and others entrusted to his pastoral care, and referring to me as “sick,” “twisted,” and “dysfunctional” disproves his assertion. Moreover here, for example, is a text message from Peter Barnes, after an incident of Bob’s bullying behavior at a church personnel committee meeting:

As to bullying generally, one need only look to the post from a college-aged parishioner urging me to kill myself to see just how dysfunctional and sick Grace Church really is:

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when even the church vestry lies. If the vestry as a group can’t be counted on to tell the truth, what’s left? And saying, “Well, I don’t want to get involved,” doesn’t cut it—the vestry is responsible for the church’s temporal affairs.

Grace church, toxic church.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Blast From the Past: Internal Controls Checklist

As the St. Dysfunction vestry meets tonight to discuss, inter alia, the church's 2019 budget, here's a great bit of context I came across from my old blog: A completed version of the Episcopal Church's internal controls checklist. The denomination asks that all parishes complete this as part of the annual audit required under canon law.

As you can see, despite (or perhaps because of) Dysfunctional Bob's 29 years with the parish, the church's internal controls are a hot mess. More to the point, there basically are none.

Needless to say, this evinces a profound lack of respect for the generosity of church members. I mean, how the hell can Bob Malm get paid more than many bishops, but he can't be bothered with basic aspects of his job, like this?

While my normal copyright forbids any usage or reproduction of content on this site, permission is granted to church auditors, loan officers, and bankers to reprint this and use as needed.

Here it is, in PDF.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Looking Ahead to 2019: More Protests and Possible Lawsuits

As we get ready to move into 2019, protests continue over Dysfunctional Bob Malm’s conduct, as well as that of Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow. Look for me and others at:

1) King and Seminary aka Dysfunction Junction aka Malm Square(d)
2) the monument at Braddock and Russell Road
3) the front of MOM’s
4) the intersection of Commonwealth and Mount Vernon avenues.
5) 395 during rush hour

Although we have not yet made a final go/no-go decision, I believe it likely that I and several other plaintiffs will file suit against the church, vestry, Bob Malm and family, and several individual parishioners in Federal district court in late January. Assuming we proceed, a second lawsuit is expected later in the spring.

Stay tuned for details.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Plunging Stock Market May Exacerbate Grace Church’s Financial Woes

With recent stock market activity showing some striking similarities to the market crash of 1987, and the double whammy of a possible partial shut-down of the federal government, Grace Episcopal Church may well enter 2019 in dire financial condition.

As I stated in previous posts, when factoring in depreciation and amortization, Grace has been running an annual deficit for many, many years. That trend, together with several related factors, has spelled a perfect storm in the making for quite some time. These factors include:
  1. An aging parish population.
  2. A costly physical plant.
  3. A wildly overpaid rector who often appears to place his own perceived self-interest ahead of the church.
  4. Decades of slipshod governance.
  5. Facially faulty financial reports.
  6. A rubber-stamp vestry largely controlled by Bob Malm.
  7. A refusal to save for the future.
  8. A culture that of denial and avoidance that has allowed the church to avoid dealing with these pressing issues for much of Bob’s tenure as rector.
  9. American culture, in which church membership is no longer normative, and where young people increasingly oppose organized religion.
  10. The hypocrisy of church hierarchies, including that of the Roman Church, and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
Now, with the stock market appearing poised to tank, the church faces several challenges:
  1. Year-end gifts of appreciated stock likely will be reduced.
  2. Parishioners on fixed incomes will find it difficult to maintain current pledging levels.
  3. Families directly or indirectly dependent on the federal government will face financial constraints.
  4. Investments, including the Grace Trust, which is heavily invested in the stock market, will lose value, thus reducing church revenue.
  5. Banks that might otherwise be willing to lend to the church will seek to reduce risk in the event of another major recession.
All this, of course, ties into the loss of public confidence caused by Dysfunctional Bob and Sugarland Chiow’s rather disastrous foray into court, continued misconduct and conflict within the parish, the departure of Fanny Belanger, the fact that Dysfunctional Bob will retire in the not distant future, and Bob Malm’s smear campaign against members of his own parish.

Grace church surely is poised for big problems over the next few years.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Notice Something Amusing? Grace Church Further Retreats from Good Governance

One recent amusing change is that Grace Church has pulled the vestry minutes from the website. Leaving aside the fact — the “burning question,” as Kemp Williams would call it — that I don’t rely on the website for access to the vestry minutes, it shows how utterly clueless Bob Malm and the church are.

