Finding Narcissism in Church

Finding Narcissism in Church
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Here’s the paradox—our desire to be superhuman dehumanizes us, wreaks havoc on our relationships, and turns us in on ourselves.

I was sitting in an airport about two years ago when I overheard a conversation between a mom and her pre-teen daughter. As the anxious mother scurried to repack a carry-on before boarding, she kept calling out, “Maddie! … Maddie! … I need your help, Maddie!” Meanwhile, young Maddie sat peering at her iPhone, alternating facial gestures and poses, smiling and puckering up, oblivious to her mom’s pleas. Finally, with a voice raised for the entire terminal to hear, the mother yelled, “Maddie, you’re such a narcissist!”   

Narcissist.

It’s a word we’re hearing a lot these days. Whether spoken about politicians or pastors, celebrities or social-media-savvy teens, it’s alive in our common discourse. And on that day at the airport, it struck me as ironic—and perhaps a bit providential—that I was sitting with my laptop open, proofing the manuscript for a book I was writing on narcissism.

Nowadays, we label people freely. She’s a liberal. He’s an addict. They’re racists. He’s a narcissist. In an increasingly polarized world, we’re more apt than ever to brand and categorize, alienating us even more from one another. I agree with Marilyn McEntyre, who writes that “caring for language is a moral issue.” In her book Caring for Language in a Culture of Lies, McEntyre says, “Caring for one another is not entirely separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another.” In the airport that day, I realized again how important this is.

Over my 25 years in ministry, I’ve become increasingly concerned about narcissism in the church. About five years ago, I decided it was time for a serious conversation, one that transcended amateur diagnoses and cheap labeling. As a pastor, I’d been on the inside of narcissistic cultures in churches. As a therapist and psychological assessor of pastors and church planters, I was seeing warning signs all over the place. My concern was for pastors, particularly in a culture that seems addicted to platform, influence, success, power, and relevance. But I could also see what lurked in the shadows: people confused and abused by narcissistic leaders, debris fields of pain around seemingly successful ministries, and even the shadow side of pastors who shone on Sunday morning but battled shame, depression, addiction, and thoughts of suicide when the church lights went off.

What Is Narcissism?

The pre-teen at the airport likely did not meet the diagnostic indicators of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). What her mother noticed was a caricature of narcissism. I asked some of my seminary students how they’d describe a narcissist, and they used words like “self-centered,” “arrogant,” and “proud.” Maybe you’d offer similar descriptors. But what is NPD?

NPD is a serious diagnosis, a disorder of the personality that is often traced to a combination of an inherited disposition and significant dysfunction in childhood. When you hear “disorder” you might immediately think about more common mood and anxiety disorders—depression, bipolarism, panic, social phobias. These are often treatable with the right therapy, support, and even medications. But personality disorders are altogether different. They’re not curable or even treatable with short-term therapy or medications. You don’t read a book and get over it. It doesn’t go away with a confession of sin.

NPD is characterized clinically by a grandiose sense of one’s self, a lack of empathy for others, an entitlement to affirmation or attention, and ruptures in family and work relationships. Psychological professionals use a combination of testing, personal interviews, and assessment tools to determine if someone meets the criteria of NPD. We do this in the spirit of Marilyn McEntyre, I hope: with great care and guided not by a desire to label someone, but a desire for “truth in the inmost being” (Ps. 51:6).

NPD’s theological roots go back to Genesis 3. Adam and Eve’s original temptation was to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5), transcending their God-ordained creatureliness. Christopher Lasch, in his best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism, says narcissism is the “longing to be freed from longing.” In other words, the narcissist cannot tolerate the limitations of his humanity and ultimately refuses to live within God-ordained limitations of creaturely existence. Yet here’s the paradox: our desire to be superhuman dehumanizes us, wreaks havoc on our relationships, and turns us in on ourselves.

Adam and Eve grasped, and we’ve been grasping ever since. Adam and Eve hid, and we’ve been hiding ever since. That’s the general plight of humanity. But here is the difference for those with NPD: they never come out of hiding. Indeed, their fig-leaved, masked-up, self-protected selves are all we see. Often psychologically enslaved to profound shame and terror, they’re afraid to open themselves, instead armoring up to survive in a threatening world.

