It’s Dawning on Folks: Grace Episcopal is in Trouble

By | November 29, 2018

One of the things that’s amusing to watch is the slow progression as it gradually dawns on the denizens of Planet Malm (a self-contained planet, pretty to look at, but with an atmosphere of toxic gusts) that the place is in trouble, particularly on the financial front.

In 2014, I repeatedly warned Bob, in writing, that my forward-looking financial projections showed that existing cost structures were unsustainable, and that without major changes, the church was headed towards financial insolvency in 2018. And while my modeling showed that reducing expenses could buy some time, only major changes, including reduced cost structures and enhanced revenue, would result in the church’s survival.
True to form, Dysfunctional Bob gave me the big brush-off, either ignoring my analyses or offering up empty platitudes. Yet every possible model showed the same thing—which was that, when one factored in depreciation and amortization, the church’s ongoing annual deficit of more than $100,000 could not be ignored forever. Shocker, that.
Similarly, even a few months ago, vestry members were brashly assuring folks that no capital campaign would be needed, that the HVAC could be paid for without one, and similar claptrap. Of course, that ignored declining revenue and attendance, increasing healthcare and other costs, and the ongoing decline in organizational financial capacity due to inflation. Specifically, a flat budget is a declining budget, and over the past 10 years the church’s annual purchasing capacity has declined by 16 percent, even before it paid annual cost of living increases to Dysfunctional Bob. And the 2014 write off of the $100,000 that Bob owed the church was both incredibly stupid and unwarranted; Bob already is wildly overpaid, and far from a superior performer. Indeed, as an administrator, I’d rate Bob as a D-. Not the worst out there, but well toward the bottom of the barrel.
Compounding matters is the fact that Bob is largely checked out. Yes, he can recite the fact that both giving and number of giving units has to increase, but he’s known that for many years, with zero long-term plan to get from here to there. Nor is he doing anything to ask those who could help draw up such plan to do so; to the contrary, Bob vehemently resists any such suggestion.
In recent months, vestry members finally are starting to talk about a capital campaign, something I had recommended back in 2014. But the problem is that these tend to reduce annual giving, and the church is barely able to cover its fixed expenses, including Bob’s insanely generous compensation package. In other words, there’s a sweet spot when it comes to timing a capital campaign, and the church long ago missed that spot.
On top of everything, it’s very hard to grow a church in any fashion when there is unresolved conflict. In that department Bob, not surprisingly, has managed to knock one out of the park. Thanks to Bob’s efforts to throw folks off the island, and his weird claims of domestic terrorism, and my unwillingness to roll over and play dead, Grace Church is now known far and wide as a toxic church. That conclusion is compounded by his wildly ill-considered settlement proposal, which may have looked good to Jeff Chiow as a legal matter, but falls painfully short from a Christian perspective, as well as from both a tactical and a strategic perspective. But then, we’re talking about an attorney who makes up fictional events and happenings in his legal documents, so what else would you expect?
Moreover, Bob has painted himself in a corner. Under the terms of the protective order, we can have no contact until 2020, and I have told Bob that I want no contact, period. So there is zero chance of reconciliation or a ceasefire, and no possibility of change. That means that the church will remain a hot mess until something gives, and that something most likely will be the budget.
Meanwhile, look for the new Alexandria sewer tax and increased health insurance costs to further increase next year’s costs, while pledges will continue to remain soft. And conflict and tensions within the parish likely will mount as it dawns on people that, as I predicted in 2014, the church is in a bad way financially. Moreover, the old joke about any club that would have me as a member isn’t one I’d want to join holds true for getting a new assistant rector. No younger clergyperson worth her salt is going to want to step into the hornet’s nest that is Planet Malm, nor suffer the reputational damage that comes with serving a parish that thinks it’s okay to drag an elderly dying woman into court, or that it’s okay to sue your parishioners. And the myriad hateful comments on social media from parishioners and Bob’s family do nothing to reassure prospective candidates.
To make matters worse, while tension and conflict are givens when faced with declining financial resources, Dysfunctional Bob and Sugarland have modeled a no-holds-barred, the ends-justify-the-means approach to conflict. So, as things get worse at Grace Church, look for some seriously sharp elbows and lots of fiery blasts. Food fight, here we come.
Things will be interesting, for sure.