Narcissism in Ministry

I have been doing a little bit of reading on narcissism recently for various reasons, including a realization that I have some characteristics of this mental condition. There are many ways of defining narcissism, but probably the easiest way to define it is to remember the ancient myth from which the condition gets its name: Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the pool. Words like “ingrown,” “egotistical,” “selfishness” will readily come to mind in defining this condition. Being wrapped up in oneself might be the best single description we could use. Another definition I have seen goes something like this: the primary characteristic of narcissism is an inappropriate lack of boundaries between the narcissist and the other person, whom he will attempt to use in some way. The narcissist sees the other person as an extension of himself. So, the other person exists to fulfill the narcissist’s needs.

One of the things that has been interesting in the literature so far is that the authors I have read agree that our culture encourages narcissism. It is a respectable sin. We give huge amounts of both criticism and idol-worship to the rich and famous, and both of these things encourage narcissism. The fact of the matter is that pastors get this at both ends as well. We have people who love to encourage us, and we have people who love to criticize us. It is just as easy to get self-complacent with the adulation as it is to get defensive about the criticism. Without the grace of God, pastors will VERY often allow this two-pronged engine to drive us into full pathological narcissism. The ministry is all about the minister at that point. The minister usurps the place of Jesus Christ. He becomes the personal lord and savior of his flock. You know that your minister has a big problem with this if he both flares up at the criticism and practically fawns over those people who praise him. What is interesting about this mental condition is that the situation is usually encouraged, while the word describing the situation is feared.

However, it can actually be a relief to know that there is a name for this kind of malady. A lot of people cringe mightily when they hear the term “narcissism.” However, the term (in the literature) is used to describe a range of symptoms. Some people, like myself, have some but not all of the symptoms. It might therefore be more accurate to say that such a person has narcissistic tendencies.

For the pastor who has this, the hardest part is admitting it. Once it is admitted, however, in a very real sense, half the battle is over. Most pastors know from counseling others what needs to happen for people to become less wrapped up in themselves: things like attending the means of grace, service to others, evangelism, and simply making up one’s mind that they will be interested in other people’s lives for the sake of the other person, and not for what he can get out of it.

How do you know if you or someone you know is a narcissist? Here are some clues. 1. The person cannot receive criticism of any kind, no matter how gently phrased. Typically, the narcissist will turn the criticism back on the person offering it. The narcissist gets so good at this kind of deflection that the one trying to offer criticism will be made to feel extremely guilty. 2. The narcissist turns every conversation into something about himself. 3. The narcissist cannot converse on topics that do not immediately interest him. 4. The narcissist cannot understand why anyone cannot drop everything and do something for him.

What can a congregation do if their pastor is a narcissist? First of all, and most importantly, pray, pray, and pray some more. Constantly keep your pastor in prayer, especially about this issue, if it is known that he has a problem with it. Secondly, be very careful about how criticism and praise come to the pastor. Encouragement is very important to a pastor, so we cannot go to a position where the congregation decides it will never encourage the pastor, lest he “get a big head.” The Bible itself commands us to encourage and pray for our church leaders. So, this is not an option. The question is this: how do we do this in a way that will both build him up and not feed the narcissism? My suggestion is this: phrase the encouragement in terms of praising the Lord for how He has used the pastor instrumentally. That way the pastor knows that his labor is not in vain, but he is also reminded that God provides the growth and gets the glory. Start the sentence by saying, “The Lord has been using you to…”

Criticism can feed narcissism just as thoroughly as inordinate praise can. There will be times when a pastor needs to be brought up short. However, there is a way to do this and a way not to do this. Most of the time, when a criticism comes the way of the pastor, the congregant simply lashes out without any kind of thinking whatsoever. They are angry and upset, and so they just blast the pastor. The congregant needs to make a distinction in his mind between two things. Firstly, is the hurt caused by a difference in perspective about what the ministry is about? Or is it caused by a genuine offense? These are two very different things. No congregant should ever blast the pastor because they see ministry differently. Instead, they should take up the difference of perspective in a calm, reasonable conversation about it. If the hurt is caused by a genuine offense, then the proper course is to tell the pastor in as calm a voice as possible, what the particular action (or lack thereof) made them feel. Do not turn the pastor’s offense into an offense right back at him. This is done so often these days. The offended person escalates the conflict because they want to make the offender hurt as much as they do. The goal of talking about it is reconciliation. Nothing is accomplished by lashing back. Nothing is gained by attacking the personal character of the pastor because of just one offense. Remember to aim with a rifle, not a shotgun. Concentrate on the one issue at hand, and do not ever broaden the scope of the discussion beyond the one single issue. Oftentimes, when a congregant has a problem, they “pile on.” Everything they dislike about their minister comes out in one unhealthy deluge. This is not healthy, and will usually put a pastor on the defensive, which is best avoided at all costs, especially if the pastor is tempted to narcissism.

I believe that this issue is under-addressed in seminaries, and is certainly under-addressed by Christian authors. I did not find a single Christian book on narcissism. They are all written by secular psychologists. This is a very intriguing fact to me. Can it be that narcissism is so much winked at in our society (and even encouraged!) that the Christian church does not even see it as a problem? I believe, on the contrary, that it is a far more widespread problem than any of us imagine.

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