Characteristics of Narcissistic Leaders

Some might be reading this and thinking, “Surely narcissists don’t become pastors! Pastoral leadership requires humility at the core!” I agree. When I think of pastoral leadership in particular, I’m drawn back to Philippians 2 and the description of the incarnate Jesus,

Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;

 rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8).

Adam and Eve grasped. The narcissist grasps. But Jesus refused to grasp, becoming a servant instead. That’s our longing for pastors and leaders. But is it what we see in our leaders?

An older colleague of mine heard about my work on this and pulled me aside one day. He said, “You know, Chuck, I’ve been in seminary education for 30 years. Ninety percent of the general public doesn’t like public speaking, but we get the rare few that not only enjoy being on stage, but feel comfortable saying, ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’” His words ring true. I’ve done hundreds of psychological assessments for pastors. The assessments include long narratives, personality tests, and assessments of clinical disorders. What I’ve found is stunning: the vast majority of pastoral candidates show elevations in the category of Cluster B personality disorders. I call this the “narcissism family.” It’s a cluster of disorders that feature dramatic, attention-seeking behavior along with a heavily armored personality that protects them from anything that makes them feel vulnerable. The two disorders with the most elevated results are narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders, two close cousins in the narcissism family.

That might sound alarming, so a bit more clarity might help. An elevation on the narcissism spectrum does not make one diagnosably narcissistic. I’m often asked if being a narcissist or not is like an on-off switch—either you have it or you don’t. The reality is this: Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Some have the full-blown flu (NPD), others have significant symptoms (narcissistic type), and others just have the sniffles (narcissistic style). Not every confident leader is narcissistic. Not everyone who enjoys applause is narcissistic. But it is telling that the vast majority of pastors test in this cluster of personality features.

What do we see in pastors who show up narcissistically? I’ve expanded on Craig and Carolyn Williford’s helpful work on troubled church ministries to offer these 10 features of narcissistic pastors:

  • Centering all decision-making on themselves
  • Impatience or an inability to listen to others
  • Delegating without giving proper authority or with too many limits
  • Feelings of entitlement
  • Feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff
  • Needing to be the best and brightest in the room
  • Inconsistency and impulsiveness
  • Praising and withdrawing
  • Intimidating others
  • Fauxnerability (a faux or fake vulnerability)

I’ve seen these features in pastors of both small and large churches and across denominations. I consulted with a small Reformed church in the Midwest that had a pastor who was described as a bully, someone whose dogmatic certainty and arrogant, condescending, and belittling persona drove away the small staff he had. Ironically, the small church grew because some parishioners characterized his disposition as bold, faithful, and courageous. But after a thorough assessment and testing scores that peaked high on the NPD scale, an older elder rightly asked, “How can one so confidently speak of Jesus but live so arrogantly?”

In a large church I consulted with, the popular lead pastor who’d written three books and commanded a large social media following seemed to many to be a living saint, one whose winsome personality and communication style wooed his church. He’d often share stories of his own struggles and his desire to be more like Jesus. Meanwhile, his exasperated staff tiptoed around him, fearful of his angry outbursts, weary of his constantly shifting expectations, exhausted by his hypocrisy. In time, his Jekyll-and-Hyde demeanor became clear to an elder team who tried to remedy it with a sabbatical. But when revelations of emotional abuse in his marriage became public, it became even harder for the pastor to continue his ministry. He left behind a wake of trauma, even as his defenders spoke of the incredible “fruit” of his ministry.

In a nationally known Christian discipleship ministry, the president was called a “bold woman of God” in a Christian magazine that featured her strategic leadership through a time of financial distress. However, those who served under her described someone who constantly needed acknowledgment for successes and who even took credit for others’ innovative ideas. Employees feared her “wrath,” but also spoke of a confusing “she loves you sometimes and hates you at other times” dynamic. When emails were revealed that showed a pattern of belittling, lying, and manipulating, she resigned, posturing herself as the victim of detractors who didn’t care about the gospel like she did.