Why is that? It’s because when an organization is in crisis, which St. Dysfunction clearly is, the secret to turning the situation around is utter — almost ruthless — transparency. That’s right, warts and all, you make a public commitment to transparency and accountability.

Going the opposite direction suggests to detractors, of whom Bob now has many, both within and without the church, that you have something to hide. 

And indeed that is the case. Bob is eager to reduce awareness of his multiple courtroom lies, his lies to parishioners (ranging from his infamous, “Don’t worry about it, they’ll be retiring this year,” to his claim, in writing, to multiple parishioners, that I agreed at the Fredericksburg meeting to adhere to the bishop’s “directives” — a curious proposition for someone not then even a member of the diocese of Virginia). Indeed, in utopia, Dysfunctional Bob would get a confidentiality agreement and the opportunity to slap a little Jesus-babble on things, with his usual inane claptrap about moving forward in grace, love and peace, as he continues to avoid accountability for his actions.

Moreover, Bob would like to shield from view the church’s collapsing finances and attendance. Yet the reality is all of that data gets reported to the national church and is a matter of public record, and available online to anyone who may be interested. Moreover, any church that can’t or won’t publicly share its board/vestry minutes, financial reports, and budget is one of which you should be most wary.

In short, at a time when numerous questions remain about the multiple governance issues and problems at St. Dysfunction, it’s utterly boneheaded to try to be clever by withholding information.

Speaking of, if you’re pledging at Grace Episcopal, did you ever get an good explanation as to the thousands of dollars of cash and stale checks found in the parish administrator’s office when Charlotte left? As in how it happened, and why no one discovered it for years? Or what steps have been taken to prevent a repeat? As I have said before, “We trust Beth,” is NOT an internal control.

I’ve got $100 that says the best anyone has gotten is some deflection from Dysfunctional Bob about how “we all knew Charlotte had to go.” Which does absolutely nothing to answer the question.

My advice if you are pledging: Caveat emptor. There is less transparency at Grace Church under Bob Malm than there is at many evangelical mega-churches, and this should make you very, very cautious.

In the meantime, check out this screen cap from, especially the part about increasing donations. Hashtag clueless.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Breaking News: Additional Lawsuit Possible Against Grace Episcopal, Diocese, Malm Family, Vestry Members

Shortly after Christmas, I will be out of town for several days to meet with attorneys and other potential plaintiffs to a multi-party lawsuit against Grace Episcopal Church, Dysfunctional Bob and his family, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, vestry members (both as officers of the organization and in their individual capacities) and several specific members of the parish. Should a decision be made to proceed, I anticipate we will be filing in federal district court towards the end of January.

Fun times on Planet Malm.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Dear Grace Church: Bob Malm Played You

In Bob Malm’s long-running vendetta against me, there’s a dirty little secret lurking right behind the scenes. 

The secret? It’s that Bob Malm played his own church. That’s right, folks, he threw you under the bus.

Here’s what you don’t know.

Late in 2017, it was Lindsey Malm who called the police. That’s right—Bob was not the culprit. 

Lindsey called because she didn’t like a post critical of Bob on Fairfax Underground. 

Alexandria police followed up, telling her that they couldn’t do anything unless there were threats.  That’s when Bob joined in the fray, with his weird muttering about protesting “making good on threats already made,” his comments and innuendo about me being unbalanced, and his taking random words out of context from my mom’s blog—one that very few people even knew existed prior to that time.

True to form, Bob quickly made the rounds, bouncing from the vestry, to the school, to the diocese. As he’s wont to do, Bishop Shannon didn’t have the common sense to put the brakes on Bob’s antics, and next thing you know Bob’s carrying on about single-button wireless panic buttons, active shooters, and topics he didn’t even know existed a year earlier. (Bob historically hasn’t even bothered to carry his wireless key fob for the alarm system, which itself has a single button panic feature.) Nor was Bob limited in his shuttle diplomacy; he even pulled the gullible and easily manipulated Leslie Steffensen into the mix, despite the fact she had long ago wandered off to an administrative job at the National Cathedral. And folks like Kemp Williams were quick to weigh in, even though he didn’t even know about Mom’s blog until Bob started his machinations.

As part of his efforts, Bob pulled Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow into things, even getting him to violate ethics provisions that prevent attornies from initiating or maintaining a frivolous cause of action. Why do I say that? Because while Jeff’s performance in this matter was amateur hour, at best, I am pretty sure that he realizes that random words, taken out of context, do not a threat make. And again, Jeff Chiow repeatedly lied in his pleadings.

