Wednesday, September 18, 2019
If Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow Really Believes That Grace Episcopal is the Victim of “Domestic Terrorism”....
If Jeff Chiow, attorney for Grace Episcopal, really believes that Grace Church is the victim of “domestic terrorism,” why does he bring his wife and kids every Sunday? What kind of husband and father does that?
Or could it be that we see Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow’s and Dysfunctional Bob Malm’s veracity at issue?
In either case, we see their Christian ethics for what they are: Pretextual tokenism at its worst.
As for the family/parish system that allows this behavior: Morally bankrupt.
Celebrate 30 years of that on September 27.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
Monday, September 16, 2019
Years ago, activists within The Episcopal Church began clamoring for the development of programs to prevent and address sexual misconduct. The move came at a time when the church was struggling to find ways to include those who historically had been marginalized on the basis of gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and other criteria. Many among those groups recognized that church canons, which at the time only addressed heresy, simply were not adequate to prevent conduct intended to exploit, repress, and intimidate women and others who sought full inclusion in the life of the church. And while the resulting changes to church disciplinary canons and policies to prevent sexual misconduct were game changers at the time, the church has come to rest on its laurels, with the result that The Episcopal Church today lags behind the Roman Catholic church and other denominations in its protections. As a result, much work needs to be done to bring standards of conduct within The Episcopal Church up to par with those of other faith traditions.
Before we go further, we should recognize that outstanding work that has been done to promote inclusion and safety within the church by many, including the late Ann Fontaine, a much-loved staff member for the Cafe for many years. Ann, a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised, noted in a 2010 article that while the church has had considerable success in preventing and addressing child sexual abuse, its track record with adults, vulnerable persons, and non-sexual abuse was, at best, mixed:
Exploitation of vulnerable adults and harassment has a more mixed success rate. Much depends on the local diocese and requirements for response and discipline. Although the canons are in place, it is often a hard road to get the canons enforced. Rather than viewing events as abuse of power, they are confused with "affairs" or the victim is blamed for the occurrence. Egregious, multiple offenses are usually dealt with eventually but justice is slow to be found for these abuses. Most professions realize that the person in power has the responsibility in any relationship – regardless of actions. The church is beginning to understand this. The discipline of bishops is the least successful area in the church.
So what needs to change? And how can the church be made safer for all?
- We need to make these issues a priority. Too often, discussion of these topics elicits a bored yawn or blank look. Yet these matters affect the very fiber of the church and the health of the Body of Christ; violations result in often irreparable damage to those who have been hurt and the parishes involved.
- We need to promote a culture of transparency and accountability. Indeed, after the Heather Cook debacle, the church convened a task force to review the matter, which concluded that the church has faulty understanding of forgiveness and a lack of accountability. Yet despite the results of this and previous studies, not much has changed. Indeed, here in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the diocesan alcohol policy, posted online in 2015, ends by saying, “In response to Bishop Johnston’s statement at Annual Council in 2015 about the importance of examining our policies surrounding the use of alcohol, a more extensive policy will be affirmed by Executive Board and posted at a later date.” Yet as of this writing, nothing has happened. So much for accountability.
- We need to better educate church members and officials. While the new church website on the Title IV disciplinary canons is a good start, my observation is that church members at all levels remain woefully uninformed about these issues. Indeed, I was shocked and alarmed when a senior denominational official recently told me that bishops cannot get involved in the details of a priest’s misconduct absent an active disciplinary case. This is at direct variance with the provisions of Title IV, which expressly provide that a pastoral direction may be issued in such circumstances. Similarly, diocesan staff often lack even rudimentary knowledge of these issues, despite their importance to the life of the church.
- We need specific written guidelines about appropriate pastoral boundaries. For example, most Catholic dioceses have written standards of conduct about bullying, harassment, and intimidation, as well as a toll free phone number to report violations. In The Episcopal Church, however, the weasel wording of Title IV leaves such conduct exempt from scrutiny in many dioceses, for it would be dismissed as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.”
- We need diocesan officials to take these issues seriously. My own experience with the disciplinary canons suggests that if it doesn’t involve sex or children, church officials will take a pass. Indeed, I have had church officials expressly state, in writing, that illegal conduct by clergy will not be addressed unless criminal charges are brought. This is a shocking proposition, and one that would exclude even the most egregious clergy misconduct from diocesan review.
- We need to be alert to efforts by denominational officials to water down protections. Specifically, during the last General Convention, the House of Bishops appears to have rendered illusory a number of #metoo safeguards passed by the House of Delegates.
- We need church vestries and other decisionmaking bodies to implement their own standards of conduct, including addressing bullying and establishing written norms for conduct. Accountability becomes impossible without a means to benchmark and assess conduct.
While The Episcopal Church was, at one time, a leader in its efforts to end misconduct, the church has fallen woefully far behind the times, even with the legislative changes at the last General Convention. To remain relevant in the 21st century, it must do far more to ensure that it truly is the inclusive church that it claims to be.
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Ever back up and take a dispassionate look at Bob Malm’s “ministry?”
Check out the linked article for an insightful look at the atttributes of toxic church leaders. Yes, like Bob Malm.
Friday, September 13, 2019
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Analysis of the recent surge in traffic to this website reveals that a great many visitors to the site are clergy and others interested both in issues at Grace church and the possibility of serving as the interim rector. With that in mind, here is my advice to anyone considering serving as interim: Run. Like. Hell.
Let’s start with the lay of the land.
Problems in the Parish
Dysfunctional Bob “served” for more than 30 years. That in itself is an issue, because you’re not coming in after someone has made a hash of things for a few years, then moved on. Instead, you’ve got three decades of dysfunction, misfeasance and nonfeasance. As a result, only a handful of parishioners have known anything other than the so-called Planet Malm paradigm.
Why do I refer to the church as Planet Malm? The other handle sometimes used for the place, “Bobby Malm’s Playground,” speaks to that issue. Simply put, Grace Church is all about Bob Malm. He decides who serves on the Executive Committee, thus ensuring a rubber-stamp vestry. As a result, there’s zero accountability for Bob or church staff. No annual performance review, no annual mutual ministry review. Or, as one former assistant rector of the parish says, “Bob’s been getting away with murder for years.” And while Bob’s friendly, there is zero genuine concern for others. Instead, the church is all about meeting Bob’s needs
Bob’s also been very clever in playing to the whole “lay-driven church” thing. Bob claims, and rightly so, that laity at the church are responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the church. What this means is that things like church administration, facilities issues, and programmatic activities all fall to laity. In other words, Bob simply doesn’t get involved in the food pantry, Carpenter’s Shelter, planning Shrine Mont, or much of anything else. His role is liturgy, answering emails, and very limited pastoral care—as in Bob will show up for a few minutes, smile, chat, give you a hug and dash off. But with a vestry that reports to Bob, and where Bob can bypass or overrule the vestry at any time, the result is that even basics, like ensuring that cash is handled appropriately, were ignored by Bob for much of his tenure. Consider: thousands of dollars in cash and stale checks were found in the office of a previous parish administrator following her departure. Are we really to assume that no one ever called to ask why these checks were never cashed? What does this tell people about the church, its clergy/staff, and its “stewardship?”
