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When Narcissism Comes to Church

By November 9, 2023November 14th, 2023No Comments

When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse

What is narcissism?  We hear that label applied frequently, but is it even valid? How prevalent are the patterns of behavior of narcissism among church leaders? What do churches need to know about narcissism and its impact? What can they do to prevent its destructive effects? When narcissism has reared its head among the leaders themselves, what can leaders do to guide a church to healing?

Chuck DeGroat’s When Narcissism Comes to Church answers these questions. It contains clear descriptions of narcissistic behavior patterns and includes stories as illustrations to further understanding. DeGroat goes beyond describing the individual to describe the impact of the “yeast” of a narcissistic leader on the whole church, from the leadership to the congregants. ( “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” NIV Gal. 5:9)

People who have experienced spiritually and emotionally abusive treatment by narcissistic pastors are likely to have some “Aha!” moments as they see the strategies employed to harm them given names, validating their experience.

Chuck DeGroat maintains a humble, compassionate, and nuanced perspective on narcissism. He affirms both the validity of the diagnosis and its devastating impact on victims. Yet quoting  Elinor Greenberg, he writes: “When we diagnose, we are describing a pattern…never a person. All people are unique. Labels, however well intended, cannot do justice to human complexity. (p.10) In addition to recognizing that the diagnosis does not equal the person, DeGroat recognizes that the patterns of narcissism come in “many faces” and describes several.

He writes from broad and deep experience. He has served as pastor, and is now a licensed therapist, professor at Western Theological Seminary, and director of a counseling center there. He has over 20 years’ experience working with both people with narcissism and people wounded by them.

Key Quotes

What are some of the “faces” of narcissism?

“Grandiose narcissism looks like the classic definition of narcissism, including the typical grandiosity, lack of empathy, and identity and intimacy impairments. “Vulnerable narcissism” looks more fragile, hypervigilant, shy, sensitive, and depressed” especially when life isn’t working as intended.”   (p.38)

What are some of the characteristics of narcissistic leaders?

DeGroat names 10 in all, including:

  1. “Decision-making centers on them”: he arranges polity and leadership structures in such a way to protect his authority at every level of decision-making.” (p. 70-71)
  2. “Impatience or a lack of ability to listen to others : “in his self-referential reality, others are a mere commodity.” “Staff members who depart will almost always be subject to the narcissistic pastor’s slanted narrative…” (p. 71-72)
  3. “Needing to be the best and brightest in the room.” “He wants you to see that he is the best and brightest, but he wants you to think that he’s a humble servant of the Lord.” “ ‘Talented’ staff… stay if they live in service of his ego and leave, often messily, if they do not. (p.77)
  4. “Intimidation of others: [The loyal staff] became fiercely protective of [the narcissistic pastor.] They’d laugh at his jokes, which often came at the expense of other less-loyal staff or supposed ministry competitors.”  (p.79-80)  Indirect intimidation often occurs through isolation. If you cross this kind of leader, you’ll find yourself on the outside.” (p.81) Sometimes intimidation comes through triangulation. Ignoring you, the leader will draw in your peers, ingratiating them through approval and attention, … while planting seeds of distrust about you. 81-82
  5. “Fauxnerability” (generating the appearance of genuine vulnerability) e.g. Victim mentality; lack of curiosity… defensive and reactive; Self-referencing. (p.82-84)

What happens if a narcissistic pastor is exposed?

“When the narcissistic leader is under attack, his response is defensiveness and a victim complex. Narcissistic leaders experience a victim-martyr-hero identity that postures them as the inevitable targets of frustrated subordinates… The system comes to the rescue of the leader at the expense of his victims. The lack of feedback, fear of disloyalty, and victim complex make it hard to engage, let alone change, this system. (p. 22-23)

Can a narcissist change?

DeGroat maintains that it is possible, that he’s witnessed it happen among his clients. However, the process is arduous and many do not choose it.

“The little boy or little girl inside is wounded, and the well-crafted, narcissistic false self provides a shield to protect the child.” (p.43) But the false self isn’t an adult. It’s a child, stuck in adolescence, perpetually replaying outdated ways of getting its needs met. (p.30) “Dismantling the narcissistic false self is an act of dying—dying to illusion, to control, and to fear. And it’s also an act of resurrection—to truth, to vulnerability, to creativity, and to connection.” (p.11)

What factors work against a narcissistic church leader being able to change?

“Sometimes a faction of devoted followers will pledge their loyalty in a way that provides the necessary fuel to resist. Sometimes a loyal colluding spouse can get in the way of a narcissist’s self-revelation. Sometimes church leadership teams protect the narcissist for fear of what might happen if his leadership is lost. “  (p. 160)

What does the path to wholeness look like for a church in which narcissism has raised its head among the leadership?

“Removing a narcissistic staff member does not necessarily remove the narcissistic infection.” (p.103) If we remember the parable about the yeast and the dough, this makes perfect sense. The yeast has permeated the whole loaf.

“I’ve never seen systemic health emerge apart from the leader (or leaders) going on their own transformational journey.”  (p. 113)

Does any of this ring a bell with anyone at Chapel Hill Bible Church?

When Narcissism Comes to Church    This is not an affiliate link. It’s provided for your convenience.