When the case went to discovery, Bob Malm had no compunction against lying in his written responses to interrogatories, falsely claiming that only his wife Leslie had blogged about the matter, despite knowing full well that not only had Lindsey done so, but that she was the person behind the entire debacle. And being a “close” family, it’s a safe bet that Leslie and Lindsey both were in the know from the get-go.

Of course, in so doing, Bob turned a private kerfuffle into a churchwide issue, and in so doing placed Grace Church’s reputation on the line.

As things played out, Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow increasingly lost sight of his own ethical boundaries, inserting multiple fabrications into his pleadings, and even trying to drag a dying woman into court. Behind the scenes, this caused tremendous consternation in certain circles, with Fanny Belanger resigning soon after Sugarland’s abortive attempt to subpoena my mother. (The latter, by the way, is not permitted under relevant law.)

Now, Bob is in a trap of his own making, but true to form, he’s trying to make the whole debacle the church’s problem, even going so far as to bring the matter up at during a recent vestry meeting. Yes, on some level, the issue is the vestry’s concern, as it has served as a rubber stamp and allowed Bob repeatedly to abuse his authority as rector. At the same time, however, the vendetta ultimately was Bob’s doing, and it’s now his mess to clean up.

In that respect, Bob has a problem on his hands. By law, he and I cannot have any communication, and I have previously told him in writing that he is to have no further communication with me, either directly or through third parties. Should he choose to violate this request, Virginia law will treat his contact as a prima facie case of criminal stalking per Va. Code § 18.2, and he can be sure I will pursue criminal charges in record time. 

Nor do I wish to be contacted by any member or representative of Grace Church or the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, including employees, agents, or vestry members. Through his actions, including Jeff Chiow’s inflammatory pleadings, Dysfunctional Bob has shut down all communication, and that is how things will remain.

Nor would Bob be wise to attempt further litigation. There is ample evidence of defamation per se from Leslie and Lindsey Malm, and I am fully prepared both to pursue them individually, and to seek punitive damages.

The bottom line: Grace Church, you’ve been played. Bob ignored your best interests as he pursued his own agenda — one that involves a vile, vicious, vindictive personal vendetta.

So, lots more protesting, blogging, and media coverage to come, and it’s a safe bet Grace Church will be much smaller when all is said and done — if it survives at all.

Were I Bob’s attorney, at this point I’d suggest cutting his losses, retiring to Georgia, and hoping that some future rector, if there is one, can clean up his mess. 

Oh, and an apology to the parish for dragging it and its members into his Machiavellian fun and games would not be inappropriate. But don’t hold your breath—Bob appears incapable of actually taking responsibility for his actions. The best he can manage is some well-crafted acting that sounds sincere, but in reality is anything but.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Lack of Transparency Hinders Grace Episcopal Stewardship

There’s a great article on ECF Vital Practices this month about the importance of financial transparency to these success of churches. The article, found here, also illustrates why Grace Episcopal Church is in serious financial and spiritual trouble.

In the article, the author correctly notes that the vestry legally is responsible for establishing and supervising internal controls; the rector, vicar, or priest in charge is responsible for implementing those policies. 

The challenge for Grace church is that the church not only has next to no internal controls, but there is no vestry overnight of Bob Malm’s role in the church. None. Nada. Zip.

To make matters worse, Bob actively resists any supervision. Indeed, if you push his too hard, Bob will trot out the comment, “I’ve tried reaching out to you, but the anger and criticism continues. So you can either decide to be happy, or resign your positions....” You get the drill. But true to form, that overlooks the reality that Bob reports to the vestry, not the other way around, and he has no legitimate business trying to push people out of the church.

Nor is there any meaningful financial transparency. Line item detail for budgets and financials is conspicuously absent, and vestry members are asked to take Bob Malm’s word on the results of the annual pseudo-audit. In addition, details of compensation arrangements are kept secret from vestry members—which in one case, resulted in Richard Newman being overpaid, and being forced to repay the overage. (Not that he is over-compensated, by any measure.) So much for transparency.

And, of course, there is the more than a decade of absolute bedlam in the s***hole that was the parish administrator’s office. Hoards of paper, disorder, chaos, and facially obvious errors in financial reporting, not to mention repeated issues with the church’s bank deposits. Yet Bob Malm, compensated at a level consistent with many Episcopal bishops, adamantly refused to address these issues for years.