Moreover, Dysfunctional Bob uses this paradigm to dismiss anyone who claims he’s abusive, arguing that laity would not put up with things like gross mismanagement. But the reality is that laity has done exactly that for many years, lacking any meaningful recourse.
Predictably enough, Bob exploits this paradigm to his personal advantage. His annual compensation exceeds that of even top denominational officials, despite a demonstrably mediocre track record. His insistence that the church tear down the rectory and help him buy a personal residence was a financially disastrous move for the parish, and one that he bullied through a reluctant vestry. And Bob pretty much comes and goes as he pleases.
It is in the matter of Bob’s 2014 bonus of $100,000 in the form of debt he owed the church that one really begins to understand this situation. “Negotiated” by two members of the executive committee directly with Bob (one’s husband is a regular golfing buddy of Bob’s), this was an outrageously large bonus for a feckless rector, particularly in light of the looming massive expenses facing the church. Yet members of the vestry supported the measure, with vestry member Lisa Medley even suggesting that the bonus be $200,000.
Why did vestry members make such an ill-advised decision? The answer is that, like many narcissists, Bob is good at turning on the superficial flattery and charm. He’s also very good at manipulating people and playing them against each other, with the result that conflict is rife in the parish.
Nor should one be misled by Bob’s claim that he doesn’t like conflict, which he trots out when faced with demands to address conflict within the parish. The reality is that his claim is true in part, in that he doesn’t like to do anything that will engender criticism. Yet the larger truth is that Bob often foments conflict among parishioners. His favorite tactic is to make himself out to be the friend, ally, and supporter, while claiming that others are hostile. As a result, people glob on to Bob, never realizing that he actually is the source of the underlying conflict. Much like Donald Trump, Bob exploits this paradigm to meet his own perceived needs, both oblivious and indifferent to the underlying harm he is causing the larger organization.
By now, astute readers will have concluded that, like Trump, Bob may be a narcissist. I believe that conclusion is spot on, and that Dysfunctional Bob exhibits other signs of possible narcissism and psychological maladjustment, including a propensity for lying. Whether it’s his claim that church office employees will be “retiring this year” (a lie he told repeatedly over the years), or his claims in writing, under oath, made with the advice of legal counsel that my mom or someone claiming to be her repeatedly made appointments with him and no-showed, Bob demonstrates a shocking lack of integrity, particularly for a priest.
In short. Bob’s tenure with the parish has produced a church that, not surprisingly, is much like him: Outwardly friendly and welcoming, while lacking inward faith and integrity, with a strong bias towards real or perceived self-interest, and willing to engage in virtually any behavior to meet its own needs.
Dysfunction at the Diocese
Things are no better at the diocese. Over the past few years, the diocese has repeatedly refused to deal with Bob Malm’s misconduct, even in the face of clear evidence that Bob has engaged in illegal activity. The latter includes perjury and deliberate misuse of restricted solicitations. Indeed, I am told by one church official that Bishop Shannon expressly understood that Bob’s misuse of funds was illegal, but still did not want to get involved.
The diocese also has ignored both church canons and the recommendations of its own officials. For instance, Title IV intake officer Rev. Randall Prior recommended that the church engage in conciliation of my conflict with Bob, only to be ignored by Bishop Shannon. In fact, when it did so, the diocese ignored the canonical requirement of providing written notice of its decision, instead simply falling silent. Hardly reassuring, especially coming from a diocese that had just spent seven years caterwauling to the courts about the canons and their applicability to dissidents who had left the organization.
Even more disturbingly, the diocese has said that there’s no point in its getting involved, as reconciliation is not possible. But reconciliation is not the only goal of church disciplinary canons; justice is also an objective. Nor did the diocese ever ask if I wanted to be reconciled with Bob. I don’t, as reconcilation is neither possible nor desirable when dealing with someone with Bob’s level of dysfunction.
In short, the diocese is part and parcel of the problem, for it is dysfunction at the diocese that has allowed the mess at Grace Church to take on a life of its own.
Trouble at Grace, a Stained Glass Slice of Paradise
So what does all this mean for an interim and the stained glass slice of paradise that is Grace Church?
Primarily, it means that problems within the parish will not not easily fixed. Part of the problem is that the issues that loom largest for the church are actually symptoms of bigger problems. For example, plummeting revenue and attendance at the church are seen by members of the church as themselves being challenges, while the real issues are the causes of these declines. These causes include organizational narcissism, troubled interpersonal relationships, and a lack of understanding what it means to be the Body of Christ. In other words, the parish has become much like Dysfunctional Bob: outwardly friendly, but in a narcissistic way, with all sorts of meanness right behind the scenes and a lack of self-awareness. Church members simply do not see that the place is toxic.
Predictably enough, people are very used to Bob’s way of doing things, and change will be met with resistance, a lack of understanding, and a lack of charity. (Keep in mind this is a church and diocese in which Bob Malm writes to diocesan officials, calling me “sick” and “twisted.”) Yet at the same time the challenge is to become a church, versus a religion club. This is a sea change akin to the challenges that faced The Falls Church and the Church of the Epiphany following the property recovery litigation, and it’s a massive effort, complicated by the fact that there is no external enemy akin to the “Orthodox Anglicans.”
In the case of my conflict with Bob, which in many ways is the least of the church’s problems, Bob’s all-out effort to pull members of the church in to the conflict and to create fear among parishioners, complete with his ridiculous BS about mental illness and “single-button emergency transmitters,” etc., will make it very hard for folks to reverse course and approach the issue with clarity. Even otherwise intelligent, reasonable people have fallen prey to Bob’s manipulation, and few appear to see how laughable it is to claim to be “servants of Christ,” while failing to show any love or compassion for those who are the subjects of their gossip and speculation. It’s also worth noting that I am allegedly neither the first nor the second person that Bob has tried to push out of the church; long-time members say this is a pattern of behavior on Bob’s part.
