Even though I have never experienced the pain and confusion of having a narcissistic pastor or church leader, this compassionate, wise book was deeply formative for me. It informed and settled and equipped the parts of me that have been confused, anxious, and vulnerable to a narcissist’s bite.
Going in, I knew I was looking for answers on how to cope with a couple of people in my life; I also gained a much broader, deeper view of narcissism, especially in the context of the church. I learned that our very Western culture is narcissistic.
“Narcissism is a growing phenomenon,” Chuck DeGroat, who has counseled narcissists and those wounded by them for 20 years, writes. “A 2008 study showed a NPD (Narcissist Personality Disorder) prevalence of 7.7% in men and 4.8% in women. Instances of narcissism in pastors are much more prevalent.”
To me, this statistic matched up with the recent trend of megachurch pastors falling and failing in spectacular, shocking ways. And it seemed that everyone I told about this book had a story about a former pastor or church leader who was a narcissist. (Also, many I talked to had dear friends, siblings, and, in one case, even a husband who seemed to fit this category.)
One thing that surprised me was DeGroat’s insight that a healthy church will never hire an unhealthy, narcissistic pastor, but that many churches are operating in unhealthy systems that (perhaps subconsciously) crave and then lure powerful and authoritarian leaders.
It’s also easy to spot narcissism in our political leaders and structures, yet we don’t want to believe it. “While we tell ourselves stories of American exceptionalism, we hide what’s beneath—fragmentation, systemic racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, addiction, shame, and so much more.”
Yet DeGroat strongly cautions against carelessly labeling people as narcissists. There is a spectrum, after all, of narcissism, from “healthy” to malignant. And not every narcissist is the same. In one of the book’s most illuminating and helpful features, he relates different types of narcissism to the nine Enneagram types.
Even those who “check every box” and whose grandiosity, condescension, and lashing out seem to make a strong case for having NPD cannot be dismissed as being just a label. “Ultimately, a descriptor like ‘narcissist’ names the persona, the mask, a part of someone … it does not account for our core “true self” hidden with Christ in God.” The way DeGroat describes a narcissist's mask, one pictures an ironclad, impenetrable false face meant to shield at all costs. Beneath the mask, says DeGroat, is terrible shame, and a scared little boy or girl.
Still, in no way does DeGroat let a narcissist off the hook; he offers tremendous empathy for those who have been wounded and even traumatized by a narcissist’s sharp “bite.” A therapist and professor of pastoral care, DeGroat manages to balance sharp and even shocking revelations with a cushion of compassion and grace. He encourages humility in the reader, because we all have narcissistic trouble spots lurking in our souls.
This book is for anyone who has been wounded by a narcissist, but it is definitely targeted for those who have been hurt in a church context. For the church itself, especially in North America, this book offers hard but crucial truths.
As I hoped, I closed the book (highlighted and dog-eared within an inch of its life) enlightened, aware, and provisioned with tools for moving forward in healthy ways as a survivor of the narcissist’s bite. My eyes were open, but more importantly, my hands were open to God’s healing. He will never give up on any of us, even the most hard-core narcissist. Our Heavenly Father will always pursue us to the end. We can hold on to that hope.
Because, “deep within there is also the whisper of shalom for our own lives and for our relationships. Because the divine design is beautifully relational, imaging the beloved life of the Trinity, we can’t seem to quit on hope.” (IVP)