Showing posts with label Boundaries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Boundaries. Show all posts

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Grace Episcopal Alexandria: Lessons from a Toxic Church

Growing up, I had preconceived notions about toxic churches. But after my experiences with Grace Episcopal church in Alexandria, I now know that many of my ideas were nothing but stereotypes. As such, these ideas had a kernel of truth, but they missed the larger point. Indeed, I had so little understanding of what really goes on in a toxic church that I was a member of one and never knew it.

So, what did I think constituted a toxic church? My answer probably would be consistent with that of most liberal Episcopalians. Conservative, fundamentalist churches that excluded people, that held to complementarianism, that had rigid doctrinal positions, and had theologies of cheap grace, in which you uttered a magic phrase about turning your life over to Jesus, and bingo! Everything suddenly is right in the world.

Factoring into this was the notion that abusive churches often claim to have all the answers.

But during my time at Grace, I came to understand that liberal, ostensibly inclusive churches often claim to have all the answers too. The packaging may be nicer, but they can be every bit as bad as the most vigorous Pentecostal church, and then some.

Often, this tilt toward abuse is marked by a charismatic, but narcissistic, leader.  This person may appear charming and hyper-confident, but the focus is on them, versus God. Yes, their sermons may be wonderful and cogent, but if you listen closely, they almost always include some reference to themselves. Oftentimes this will take the form of subtle references to something they think makes them special, like the sports they played in school or some leadership position they have held.

Another clue: A rector or other leader who avoids dealing with conflict. This allow them to duck criticism, which narcissists avoid at all costs. And it allows ample opportunity for the narcissist to play people against each other—a favorite pastime of narcissists everywhere. But it is the whims of this “leader” that become the answer set in stone—the hallmark of abusive churches.

Having explored the relationship between narcissism and abuse, let’s explore a few other myths before we go further:
  • Abusive churches are not necessarily unwelcoming. Indeed, many are extraordinarily friendly.
  • Being in an abusive church isn’t necessarily an unhappy experience; it certainly is possible to be happy in an abusive church. In fact, most members enjoy their experiences with an abusive church. So they often are happy places—just unhealthy.
  • Abusive churches often are not collapsing, but may be holding their own or even thriving.
So how do you spot an abusive church? Look for one where boundaries are not clear, or have been eroded.  For example, most psychologically healthy people would not urge another person to commit suicide. Yet, that is exactly what one teenager at Grace Church did to me, with zero recognition of the underlying irony. Same goes for calling people “sickos,” “sick,” “twisted,” and all the other verbal BS that pours forth at Grace Church. (For the record, one of the worst offenders is Bob Malm, with a close second being immediate members of his family.

Also, if there is a sense of betrayal if people criticize church leadership, that is a sign of trouble. In my case, members of Grace Church will actually flip me off as they roll past, oblivious to the irony, especially when I am protesting the church’s behavior toward my terminally ill mother.

Another sign: Conditional friendships. If your church loves you when you are patching the leaky basement, but defriends you on Facebook when you leave the church and criticize it, you’re not dealing with a church—you’ve got a religious fraternity/sorority on your hands.

Yet another symptom: Lack of accountability. If your clergy person is “out of town” any time he or she feels like it, there’s an issue. Same for lack of servant leadership. If you’ve never heard your priest ask, “What can I do to help?,” be wary. Better yet, run.

Still another warning that a church is abusive is members who feel it is their place to discipline other members. Altar guild not talking to you because you ordered the wrong flowers or made a change it didn’t like? If so, that’s hardly the stuff of Christ, and if members are honest, they know it. This sort of emphasis on power and control tells you this is a church that has lost its way. Hopefully you won’t lose your way as you run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit.

Financial reporting also is a warning sign. If, for example, even vestry members don’t see line item details, particularly for church payroll, you should be very, very suspicious. Why can’t you see that information? It’s your donations that pay those salaries.

Another clue: Look for people who instinctively know that things will come unglued when an abusive leader leaves. The observer may not recognize that the situation is abusive, but any church whose health hinges on a single person is not healthy.

Finally, abusive churches, which are masters of double-speak, often hide behind empty claims of exceptionalism and triumphalism. If you hear about how your church practices “true religion,” or is a “special place,” be wary. And if attendance is dwindling but your church claims to be a slice of paradise, ask why people are leaving such a wonderful place.