Even more laughable are people like David Crosby, who see fit to lecture me on being hateful, yet turn a blind eye to Bob Malm’s perjury. But I can say with certainty that neither David, nor anyone else at Grace, has ever seen evidence of those alleged appointments that Mom — or someone claiming to be her — made with Bob Malm. Yet David and many others continue to support a priest who commits perjury and bullies the dying. In other words, Bob may not literally be getting away with murder, but he is literally getting away with perjury.
At the same time, any potential interim faces a grim reality, which is that the diocese, which should be leading the charge to fix things at Grace, is worse than no help at all. Diocesan officials are fine with Bob’s perjury and bullying of a dying woman, and have refused to address Bob’s forcing Mike out of the Christian faith. So the diocese is not going to provide air cover and lacks the ethical underpinnings to act as an honest broker going forward. Moreover, given the track record of diocesan officials, it would be difficult for anyone to take the diocese seriously at this point, even if it attempts that role. Indeed, the role of the diocese seems best confined to lamenting slavery and reflecting on reproductive rights, versus actually addressing real-world conflict. And the diocese lacks the self-awareness and Christian ethics needed to examine its own extensive role, both in my conflict with Bob and with the larger mess that is Grace Church, to wade in, accept responsibility, and fix things. Nor does the diocese have a great track record in that regard, for it made a hash of things over at St. Thomas’ McLean and managed to violate virtually every best practice out there regarding care for a church injured by allegations of misconduct, while conveniently ignoring church canons as well.
Of course, as Bob likes to say, “Charity starts at home.” While this is an ironic statement for a priest whose noisy fights with his wife are legendary, it underscores the reality that a denomination that cannot fix problems in its own house is unlikely to be able to do much to fix the issues in the world around it.
In closing, problems at Grace church far exceed the scope of a single post. These problems start with a lack of introspection, and are threaded through every aspect of church life, up to and including the diocese itself. Moreover, they go back many years, meaning that no interim, no matter how skilled or diligent, can fully resolve all or even most of these issues. Much like an alcoholic, who can only get better when he or she hits bottom and decides it’s time to change, so too can Grace Church only become healthy once it has hit rock bottom and decides something has to give. And for this to be successful, the diocese must also embrace a healthy approach, both to the parish and to its relationship with the parish.
The analogy to an alcoholic goes even further. Much like the drunk who lashes out at those who try to intervene, potential interims need to understand that members of the parish will have no compunction against trying to obstruct their efforts, or throwing them under the bus. One has only to look at the ugly comments coming from within the church, including the college-aged parishioner who urged me to commit suicide, to realize just how sick Grace Church really is. And the Jean Reeds of the place can bloviate all they want to about defamation, etc., but Bob Malm’s perjury, his manipulative behavior, his bullying, and even the comments from the parishioner about suicide are all documented in writing.
Fixing the mess at Grace Church is a Herculean task, and I have yet to meet the interim who is up to the challenge. But if you are a prospective interim and considering taking on the job, I urge you to do your homework before signing on the dotted line. You are in for a rough and rocky road.
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Considering pledging at Grace Episcopal Alexandria this fall? Or thinking about becoming a member?
If so, just know before you take the plunge: This is how people at Grace Episcopal Church talk to each other. But then, in light of Bob Malm’s perjury, what’s a little defamation?
Keep in mind, too, that the Episcopal bishops of Virginia say they fully support Bob Malm and the parish. And Mike Jones talks about how Grace is a wonderful place.
If you think this sort of thing is okay, you probably do think Grace Episcopal is a wonderful place.
Monday, September 9, 2019
I read with interest Michael Jones’ sermons from Shrine Mont, particularly in light of Dysfunctional Bob’s impending retirement. And while I agree with much of what he says, particularly his remarks about the importance of being positive, I want to rebut the underlying premises behind his sermons.
Specifically, Grace church is not a wonderful place. Bob Malm is not a wonderful priest. And God is not on the church’s side.
- Jesus was very clear in offering choice words for clergy who are hypocrites and who interfere with the faith of others.
- The Bible is very clear about bearing false witness—as in Bob Malm’s perjury, done in writing, under oath, in front of parishioners, and with legal counsel involved.
- Jesus would have no use for a church that thinks it’s okay to try to drag a drying woman into court.
- God does not approve of the deliberate misuse of memorial donations.
- God is outraged when Bob Malm pushes Mike out of the Christian faith, after being received into The Episcopal Church only 18 months earlier.
- God is not okay with a church where members are so morally bereft as to think it’s okay to urge others to commit suicide.
Nor did Dysfunctional Bob and Sugarland Chiow act in isolation. They acted with the approval of the vestry and a family system that allows, permits, and endorses such conduct. And one can understand the real motives and values of the parish by examining these behaviors and actions, for Jesus is clear: “By their fruits you shall know them.”
In the case of Mike Jones, he and others who wash their hands of these issues offer tacit, if not explicit, endorsement. They are hypocrites of the first order, modern-day Scribes and Pharisees. Turning a blind eye to evil is itself evil. Or as Desmond Tutu says:
If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
I would add that if you say the elephant is great, wonderful, and doing an awesome job, the mouse will not only be ticked, he will think that you are a liar, a bully, and an enabler. And if you are an organization that makes that claim, the mouse likely will conclude that you are an organizational narcissist.
Meanwhile, Michael Jones conveniently ignores Fanny Belanger’s abrupt resignation, two years early, for “personal reasons.” We all know the real reasons for that, and sweeping the matter under the rug does not help anyone.
Further, even if everything Bob Malm claims is true, and it certainly is not, nothing justifies bullying Mike, lying under oath aka perjury, or trying to drag a dying woman into court.
Sunday, September 8, 2019
As I’ve said many times, Grace Episcopal’s existing cost structure is unsustainable. Thanks to the debt incurred for the recently completed HVAC project, as well as the parish’s continuing willingness to live above its means and its refusal to save, things are looking grim for the 2020 budget. This is the result that, in 2014, I warned Bob Malm was looming, possibly as early as 2016 if expenses were not curtailed. I did so in writing and, predictably enough, did not even get the courtesy of a response from Dysfunctional Bob.
Specifically, as of right now, the parish appears poised for 2020 annual income of $975,000, expenses of $1,206,000, and a net deficit (get ready!) of $231,000.
