Positive Signs at St. Dysfunction, aka Grace Church

By | December 14, 2019

As Grace church begins the lengthy process of transition, there are some positive signs. The church, diocese, and vestry deserve kudos for these changes.
First and foremost, we see the wardens and vestry finally assuming their proper role under the Episcopal canons. Instead of Bob Malm personally choosing the executive committee, which is a violation of the canons, and then controlling decisions via his hand-chosen inner circle, we are seeing the wardens and vestry actually exercising leadership as they communicate with the parish, make decisions, and try to map out a path forward for the parish.


Second, we are seeing the parish back away from Bob Malm’s knee-jerk instinct towards controlling and restricting the flow of information. This includes publishing pledge totals (versus deliberately vague information), and greater transparency about decision making. 
The problem with Bob Malm’s approach is that secrecy is deadly to a voluntary organization like a church, which depends on the labor, giving and participation of members. Instead of accurate information, secrecy begets the ugly gossip that has roiled for years right behind the scenes at Grace church, ranging from rumors of affairs, to speculation about the sexual orientation of married persons, to claims that one person had a penile implant (seriously!). Such rumor and speculation may seem like harmless fun, but it’s ugly, damaging, hateful, and a powerful disincentive for outsiders to join the church. And it’s often used by persons like Alison Campbell when they want to play the Mean Girls game.


Ironically, Bob’s efforts to control information, which were intended to curtail my access to information, had zero effect on me, other than giving me one more topic to blog about. Data regarding parish giving and governance is readily available via other sources and, like all organizations, there are always plenty of internal sources to leak data. Indeed, more than one member has speculated that all the secrecy means there must be something to hide—which, given Bob’s perjury and other misconduct, is spot-on.
Going forward, the church would be well-served by returning to publishing vestry minutes. The reality is that posting this information on the bulletin board outside the office door does nothing. Yes, persons may glance at it, but no one is really going to glean much information as they try to read it standing in a busy hallway. Similarly, few are going to go to the trouble of contacting Amy Medrick, which in itself alerts clergy to their interest in governance issues.


Similarly, the parish annual report should be on the website. Not providing it keeps nothing secret, and I am well aware of the sharp declines under Bob Malm  in pledging units, average Sunday attendance, and other barometers of parish health.
Same for the parish budget. As I have said in previous posts, both the budget and the so-called audit should be available on the website. Lisa Medley claims there is “complete transparency,” but that is absolute bullcrap. Indeed, the vestry does not see the audit engagement letter or the results, let alone parishioners, and existing safeguards were not adequate to prevent Richard Newman from being overpaid for many months, until Jeff Aaron spotted the issue. (I have always suspected that his disclosure of the matter resulted in Bob Malm shoving him out the door. Bob does not like it when his negligence comes to light.) Nor were they adequate to detect the thousands of dollars in unaccounted-for stale checks and cash found in the parish administrator’s office after she retired in 2014.


Keep in mind, too, that the parish will soon have to compile a parish portfolio as part of the search process. All this data needs to be included, and not in a glossed-over manner. The reality is that Bob Malm’s tenure ended with the parish in a period of precipitous, perhaps terminal, decline marked by conflict, outrageous clergy misconduct (aided and abetted by Sugarland Chiow and the vestry), declining giving and participation, and an utter lack of any sort of strategic plan or vision for the future. Indeed, during his final five years, even Malm’s admirers felt that he was thoroughly burned out, indifferent, and focused simply on paying the bills long enough to make it into retirement.
The good news in all of this is that the current wardens are well-suited to the task at hand, and hopefully future wardens will be as well. That said, there remain serious questions about the ability of the parish to recognize, let alone address, the mess left behind after 30 years of Bob Malm.