Why Do We Follow Them?

Former CIA profiler and psychologist Jerrold Post has written extensively on narcissism, including books on Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Post describes narcissists as “mirror-hungry,” using their audiences and followers as a mirror to reflect back praise and admiration. The narcissistic leader’s hidden shame and pervasive sense of emptiness is alleviated, perhaps only for a little while, by the applause of an adoring crowd or the affection of a devoted follower.

But why are followers so devoted? According to Post, those drawn to narcissistic leaders are “ideal-hungry” people who so long for the ideal image of strength in another that they can’t see or perhaps ignore the leader’s shadow side, including the debris field of damage he causes. For many who see themselves as weak or incomplete, a powerful other can serve as a needed battery source.

One pastor within a larger church-planting network revered the network leader. He’d never heard anyone preach and teach with authority like this man. When he was handpicked to work alongside the leader, the pastor felt as if God had specially chosen him for something significant. But he started to notice minor indiscretions: On occasion, this leader would feel entitled to leave a restaurant without paying or to take items from staff offices without asking. In time, the leader’s sexual abuses of power were revealed. The pastor came to his defense. Later, he’d tell me that even though he knew the leader was guilty, he couldn’t imagine losing the sense of empowerment, significance, and purpose he felt when he was around him. He, the ideal-hungry follower, was fixed on an ideal image of himself that he could only see through the lens of a narcissist.

Likewise, whole groups of people and systems can constellate around a narcissistic leader. This is more prone to happen in seasons when these groups feel particularly threatened. Groups at times plug into the energy, the power, the grandiosity, the dogmatic certainty of narcissistic leaders. Narcissistic religious leaders often use shame and guilt to keep their followers in a perpetual state of dependency, revealing the power of toxic theology in service of narcissistic grandiosity.

Is There Hope?

As we gain a better understanding of narcissism and its impact in the church, we’re better prepared to train healthier pastors, foster healthier ministries, and promote healing in places of brokenness and trauma. But as you can see, we might have to do a bit of self-interrogation along the way, asking how we’ve participated in unhealthy systems or perhaps championed unhealthy leaders.

As I’m engaged these days in helping prepare the next generation of pastors, I’m particularly attuned to important formation processes necessary for the development of healthy pastors. When I went to seminary, we largely studied to pass ordination exams. Many graduates were unprepared for the spiritual and emotional complexity of congregational ministry.

Today, we’re helping pastoral candidates understand not just their Bibles but their family stories as well. As I look at the next generation, I find myself hopeful that a more wise and humble generation of leaders is emerging. But it takes all of us to foster healthy congregations and to support healthy pastors. Your pastors do have limitations! Make sure they rest. Pay for therapy. Support sabbaticals. Together, let’s cultivate health and humility for the sake of a church that looks more and more like Jesus to a hungry and watching world.

*Any stories I share are largely amalgamations of many stories in order to protect identities and confidences.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What comes to mind when you hear the word “narcissism”?
  2. Why are some Christians attracted to narcissistic leaders?
  3. What cultural or structural factors make churches an attractive place for narcissistic leaders (pastors, elders, etc)?
  4. How can we foster church cultures or environments that elevate and embrace humble, Christ-like leaders?

About the Author

Chuck DeGroat, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., is the author of Leaving Egypt (Faith Alive) and Toughest People to Love (Eerdmans).

See comments (6)

Comments

I think Chuck offers some very important warnings and observations.  I offer the following observations that don't contradict, per se, but perhaps offer a slightly different perspective/emphasis/balance.

1.  One could read the section titled "Characteristics of Narcissistic Leaders" and come away with the impression that most pastors show some level of narcissism.  Whether the author intended to communicate that or not, the tenor of that section leaves that impression.  It seems likely that the author's encounters self-select quite a bit (likely due to consultation/therapy).  I can say that throughout my life I have known dozens of pastors, and none of them exhibited the "10 features" that the author describes.  While the author may have done "hundreds of psychological assessments", there are thousands more pastors whom the author has not assessed.  

