When Narcissism Comes to Church

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?

Jeremiah 17:9

photo by Rod Long

Beware of Narcissist Leaders In The Church

This is the last in my series on the narcissists among us. Sadly, we are looking at the last place on earth we expect to find the most self-centered, egotistic person we’ve ever encountered – the church. Ironically, the church is a place where there is thought to be safety, love, and redemption. However, if a narcissist is the pastor or in a leadership position, BEWARE.

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 23:1-4, ESV

In the Old Testament, there are numerous Scripture passages regarding bad shepherds. Shepherds were the men God placed in charge of leading and instructing His people in His ways. Furthermore, like a shepherd of sheep, they were responsible for protecting them from the influences of the enemy.

Unfortunately for Israel, many of the shepherds enjoyed the status of their position, but didn’t want the responsibility of the job.

Sound familiar?

New Testament Leaders

When Jesus arrived, He found the same situation…perhaps worse. The Pharisees, leaders of the Jews, adored themselves instead of God! Moreover, they preened in their beautiful robes, expected the respect of their office, and the best seats in the synagogue. Jesus was not impressed.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Matthew 23:27-28, ESV

42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”

photo by Matt Botsford

Why The Ministry?

Initially, we may think that the ministry is an odd place to find a narcissist. However, upon reflection, we can understand what draws them. A narcissist is drawn to professions that guarantee the abundant and uninterrupted provision of Narcissistic Supply.

He seeks to interact with people from a position of authority, advantage, or superiority. He thus elicits their automatic admiration, adulation, and affirmation – or, failing that, their fear and obedience.

Other than a CEO or stardom, what better place than the ministry?


Cluster B Personality Disorders

In 2004, in an undergraduate class on a seminary campus, a psychology professor told our class that studies revealed that the majority of pastors had narcissistic tendencies or had NPD. We were horrified and, honestly, had trouble believing him.

In 2020, Chuck DeGroat, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary published a book entitled, When Narcissism Comes to Church, (my borrowed title.) He revealed research in his book of hundreds of psychological assessments of seminary students .

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.

Alarming? Yes. However, DeGroat says narcissism is on a spectrum. Not everyone who has traits has the full-blown personality disorder. However, it is intriguing that the majority of pastors test in this cluster of personality disorders.

photo by Matthew Ball

How to Spot Narcissistic Pastor

DeGroat expanded on the work of Craig and Carolyn Willford, authors of How to Treat a Staff Infection, to enable us to identify a narcissist leader within our churches.

  • 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
  • A faux or fake vulnerability

Generally, there is a public persona and a private one. The people behind the scenes and their families bear the brunt of their rage, impatience, or intimidation. Regardless, the congregation will experience it, as well, if he senses his position of power is threatened. In addition, a narcissist is capable of thinly veiled threats toward individuals or groups amidst a sermon if he believes they are somehow against him.

Believe me; my family experienced it.

photo by Gwendal Cottin

Leaving a Toxic Church

Let me acknowledge up front that it is extremely difficult to leave an unhealthy church. The task is especially painful when you and your family seem to be the only ones who recognize it. Unfortunately, the only path to healing is out the door. Sadly, the chances of making changes from within are close to zero.

Leaving a church is like leaving a family for those who have been invested.

Over the course of many years, many have given sacrificially of their money, time and energy towards its benefit. They may have altered life goals and career plans to help the church…They are not just casual church members. So when someone leaves a church they are invested  in, they experience a loss. Such a loss is multi-faceted and affects many areas of one’s life.

The time, energy, and income you put toward what you thought was God’s Kingdom you may now realize was your pastor’s agenda, instead. These thoughts can make you feel used…angry.

Don’t allow your anger to turn to bitterness. It isn’t worth another ounce of your soul or giving room to the enemy. Pray for a day when you can forgive.

Moreover, whenever we face a loss there will be grief. Whether you attended the church for two years or twenty, it’s likely you developed friendships which are now gone. You feel lonely and isolated. Your children have lost their friends, as well, and they are sad or angry.

photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Grieve As One Who Has Hope

Please allow yourself time to grieve. This is vital for your health and recovery. Any therapist or pastoral counselor will tell you, there are no time parameters on grief. Unfortunately, when our very souls have been violated it often takes a long time before we are not triggered by the events of the spiritual abuse. This, however, is no reason to bury our grief.

In fact, that only causes it to grow and reveal itself in other places. A list provided by Barnabas Ministries is a helpful reminder for those who have been in this confusing and dark place.

  • You are not “weird”- Many figures in the Scriptures experienced spiritual losses– David, Samuel and most of the prophets.
  • Cling to God- He has not left you and wants to show you he is still with you and loves you. (Psalm 73, Hebrews 13:5)
  • Cling to Trusted Relationships– It is important to have people who genuinely love you and whom you trust to be able to share your grief .
  • Acceptance
  • Retelling- This is a key trait of how one processes a loss of any kind. Your objective in retelling is to get an accurate picture, discern good from bad and to identify areas that are not yet settled emotionally.
  • Forgiveness – There will be a need at some point to forgive wrongs done to you and to recognize areas where you also have regrets or need to repent.
  • Reshaping and Growth- Your experience has changed you forever…you can learn other good things as a result of your experience. For example, you may become more sensitive to those who are excluded or might be hurt by some program in your new church.

Jeremiah 29:11, ESV, God hasn’t forgotten you.

Don’t lose heart. Psalm 27: 13-14.



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