Then we come to the ugly matter of Bob’s bonus. Leaving aside the fact that bonuses should be reserved for employees who, at a minimum, meet job requirements, the $100,000 lump sum was negotiated not even by the executive committee, but by the senior warden and treasurer, and largely presented to the rest of the vestry as a fait accompli.  Indeed, the only argument came from one vestry member who wanted to write off the other $100K. Talk about throwing good money after bad!

In short, transparency, accountability, strategic planning and adherence to church canons are all in desperately short supply at Grace Church. So, this fall, as members think about their pledges for the coming year, I encourage them to ask tough questions like:
  • How do I know my money will be used appropriately?
  • Why didn’t we save the money for the HVAC work, instead of now talking about borrowing it?
  • When was the last time Bob Malm had a meaningful performance review, including being held accountable for his actions undertaken as rector?
  • Do I understand how my money is being used?
  • Why aren’t the budget and financial reports made publicly available?
  • Why can’t I see a copy of the “audit?”
  • Are internal controls adequate, and how do I know they are being followed?
  • What does it mean for the vestry to act as a fiduciary?
  • Why has the church experienced so many issues with its financial reporting over the years, and how do I know that these issues are really resolved?
  • How did Bob Malm manage to unilaterally get into a conflict with former church members? Was the vestry involved in the decision to remove Mike and Eric from church membership roles? Or did I find out about that after the fact? And what does this situation tell me about internal controls and decision making at Grace Church?
  • When independent third parties, like commenters at The Wartburg Watch, say things like, “That is one seriously toxic church you have, Eric,” why do they say that, and what might this be telling me about governance at the church?
Until these questions are answered, I encourage church members to withhold their funds. Members have a right to transparency, accountability, and Christian conduct by Bob Malm, the vestry, and church staff, and so far they are getting damned little of any of these items.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Denial: It Ain’t Just a River in Egypt

In reading over recent reports about the sorry state of Grace Church’s budget, there is one theme that runs throughout. It’s a theme that is both amusing and appalling. What is that theme? It is the notion that the multiple failures in the building infrastructure, particularly in the HVAC systems, were both unexpected and cost more than anticipated. 

For the record, neither is true.

When I served as junior warden in 2014, I repeatedly warned about underinvestment in the building. Indeed, that was the theme of my article in the annual report. Similarly, in his final days at the church, David Adams warned both of the lack of replacement reserves, and the lack of a replacement reserve study.

The same issues came up in 2015, with Lisa Medley offering bitchy innuendo when the property committee yet again sent its recommendations to the vestry, only to again be ignored. 

Nor was this unprecedented. During the last capital campaign, HVAC experts recommended replacing HVAC piping in the building, only to be ignored.

Moreover, I personally sent several memos to Bob Malm while serving on the vestry, pointing out that cost structures were unsustainable, that income was inadequate, and reserves perilously thin. True to form, Bob made the right noises, but otherwise brushed things off.

Throughout all this, the stupid expenditures and inept financial planning continued, including:
  • Thousands of dollars from management reserves to pay for Chris Byrnes’ farewell party.
  • Proposals to pay for employee health benefits from reserves.
  • An annual (entirely unneeded) donation to Grace Episcopal School.
  • Proposals to kick the budgetary can down the road by drawing on reserves to “balance” the budget.
  • The granddaddy of all stupid expenditures, a $100,000 bonus to Bob Malm.
Nor are projections of infrastructure failure unpredictable. The replacement reserve study I paid for but declined to give to the parish due to bad behavior by Bob Malm, Lisa Medley and others made clear that multiple HVAC failures would occur in the next few years, as did multiple warnings from our HVAC vendor and MACC, the building controls company.

Of course, on an individual level, current vestry members indeed may regard the recent HVAC issues as unexpected. But on an organizational level, and in discussions with Bob Malm, these matters have been brought up ad nauseum. 

In short, this is a case of denial, not surprise. And people further show their stupidity, as in the case of members of Bob Malm’s family, by claiming that somehow these issues were exaggerated, or that I somehow caused these infrastructure failures. Funny how the latter have accelerated since my departure from the parish. But that is the sloppy thinking you get from Bob and members of his family.

To make matters worse, instead of saving for the future, the church now proposes to borrow to pay for the past. As in failing to plan, failing to save, and failing to maintain its current infrastructure.

