Like all the signature vices of humanity, narcissism has existed since time immemorial. But according to Chuck DeGroat, who has long counseled pastors with narcissistic personality disorder (and the congregations they have afflicted), the problem has reached epidemic proportions in today’s churches. DeGroat, a professor of pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary, shares the lessons he’s learned in his latest book, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. Benjamin Vrbicek, a pastor in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, interviewed DeGroat about developing a biblical understanding of narcissism and recognizing how it operates within the church, among leaders and laity alike.
What motivated you to write this book?
The real impetus came from pastors, counseling practitioners, and laypeople affected by narcissism. I’ve heard about it from people who had served under a toxic lead pastor, from wives married to emotionally abusive husbands, and from folks serving in organizations marked by a narcissistic culture. All of them, in one way or another, challenged and sometimes begged me to write, and I continually resisted. But as I became more and more convinced of the utter epidemic of narcissism in the church, I decided to move forward.
What is a lay-level definition of narcissism, and what are the typical expressions in local churches?
When we think of narcissism, we typically think of the characteristic grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration, an inflated ego and sense of self-importance, troubling relationships, and—an especially key one for me—lack of empathy. We see pastors who love the stage but manipulate and sometimes abuse people. Often we see very gifted leaders who seem to have inspiration and impact, but who are shepherds who wreak havoc on the flock.
But we’ve also got to remember that there are narcissists who exist behind the scenes, who might not need the stage but who require excessive attention and admiration from spouses, who play the victim and manipulate in subtle ways. In fact, in this book I offer what I call the “nine faces of narcissism.” I think that will be an important contribution that helps people see the many nuances of how narcissism is expressed.
Do narcissistic pastors generally have any awareness of their own narcissism?
I think that those humble enough to be curious about the possibility of narcissism are unlikely to be pathologically narcissistic. It’s laudable when a pastor is willing to embrace candid feedback from members of the congregation about their experience of him or her, whether it is positive or negative. Leaders with a diagnosable form of narcissism are most definitely not curious about how others experience them or humble enough to own it.
I often tell people that even if, according to a psychological assessment, you are elevated on the narcissistic spectrum, that does not necessarily mean that you are pathologically narcissistic. Psychologists talk about “healthy narcissism” in children, in particular, which is evidenced in healthy self-confidence and engagement in the world. There are many healthy leaders whom someone might be tempted to call narcissistic but who are basically secure and healthy human beings.
Stereotypical implosions of a pastor and a church might involve the pastor running off with money or the secretary. To what extent do you think narcissism functions beneath more obvious, visible culprits of church dysfunction?
Narcissism comes in many different packages. Some narcissistic pastors seem humble, even godly. Some use language that seems to convey a sense of self-awareness or sorrow over sin. But true narcissists use whatever tools they can find in their toolbox to manipulate and confuse.
I often think of a narcissistic pastor who served in a rural setting in a very small church, who by all accounts was diligent and godly but who constantly compared his church to other churches with an attitude of judgment, lauding his church’s orthodoxy while quietly condemning other local pastors. His excessive self-admiration came through private judgmentalism, and he demonstrated a lack of empathy in his incapacity to build relationships with others.
We tend to focus on any narcissism in the lead pastor because that position tends to be most visible. Can this focus cause us to overlook narcissism among influential laity?
I’ve seen powerful laypeople undermine churches on their own. I’ve seen them control leadership decisions and candidacy processes. In one church, a particularly powerful person behind the scenes seemed to pull the strings of all the mechanisms of the church, and most parishioners lived in fear of her. I think this can be particularly insidious, and it brings great harm to the church.
How can the church better take the plank of narcissism out of its own eyes?
Humility, humility, humility. Are we willing to hear how others experience us? Are we willing to self-evaluate? I recall the story of a larger suburban church that was not well-loved by the smaller churches in the area, but when a new and humble pastor took the lead position, he made it a point to meet each local pastor, one by one, in order to gain a better understanding of how his church had impacted them. It was beautiful and humble.
Some clinicians are skeptical about the prospect of substantial change for someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The subtitle of your book holds out hope for healing. Does the healing you envision for the broader community also involve the healing of individuals given to narcissism?
I am skeptical, too. But because I believe in the dignity of every image-bearer and because I believe that sin—even sin that manifests itself through personality disorders—is not the core of a person, I do remain hopeful. I have fewer stories of hope, to be sure. Many are unwilling to do the hard work of removing the mask and becoming vulnerable. But I can’t abandon hope.
I rarely read unsolicited books people give me with the same urgency as they are presented to me. How would you suggest a parishioner best share your book with church leaders?
I certainly don’t think the “read this—it might be about you” approach will be helpful! I do, however, believe that you’re living under a rock if you’re not aware of the many stories of toxic pastoral leadership and abuse in the church. If I could be bold and hopefully not narcissistic, I think it would be a responsible thing for every pastor, every leadership team, and as many laypeople as possible to read this book to better understand themselves and the systems they exist within. I’m hoping it will help people better understand how narcissism plays itself out more privately in abusive relationships as well as in more public ways.
Considering the gravity of the abuse that’s come to the light over the past five years, the outlook could seem bleak. But to me, your book exists as a sign of hope. What encourages you?
What encourages me most is that women and men of courage are stepping forward to say, “This is not Christ’s vision of the church, of leadership, of relationships.” They are demanding more of us as leaders. They genuinely long for Christlike humility. And they are willing to do the hard work of dismantling toxic systems and relationships, of naming harmful realities, of moving toward hope and truth in love. It also helps that I travel broadly and meet pastors of great integrity and churches serving the kingdom humbly. Lesslie Newbigin once said that because of his faith in Christ he was “neither an optimist nor a pessimist.” That is a sentiment worth hanging onto.
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