Alexandria, Va., home to the Virginia Theological Seminary, largest in the Anglican Communion, has long been regarded as a bastion of the Episcopal church. Yet evidence shows that two of the city’s flagship parishes are in crisis.
At St. Paul’s, long a haven for well-heeled residents of Old Town, lackluster leadership, unresolved conflict, and the church’s ties to the torture program during the so-called war on terror have caused Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) to crash from a pre-pandemic average of 414 to a barely sustainable 2021 average of 138.
Giving is relatively constant, but ebbing slowly when adjusted for inflation.
Grace Episcopal Alexandria
Grace is in more dire shape. It has gone from zero reported average Sunday attendance in 2020 to 151 in 2021. And while its budget would seem, at first glance, to be relatively steady, it has declined by more than 30 percent since 2011 when adjusted for inflation. Pledging units have dropped from approximately 375 to 167 since 2014, and signs indicate continuing sharp decline.
The church also has developed a narcissistic culture after 30 years of narcissistic Bob Malm. Ostensibly friendly, fun and welcoming on the surface, just beneath the surface lurks a culture of bullying, mobbing, extramarital sex, gossip, mean girl games, and unresolved conflict. Added to the mix are stupid comments about these issues by folks like Cynthia Puskar, who have zero first-hand information, but feel compelled to wade in.
The diocese has long been aware of these trends but has adamantly refused to address them, both from a clergy misconduct perspective and from a family systems vantage point. And the perjury of former rector Bob Malm and the courtroom fabrications of church attorney and member Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow (named after a mythical town and church shooting he invented for his church pleadings), will prove toxic to the church for years to come,
Particularly bad are dynamics within the vestry, the choir, and the altar guild, in which the mean girls paradigm looms large. Possibly as a result, Samantha Scheff, the music director, has announced that she is leaving her position after just 18 months on the job.
And while we appreciate a positive attitude, rector Anne Turner has engaged in some revisionist history regarding Nina Bacas, associate rector
Nina was one of the few people willing to apply for the position and was hired with some reluctance on an interim basis, but let’s just say you’d never know it based on Anne’s most recent comments. Thus, like many clergy who have stepped into toxic churches, Anne is adopting one of the most destructive attributes of the church—a lack of integrity. Or as staff here puts it, she’s become a Malmite.
And then we come to issues with Santi Rodriguez, who serves as associate minister. Quite inexperienced, let’s just say he hardly inspires confidence and leave it at that.
In other words, the s*** show that is Grace Episcopal appears to be lurching ever more quickly to an end.
In short, if these two flagship parishes, located in areas ideal for growth, can’t make it, there’s little hope the larger church will survive.