Some time ago, then canon to the ordinary for Virginia, Mary Thorpe, told members of St. Thomas’ McLean that the reason they were having trouble finding a rector is that, having had their previous rector removed in a Title IV case, they were “damaged goods.”
That comment, none too compassionate, underscores the fact that Grace Episcopal Alexandria is “damaged goods” on multiple levels. This post explores the reasons for that and the steps the church will need to take if the parish wants to survive.
Dealing with damage
For starters, Thorpe’s comment was disingenuous. Much of the reason the parish was “damaged goods” was not the departure of rector Stephen Edmondson amidst a cloud of scandal. Nor was the reason Edmondson’s conduct prior to his removal.
Instead, the reason the parish was “damaged goods” was because the Diocese, having removed Edmondson, ignored the needs of the parish. These needs included making peace with the past by:
- Bringing in outside professionals to help the parish heal, recover, and grow.
- Disclosing what happened.
- Sharing the needs, fears, anger, and hurt of those within the parish.
- Working towards wholeness on the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational levels.
- Repenting of sins that occurred in conjunction with the departure of the previous rector.
Even worse, when parishioners complained that the Diocese was leaving them to dangle in the wind, the Diocese brushed this off, saying, “Just hang in there until we can get someone in there.”
Fortunately, the parish eventually landed a rector willing to do the hard work of moving towards health and wholeness. But these outcomes are rare, and most clergy expect a successful interim period in which the parish accomplishes this work.
Otherwise, an incoming rector is left to clean up the mess left by the departing rector–a process that is unpleasant and filled with potential hazards for all involved.
In Grace Episcopal Alexandria’s case, 30 years of perjuring priest Bob Malm‘s narcissism and dishonesty have left a church that, not surprisingly, is like Malm. Ostensibly friendly and welcoming, the parish displays a veneer of high emotional IQ — even as, behind the scenes, it’s often toxic, abusive, and dishonest.
Add in Anne Turner‘s lies and deception in order to pursue an allegedly decade-long extramarital affair, and we see that the behavioral patterns established by Malm continue to this day. Specifically, it’s only the public behavior that matters. Bad behavior, as long as it happens behind the scenes, doesn’t count.
Turning these issues around will require engagement with the Diocese, including help from an independent, outside professional — like someone from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.
Earlier, we touched on the importance of a successful interim. A successful interim ensures conformity with denominational norms, helps the parish make peace with the past, and develops a vision for the future.
Unfortunately, the Diocese of Virginia rarely follows this model. As a result, we see many parishes in which conflictive, dysfunctional behavior is normative.
What model does the Diocese typically follow?
Sadly, the answer is the benchwarmer model. Get some boring old retired priest to stand up there on Sunday, drone on, and watch the members and money slip away while hoping that the parish will hire someone before it implodes.
Some also argue for an extended interim when the previous rector has stayed for ten or more years. In such cases, the rector who follows faces an uphill battle absent a lengthy interim.
Moreover, it’s infrequent for a priest to stay 30 years, as Malm did, and not have problems within the parish. Even the most gifted priest typically runs out of gifts to offer after eight to ten years, and by the time 30 years rolls around, the burnout is painfully apparent.
So, an interim with a highly trained interim priest will be essential. Even then, Malm’s extended but troubled stay will cause even highly skilled interims to cringe at the prospect of coming to Grace Church.
It is axiomatic that churches cannot fix that which they cannot see.
As a stained glass echo chamber, much of the toxic behavior at Grace Episcopal Alexandria, including lying, gossiping, bullying, shunning, extramarital affairs, and more, has become normative. And because people see it in their priest and others, they think these behaviors are acceptable.
These behaviors are not acceptable.
Unfortunately, all it takes is one or two bullies to turn a parish toxic, and Grace has several.
These bullies include Alison Campbell, Lisa Medley, Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow, Kelly Gable, and Kemp Williams. In fact, Campbell will even lie to people she calls friends, like Elizabeth Legere, in an effort to cause problems. That is both childish and stupid, and her conduct, and that of persons like her, has caused profound harm to the parish.
Will these folks recognize the issues with their behavior and change how they behave? Or leave the parish?
Not likely, although most parishioners are wise to the issues with several of these people.
But with professional help, it may be possible for them to recognize their toxic relational patterns. Or realize that they are killing the parish with their childish actions.
Moreover, Grace tends to be a cult of personality. Not only do people unquestioningly follow and obey perjuring priest Bob Malm but it’s considered treasonous and a personal affront by many to question his decisions.
That paradigm of unquestioning authority is one that Malm encouraged with his loud voice and efforts to create a “command presence.” But the paradigm is also profoundly contrary to the message of the gospels.
Even worse, assistant rectors like dishonest Leslie Steffensen have also proved ethically indifferent. Whether it’s actively engaging in misconduct, as Steffensen did, or passively ignoring Malm’s abusive behavior, there’s a long and sordid track record of misconduct by junior clergy at the parish.
We also note that the parish has a dismal track record when it comes to addressing abuse. For example, when assistant rector Fanny Belanger complained to the Diocese and the vestry about Malm’s conduct, both entities ignored her. Similarly, we have seen no effort on the part of the parish to repent of its misconduct or to fix the problems it has caused.
Complicating matters is that many of the older parishioners, who often were loving, accepting, and had the tenure to stand up to bullies, are now dead or gone. Thus, one of the few checks and balances in a toxic system is gone.
Grace needs to recognize that, between Malm, the collapse of Turner’s rectorship, and behavior within the parish, it is teetering on the brink.
Yes, the church is enjoying an influx of cash after the death of several long-time parishioners. Still, like people who are dying, who often experience a seeming recovery shortly before the end, the church is living in a fool’s paradise as it lurches toward its end.
Willingness to work
If members of the church decide that they want the church to survive, the process will require hard work. Many difficult discussions will be needed. And hard decisions will need to be made.
Not only is disclosure essential to being in right relationship — as in unpacking past abuse at the parish and the misconduct of Malm and Turner — but people will need to own their roles in these problems.
In some cases, matters long ignored will need to be brought into the open.
For example, the parish needs to adopt policies to address the pedophile in the parish. Malm was well aware of that person’s presence and their issues but did next to nothing to address the situation. How any priest can behave in such a feckless manner and live with himself is beyond us.
It’s also worth pointing out that messaging about love and being in this together won’t be enough to fix problems at Grace. Not only do these efforts not go nearly far enough, as they don’t unpack the underlying problems, but they can be dangerously close to false. Indeed, we have only to look at the inaccurate comments of former assistant rector Jason Roberson, who claimed that Grace was “growing and flourishing,'” even as it shed 2/3 of its pledging units, to see the dangers inherent in thoughtless optimism.
Of course, much of this is beyond anything that Bill Malone or current members of the executive committee can or should handle. There is an inherent danger when someone tries to become a change agent from the inside, and Malone and others probably want to leave the vestry with their backsides intact. That issue — of being able to have those difficult conversations — is particularly problematic when many parishioners view any criticism of the parish or its leadership as disloyal or treasonous.
Will Grace Episcopal survive? We don’t know.
But we can say with certainty that this is a profoundly troubled church, and all the more so because few within the church recognize or admit to problems within the parish.
As to the next rector, we can only say, “May God have mercy on her immortal soul.”
She’s going to need all the help she can get.
Disclosure: Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti is a former member of Grace Alexandria. Bonetti began this publication in 2015 as a result of his experiences with abuse in the parish.