Variables used to reach these results:
- $70,000 diocesan pledge
- $9,000 reduction in pledges over 2019 figures. In light of the length of Bob Malm’s tenure, the decline could prove much greater
- $80,000 reduction in salaries, primarily attributable to alignment of interim’s salary with local norms, or $130,000 annually
- $70,000 in debt service
- $50,000 income from trust
- $50,000 in maintenance (note that this covers janitorial supplies (paper products, etc) for both the church and school, which then reimburses half the cost to the church. These funds are returned to the operating budget, not line items associated with facilities expenses. Thus, according to the church’s customary financial reporting, nowhere near the full $50,000 actually is available for repairs or maintenance.)
- $20,000 in search expenses
- $10,000 invested in management reserve
- Inclusion of the Alexandria sewer tax
- A 2% increase in most operating expenses to adjust for inflation
- Continued zero funding for the school beyond cost sharing, which already benefits the school
- Limited programmatic, worship, and local outreach funding. Note that these are areas already cut very thin, and typically frozen at end of year. As a result, sooner or later several categories will require additional funding in order to continue.
Not factored in is the increasingly likely possibility of a recession, which would erode both Q4 2019 giving and 2020 pledges, and potentially reduce the allowable draw on the trust fund.
Of course, these figures don’t leave room for contingencies, such as extensive snow removal in the event of a severe winter, or burst pipes. (As I have pointed out ad nauseum, copper pipes do not have an indefinite life span. All the original plumbing in the building is at actuarial end of life. Same for the 20-ton HVAC unit serving the nave, which is well beyond end of life expectancy and already has had one fan motor replaced in an effort to buy time.)
Clearly, church staff recognizes the challenges ahead, and director of music Richard Newman (a delightful person and wonderful musician) has been wise in maintaining visibility by performing concerts in venues around the country. Similarly, it may no longer be possible for the parish to maintain full-time staff for the parish administrator and family ministries positions, or the associate rector position, for that matter.
It may also be time for the church to assess whether the school should continue and, if so, whether it might be spun off as a completely separate entity. The 50/50 cost sharing arrangement, often portrayed by Dysfunctional Bob as a benefit to the church, actually is to the school’s benefit, not the church’s, as the former is responsible for the vast majority of utilities, etc. Another possibility is to require the school to pay its full cost of operation. Such an arrangement could reduce the financial burden on the church and free up money to address issues like hunger in the community, versus devoting such a large portion of the budget to educating children who in most cases come from privileged, affluent backgrounds. It’s also worth noting that very few of the families with children at the school ever become involved in the church, especially since the school eliminated the tuition break for church members.
In a situation such as this, there are no easy solutions, and it is vital that the parish begin to learn to save for the future. But no matter how things unfold there are some tough decisions and difficult times ahead.
And yes, before folks ask, I will continue to protest the church’s conduct, even after Bob Malm’s departure.
Bob Malm has stated in writing that the vestry and other parish leadership joined with him in its decision to take legal action against me, with the tacit approval of the diocese. So Bob Malm’s perjury, his decision to try to drag a dying woman into court, his decision to include Mike in his vendetta, and the various fabrications and inflammatory rhetoric in Jeff Chiow’s legal pleadings — none of these have been repudiated by the parish or vestry. Thus, it is appropriate that I continue to make public my experiences.
And that is exactly what I will do.
In an earlier post, I commented on how Bob Malm’s farewell mea culpa was facially self-serving, in that it tosses out the red herring of “things left undone,” while ignoring the other aspects of Bob’s misconduct as rector of Grace Episcopal Church. Yet even then Bob’s message, incorporated into his final Grace Notes, reflects Dysfunctional Bob’s lack of attention to detail and self-serving selective forgetfulness.
And here is Dysfunctional Bob’s 2019 post:
So where did the roof go?
Consider Bob’s assertion that there are two major capital expenditures remaining: Repairs to the parking lot and the original elevator. Yes, both are needed, but even just four years ago Bob recognized in writing that the faux slate roof over the “bridge” between the two original buildings needed to be replaced. (Note that he omitted the equally troubled roof over the new narthex, made of the same faulty materials.)
Here is his 2015 post:
And here is Dysfunctional Bob’s 2019 post:
So where did the roof go?
The answer, I suspect, lies in Bob’s statement to me that he has “neither the time nor the interest” to deal with building issues. That of course contradicts his written job description, which specifically gives him that responsibility, as do church canons. But hey—time indeed is limited when you spend a month at the beach every summer.
Thursday, September 5, 2019
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Some time ago, Bob Malm and the Grace vestry decided to quietly hide evidence of the damage caused by Dysfunctional Bob’s and Sugarland Chiow’s antics. This included both the real reasons for Fanny Belanger’s departure, as well as the continuing decline in attendance and giving caused by their misconduct. Hiding this information, however, was foolish, as it’s readily available from other sources, and it underscores the ongoing lack of candor and transparency in the parish’s governance.
Among the information that has quietly disappered in the past year or so:
- Information in Grace Notes, the parish newslettter, about updates to the parish register. This information would have revealed that even long-time parish stalwarts, including people who have taken the three-year Education for Ministry course, have been departing the parish.
- Vestry minutes, which would have revealed serious budgetary challenges caused by Dysfunctional Bob’s and Sugarland Chiow’s conduct, as well as ongoing discussions about how to deal with these issues.
Of course, the parish has never exactly been a model of transparency and good governance, in light of its customary violations of church canons regarding elections and eligibility for parish offices, its failure to publicly release its annual report, the lack of information on the annual agreed-upon procedures financial review, and the carefully controlled information that the vestry is allowed to see.
Into this mix comes the annual parochial report, one of the oldest bits of denominational reporting in the Episcopal Church. Published on the national church website every August, the results cover the prior calendar year, meaning that 2018 data just went live.
This report, required of every parish, is a key barometer of organizational health, and tracks membership, giving and worship. Of these three, the latter two are most telling, for membership is defined as rolling through at least three times a year, and giving some money to the parish. Thus, membership is loosely defined, and a parish can be growing in membership, even as it’s collapsing on other fronts.
In Grace’s case, worship attendance and giving have dropped to their lowest levels in more than a decade. Indeed, worship attendance mirrors the decline that occurred following Bob’s accident, while giving dropped sharply for the first time since Bob’s arrival as rector. Particularly troubling is the drop in worship attendance, or average Sunday attendance (ASA), which once stood at more than 350, but has now dropped to 250. With an almost 1/3 decline, this shows that the most basic function of the parish, divine worship, is collapsing.