2. If 10 percent of the U.S. and Canadian populations enjoy public speaking, I would offer that 36.5 million people are not rightly described as the "rare few".  Beyond that, I have known more than a few pastors who would not claim to "like public speaking", but are burdened to declare God's Word despite their own weakness.

3. Most pastors I know use the phrase "This is the Word of Lord" after the reading of scripture - after which the congregation often responds "Thanks be to God!".  It is not at all presumptuous or narcissistic to declare that after reading what we understand to be God's Word.  I have rarely, if ever, heard Reformed pastors declare of their own sermon "This is the Word of the Lord".  How using such a phrase after reading God's Word should feel uncomfortable is beyond me.  

4. The "cult of personality" type of scenario that the author describes is a good argument against the megachurch phenomenon.  Megachurches are much more prone to the negative/destructive feedback loops that the author warns against because the are so often personality-driven and their polity is often not conducive to accountability.

5. Thankfully, Reformed polity and the ruling of a plurality of elders helps to avoid/counter some of the 10 features/traps described in the article.  In our churches, there really isn't (shouldn't be) room for pastors to "[Center] all decision-making on themselves".

6. Perhaps even more useful at times than using the language of professional therapists regarding narcissism while (sort of ) disparaging "amateur diagnoses" is to simply use Biblical language such as pride, vanity, and selfish ambition.  We don't need to be professional therapists to read and understand the Bible and what it says about these non-therapeutic categories of sin.  

7. In using the Bible for our diagnosis (however "amatuer" it may be), we will also then be more prone to use the Bible for our guide to remedies and our source of hope.  The last section on hope is strikingly missing of any gospel hope, any talk of the reconcilliation, forgiveness, and transformation to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  While self awareness is helpful, no amout of navel-gazing will ultimately counteract our natural tendency toward selfishness or provide the renewal that is needed.

I have worked with abuse in the CRC church for 25 years.  This work includes addressing abusive behavor of pastors and church leaders, including narcissistic pastor and church leaders.

These are my responses to Eric Van Dyken:

Response #1.  Every one of us has narcissist traits.  It is the responsibility of each of us as Christians to manage ourselves so that we do not abuse others and offend God.  Terms I am starting to appreciate and find helpful is “narcissistic abuse" and "gaslighting."  Often seminaries requrie their students be assessed before advancing into their M Div programs to address dysfunton before they graduate and serve churches.  

Response #3: I believe you missed the point.  For me the point is the narcissistic pastor uses control and abuses members and then says, “This is the Word of the Lord.”  After all, he is the pastor and no one should ever question his authority and knowledge. 

Response #4    I have not found it true that mega churches are much more prone to the loops.  Any size CRC church can have a narcissistic pastor.  Size is irrelevant. 

Response #5   I have found elders quick to protect abusive pastors, dodge and avoid allegations, use excessive lying about what the pastor said and did, and blow off accountability. They are fearful to do accountability (Article 79) because they fear losing their elder friends after council meeting, worry that they won't be liked, and don't have the inner fortitude to "stand strong and be immovable" when wrong is reported to leadership.  The leadership has too much of a need to be liked.  Leadership can also lend themselves to gaslighting:  you didn't hear that right, you didin't see that right, you don't know what you are talking about.  Or another way to say it is:  You didn't see what you saw, or you didn't hear what you heard.  That kind of crazy making approach of church leadershp needs to change.

Response #6  More often than not, I have found elder boards, pew members, advisory committees, and classical leadership ill-equipped and ill-trained as well as unknowledgeable about what to look for when they are dealing with a narcissistic pastor.  They are often clueless about narcissitic abusive patterns the pastor /church leader is doing.  They are quick to think things like, "Well, he's just like that."  "He does that, that's just the way he is" instead of recognzing and identifying narcissitic patterns of behavior.  