Even the effects of my current dispute with Bob Malm were entirely predictable. Churchgoers are notoriously conflict adverse, but Bob Malm decided nonetheless to issue his infamous Edict of Shunning. Since then, he hasn’t learned a thing, instead doubling down on dumb with his bogus protective order, his lies to the Circuit Court, and his efforts to drag a dying woman into court—the very antithesis of Jesus’ message. As a result, Grace will increasingly be seen for what it is: a church in name only, where lying, shunning, bullying, and even misuse of the legal system are all okay.

Needless to say, until folks get a clue, things will only get worse for St. Dysfunction, aka Grace Episcopal Church.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Irony of Life at St. Dysfunction

In all of this, there’s a great irony, which is that Bob has thus far gotten everything he wanted.

Bob wanted Mike and me out of Grace Church. We have both left the Christian faith, so that goal was accomplished.

Bob wanted a protective order and the court awarded him that. No problem there—there’s no sum of money large enough to induce me to go anywhere near Dirtbag Bob.

So what is he kvetching about?

Surely Bob didn’t think that there would be no implications for his reputation and that of Grace Church.

Now, of course, Bob wants those two outcomes, and silence as well. But it doesn’t work that way. It won’t work that way.

One thing Bob still hasn’t learned is that everything in life comes at a price. Sometimes small choices have big implications. For instance, not having a nightlight — a five dollar item available in any supermarket — resulted in Bob’s 2014 accident in which he broke his neck. (With falls being the number one cause of accidental death in the home, it’s also fair to point out that the decision not to take safety seriously was remarkably stupid on Bob’s part, but not inconsistent with his stated proclivity for believing himself to be invincible.)

Other times, it’s more readily obvious that our actions will have consequences. For example, by not acting as a Christian and by directing parish staff to shun and exclude us, and by falsely claiming that things like the name of a Richmond classic rock frighten him, and thus he needs a protective order, it should have been pretty obvious that people would conclude, at best, Bob’s a priest in name only. No surprise there. And it should have been obvious that this would impact the church’s reputation.

So, I am very happy to give Bob both of the original outcomes that he wanted. But having chosen a specific path forward that includes:
  • Confrontation,
  • Exclusion,
  • Dishonesty, including claiming that Mike and I left on our own, references to a fake church shooting in the equally fake city of “Sugarland Texas,” referring to me as “unbalanced,” “dysfunctional,” and a “sad individual,” lying about my previously having been an attorney and having served as a police officer, and
  • Bullying, like trying to drag my mother, dying of COPD, into court,
it’s perfectly fair and reasonable to tell the world that these things are all okay and part of life on Planet Malm.

Moreover, by pulling the vestry into things, including through dissemination of talking points that falsely claim we left on our own, Bob has damaged the church’s reputation at every level. These outcomes are part and parcel of Bob’s so-called ministry, and they are a damning reflection of the kind of priest and person that Bob is. Or, as Jesus puts it, “By their fruits you shall know them.” And by aiding and abetting Bob in his follies, Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow is every bit as culpable — and clueless — as Bob.

So, if you’re okay with these things, Grace Episcopal Church may be a good place for you, and Bob Malm may be an equally acceptable priest for you.

If you’re not good with these things, you may want to consider finding a different church, or no church at all.

And if you are presently an inhabitant of Planet Malm, you may want to consider whether these are behaviors you want to support. Personally, I would not choose to invest time, talent or treasure in any church or ministry in which these things are okay. The gospel of Jesus is about radical inclusion, love and acceptance, not about shunning, bullying, and lying. Moreover, Bob’s claims that he didn’t bully me are disproved by his very actions in this conflict. Oh, and remind me again: What did Mike, who had joined The Episcopal Church 16 months earlier, do to deserve to be included in Dysfunctional Bob’s Edict of Shunning? Folks can deploy the Jesus-babble about being “servants of Christ” all they want, but that’s just lipstick on a pig. Bob’s actions speak for themselves.

Finally, if you are clergy and thinking about the assistant position at Grace Church, just know that right behind the ostensibly friendly people and the pretty nave, these things are an acceptable part of life at Grace Episcopal Church, aka St. Dysfunction aka Planet Malm.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

See for Yourself: Email from Kelly Gable to Senior Warden Lorna Worley

Here is an email from Kelly Gable to Lorna Worley about this conflict. While it’s characteristically verbose, it’s interesting in that Kelly takes a much more rational approach than most members of St. Dysfunction, and avoids the usual ad hominem attacks. 