Three factors compound these problems:
- Lack of transparency has consistently been shown to erode church giving, and Bob Malm is permitting next to no meaningful information to reach church membership. Yes, vestry minutes are posted outside the church office, but the reality is that this affords little opportunity for meaningful review. Even Bob’s letter announcing his resignation is available by calling the church office for those who didn’t get a copy in the mail, which begs the question: Why isn’t it simply posted on the website? (I can assure readers that Bob’s efforts have done nothing to keep information from reaching me, so if that’s the issue, it’s been a total waste of time.)
- The $70,000 annual debt service the church has incurred leaves the parish unable to fully fund its ministries and adequately care for members. With far too much of the budget going into keeping the building running, the church is in danger of no longer being a church, but instead being a museum in which religious services are held.
- Bob’s departure, as in all cases where a rector of long standing leaves, will undoubtedly further erode giving and attendance.
Moreover, since the most recent report reflects 2018 data, the full effect of Dysfunctional Bob’s lawsuit and related perjury won’t be reported until August 2020. I anticipate that the results will be devastating.
At this point, I surely feel sympathy for the poor interim who inherits Bob Malm’s hot mess, as well as for loyal parishioners who are trying to ride out the storm.
Tuesday, September 3, 2019
In this month’s Grace Notes, Dysfunctional Bob’s last before retirement, he offers a short blurb about “things left undone,” during his tenure. True to form, it’s an utter piece of BS.
- Bob only addresses “those things undone” during his so-called “ministry.” While items on that list are myriad, Dysfunctional Bob blithely says he’s tried to make visiting members a priority. Coming from someone who has pretty much been “out of town” any time he has felt like it, who takes six weeks a year of leave and then some, and who has plenty of time for golf, running, and traveling, let’s just say I’m not feeling it.
- Dysfunctional Bob conveniently overlooks the other side of sin, which is those things he has done. Bullying the vestry into an insanely generous compensation plan, pushing Mike out of the church/Christian faith, refusing to address misfeasance, nonfeasance and bullying among parishioners and staff, committing perjury, trying to drag a dying woman into court — the list of things Bob has done even surpasses the many areas of his nonfeasance. Nor do I see any sign that Bob will address any of these issues on the way out the door. Being the bully and coward he is, Bob clearly hopes to leave those issues to his successor. And yes, anyone who goes after a dying woman, or Mike, is a bully and a coward, as well as a lowlife.
- As to Dysfunctional Bob’s hopes for the Legacy Society, few will leave anything to the parish if the rector is free to unilaterally terminate their membership. The parish belongs to parishioners — those who pay the bills and provide the labor that makes things happen. The rector is there to serve the parish, not the other way around. Until the unbridled clericalism of Planet Malm is addressed, all I can say is “don’t hold your breath.” And nowhere do I see any sign that Bob has left money to the parish in his will. Res ipsa loquitur.
- True to form, Bob’s list of outstanding major building projects is much too short. The faux slate roof still needs to be replaced, there’s tons of rotting wood trim, the nave needs adequate air conditioning, the 1989 double-pane windows need to be replaced, the pole lamps in the parking lot are overdue for replacement , inefficient lighting needs to go, basement windows need to be replaced, and water lines in the original building are at end of life. In short, there’s a ton of work to be done and major bills to go with it.
- Bob asserts that people have forgiven him for those things left undone. While folks at Grace are generally good in that department, it’s also fair to say that, being unable to effect change, members in many cases are more resigned that forgiving. That’s in keeping with Dysfunctional Bob’s modus operandi: Do whatever the hell he wants/ignore things, apologize on the way out the door, give a hug, and keep right on trucking. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt to prove it. Don’t need another.
- The key thing missing from Bob’s article is the elephant in the room. Being the narcissist that he is, Bob has focused attention and adulation on himself, not God. Like all narcissists, he is toxic, and through thought, word, and deed has taught the parish to be be an organizational narcissist. In short, he has created a toxic parish in which it’s okay to lie, bully others (even the dying) commit perjury, encourage others to commit suicide and more. Indeed, in the midst of his efforts to portray me as a “domestic terrorist” and mentally ill, the one thing that never came up anywhere in the parish was any love or concern for my mother, Mike, or me. The Jean Reeds and Kemp Williams of the parish may bloviate about their Christian faith and being “servants of Christ,” but their lack of concern for others puts the lie to their words. And I have plenty of internal church emails that prove my point. Yes, Bob can be friendly and charismatic, but friendly and faithful are not the same thing, and Bob’s faith is nominal, at best. Moreover, if you doubt Bob is a narcissist, just look at his narcissistic rages—those over-the-top explosions that happen when he feels threatened. I’ve seen several, and they are utterly contrary to any standard of Christian conduct, as well as strongly suggestive of narcissism. Please quote me on that.
At this point, I primarily feel sorry for folks at Grace Church. Bob Malm played them, and he is leaving a huge mess behind. Worst of all, many in the church still have absolutely no clue that the parish is a mess. Indeed, many regard the toxic morass at the parish as normative, which is a sorry state of affairs on multiple fronts.
So, as a counterpoint to Bob’s empty triumphalism and BS about how Grace represents “true religion,” and “taking part of Grace with you,” I offer up this question:
If Grace is such a slice of paradise, why the current state of decline?
PS Lisa Medley claims the church is “thriving.” If that’s the case, why did Fanny Belanger walk out two years early? Why have more than 1/3 of pledging units left? As I stated previously, lying has become normative for many parishioners and underscores the fact that the church is toxic.
Monday, September 2, 2019
Want to see just how toxic Grace Episcopal is under Bob Malm? Here’s a social media post in which a college-aged member of the parish urges me to commit suicide.
The fact that Bob Malm, Jeff Chiow, the vestry, the diocese, and the members of this church try to defend this conduct tells you everything you need to know. And let’s not forget that the Diocese of Virginia says it fully supports Bob Malm and the parish. So clearly the diocese thinks this sort of thing is okay. That’s no surprise, though, since the diocese also thinks perjury is acceptable conduct for clergy as long as they aren’t criminally convicted.
If that’s your idea of a healthy church, or the Christian faith, no thanks. You can keep it.
Sunday, September 1, 2019
Saturday, August 31, 2019
Earlier, I posted about the recent Virginia Supreme Court decision, in which the court held that even non-hierarchical churches in the state may potentially be liable for negligence when it comes to the actions of their clergy. That’s a problematic ruling, particularly for the diocese, which wants to be hierarchical when it comes to property rights, but wants to be congregational in polity when it comes to clergy discipline that doesn’t involve sexual misconduct. Like Bob Malm and his repeated nonfeasance and misuse of his office as rector.
