Pride, and its more serious cousin, narcissism, really shouldn’t have any place in leadership circles in the church. When I became a serious follower of Jesus at a teenager, Philippians 2 became one of my favorite passages. It taught me that being a disciple of Jesus is to a call to humility, self-sacrificial love and considering others’ interests as more important than my own.
For the most part, I saw this humility modeled by leaders in the church. But, my first week in seminary, I inadvertently found myself pinned next to a professor during a reception. He had been pointed out during the lecture, but the acoustics were not great and I hadn’t heard exactly who he was or what he taught. Recognizing that I probably should attempt small talk, I introduced myself awkwardly and asked him what he taught. He then asked me what year I was. I quickly blurted out, “I’m a first year student.” He sighed and said, “Well, you’ll know who I am eventually.”
Perhaps I “should” have known who this professor was, but I was struck by his arrogance and rudeness. He certainly didn’t seem to be, “a mere beggar showing other beggars where to find bread,” as Luther once described the office of a pastor/teacher in the church. From that time on, I began to notice similar pride in others who had achieved some success in Christian circles. It was as if they had completely ignored so many of the teachings of both Jesus and Paul. Hypocrisy is inherent to narcissistic Christianity.
The professor and licensed counselor Chuck DeGroat writes about these dynamics, and his access to high-profile Christian leaders has been much greater than my own (whether that’s a good or bad thing, you can decide once you finish this book!)
I notice that most Christian nonfiction books fall into two categories:
- The first (and largest) includes books that are primarily aspirational. They call us in one way or another, to be better citizens of the radical kingdom of Jesus Christ. Whether they focus on spiritual formation or justice initiatives, the primary role is to encourage the audience toward a Christlikeness that is, sadly enough, far from the actual spiritual and behavioral reality of everyday Christians. The goal of these books, whether explicitly stated or not, is to bridge the gap between lived experience and the spiritual reality of what it looks like to follow Christ in fullness and truth.
- The second, far-smaller, category of books bring us back to earth and critically evaluates the lived experiences of Christians inside the church. Interestingly enough, they also have a similar goal, to call Christians to the transformational power of the gospel, but they start from a different place. They are willing to go deep to the reality of our complex, sin-soaked world, which, it must be pointed out, includes the church.
Chuck de Groat’s When Narcissism Comes to Church falls in the second category. DeGroat shares stories from the trenches as a psychologist working with pastors who are in the midst of a “fall from grace,” (an interesting choice of words, if you think about it) and as a clinician who performed psychological evaluations for numerous would-be church planters. As the title states, the book is primarily about the psychological disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder and how such a disorder manifests itself in the life of the church.
Who is this book for? It is not a Christian living title, nor is it a book to read if you’ve only had run-of-the-mill struggles to relate to others in a church context. The most important audience should be those who evaluate persons interested in pursuing full-time pastoral ministry and those who serve in roles where they observe the dynamics of church or ministry leadership up-close, such as pastors, church elders or board members. It is also a book for those who have had painful or traumatic past encounters with narcissistic Christian leaders.
One of the things I appreciate the most about this book is DeGroat’s ability to pierce the veil of destructive faux spirituality, a technique often used as armor against anyone who attempts to peek behind the veil of a ministry leader’s personality. For example, DeGroat shares a sad story of a pastor caught committing adultery:
Recently I listened to the final sermon of a pastor whose affair was found out the week after this sermon, and who committed suicide not long after. Strewn throughout the sermon were statements like “We’re all broken and need the gospel” and “I’m a mess like you,” along with talk about the power of God to transform our wounds like God had done for this pastor.
Imagine the shock and sense of betrayal when the congregation found out about his year-long sexual relationship with a female admirer he had met while speaking at conference.
The discovery was followed by days of throwing his wife under the bus for “emotionally abandoning” him.
DeGroat begins by explaining the development of the narcissism concept and its particular prevalence in western culture. He then defines how narcissism reveals itself in individuals from a psychological perspective. But, as DeGroat will show time and again, narcissism is not limited to the individual. It manifests itself in organizations, including churches.
Where does narcissism come from? And why is it so prevalent in churches? Narcissism, DeGroat argues, is driven by shame. This shame can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but in the church context, it has the potential to create leaders whose focus remains steadily on themselves. Narcissistic personalities can thrive in the spotlight, but they wither in real relationships. Is it surprising, then, that so many church leaders, especially in highly visible positions, have a tendency to display narcissistic qualities? DeGroat himself has an answer, and it’s quite perceptive:
My conviction is that the very energy that so vigilantly guards and represses the shadow is the energy with which they project their larger-than-life, charismatic, driven persona onto the world. Their energetic and dominant personas can be compelling, charming, and convincing to the masses.
They often have the capacity to do and accomplish many things and can appear almost superhuman to those around them. Their persona may even be interpreted as spiritual giftedness, a personality well-suited to plant an effective church or lead a large ministry or church. (p.93)
Another important point is that narcissism can occur in every type of personality. Drawing upon the personality profiles of the Enneagram, DeGroat shows just how different narcissism can look in each of the 9 personality types. While certain numbers (Enneagram One, Eight and Three) may be more likely to display narcissistic behavior, each type is capable of becoming a narcissist.