There’s also a notable reference to transparency in the email. As I’ve said many times, one big issue for the parish is transparency. Bob loves the whole, “Well, I see the financials,” routine, as if that is somehow reassuring, or absolves vestry members of their fiduciary obligations under the law. Meanwhile, it’s hard to retain members when they feel, as evinced here, that there only job is to keep their mouth shut, worship, and send money. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Reality Check: Grace Church’s HVAC Project Signals Big Trouble Ahead for the Church

One of the recent discussions amongst the vestry, clergy and staff of St. Dysfunction, aka Grace Church, is about how to fund next year’s HVAC work in Merrow Hall. As a component of that discussion, some have suggested that a capital campaign is not necessary, but that the church should borrow the funds needed for the work, and that it may be possible to pay off a loan of that sort within five years.

Those discussions illustrate three key points:
  1. The management of the church and its temporal affairs has been inept, at best.
  2. The proposed HVAC project is problematic on multiple fronts.
  3. The church’s problems extend far beyond the issues at hand.
Before we go further, some important context. 
  • Today, twenty-four years after the 1994 renovations, major HVAC system components already have outlived their actuarial life expectancy by four years. In other words, the church has been living on borrowed time for years. The failure of the HVAC system in key areas of the building now drives home the fact that this issue cannot be ignored any longer; nor can one ignore the fact that the church has done nothing to prepare for the inevitable.
  • The primary beneficiary of this project will be not the church, but the school. The school uses rooms in Merrow Hall for more than 40 hours a week, while the church directly uses the space for about four hours a week—two for La Gracia, and two for coffee hour, or  about 9% of total usage. Yet half of the projected $1.2 million cost is to be borne by the church.
In the case of the nave, however — the focal point of the parish — total usage is about 9 hours a week. Of that total, roughly 8 hours is attributable to the church, while 1 hour a week represents the school’s weekly usage. (These numbers shift somewhat in the summer, but the for-profit summer camp that has used Merrow Hall over the past few summers largely has kept the ratio relatively constant, while greatly increasing wear and tear on the building.) Thus, the school’s usage represents about 11% of the total, yet there is no cost share. This, despite the fact that school staff refer to the nave as “our chapel.”

Meanwhile, the nave’s air conditioning is inadequate on hot days, or when load is heavy, as happens with large weddings or funerals. Yet there is no plan to address the serious issues with the system, including:
    1. The inadequate airflow available via the existing ductwork.
    2. The lack of humidity control.
    3. The temperature differential surrounding the pipes of the organ, resulting in it being frequently out of tune.
Thus, one wonders why these issues weren’t addressed in 1994, and why there is no plan to address these issues now, despite the proposal to spend more than $1.2 million on an HVAC project that primarily benefits the school.

Looking at the Numbers

Now, let’s look at the numbers.

As currently envisioned, the church’s share of the costs of the project will come to $600,000. Assuming the church can raise $100,000 of that (a doubtful proposition), that would leave $500,000 to be borrowed. Assuming the five-year term presently discussed by the vestry, and the 5 percent interest rate also discussed, the monthly payment would be $9,435.62. Total cost of the loan, excluding origination and processing fees, and the full audit likely to be required by the bank (an estimated $20,000 expense), would be $566,137.01.

Given the church’s tight budget, its ability to come up with an extra $113,000 a year seems improbable. Even assuming that the entire $40,000 annual draw on the trust fund is devoted to repayment, that leaves a gap of $73,000 annually. Thus, predictions that the church could pay the loan off in five years seem optimistic, at best.

There is, of course, also the issue of interest. By virtue of borrowing the money, versus paying cash and carry or having a capital campaign, the church will wind up paying $66,137.01 in interest over the life of the loan—a bad example of interest working against you, versus saving and having interest working on your behalf. Plus, again, there are the indirect costs of acquiring a loan, including the likely $20,000 cost of a full audit (not a bad investment, though, considering the dismal condition of church records in past years), origination fees, title search fees and all the other incidentals that make borrowing money such an unpleasant experience.

Keep in mind, too, that $66K is roughly the annual cost of one full-time assistant rector. Or, put in other terms, it’s a lot of money to be giving to a bank, when it could be used for ministry, helping the needy, and more. 

As I’ve said before: Not saving for the future tells me the church doesn’t think it has a future. And given the average age of parishioners, and the relatively few whose estate plans include the church, it’s just plain foolish not to save.

Can the Church Even Get a Loan?

But would the church qualify for such a loan?

