Sunday, August 12, 2018

Fanny Belanger and the Winds of Change at Grace Episcopal Church Alexandria

As most members of St. Dysfunction aka Grace Episcopal Church know, Fanny Belanger is leaving as assistant rector of the parish after one year. The news probably spells further bad news for the church.

In times of trouble, it’s important to maintain stability. We saw that happen, for example, at St. Thomas’ McLean, when following the abrupt departure of the rector, the vocational deacon (truly a wonderful person), stayed after her originally planned date of retirement. She did this in order to afford stability to a parish that was in the midst of turmoil; the cost to her and her family was considerable, as she unexpectedly wound up with two mortgage payments for the better part of a year. That is an example of servant leadership, in which personal needs took second place to the needs of the parish.

In the case of Grace Church, the parish is sorely in need of relational and pastoral stability. Massive expenses, which until now have been ignored, are bearing down on the parish to the tune of millions of dollars. At the same time, Bob Malm, true to form, is not going to let a little thing like the welfare of his church intrude on the annual pilgrimage to Massachusetts. In fact, you can be damned sure he’ll take all the leave provided for in his otherwise largely irrelevant letter of agreement, and possibly more if he can find an excuse. (That ignores the fact that four weeks at the beach with Bob Malm sounds like hell on earth. Or maybe the furnace room of hell on a hot day.)

In Fanny’s case, most assistant rectors stay for three years. That’s not a bad approach, as assistant rectors are much like employees in other settings—their first year largely is spent learning the ropes, and they don’t bring a ton of value until they’re well into their second year. And parish life is a complex thing—there are lots of ins and outs to learn, and it’s common to make mistakes as clergy get acclimated to a new parish. So, it is not clear that, in the greater scheme of things, Fanny’s time with the parish produced much lasting benefit to either side.

At the same time, Bob Malm cannot serve more than another five years per church canons absent permission from the bishop, and the latter rarely is granted. Even five years, though, probably is not a good thing, as there’s little doubt that Bob is burned out, and his missteps in pursuing litigation against a dying woman have made clear to even Bob’s most ardent supporters just how thin his personal faith truly is. Or, as one friend puts it, “Bob knows the words, but not the song.” And Jeff Chiow’s malevolent advocacy, which can only be done at the direction of his client, underscores the systemic issues in the church. All of which is a nice way of saying that the church is toxic, and the toxic sludge is bubbling to the surface, spilling out in all directions.

So what next? 

One key thing will be to find an assistant rector with really good spiritual and change management skills. When Bob does fly the coop, there will be a whole lot of turmoil in the parish, as many have never experienced anyone else in that position. And given Bob’s willingness to both tolerate and encourage bad behavior among church members (including setting his own bad example), you can be sure there will be plenty of people who won’t exactly show kindness to each other. In short, things are going to get ugly, and it will take a brave soul, particularly as an interim, to say, “That’s not how we show love to one another.”

Things will be excarbated by the fact that there will be plenty of work on the physical plant that needs to be done, and major projects likely will still be afoot when Bob does retire. To make matters worse, Bob’s aloof approach to things will make it very difficult to forge consensus on priorities and funding prior to that time. And, as always, there is absolutely no vision for the future, no strategic planning (and very little tactical planning), and next to no outreach. (A few banners and Art on the Avenue do not outreach make. Sorry to spring it on you, folks.)

There’s another wrinkle in things, which is that a new bishop is in the mix. My feeling is that history will judge +Shannon to have been the right bishop for the extended litigation with the CANA crowd, but a very poor fit when it comes to other issues, including supervision of clergy and staff and organizational dynamics. (I was impressed by the way he started to “slip past” issues when the search for a third bishop came screeching to a halt. What was initially posited as issues that included leadership very quickly became matters involving staff learning to work together. That sort of lip service to accountability, accompanied by the quick brush-off of real issues, is all too common in The Episcopal Church. The reality is that organizations take their cue from the top. Or, as one church staff member said of problems at St. Dysfunction aka Grace Episcopal Church, “and it goes right to the top,” referring to Bob Malm.)

Hopefully, the standing committee will have the wisdom to call a bishop who is both good at organizational dynamics, and a genuinely loving, spiritual person. Bishop Shannon’s great failing has been his willingness to tolerate bad conduct among the clergy and staff he supervises, versus saying, “That’s not how we do things around here.” There’s also a tremendous need for transparency—far too many diocesan decisions are made behind closed doors. And the new bishop would improve things on a great many fronts by reaching out to those who have been hurt by the diocese — including my mother, in the unlikely event she is still alive — and trying to fix things. Of course, doing so requires more than saying, “I’m sorry.” It requires restitution and repentance — an effort to actually fix the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, +Shannon, like many in The Episcopal Church, has a deeply flawed theology of forgiveness and accountability. Not to mention an almost total lack of understanding of the church’s disciplinary canons.

The good news for Grace Church is that there are many deeply committed members. With the right interim, healthy guidance and support from a healthy diocese, and the right choice for rector, Grace may well make it. At the same time, things certainly could go the other way. Another Bob Malm, who is cordial but lacks any real faith, will be a disaster, and may well spell the end of the parish. And it will be vital that whoever comes next focuses first on the needs of the parish, versus Bob’s approach of seemingly believing that he’s somehow special and thus entitled. As in entitled to ignore the parts of his job that he doesn’t like. Or demanding that the church pay for his seedy personal residence.

In short, going forward the parish simply cannot afford another rector whose primary focus appears to be on his own needs and wants. Instead, it is going to require a rector who digs in, gets to know people one-on-one, strives to meet their needs, helps them grow spiritually, and who leads by example. The days of paying for a bishop, but getting the equivalent of a long-term interim priest, are fast drawing to a close. The parish will be a very different place in another 10 years, if it is still around, and you can quote me on that.