So, with that in mind, here is an email from parish employee Jenni Faires to both diocesan officials and parish officials, clearly establishing that all involved have had full knowledge of Bob’s conduct. Moreover, my emails to Susan Goff and Shannon Johnston, which were ignored, establish that the diocese has washed its hands of the matter. Indeed, when the issue of Bob’s deliberate misuse of memorial donations came to light, Bishop Johnston told the Title IV intake officer that he didn’t want to get involved, although I am told he fully understood that Bob’s conduct was illegal. Later, intake officer Caroline Parkinson covered up the matter, claiming that “mistakes were made.” That is a lie: Bob’s conduct was done with full knowledge and intent. It was in no way a “mistake.”
Meanwhile, chalk up another incident of remarkably stupid behavior on Bob Malm’s part apropos free speech. Apparently, nowhere in his education did he read about the First Amendment, or the notion of “prior restraint.”
Friday, August 30, 2019
With perjuring priest Bob Malm planning to pack it in at the end of September, I’ve been hard at work, repositioning this website and other online resources. This will allow me to more effectively spread word of issues at Grace Episcopal Alexandria. But fear not: I will continue to publicize Bob’s conduct across much of the nation.
The more alert among you noticed this morning that I briefly took the site offline, as it moves to a new domain name. This move protects the existing material and data that covers Bob Malm and his antics, while shifting the focus on new material to the parish and diocese itself.
In addition, I’m rebranding, with less of perjuring priest Bob Malm, and more emphasis on the church itself. Meanwhile, traffic remains strong, and within the next few months the main website will pass 100,000 hits.
I also may be speaking at a church abuse conference in the coming weeks, where I’ll also be handing out materials. And I continue to lit drop Alexandria and surrounding areas, sharing with people the Bad News of Bob Malm.
More to come!
As things gear up for a possible lawsuit in the coming weeks against Bob Malm, Grace Episcopal Church, and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, a recent state Supreme Court spells bad news for the potential defendants.
In a nearly unanimous decision, the court overturned a lower court dismissal of a tortious claim of negligence against the the denomination, the Church of God in Christ; and against local church officials for negligence and respondent superior, based on allegations that church officials had a special relationship with the plaintiff and had failed in their duty of care to her. As a result, the case is going forward.
In the case of Bob Malm and Grace Episcopal Church, diocesan officials knew of Bob Malm’s deliberate misuse of funds, but declined to act. Moreover, they have been fully apprised of Malm’s perjury and other tortious acts, but have consistently covered up and ignored Malm’s actions. As a result, should the case go to trial, the diocese likely will be held liable.
The court’s decision can be found at https://law.justia.com/cases/virginia/supreme-court/2019/180520.html.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
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.
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Monday, August 26, 2019
I’ve written on this topic before, including the fact that the $500,000 loan from the parish to Bob Malm was recorded off the books for many years.
Here, in bulleted format, are some of the other problems with cash management and financial reporting during Bob Malm’s 30-year reign.
Before you join the church, make a pledge of financial support, serve on the vestry, or revise your will, it behooves you to ensure that these issues have been addressed to your satisfaction.
Saturday, August 24, 2019
Friday, August 23, 2019
Here’s a real-life example of just how thoroughly broken Grace Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia are.
In this letter, Swansboro Methodist Church speaks out about against a member’s effort to “fat shame” another member. The incident allegedly occurred in a bathroom in the church.
The approach of Swansboro Methodist is the polar opposite of that of the Diocese of Virginia, which decrees that such matters are not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” then ignores the canonical requirement of a pastoral response. A “pastoral response” is exactly what the letter from the Methodist church reflects.
Indeed, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia ignores efforts by Bob Malm and Grace Episcopal Alexandria to drag a dying woman into court, as well as Episcopal priest Bob Malm’s readily verifiable perjury. Apropos the latter, it says it will only get involved if a priest is convicted of criminal charges. This, despite the fact that church canons specifically forbid clergy from engaging in fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
No wonder the Episcopal Church is collapsing. And with ethics like that, good riddance.
And for those of you who’d like to see the original video, here it is: https://twitter.com/roo_jenna/status/1145418354498461698?s=21
Bishop Susan Goff, Sven vanBaars, Mary Thorpe, Melissa Hollerith, Bob Malm, Jeff Chiow, Alison Campbell, Lisa Medley, Jan Spence and others: This is exactly the sort of thing that goes on behind the scenes at Grace. You know it. I know it.
You just don’t have the integrity to admit it, or that you are a part of those issues.
Here’s a repost of another great window into the spiritual life of Grace Episcopal, Jeff Chiow, and Bob Malm.
In this request for admission, Jeff Chiow and Bob Malm reference a non-existent shooting the fictional city (one word, if you please) of “Sugarland” Texas. They also invoke the hashtag “clearthepews,” which I have never used.
Of course, as an attorney, Jeff Chiow submits pleadings with the express understanding that they are true to the best of his knowledge and belief, and after making reasonable effort to ensure same.
So where did Jeff come up with a non-existent city? Either he’s spectacularly oblivious to the need to proof his work and to act with integrity as an officer of the court, or he’s a liar. I leave it to readers to decide which. Same for his client, Bob Malm.
And if Jeff really believes the church is threatened by terrorists, why does he continue to bring his kids to church? Wouldn’t that be placing them in harm’s way? Or are Jeff’s pleadings and actions dishonest and unethical?
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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
Thursday, August 22, 2019
The following, used with the permission of the Rev. Wade Mullen, is an excellent piece on how abusers weave webs of deceit to hide their actions. I believe it well describes Bob Malm’s smear campaigns directed at me, as well as his efforts to convince people that they are threatened by “domestic terrorism,” — a phrase directly from Bob’s pleadings to the Venango County Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania. The pleading was filed in conjunction with his effort, in contravention of state law, to drag my mother, dying of COPD, into court.
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
With Shrine Mont coming up, back to school, and perjuring priest Bob Malm’s upcoming retirement, there’s lots to do in the coming weeks. With that in mind, I’ll be leafletting a few remaining homes in Potomac Yards tomorrow, weather permitting, and protesting in several places this week.
Plans also include protests for the first day of classes at Grace Episcopal School, Dysfunctional Bob’s last Sunday and the bishop’s visit, and more.
P.S. Oh, and keep in mind it’s not perjury if Bob Malm didn’t know it was a lie. If he can’t tell the difference between truth and a lie, it’s not perjury!