There is reason to be dubious. Consider:
  • The church has lost more than 100 of the 320 pledging units it had only a few years ago. 
  • Average Sunday attendance, or ASA (a key metric of parish health), has dropped by 17% over the past two years.
  • Pledge revenue is down sharply, and it was only year-end gifts of appreciated stock and other major gifts that kept the church from running a deficit last year. 
  • The church devotes no portion of its pledge income to savings, and, as stated previously, is dangerously reliant on a handful of major donors, some giving more than $60K annually. Loss of even one of these pledging units could throw the church’s finances into a tailspin.
  • The church has burned through much of its management and replacement reserves, in some cases drawing on savings to fund luxuries like Chris Byrnes’ farewell party. And, of course, there is the $100,000 bonus paid to Bob Malm in 2014.
There also are signs that parishioners are getting stretched pretty thin. Participation in events like the altar guild tea is sagging, as are flower donations and other non-essential expenditures. Loss of any further membership or giving well could push things to the breaking point.

Of course, to qualify for a loan, the church would need to submit a repayment plan to its proposed lender. Additionally, under Canon 14 of the diocese of Virginia, debt exceeding 20 percent of the prior year’s total receipts must be approved by the diocese. Total receipts cannot include funds from an endowment when such funds are designated for other purposes, which means that repairs paid for by the endowment in 2018 cannot be counted as revenue for purposes of the 2019 project.

Moreover, when one looks at the diocesan debt repayment worksheet available here in PDF, it asks the same sort of tough questions any good banker would ask, including growth or decline in number of pledges, as well as pro forma budgets for the next five years. The latter is problematic, if for no other reason than Bob Malm must, under church canons, retire by the time he turns 72. That will almost certainly erode revenue, as this happens at all churches when there is a change of rectors. And in Bob’s case, having lingered on for 27 congenial but ineffective years already, the effect of his retirement likely will be substantial.

There’s also the challenge that none of this occurs in a vacuum. As noted in a previous post, the faux slate roof needs to be replaced, numerous double-paneled windows need to be replaced, there is extensive deterioration of the rake boards, window trim and other exterior wood, the stained glass is due for restoration, the parking lot is due to be resurfaced, and much of the interior finish of the 1994 renovations is at the end of useful life or beyond. Thus, overall costs will continue to climb in the coming 5-10 year period. Meanwhile, given the average age of the parish population, one should expect the number of pledging units to decline during that time. Plus, there are a number of expenditures in the offing that likely will upset parishioners greatly...more on those issues in future posts.

Then there is the issue of the church, its power dynamics, and its suitability for mission. Specifically, I am not the only person to leave St. Dysfunction having concluded that the place is toxic. Whether it’s bullying, Bob Malm’s little power games, urging people to commit suicide, or disclosing confidential giving information, there is irrefutable evidence that this is one messed-up church. That does not bode well for the long-term health of the church, financial or otherwise.

Summing Up

No matter how one parses things, St. Dysfunction is in a bad way. It’s been doling out 100K bonuses, paying for lavish parties from savings, and otherwise living high on the hog, all the while not saving for the future. Even worse, it’s lost sight of its real purpose, which should be a place of healing, welcome and reconciliation for all persons. Instead, it’s become a religious-themed fraternity/sorority, in which people think it’s okay to bully others, to gossip, to shun people, and to engage in behavior few would contend is Christian or even ethical. (The gossip about an allegedly gay married man in the parish is particularly ugly. If nothing else, it’s none of your business, folks, and if I were his wife and found out about your stupid chatter, I’d be more than a little ticked off.) People aren’t stupid, and they instinctively know when a church has become toxic (look for further documentation on those issues this fall). And few want to give generously to a church that thinks shunning, bullying, and other adolescent antics are acceptable. That would be doubly the case as people increasingly realize that Bob Malm and the vestry have not been accurate, for example, in their recounting of recent events, including the false claim that I resigned from the church in 2015.

So, paying for the HVAC work is going to be a major problem for the parish, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems facing St. Dysfunction, aka Grace Church.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Is Your Child Safe at Grace Episcopal Church/Grace Episcopal School? Possibly Not

A big issue in recent years within The Episcopal Church has been how to protect children and other vulnerable populations from sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse. To that end, the church has established policies and training designed to reduce the possibility of abuse. Unfortunately, St. Dysfunction aka Grace Episcopal Church is woefully non-compliant with these requirements.

