Narcissists in the Pulpit: The Worst Advice Ever

Narcissists in the Pulpit: The Worst Advice Ever August 21, 2020

Hi and welcome back! I recently caught this news and it blew my mind. See, apparently tons and tons of Christian pastors have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)! Evangelicals in particular have begun talking about the rash of narcissists in power in their churches — and offering the worst advice ever for dealing with it. Today, let’s take a look at this silent epidemic of narcissistic pastors in Christian pulpits. And then, let’s check out the worst advice ever for dealing with them.

narcissists be like this
(Alex Iby.)

(Previous posts about dysfunctional pastors: Pastors’ Wives Confess All; Pastoral Suicide; Abandoning All Hope; The Pastoral Apology That Revealed Too Much; Pastoral Restoration; A Pastor’s ‘Simple Question’ Has an Answer He Won’t Like; This Pastor Hates This Favorite Christian Listicle; How Thom Rainer Wants Pastors to Deal With Anonymous Complaints. Also, check out these past posts about narcissism: Gaslighting 101; The Dark Triad; Moving Past Religious Narcissism; The Narcissism That Passes All Understanding. A “narc” is a narcissist, in this context.)

(H/t to Rosa Rubicondior. Don’t miss this post, either — it’s a classic!)

Pastoral Narcissists: “Self-Destructive and Nonsensical.”

It’s a bombshell to be sure, this 2015 paper presented to the American Association of Christian Counselors during their big meeting in Nashville that year. Here’s the link to the paper. It’s titled “Frequency of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Pastors: A Preliminary Study.” They gave pastors in one particular denomination (the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC)) a cleverly-disguised survey to see how many qualified as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

This counselors’ group had noticed a need to investigate church conflicts. “Popular thinking,” they say in the paper, places the pastors in these conflicts in the role of helpless victims of drama. However, this group had begun to suspect that pastors played a much greater role in church conflicts than that (p. 1):

Over the course of time, we independently noted a large percentage of church conflicts where the pastor was the instigator and the issues centered on the pastor and his or her behaviors that included grandiosity, paranoia, rage, arrogance, lack of empathy, the inability to forgive, and his or her demands for appreciation, adulation, and compensation. The behaviors were self-destructive and nonsensical. In these cases, the pastor was indeed his own worst enemy.

Eventually, they asked Christian counselors and therapists with training in abnormal psychology what was going on. Those trained professionals all labeled these pastors’ behavior as being indicative of NPD. One 1993 paper they cite concludes that yes, church leaders may denounce narcissistic behaviors. However, “churches do not understand or recognize it.”

In fact, nobody’s really studied NPD in clergy, they say, nor mental illness in general (beyond it contributing to pastoral depression/burnout, of course).

Until lately, anyway.

Narcissists: Black Hole Suns.

The Narcissist’s Prayer

That didn’t happen.

And if it did, then it wasn’t that bad, and if it was, then it wasn’t a big deal, and if it was, then it’s not my fault, and if it was, then I didn’t mean it.

And if I did, then you deserved it.

(adapted from r/RaisedByNarcissists)

NPD is a very serious personality disorder. People with NPD crash through life, destroying every single thing and person along the way. They crave attention and validation more than breathing. And they do not let anything at all get in the way of their narcissistic supply. When they don’t get that supply or worse, a source of supply even hints about leaving their orbit, they go completely haywire.

We’re just now starting, as a society, to engage with the damage that NPD sufferers can wreak. From Issendai’s “Down the Rabbit Hole” series to r/RaisedByNarcissists to the Narcissist Family Files, online resources now abound. For those suffering under a narcissist’s black-hole onslaught, help is just a mouse-click away.

However, for the narcissists themselves options are way more limited. Therapists regard NPD as all but untreatable, due to the delusions and behaviors NPD creates in sufferers. One blog post about the topic described treating NPD in the Google search page as an “extreme sport.” But even the therapist featured in that post, Elinor Greenberg, can’t get more than a third of her NPD clients to stick with therapy till they’ve gotten better. And all of her clients represent narcissists who ostensibly even want to seek help in the first place (or feel they must at least make a pretense of it to keep their supply running).

I doubt more than a small fraction of NPD sufferers get even as far as the first appointment with a therapist, because one symptom of NPD involves the insistence that the narcissist can do no wrong.

In relationships, narcissists are walking drama factories. In groups, they are purely disastrous.

And in leadership positions in authoritarian groups, they are nuclear bombs.

What That 2015 Study Discovered About Narcissists.

This 2015 study concluded that “Narcissistic Personality Disorder has found its way into the institutional church” (p. 5).

Uh oh!

Indeed, 31% of active pastors surveyed displayed signs of full-blown, diagnosable NPD.

That number worsened considerably when the researchers looked at pastors who’d left the profession, either involuntarily or through quitting: 57%.

It doesn’t say how many years these 57% pastors served before leaving the profession. Even so, that 31% figure represents a lot of narcissism in a lot of pulpits.