Monday, August 19, 2019
As we prepare to say farewell to Grace Episcopal’s rector for more than 30 years, perjuring priest Bob Malm, please consider making a generous donation to his farewell purse. Consider:
- The church spent more than $6,000 on Chris Byrnes’ farewell.
- The church gave a purse totaling more than $24,000 after Malm’s 2014 accident.
- The church gave Bob Malm a $100,000 bonus to mark his 25th year as rector.
- The church just spent more than $800,000 to keep the HVAC up on running.
So don’t be cheap. Give generously!
Friday, August 16, 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.
Monday, August 12, 2019
Friday, August 9, 2019
One of the things that looms large for Grace Church is the need for an interim rector. But do folks at the parish understand what interim ministry is, and what it does? More importantly does the diocese understand the importance of interim ministry? The answers are not clear, but one thing is certain: A successful interim ministry is essential for Grace Church’s future.
So what is interim ministry?
Interim ministry grew out of studies by the Alban Institute after years of failed calls and an effort to understand what was happening and why. What they discovered is that there is a natural developmental process that occurs and it can be facilitated and it can be blocked or undermined, accidentally or deliberately.
Not everyone who does interim ministry is trained or has a clue what an interim should be doing. Here are the stages.
- Coming to terms with history
- Clarifying identity
- Raising up new leadership
- Developing denominational linkages
- Welcoming a new rector
When a call results in a new rector leaving within 2-3 years, it’s almost always a sign of a failed interim process. Yet for all the change DioVA has experienced in recent years, including the property recovery litigation, the diocese has a very mixed record in this department. For example, the rebuilding of The Falls Church seemingly has gone well, despite the need for the continuing congregation to again learn what it means to be a church. The Church of the Epiphany Herndon got off to a very bumpy start, but has done well under the current rector. St. Thomas’ McLean, which had a clergy disciplinary case a few years ago, was a bloody disaster marked by a clueless diocese that refused to provide meaningful pastoral care to the parish during the transition, redeemed only by the arrival of the current rector, who by all accounts is wonderful and very healing. In the case of St. Thomas,’ there was no real interim ministry, and the damage was lasting.
In the case of Grace, Bob’s legacy is a very troubled parish, with a lot of work to do. Sadly, very few within the parish recognize the extent of the issues, or in many cases, that there’s any issue at all. Thus, it will take a courageous interim to surface these issues, and to create a safe environment to work towards resolution and healing.
To make matters worse, it is not clear that the diocese recognizes the problems at Grace. As I’ve said before, the diocese has an unparalleled ability to mess up even the best situation, and it can be both remarkably clueless and amoral. So there’s a real possibility that the diocese will not recognize the issues at hand until it’s too late. And frankly, the diocese should have recognized long ago the problems at Grace, but it either didn’t, or ignored the problems. But then, this is the diocese that had an ACNA clergy person on the staff at Mayo House, so no suprises there.
So, what can parishioners do to ensure success? My suggestion is to learn as much as possible about the interim process, what it involves, and what the outcomes are supposed to be. And if the diocese blows you off — as it may well do — you need to insist. There simply is no room for failure.
Similarly, you need parishioners to understand the issue, understand why it’s important, and why the church is headed for very difficult times if the interim period fails. Vestry members and other leaders need to take ownership of these issues, and to help members understand that the parish has no future if members are going to behave as they have during Bob’s time with the parish. There is no excuse for bullying other parishioners, ever. And the vestry needs to resume its rightful role—the notion that the rector appoints the executive committee and otherwise interferes with the functioning of the vestry is bad for the rector, bad for the parish, and bad for church members.
A good starting point is the online resources available from the national church, with one example available here in PDF.
For those interested, here is a diagram of the process:
Thursday, August 8, 2019
The coming months will be an interesting time for Grace Church, as Bob Malm’s departure leads the church into what, for many members, will be uncharted waters. That raises several questions, including:
- Near-term financial implications.
- Strategic planning.
- Diocesan role in the transition.
- Most importantly, whether the parish will survive.
This post explores those issues.
Before going further, it’s important to recognize the context in which these issues occur. Not only did Dysfunctional Bob “serve” (and I use the word advisedly) for more than 30 years, but he brought with him a toxic blend: Ostensibly friendly, Bob was highly manipulative, narcissistic, and indolent. As a result, he believed he was an excellent rector, but the reality is that governance was and is a hot mess. Real leadership in the parish is virtually non-existent, and the way members interact with each other is appalling. Consider: This is a church where it’s okay to urge people to commit suicide. In other words, this is a toxic and seriously ill church.
Just look at the various emails I’ve posted in which parishioners and clergy discuss me. Lots of Jesus-babble, but no genuine concern at all. Layer Bob Malm’s perjury on top, Chiow’s treatment in court of our conflict as a personal vendetta, and the level of discourse between Bob Malm and the diocese, and this is one ugly, ugly place.
So it’s fair to say both that whoever comes next will have her or his hands full. At the same time, many of the resiliency traits of a healthy church are utterly missing in Grace Church. As a result, transition issues loom large, and there is very little room for error.
Apropos near-term financial issues, it is common for parishes to see a decline in giving and participation in the midst of a transition. In the case of Holy Comforter in Vienna, for example, finances took a serious hit following the retirement of the rector a few years ago, declining at one point by almost a third. With Grace’s budget now perilously thin, it has little room to absorb a decline. Even a small decrease will necessitate eliminating staff, as most of the remaining costs are structural.
In this regard, the decision to replace the HVAC system in the school is problematic. Entirely tactical in nature, it utterly ignored the larger issue, which is that cost sharing with the school is increasingly untenable and a difficult case to make for parishioners. While it may have made sense in the 1950’s to build a complex now valued at more than $12 million dollars, it imposes huge burdens in a day and age when attending church no longer is normative. The building is huge, spectacularly energy inefficient, and little has been done to reduce energy costs. Even just the HID lights in the parking lot and auditorium are wildly expensive to operate, yet with all the hundreds of thousands being pored into HVAC, no one seems to have to foresight to fund the relatively minor costs to address these matters.
At the same time, asking a parish with fewer than 200 pledging units to share costs with the much larger school is a difficult sell. This is compounded by the Chris Byrne years, with her empire-building and other shenanigans. Chris’ short-sighted approach, and her indifference to the good of the entire organization, has caused lingering issues in some circles within the church.