Response #7  Narcissists don’t change.  They can only learn to manage their narcissism, but they will not change.  It is how they are wired up.   That’s the twist:  their dysfunction is what causes dealing with them so difficult.  If confronted, they lie.  If confronted, they blame the person instead of listening to those confronting them.  They retaliate, deny, blame the victim, have anger issues, posses no inner resources within themselves about who they are, groom their elder board, and use phrases that makes him/her look clever, smart, and amazing.

It is very important for a person who has experienced pastoral narcissistic abuse not to meet with the abusive pastor unless there are several witness for both sides.  It is also important to tape the meeting and have a mediator.  These kinds of meetings are risky for the victims because the pastor will carty the power in the meeting, the pastor will intimidate the victim again, and the pastor will fail to be genuine.  I have never seen a pastor with narcissistic traits sincerely and genuinely know what it means to be sorry for their narcissistic sins.  They can say the words;  but that is all it is, words.  

Hi Judy,

 

Thanks for adding your perspective.  I think it is good when the comment section here gets used to share perspectives and engage in discussion.  I’ll start by generally noting that I am not at all indicating that pastors and other ministry leaders do not engage at times in narcissistic behavior and some may be full-on narcissists.  I’m not generally countering the author, just providing some different perspective and balance.

Response #1 - We also all have psychopathic traits, but it is not necessarily help to label each other accordingly.  The article portrayed pastors as perhaps uniquely bearing narcissistic traits, which your own assertion counters.  My point is that many pastors do not demonstrate narcissistic tendencies, at least not more than the average pew-sitter.  I agree fully as to our responsibility before God and to each other.

Response #3 – No, I don’t believe I have.  I don’t doubt that some pastors baptize their abuse as being the Lords Word/Will.  But taken in context, the quote in question was used to indicate that pastors are uniquely narcissistic.  The quote was offered as a general quote, not one in the context of a pastor excusing his abuse, and I will reiterate that there is nothing at all narcissistic about how that phrase is typically uttered by pastors.

Response #4 – It’s not the size, per se, that I was referring to.  I did not say that small churches cannot have narcissistic pastors.  What I did say is that the authority structure, polity, and the personality-driven character of megachurches leads to negative feedback loops that are more dangerous than where greater accountability is present.  Lack of accountability simply amplifies our sinful tendencies. 

Response #5 – I’m sure you have observed that, but my point isn’t that our polity is fool-proof or inerrant, because I am fully aware that all who lead in churches are weak vessels.  Notice my formulation as I begin with “helps to avoid/counter” and I parenthetically state “shouldn’t be”.  But just because we have elders that fail in their duty does not mean that our polity does not work or that elders fail across the board.  What you have not seen are other thousands of times when elders (both behind closed doors and publically in their churches) do not act like you have described.  I have had the pleasure of serving with such elders – it is a joy. 

Response #6 – Your work (and the author’s) may self-select for some of the problems and traits that you observe.  At the most basic level, abuse is sin.  Elders are not generally ill-equipped to recognize and counter sin.  The author’s article was not just about full-on narcissists, but narcissistic behavior more generally.  We don’t need the language, categories, or remedies of professional therapists to counter sinful patterns and actions in the church.  God equipped the church with his Word, Spirit, and elders for a reason.  I am sure that there are professional approaches to full-on narcissists that would be helpful – I did not dismiss professionals.  Notice again my formulation: “Perhaps even more useful at times..” Three times in that short phrase I qualify what follows.  Much of what the author describes very much falls in to biblical categories and labels, which God has equipped us to respond to.

Response #7 – Again, the article is not just speaking of narcissists, but of people (particularly pastors) showing narcissistic traits.  People who sin can and do change.  It is the core of what we proclaim as a church.  Pastors are sinful people too.  The gospel is for them too.  Our hope is not ultimately in greater self-awareness of education regarding narcissism, though those things can be useful.  Our hope is in the transforming power of the gospel.  I don’t advocate for a pollyannish approach, but neither do I despair of my fellow sinner.

I like labeling.  I do it for a living.  I think people like to say, "I don't label" which, I find  is about pride.   Labelng helps those around them to understand how to interact with that person, how to address issues when they come up, and know what not to do or say because of the label they have. 

