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!”
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.
- What comes to mind when you hear the word “narcissism”?
- Why are some Christians attracted to narcissistic leaders?
- What cultural or structural factors make churches an attractive place for narcissistic leaders (pastors, elders, etc)?
- 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).