So, it is likely that there will be a decline in revenue, especially since Dysfunctional Bob’s departure falls only weeks before the annual pledge season. That said, in this area, the parish is lucky, in that the remaining pledging units have proved highly reliable and willing to give sacrificially. And Bob’s compensation package (which also involved demolishing the rectory, a stupid move if there ever was one), was so spectacularly generous that there is some wiggle room, even for a highly qualified interim.
Of course, right behind this is the demographic reality: The Berrys, the Reeds, June Huber and Brad Bergmann, and the other generous long-time donors are all reaching ages where their current levels of giving won’t continue for too many more years. Meanwhile, younger families often find they cannot give at the levels older families can, particularly in light of the high cost of housing in the area and the cost of college for their children.
And, lest we ignore the elephant in the room, the years of conflict in the parish, including my dust-up with Dysfunctional Bob and Sugarland Chiow, are a powerful disincentive to young people joining the church. If nothing else, who wants to give to a church if the rector can unilaterally force you out? No one I know. So membership levels, both near- and long-term, are likely to decline.
No matter how all this plays out, near-term financial issues could quickly get hairy and will surely garner a lot of attention.
Governance and leadership
Another major challenge will be governance and leadership. There are very few real leaders left in the parish, and even those with otherwise good leadership instincts have been co-opted by Bob. Indeed, with Bob having interfered with vestry operations for many years, few even know how a vestry is supposed to work. Additionally, folks Bob has placed in leadership positions often have pursued their own interests and petty jealousies/animosities, versus serving the greater good.
As a result, folks in the parish will have to learn how to be leaders. At the same time, some who now regard themselves as leaders will have to either change their ways or wind up on the sidelines if the parish is to become healthy. Given 30 years’ of entrenched interests, the latter will take a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea.
It should be particularly interesting to observe the vestry as it gears up for the January annual meeting. A real election of vestry officers, without Dysfunctional Bob making the decisions? Imagine that. And basic requirements of The Episcopal Church, like a finance manual, were still not in place last time I checked, even after 30 years of Bob Malm, so there will plenty to do for upcoming vestries.
Of longer-term importance will be the need for strategic planning. While I urged Bob repeatedly to begin that process, he neither understood what it meant, nor was in any way supportive. But if you don’t know where you plan to be in 20 years, you surely will get there, and Grace Church doesn’t even plan tactically, let alone strategically.
Of course, these changes will prove off-putting for many, so I think there is little doubt that some parishioners will fly the coop.
Here’s where things get interesting. Traditionally, Episcopal parishes have an interim, whose job it is to help the transition to a new priest. Many question whether this is sensible, or whether it works, with some, including my fellow Episcopal Cafe contributor George Clifford, urging a more corporate approach.
On the one hand, Grace probably needs a good interim. Given the hot mess that Dysfunctional Bob leaves behind, and the fact that almost no one at the church realizes what a mess it is, someone with excellent change management and transitional skills is needed. Indeed, more than one wag has pointed out that the primary job of an interim at Grace will be to exorcise the baleful specter of Bob Malm. And more than one highly qualified interim has said that s/he wouldn’t touch Grace with a 20-foot pole.
That said, I suspect the only interim who could survive Grace Church would be a retired bishop. In that regard, the church’s endemic clericalism will provide some much-needed armor to members of the Pointy Hats Club. In addition, a bishop with knowledge of Episcopal norms, including governance practices and conflict resolution, could really stabilize things.
On the other hand, the diocese’s ability to screw things up is unparalleled. Even Canon Mary Thorpe, who has handled the diocese’s transition issues in the past, can be spectacularly clueless. Indeed, I well remember when she told one parish, traumatized by clergy misconduct, that no one wanted to apply to be rector because they were “damaged goods.”
Moreover, I very much doubt that the diocese fully understands just how screwed up Grace Church is. So I think it as likely as not that the diocese will simply make things worse. After all, this is a diocese that thinks it’s okay for clergy to commit criminal offenses so long as they aren’t convicted. Why would anyone conclude that the diocese won’t bollix these transition issues?
Long-Term Issues and Parish Survival
If by now you’ve concluded that I am dubious that the parish will survive, you’re spot on. My belief is that the odds are slightly in favor of survival, but not by much.
The problems and risks are myriad. As I mentioned above, while the diocese has had some real successes in transition, including at the Falls Church and Epiphany Herndon, overall it has shown itself to be both spectacularly incompetent and utterly lacking in ethics when it is challenged. This lack of leadership at the diocesan level creates a high risk of failure at Grace Church.
Additionally, Grace has been wallowing in its beautiful but toxic stained glass cesspool for many years. Whether members have the introspection and the courage to change is doubtful.
Compounding things is the damage of more than 4 years of conflict with yours truly. This has occurred very much in the public sphere, and it’s probably fair to say that the reputation of all involved has been irreparably damaged—an outcome that experts warn is almost a given in a badly handled Title IV clergy disciplinary case. And there were at least five cases involving Bob, and possibly more.
Ironically, things haven’t really changed from our meeting in Fredericksburg. Those angered by Bob’s conduct, that of the parish, and that of the diocese have not changed their views; indeed, Bob’s decision to try to go to court further cemented their hostility. Several are now dead or otherwise out of the picture, including my mother and grandmother, so reconciliation in that sphere is now impossible. And others choose to have nothing further to do with the diocese, including Mike. (BTW, if +Shannon reads this, I’d point out you never did follow-up with a note to Mike, nor with the fall follow-up meeting we discussed. No loss.)
There’s also no way to remove all the negative press that’s out there. I long ago made sure of that, and it’s not unfair. Just as the trauma caused by Bob’s conduct won’t ever entirely go away, neither should the documentation.
The important thing here, though, is to recognize that this sort of conflict is only possible in a toxic parish. Healthy churches don’t sue parishioners, don’t have clergy who engage in perjury, or have church members as attorneys who engage in inflammatory rhetoric or untruthful statements of law and fact in their pleadings. Indeed, the fact that even the church vestry lied to parishioners underscores how spectacularly toxic the parish has become. (I am referring specifically to the “talking points” the vestry prepared that claimed that I left on my own. If that is the case, why then did Bob Malm find it necessary to send us an email telling us we were unwelcome? And why would Bob specifically reference Mike?)
At the end of the day, survival will require a sea change at Grace Church. If the parish tries to cling to the same old, same old, its days indeed are numbered. And given the church’s recent conduct, that would not be a bad thing. Any place where the rector commits perjury with the support of the vestry and subpoenas the dying is hardly a place that reflects the Christian values that it purports to hold.