Earlier, we posted about questionable gifting practices at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Alexandria Va. But there are numerous other examples of dubious compensation of Episcopal priests. These include issues at Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria Va.; and St. Mary’s Episcopal, Arlington Va. (Full disclosure: Grace is the former parish of Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti.)
Grace Episcopal Alexandria
In the case of Grace Church, the church vestry voted in 2014 to forgive $100,000 of a $200,000 loan to then-rector Bob Malm for purchasing a personal residence. This bonus was in recognition of Malm’s extended service as rector. Yet Malm had paid no principal or interest on the loan and allegedly failed repeatedly to keep his pledge current to the church.
Moreover, Malm’s total compensation package, worth $200,000 annually, represented more than 1/5 of total annual revenue for the church.
Meanwhile, church revenue had declined year over year when adjusted for inflation, and the church had no replacement reserves or budget. Parishioners had warned for many years that the church’s cost structure was untenable and that the parish was in danger of insolvency if the vestry did not adjust the budget. Also, key infrastructure, including the HVAC systems and the church’s original elevator, were well past actuarial life expectancy.
This excessive compensation undercut the church’s claim to be a “center for outreach,” with just 3 percent of the budget going to support the community. Also, the church had failed to adhere to diocesan giving guidelines for years. And when the HVAC system failed, the church borrowed much of the money needed.
Even worse, one vestry member, Lisa Medley, apparently unaware of her fiduciary obligations to the parish, proposed writing off the entire $200K debt.
Compounding matters, the vestry voted a few weeks later to implement regressive taxation on parish staff by phasing in cost-sharing for healthcare benefits. That’s a best practice in corporate America. But when junior clergy earn $55,000 annually, scarcely a liveable wage in the area, imposing cost-sharing for health care in the name of “balancing the budget” is unconscionable. All church workers should have universal access to low- or no-cost health care, and the parish should have required payment in full of the loan before cutting health care benefits.
So why did the church act in such an irresponsible manner? Reasons include:
- Rampant clericalism;
- A narcissistic rector and the resulting organizational narcissism; and
- A profound misunderstanding of the vestry’s role in the church’s life.
.Another aspect was that the church wanted to retain Malm for as long as possible. That was a mistake because Malm was already facially burnt out and indifferent to issues of good governance. And no one asked him if he wanted to stay—always a mistake when a priest has been at the same church for decades.
Today, the church is struggling to regroup, but the years of wasteful spending have proved a powerful disincentive to donors, with the church shedding more than half its pledging units.
St. Mary’s arlington
St. Mary’s in Arlington enjoys a location in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Virginia. And while the church has done relatively well in recent years, it too has made some foolhardy decisions about compensation.
Consider: When the Rev. Andrew Merrow divorced, the vestry allegedly increased his generous compensation package to offset his added costs.
And while Merrow has served in numerous leadership roles, including the diocesan standing committee, church staff members tell Anglican Watch that Merrow is, at best, a mixed bag. Specifics include an alleged indifference to the specifics of his job and a high-handed approach toward staff.
Moreover, the parish was very late to the game on same-sex marriage and inclusion, despite being located in a county famous for its liberalism.
Has Merrow’s compensation package hurt the parish? We don’t know.
But even if it hasn’t, compensation should be aligned with performance and reflect the fact that the church is a non-profit organization. Thus, while Anglican Watch has no issue with clergy living in the neighborhoods where they work, including high-priced locales like Northern Virginia, neither should the church throw funds at clergy.
Bottom line, clergy are there to serve others. Not the other way around. Adequate compensation is appropriate and expected. But when things get out of hand — including shifting costs to church staff in order to shower additional funds on a feckless and already over-compensated rector, the church has lost sight of the underlying ethical issues.
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