And yes, I have observed all these behaviors and phenomena at Grace Church under Bob Malm. So yes, Grace Church is abusive.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Bob Malm and Jeff Chiow: A Breakdown in Pastoral Ethics

One of the telling things about the current situation is that Bob Malm is using Jeff Chiow, a parishioner, as legal counsel. But if folks stopped to think about it, this is highly inappropriate and a breach of pastoral boundaries.

Consider an analogous situation. If I am a priest, and I see a physician who is also a parishioner, can I maintain an appropriate relationship with my physician? What if she has to deliver bad news to me? Or tell me that, for medical reasons, I should not continue as a priest?

Conversely, suppose I want to go to my doctor to tell her that I suffer from an addiction? (I don’t; it’s just an example.) Does that impinge on my ability to meet her pastoral needs?

The upshot is that, in all but the most unusual circumstances, one cannot be priest and patient simultaneously and successfully.

Similarly, Jeff cannot be both parishioner and attorney and do so successfully. There are inherent conflicts of interest, including his relationship with other parishioners. This puts him in an awkward place, and it is unfair to both sides. And what if, for example, Bob engages in unethical conduct in the course of the legal engagement? Is Jeff’s first obligation going to be to Bob? To the parish? To the diocese? To Bob’s wife, Leslie, whom he also represents? What about the fact that Jeff does not practice in this area of law? Does that expose the parish to risk? If so, is Jeff meeting his ethical obligations as an attorney to the church?

These are thorny issues, and it would be far better to use outside counsel. But true to form, Bob tries to fly for free on these matters, oblivious to the potential harm to the parish and the pastoral boundaries that he has trampled on. And while it is ALWAYS the responsibility of clergy to maintain appropriate boundaries, Jeff has been around long enough that he should have spotted this issue long ago. Or a member of the vestry.

Of course, if +Shannon were more engaged, he’d realize the inherent conflict of interest, and steer Bob and the parish in a healthier direction. That said, this is one leopard that can’t and won’t change its spots.

As things stand, it illustrates how Bob maintains the illusion of healthy boundaries, when in reality, many of his relationships are marked by boundary violations and violations of pastoral ethics.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Bob Malm and Boundaries

Today, I’m attending a course on clergy boundaries. It’s a great course, as it goes well beyond the standard Episcopal emphasis on sexual misconduct prevention and abuse of the elderly. It also illustrates the major issues Bob Malm has when it comes to pastoral boundaries.

Note that I am not suggesting that Bob has engaged in sexual misconduct.

What I am saying is that Bob’s role with the parish is based on boundary violations. Rather than being a missional partner, Bob tries to be in control. Whether it’s choosing the vestry’s executive committee, refusing to address vestry concerns about parish business operations and staffing, refusing to have candid conversations about governance concerns, taking leave in apparent excess of what is allowed under his letter of agreement, Bob misuses the authority of his position.

What does all that mean?

It means that Bob ultimately pursues his own perceived self interest—avoiding criticism, avoiding accountability. At the same time, Bob appears very focused on obtaining recognition and adulation, often in a very calculating way. Conversely, Bob is Machiavellian in his efforts to suppress perceived criticism, often via petty slights or power games.

This is, of course, contrary to a healthy pastoral relationship, in which the needs of the parishioner comes first. Or, as we teach in the sexual misconduct prevention course, if the answer to the question, “Whose needs are being met?”, is the clergyperson’s, the relationship is abusive.

This paradigm extends to Bob’s conflict with me and my family. Rather than engaging with us and asking the question, “how can we work together to resolve this?”, Bob continues to treat the situation as a battle to be won. As a result, extensive harm has been caused to the parish, its members, Bob and his family, and my family.

Put in other words, Bob has never tried on his own to resolve this conflict, instead trying to triangulate his way through Dee Parsons, the vestry, the diocese, his wife, and others. That underscores just how inappropriate his relationship with his parish.

Consider Bob’s bogus report to the police. Did Bob ever raise his alleged concerns directly with me or my family members? No, he didn’t.

Apropos Bob’s false  claims that I may be mentally ill, has he ever brought his alleged concerns to my attention? No, he has not.

Has the Grace Church vestry ever tried to reach out to me or my family to see what might be done to resolve this conflict? No, it has not.

Bottom line, boundary issues are a hot mess at Grace Church. As a result, interpersonal dynamics within the parish are all too often unhealthy.

Bottom line, Bob Malm’s relationship with the parish and its members is profoundly unhealthy. It should not ba all about Bob.

Let us hope that The Episcopal Church expands misconduct prevention training to include non-sexual  misconduct.