Sunday, September 2, 2018

Hiring a New Assistant: Problems on Planet Malm

In light of Fanny Belanger’s resignation, there’s a conundrum facing inhabitants of Planet Malm. The issue is whether to replace Fanny and if so, how? As in, how do you find someone willing to take the job who’s not a drooler?

The answers to these questions will not come easily, and there are no clear right or wrong answers.

First, let’s look at the financial implications. On the plus side, not having an assistant rector frees up much-needed cash at a time when the cost of health care insurance can be expected to increase sharply. Moreover, diocesan policy forbids shifting all the costs to employees, so that isn’t a solution. 

At the same time, revenue will remain soft at a time when the church is proposing borrowing as much as $600,000, but is not throwing off the cash to support loan payments. Compounding the dilemma are several factors:
  1. The parish has become dangerously reliant on a handful of major donors, all now retired. 
  2. The average age of parishioners is trending upwards.
  3. Younger parishioners typically are not giving at the levels of previous generations.
  4. The physical plant will require major infusions of cash over the next five to ten years in amounts far in excess of the amount that will be required to provide the school with a new HVAC system
On the downside, not hiring a replacement creates issues with workload and pastoral care. Dysfunctional Bob has never been one to break a sweat, unless it involves lumbering along as a “Clydesdale” in a marathon. (The term refers to runners weighing in at 200 pounds or more. With the extra weight, Clydesdales are a slow lot.)  So, there is a need for someone to provide a pastoral presence at coffee hour, Shrine Mont, Thanksgiving, and myriad other events, and it’s rare indeed for Bob to fill that role. And a meaningful pastoral presence is doubly important just now, when participation in parish events is dwindling due to the financial effect on parishioners of declining giving and participation, many of whom have been struggling to make up for the loss of approximately 120 pledging units.

Nor is Bob going to cut into his vacation time to offset the loss of an assistant. Even serious HR issues are put on hold when it comes to Bob’s vacation, so it’s a safe bet that option’s off the table. Ditto for working the extra hours that would be required to fly the Jolly Roger at the hypothermia shelter, Carpenter’s Shelter, and myriad other parish activities.

Interwoven with budget issues is the matter of Dysfunctional Bob’s compensation. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, Bob is paid at a level consistent with some of the highest ranking bishops in The Episcopal Church, but the parish sees few if any benefits from having such a highly compensated rector. Yes, Bob can be affable when he chooses to be, and he can put on a good show of appearing hyper-confident, but that is about it. And these days, you can get an MDiv with a PhD, and a published one at that, for 100K all in. That’s a great deal less than Bob is paid, so Bob quickly winds up looking like a pretty bad deal for the church. 

These perceptional issues will undoubtedly factor into parishioner reactions when Bob and vestry members roll though asking for increases in giving, especially of the magnitude that will be required to keep the parish afloat in the coming years. Or in other words, asking for additional money is a tall order when so much of it is squandered on providing Dysfunctional Bob with the lifestyle to which he is accustomed. Bob lives a life of relative ease, with a month at the beach every year, lots of additional time off every year, plenty of opportunity to jog and play golf on a regular basis, and pricy private schools for his kids, at a time when many American families, including plenty within the parish, are struggling to make ends meet. Nor is the almost $200K a year that the parish shells out for Bob enough to keep him in solid financial condition; at the time of his accident, I wound up personally offering to guarantee payment of the bill to install the handrails on the steps outside Bob’s personal residence, as there was concern on multiple fronts that Bob wouldn’t be able to come up with the cash. That’s a sad testament to Bob’s self-indulgent ways.

Into that heady mix you have the unhealthy dynamics within the parish. In the past, those dynamics typically weren’t obvious until folks had been around for a while and served on the vestry or altar guild, and even then the issues might not be obvious. But now, thanks to Bob’s conflict with me, the issues are out there for all the world to see, including the really nasty way parishioners talk about others, and the way Bob Malm talks about parishioners. Just check out the emails on this site, and elsewhere on the web. Nothing even remotely Christian about much of the discourse, and anyone can see firsthand parishioners urging me to commit suicide, others disclosing confidential giving information, still others telling multiple lies about what transpired, as well as the shockingly inappropriate comments of clergy. Even the vestry’s talking points falsely tell parishioners that I left on my own. Having a vestry that tells untruths of that sort is simply appalling.

Then there’s the issue of ethics in the parish. Dysfunctional Bob can bloviate until his hair color washes out about how I’m dysfunctional, irrational and every other accusation he wants to level, but there are several irrefutable facts looming large:
  1. Bob is a priest who filed a civil case against a parishioner.
  2. Bob instructed church staff to exclude me and Mike from the church.
  3. Through his attorney, Bob tried to drag a dying woman into court.
  4. Acting through his attorney, Bob Malm lied in a written motion to the Alexandria Circuit Court about multiple things, including:
    • My allegedly having violated the existing protective order.
    • My service as a police officer.
    • My prior admission to the Pennsylvania bar.
In short, newly ordained clergy, which is who Bob usually hires as assistants, may well conclude this isn’t the place for them, even if just as a reputational issue. Similarly, parishioners may not feel like investing in the parish when it is the sort of place that tries to drag the dying into court. Behavior of this sort is not just unethical—it reflects badly on the entire parish.

On top of all these other factors, there’s the two-edged sword of Dysfunctional Bob’s false courtroom allegations. If, to use Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow’s phrase, candidates conclude mine is a case of “domestic terrorism,” potential assistant rectors well may conclude that they prefer a nice, quiet safe suburban parish, versus one where the rector and his attorney claim there’s a crazed terrorist running about. 

On the other hand, if candidates conclude that Bob and Jeff’s claims reflect questionable veracity on their parts, candidates may quickly decide they want to serve in a church that more nearly reflects Christian values.

Either way, Dysfunctional Bob and Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow have created a catch-22 situation for the parish, and one for which there’s no easy out. 

As if all this weren’t enough, more than one person connected with the parish has speculated that the conflict with Bob likely will result in additional litigation, with the potential for liability on the part of the parish. I don’t discount that possibility, particularly in light of the repeated instances of defamation coming from Dysfunctional Bob, and the defamation per se of his wife Leslie, who has accused me in writing of criminal activity. As a result, I have earmarked resources in case of that eventuality. But for parishioners, the possibility of further lawsuits must be a disconcerting factor as they evaluate their giving in the coming weeks for the fall pledge drive.

The cherry on top, of course, is that Dysfunctional Bob will have to make himself scarce within the next five years, and I have the funny feeling that the interim bishop well may approach Bob behind the scenes to encourage him to do that sooner, rather than later. Well-placed sources tell me Bob’s never been particularly well liked at Mayo House or the diocese at large, so as the diocese tries to get its act together in the wake of +Shannon’s tenure, Bob could easily wind up on the unwelcome list. But regardless of timing, Bob’s departure means that the parish will wind up dealing with an interim concurrently with major capital expenditures. And folks are still in denial—the vestry continues to try to convince itself that there’s no need for a capital campaign, that it can borrow the money for the HVAC work and repay it in five years, and more. Of course, those conclusions all overlook the fact that it’s not just the HVAC project that looms large—there are hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional work that needs to be done in the next five years.

No matter how you parse the issue, not a great environment, either for a newly minted priest, or for a well-established interim. Indeed, more than one priest I know has said you could not pay him/her enough to get involved in this colossal mess.