To be fair, some provisions have been implemented. For example, there is a requirement that two unrelated adults be present at all youth activities. This generally is followed for church functions. However, it was not enforced at all when the church rented use of the building in summer to Steve and Kate’s Camp, a for-profit that used the premises for several seasons (and which Bob Malm approved in advance of the vestry even knowing about the issue). While there is no evidence to suggest that sexual misconduct occurred, there was at least one harrowing incident, in which a little boy became trapped in the men’s bathroom when the motion-sensing lights turned off while he was inside. Even worse, the boy’s terrified screams met with no response for approximately 20 minutes, and  when he was reunited with nearby camp counselors, one said with a shrug, “I wondered where he was.” That is pretty damned appalling and dysfunctional, and you can quote me on that.

Additionally, most of the building is compliant with the requirement that interior doors have windows in them, although some have been covered over in recent years.

On other fronts, things are not so good. For instance, one recommendation is that unused portions of the building be secured so as to deny a potential abuser private areas in which to be alone with a child. Despite this, much of the interior of the church is unlocked at any given moment, including remote areas on the third floor, many closets, the vesting rooms, and all meeting rooms. Even then, almost of the interior is keyed alike, and with almost every parishioner having a copy, the place might as well be standing wide open.

Even worse, the building de facto DOES stand wide open 24/7. The lower entrance to the building is on an electronic access system, and codes are in wide circulation, given to church members by office staff upon request. In fact, if you know where to look, the codes are available even without asking. That means that the entire building becomes a private area when the sexton leaves at 9 PM on weeknights that can be used to be alone with children or other vulnerable populations. And given that the sexton comes and goes in the evening, sometimes leaving groups alone in the building (there has been more than one elevator entrapment during which no church staff were to be found on site), even times before 9 PM are risky.

To make matters still worse, there are ten known registered sex offenders in the immediate area, and 41 if you consider adjacent zip codes. And, of course, that’s just a subset of the larger population of sex offenders, as the registry only reflects those who have been caught. Plus, there is a parishioner who is known to have boundary issues with children; that individual likely has 24/7 access to the building, as his family members certainly do. Bad enough, but compounding the fact is that the parish has no written guidelines on how to care for this parishioner while still ensuring child safety.

In other cases, there are groups that use the building that are known to have among their membership registered sex offenders. While it serves no useful purpose to identify here these groups or individuals, their presence, combined with the church’s lackadaisical attitude toward the issue and lack of safeguards, should give any parent cause for concern.

Source: Virginia sex offender registry

And while I believe churches should be centers of welcome and hospitality to the community, there always is the issue of wanted sex offenders. In the case of Alexandria, for example, there are 16 such individuals within the city. In other words, churches that fail to take sexual misconduct prevention seriously do so at their own peril, and the peril of their children and other vulnerable populations, particularly when, as in Grace’s case, the church serves the homeless and other potentially higher-risk  pools.

Source: Virginia sex offender registry

Nor are the only risks ones involving sexual misconduct. For example, for many years the sexton’s closet behind the office has been routinely left unlocked, which could allow a child to access and possibly ingest cleaning chemicals. While the latter are stored high up, children can be remarkably adept at getting into things, and it is telling that no one bothers to proactively address these sorts of risks.

So why doesn’t Grace Church take these issues more seriously? I believe the answer is because “leaders” don’t take these issues seriously. That includes rector Bob Malm and vestry members alike.

Playing into that, of course, is the whole, “It can’t happen here,” routine. But the reality is that child abuse can and does happen here, there, and everywhere. 

Nor would you necessarily know that there was a problem. Several years ago, a former in-law of mine, much loved within the family, was arrested and convicted of attempting to abuse under-aged children. While the issue came up in a jurisdiction far from here, and I did not see that person on a daily basis, I can assure you that no one saw that one coming. Abuse can and does occur, and it happens when you least expect it.

There’s also evidence to suggest that there may have been past allegations of abuse at Grace Episcopal School. While I do not know the details, there was litigation a number of years ago against the parish in connection with the school. The matter appears to have been settled and the records are kept a closely guarded secret, which in itself is troubling. Confidentiality is vital in any church, but secrecy is not; indeed, it is dangerous.  If nothing else, if the matter was innocuous, why go to the trouble of keeping things secret? Why not just be upfront about the matter? If I were about to shell out the more than $21,000 in annual fees it costs to send a child to Grace Episcopal School, that is one skeleton in the closet about which I’d sure want to know more.

That is the great irony in all of this. While Bob Malm attempts to convince people that somehow I’m a threat to the church he turns a willfully blind eye to the real issue, right under his nose, which is that Grace Church, in its typical sad, dysfunctional fashion, plays fast and loose with the safety of its children.