When a person is dealing with a narcissist, general guidelnes are:  entitlement, envy, arrogance, bad boundaries, shameless comments, self-centered, smart remarks, defensive, inner rage, retaliation, distortion, gaslighting, lying, and fear confrontation. In one instance, when a pastor was confronted about what he said, he denied it.  I believe he blacked out when he said it - he had inner rage going on - it could be seen in his teeth!

Another way to think about labeling is, if we are interacting with a OCD, we know how that person will respond and interact with us and others.  If we are interacting with a Person with PTSD, we know they can be easily triggered.  If a person has anxiety, we know how to interact with them.

Same is true with pastors who are narcissistic.  Once we have them defined to what traits of narcissism they have, the better anyone can interact with him / her.  

I get a sense you have far more confidence in the system, including elders boards than I do.  I"d be willing to share some of my experiences which may help you to see the reality of the dysfuction of the system when members are trying to respond to narcissistic abuse.

You seem to applaud all the elders who have done a good job.  Well, isn't that to be expected?  They are the leaders.  One would think they would know what to do when allegations come forward because that is their service.  From my experience, bringing allegations forward when narcissistic abuse has happened, goes nowhere.  

I have the stories.  

Hi again Judy,

 

Thanks for the continued dialogue.  To be sure, labelling can be helpful.  It can also be unhelpful to the point of being hateful.  Labelling can be slanderous.  Labelling can bear false witness (often does).  Labelling can deny a person’s unique humanity.  Labelling can be lazy. 

 

I don’t really have confidence in any “system” or group of elders, per se.  I have confidence in God, his Word, his Spirit, and his grace.  By God’s grace, he gave us his Word and Spirit and he gave elders to rule the church.  God was not unaware of the weakness of men when he did so, but he chose this way to guide and rule his church.  I have confidence that using the “system” and resources put in place by God, we can (and often do) achieve just and merciful action in the church.

 

I won’t (and haven’t) for a second dispute that there is such a thing as narcissistic pastors (and elders, and lay persons).  Nor will I dispute that there are examples of elders poorly handling situations regarding sinful action from pastors (or other leaders, such as fellow elders) and lay persons alike.  I don’t need your examples to recognize that fact.

 

I’m not applauding anyone.  I am being thankful for God’s wise provision and I am seeking to provide balance in the discussion.  Just as you have stories of dysfunction, others have stories of God’s wise provision through weak servants.  Surely you are not privy to all cases of narcissistic behavior or other patterns of sin.  Good news doesn’t draw consultants, therapists, or front page news. 

 

I think ultimately you and I want the same thing and we both have unique perspectives that inform this conversation.  We both want just and merciful outcomes.  We both want church leaders who serve and do not abuse.  We both want accountability.  We both want lay people who support and submit to the God-ordained leadership of their church.  God’s Word is provided as our primary tool for governing faith and life.  It is the norming norm.  This is the principle of Sola Scriptura.  At the same time, we also recognize that God gives us insights into human behavior that can be helpful in deciphering situations and guiding responses.  We do well to use these insights as well so long as they are subordinate to God’s Word.  May God bless you richly.

That this article is clearly rooted within Dr. DeGroot's professional education and extensive counselling experience makes it a particularly relevant background-context for all CRCNA members probing the content and tone of the many sections, recommendations, and Heidelberg Catechism's confessional consequences of the final, 2021 report to the June '21 Synod by the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality.
Therein, I value and appreciate the, no doubt, much more than easily made decision by Editor Shiaho Chong to bring this article to all of us, CRC baptized, confession, and seeker members.
While reading Finding Narcissism in the Church, I glimpsed many of the last 75 years of the near countless specifics described and referenced within Jesus and John Wayne, by Calvin University professor Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez . Both she and Dr. DeGroot's respective discerning details speak to Banner recipients from within their caring, discerning, and "pastoral" understanding and responsiveness to those who have and are suffering within their congregation and "our" Denomination's extended community.
I am thankful for and to each of them.
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