(Oh, and about the denomination they surveyed: Defining itself as “mainline Calvinist,” PCC ordains women and doesn’t consider homosexuality a sin. They seem pretty inclusive overall. So they’re nowhere near the worst Christian flavors for authoritarianism and control-lust, nor cruelty. One cringes to imagine what this study would have found had they run this same survey on, say, Southern Baptists or United Pentecostals!)

The study’s creators say that based on what they found in this survey, they estimate that about 120k American churches reporting serious conflicts in one year might have had NPD pastors.

Narcissists: What Is Old Is New Again.

Though that one paper came out five years ago, NPD has landed in the Christ-o-sphere’s news cycle again.

In fact, Christian sites have downright pounced on this idea that Christian pulpits might be downright infested with these attention-seeking emotional vampires and 24/7 drama factories.

They’re paying special attention to a couple of books that came out recently on the topic of narcissistic pastors.

Written by Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Churchcame out in March. It outlines how to recognize narcissistic pastors and how to deal with them and the damage that streams along in their wake. Here’s his interview at Christianity Today.

Another, Let Us Prey, was revised from its original 2017 edition and re-released this past June. It discusses “the plague of narcissistic pastors and what we can do about it.” The author, Darrell Puls, is one of the authors of that 2015 study, and the other co-author of it helped him with this book.

And there’s a third book out soon that doesn’t really relate to narcissism per se, but its author really wants to get in on this NPD action and claim that coveted Miss Topicality award.

Just A Little Cultural Appropriation.

Scot McKnight, an evangelical blogger who used to be on Patheos, has gotten into the narc game with a recent post on Christianity Today called “Help! My Pastor is a Narcissist.”

In this August 10th post, McKnight draws upon his own forthcoming book, A Church Called Tov. (It comes out in October but can be pre-ordered on Amazon.) Functioning more as an advertisement for his book, the post seeks to teach churches how they can totally protect themselves against narcissists.

If you’re wondering, “Tov” means “goodness” in Hebrew apparently.

Yes, we’ve found yet another display of evangelicals’ Israel boner. Part of me suspects that actual Jewish people probably would not appreciate or approve of McKnight’s use of “tov” here, in this context. If he’s counting on this appropriation to grant his ideas more validity than they deserve, well, then he knows his tribe well.

Either way: churches do not ever automatically possess “tov” because of their Jesus Auras. In fact, their level and correctness of Jesus-osity brings with it no tangible effects whatsoever on anything. Instead, they must cultivate “tov.” If they lack “tov,” Jesus certainly will not protect them from the non-tov they foster and cultivate in their groups. (Weird, isn’t it?)

So in essence, Scot McKnight is selling “tov” as the way for churches to not only heal from abusive leaders but also to prevent those leaders from getting into power.

And if his post on Christianity Today is any indication of the quality of his book, we may rest assured that it will not change a single thing about Christian church culture.

Nope, not a thing.

More Bad Advice From Bizarro-World.

Scot McKnight’s post represents so much bad advice that I just had to write about it here. Here’s his listicle of easy steps for getting rid of narcissistic pastors and/or preventing their rise to power:

  1. Think very, very hard at the ceiling. “Pray for a quiet revolution of tov that drowns the narcissism.” This step is just boilerplate; it is required by Christian bylaws to appear on all advice lists — either as the first or last item, though some listicle-writers get very enthusiastic and include it in both spots.
  2. Do not brag about the pastor or allow others to brag about the pastor. In other words, deprive the narcissist of supply.
  3. [I completely fritzed out here. I even read this item out loud to Mr. Captain. He agreed: this step doesn’t seem to represent any actionable advice. It’s possible McKnight means “don’t allow the pastor to hold too much unchecked power.” But this is only my guess. He complains extensively here about megachurches and their tendency to become cults of personality around a charismatic pastor, along with any other churches that concentrate power in a pastor’s hands.]
  4. Instead of bragging on the pastor, brag on other people within the church. Um, what if they’re narcs too?
  5. Constantly talk about the people in need and discuss how the church can better serve them. Yes, because churches are all about service-to-others and charity, amirite?
  6. Insist on reconciling all broken relationships. Yes, because authoritarian churches do such a great job on reconciliation! They never utilize reconciliation as a weapon to further brutalize the victims of abuse or worse, to silence victims altogether. Never!
  7. Somehow, magically get a council into power around the narc pastor that can resist his abuse and manipulation. Check this out: “Know that they [these elders] will be brow beaten at times, humiliated, and publicly shamed but it’s your church, not his [the narc’s]. [. . .] It’s a never-ending battle that the elders never seem to win. Keep resisting and working for tov in all directions.” WTF? I’m just gobsmacked at this explicit demand that church leaders endure abuse.
  8. Insist on accountability at all levels. That means don’t be a nondenominational church. Hey, do y’all remember The Scandal of the Evangelical ConscienceMark Noll complained about this same thing. Stop trying to make an overlord denomination happen, Christians. It’s not going to happen.

Out of every list of non-solutions I have ever seen any Christian offer, this has to be the worst one I’ve ever seen.

And I wrote the Unequally Yoked Club, y’all. I’ve seen bad advice.

Why It’s Bad Advice.