This is an important point to remember as we might assume the Perfectionist One or the Take-Charge Eight or the Success-Driven Three would be the only personality types to tend towards narcissism. But, as DeGroat aptly shows, each personality has its own flavor to bring to the Narcissism table. This is how DeGroat describes what a narcissistic Enneagram Nine looks like:
What’s ironic about this is that while the Enneagram Nine exhibits the least amount of overt power, she has a quietly covert and subtle power that can affect others. Those in her orbit may experience her judgment, her rage, her disappointment. They may feel confused, never knowing quite how she is feeling but getting a very direct vibe from her demeanor (p.62).
From here, DeGroat provides a deeper understanding of what narcissistic behavior looks like by drawing on the work of Craig and Carolyn Williford
Characteristics of narcissistic leaders:
- all decision-making centers on them
- feelings of entitlement
- feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff
- inconsistency and impulsiveness
- praising others and then withdrawing
- intimidation of others
- “fauxnerbility” (in contrast to authentic vulnerability)
His addition of “fauxnerability” to the list is an excellent example of what I mentioned earlier as a strength of DeGroat’s work: he pierces the armor often used by narcissistic types who use questionable spiritual language to legitimize and perpetuate their bad behavior. (See list of key quotes at the bottom for a full definition of fauxnerability)
After describing narcissism from an individual perspective, DeGroat brings a systems approach to the subject, which as you can imagine, can be even more difficult to treat than a narcissistic individual. DeGroat shares a story about a megachurch that ultimately decides to fire its narcissistic lead pastor. After the long, painful ordeal concluded, the executive pastor breathed a sigh of relief, saying to elder board, “Finally, we’ve been purged of narcissism” (p.102). The reality, DeGroat tells us, is that “the entire system was infected with it, and they didn’t know it” (p.102).
In the final section, DeGroat offers a biblical metaphor to describe the healing journey, that of the Israelites, starting in Egypt and finally making their way to the promised land. In this, he offers the possibility of healing for both the survivors of narcissistic leadership and systems, and healing for the narcissists themselves, should they be willing to change.
The process is not linear, and the fear of change can often lead to setbacks. DeGroat also clarifies the importance of not simply placing a fixed label on those who seem to manifest Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Doing this can create the illusion that change and/or transformation are impossible. The process of healing is painful, but possible. It requires the person suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder to acknowledge their destructive past and current behavior, as well as make the appropriate changes, under the supervision of therapists and healthy mentors.
When Narcissism Comes to the Church is an important, perhaps essential, read for anyone involved in approving pastor candidates. Denominational leaders and church planting associations should take heed of DeGroat’s analysis of narcissism’s role in church life. I also recommend this work for those who have felt the sting of narcissism in church life. Having both language and examples of how narcissism enters congregational life has a therapeutic and practical benefit. And yet, as DeGroat makes clear, this book is no substitute for the long, important process of healing that is often best experienced with a licensed and competent therapist.
The main barrier to change, as DeGroat sees it, is that often the most charismatic, “gifted” church leaders, the ones whose books fly off the shelves and who pack out Christian conferences, are most likely to exhibit narcissistic behavior. Because of this, there is strong motivation to look past and ignore any flags, yellow or even red, that might exist in their way of relating to others.
But ignoring these warning signs generally leads to far worse consequences, as DeGroat shares over and again in the book. Towards the end of the book, DeGroat shares the story of Zak, one “church planting star” who exhibited an alarming amount of narcissistic behavior, which had already begun to sow the seeds of destruction in the candidate’s marriage. DeGroat, a member of the committee that evaluated Zak’s candidacy for ministry, ultimately recommended that Zak not be approved as a church planter, but the rest of the committee couldn’t look past his charm. Their reasoning was not surprising: “We expect that you psychologists will be extreme—you’re always looking for what’s wrong versus what’s right.”
The end of the story is also not surprising. De Groat shares:
Today Zak is divorced and no longer in ministry. His wife [Andrea] left him three years after the church started. She began to take his gaslighting and emotionally abusive tactics seriously, and after several attempts to get him into therapy, she called his bluff and told him she was leaving him. Zak spent the next weeks calling Andrea’s faith and sanity into question. And then came a turning point.
Zak’s children’s ministry director and worship pastor both decided to step courageously into the melee. They’d experienced Zak’s abusive patters in their day-to-day ministry life. They too had felt as if they were the problem. But Andrea’s bold decision led to painful and honest conversations with each other, with Andrea, and finally the governing body of their church. When Zak heard, he was incensed. He called into question the competency of the governing body, which led to an intervention from one of his original supporters. Thankfully the structures of accountability around Zak worked this time, and he was asked to step away from ministry for a year to address his personal and marital issues.
This is just one of many cautionary tales of what happens when we ignore narcissism in our churches.
Grace and Peace,
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