Friday, September 28, 2018

Of Finances and Fix-ups: Fiscal Woes Ahead for Grace Episcopal Alexandria


One of the challenges facing Grace Episcopal Church Alexandria aka St. Dysfunction is that, not surprisingly, it manages its finances only slightly better than rector Bob Malm manages his personal finances. Or in other words, it’s a case of “let the good times roll,” right up until the bill comes due. 

The painful reality is that the bill has arrived, and it’s big.

Consider: Just the project to restore the stained glass windows, an congeries worth more than $200,000, will cost north of $60,000. Not a huge portion of an annual budget that approaches $1 million, but when it comes on top of other projects that the vestry has been pointedly ignoring for years, a very heavy burden for a church that is barely making ends meet.

What are these other projects? They include the rotting wood trim (rake boards, window trim, exterior woodwork on the new narthex), the replacement of the ever-failing faux slate roof over the new narthex, the repaving of the parking lot, the replacement of failing double-pane windows (all of which have surpassed expected end of life), and more. Plus, there’s the issue of items failing before their normal end of life, including the condensing boilers, which have not been appropriately maintained since Mike Hix’s death, except for a brief period in 2014. Those little mechanical monsters are seriously expensive, and a major pain in the butt to replace. Moreover, I seriously doubt that staff or the volunteers who handle maintenance of the physical plant even know what I am referring to. Oh well.

The kicker, though, is lurking right beneath the surface. With the departure of more than 120 pledging units, and newer pledging units giving, on average, much less than more established members, the church is falling into a giving pattern consistent with that of dying churches, which is that remaining members ramp up giving trying to delay the end. Thus, there’s very little capacity left for remaining pledge units to increase their giving.

Moreover, there are three factors that undercut that effort over time. One is the demographics of the church, with top givers all now retired and facing limitations on their ability to continue their generosity. Two is the breakdown in Episcopal polity in the parish, which injects risk into the equation. By this I mean that, under the canons, there are only two ways to lose one’s membership in a particular parish: to die, or to transfer. Bob Malm, however, has decided to go rogue and create a third way, which is via the unilateral decision on his part, combined with a campaign of shunning and harassment. Thus, members are faced with an unfortunate reality: They are one falling out with Bob Malm away from losing their investment of time, talent and treasure in the parish. Third is the increasing realization that Bob is not the priest people thought he was. No matter how generous one’s feelings towards Bob, his courtroom lies and his willingness to go after innocent family members, including an elderly dying woman, provide unequivocal evidence of his real values. Ugly stuff, for sure.

Nor are the specifics of my dispute reassuring. Anyone who would pursue a dying woman in court, or try to eject innocent family members like Mike from the parish, is going to have few scruples when it comes to trying to throw others out of the church. (For the record, going after the defenseless is bullying, hence my nickname for Bob, “The Ballless Wonder.”)

Then there is the issue of a replacement for Fanny Belanger. Bob no doubt will try to delay hiring a replacement for as long as he can to balance the budget, but at the same time that means a reduction in pastoral care and other services parishioners receive. Not good at a time when Bob and the vestry are soon going to be asking members to do more in the form of ponying up $600K to get the school’s HVAC back on.

At the same time, working families at Grace find Dysfunctional Bob’s lifestyle to be alien to them. At a time when many, myself included, haven’t had a vacation in years, Bob’s month every summer at the beach, his regular “out of town” junkets, and his extravagantly generous compensation package, combined with his aloof approach and lack of servant leadership, speak to a superficial faith and indifference to the parish’s welfare. Or as one wag put it, “The only time Bob breaks a sweat is when running, or when playing golf.”

Moreover, the $100K bonus Bob got paid in 2014 is cringeworthy. In a day and age when top performers at companies like AT&T may hope to snag a $20,000 bonus, Bob’s bonus is both unseemly, and a really stupid idea at a time when the church is struggling financially.

Who knows? Maybe Bob will have a flash of Christian inspiration and decide to gift his $100K bonus back to the church.

Somehow I doubt it.