Scot McKnight doesn’t understand what makes a group go for narcissistic leaders in the first place. His advice, then, ignores a lot of evangelicals’ worst flaws to blithely insist that if everyone just Jesus-es harder, everything will be great.

A group must be vulnerable to manipulation and takeover for a narcissist to end up in power there in any capacity. Narcissists need elders/leaders/etc who don’t recognize signs of manipulation, and then don’t possess any structure that supports the removal of toxic elements that achieve power within their group.

We see both problems in evangelicalism constantly. Remember that podcast we listened to, the one that Thom Rainer did to advertise his silly new church-revitalization gig? He very specifically mentioned — as a common problem no less — that church congregations play power games with their pastors. New pastors needed to learn how to deal with these power plays and deflect them, or they’d end up involved in nonstop drama and infighting. Oh, he and his guests had a jolly chuckle, all HAW HAW HAW, over this common situation like it was as inevitable as the tides.

And for them, it really is.

Narcs come in, narcs go out, you can’t explain it!

None of them have the awareness needed to recognize narcissism, much less stop it, much less create group dynamics that won’t allow narcissists to gain a foothold in the first place.

This book certainly won’t help there, because the Christians that need this advice and might actually listen to it are already way past being able to implement any of it. Not that they could, since none of this incompetent listicle represents doable advice anyway.

Here’s What You Really Do.

First, remember the reality of narcissism. It is a mental illness and a serious personality disorder. The forces that created and perpetuate NPD in a sufferer’s mind are way more powerful than you or any imaginary friends you might have. Sympathize all you want, but don’t get caught in narcissists’ wake.

Similarly, you can’t fix a group that insists on having a narcissist as its leader. This group is not safe for you. Eventually, that narc is going to spark a conflagration of drama. If the narc suspects that their power or supply is threatened, increase the size of that conflagration by a few orders of magnitude.

Until that point, narcs will drive their groups’ clown car like they’re drunk on their own fumes: they will mistreat others constantly to get a little burst of comfort and joy from the control they wield.

Narcissists are not honest, they are not honorable, they have no integrity, and thankfully, they can’t even keep their own lies and manipulations straight in their own heads most of the time.

So if Christians suspect their pastor is a narcissist, they need to either fire him and seriously rewrite their church’s leadership and operation strategies to close up those vulnerabilities, or, if they can’t do both of those things, they need to leave that church.

Regarding That Last Bit:

Weirdly, Scot McKnight doesn’t ever allow the many Christians facing narcissistic abuse to leave their groups.

It’s like leaving just doesn’t exist in his world. This trump card represents the one power that sheep really have in their sheepfolds, especially in his very authoritarian neck of the evangelical woods.

But weirdly, he never once mentions leaving. He never offers any action steps to take if the narcissist foils all eight of his non-solution sorta-steps. Does he think that if he just doesn’t offer it as a solution that nobody will think to reach for it, like how parents deal with stubborn toddlers by severely limiting their list of choices?

Because they will leave anyway. Read the comments on any Christian blog post about abusive pastors, and you will hear nothing but nonstop heartbreaking stories about Christians who’ve done exactly that.

If I haven’t made my opinion crystal-clear, this is not a good list.

Learn From Evangelicals’ Mistakes.

Here’s the reality of the situation.

Nobody can reason with narcissists. They don’t accept that they’re ever wrong about anything! The more shame they feel, the worse they behave to regain their equilibrium. Worse, though most of ’em aren’t that good at lying and manipulation, they can be grandmasters at both. The higher up the ladder of power a narcissist climbs, the better they are at these essential tasks — or the more direct personal power they can wield to bluster through those roadblocks anyway.

(I’m probably thinking about the same Christian leader(s) who just leaped unbidden into your thoughts, yes.)

Thus, any promise narcissistic leaders give of improving their flaws, along with any apologies they do offer for harming anybody, will last only long enough to get their supply back under control again. And then the clown car takes off again. The narcissist’s goal is always going to be getting the ride back on track as if nothing ever derailed it.

And make no mistake: narcissists are drawn inexorably to any group that hasn’t taken adequate and specific precautions already to prevent their brand of crazymaking. These groups have the lock that fits the narcissists’ key, so to speak.

Their Real Ideology.

If a narc-afflicted group doesn’t want a narcissistic leader and ejects that person, good. But if they don’t want to seriously rewrite their rules, then they have implicitly chosen to remain vulnerable to narcissistic takeover and thus cannot be trusted, moving forward, to protect any of their members from harm. This will happen again. Probably soon.

And of course, if they do want that narcissist to stay as their leader then they are beyond fixing for now. At that point, the narc has won. It’s just a matter of time before revealed scandals blow the roof off that church.

It’s that simple. Protect yourself. Always. First and always. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or atheist or whatever else. Learn the signs of narcissism. If you see those signs in your group’s powerful members or leaders, seriously rethink your involvement there.

Don’t think narcs can’t take over secular groups. Narcissists have only one ideology, so to speak: Look out for Number One.

And they live out this ideology with a fanatical and pure devotion that any evangelical would envy.

NEXT UP: Speaking of which, tomorrow we dive back into Atheist Overreach to check out its author’s thoughts about meaning and purpose in a godless universe. See you then! <3

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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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