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.

28 Comments

  1. January 30, 2015 at 11:40 am

    George Simon, a professing Christian, has written a handful of books that address many issues including narcissism. http://www.amazon.com/Sheeps-Clothing-Understanding-Dealing-Manipulative/dp/1935166301/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1288194829&sr=1-1

  2. greenbaggins said,

    January 30, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for that, Rachel. Because the title doesn’t mention narcissism, I missed it earlier. I will check it out.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    January 30, 2015 at 11:54 am

    I should add, though, that a person can be manipulative without being narcissistic. So, although it looks like he addresses narcissism, the book as a whole is not directly about it. So my comment is still correct that we do not have a Christian book that addresses narcissism and nothing else.

  4. January 30, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Lane,

    I think you are wise to identify this. I’m enrolled in a graduate business program at a secular school and we discussed narcissism in one of our courses. When asked which profession was the most narcissistic our professor allowed the class to guess for 3-4 minutes. Every profession was listed. Doctor, lawyer, professional athlete, academics, politicians…Nope. The correct answer? Clergy. The “least” narcissistic profession was actually professional athletes.

    The rationale for these results is multi-faceted, but my professor explained that the reason for this is that clergy typically don’t receive much reliable feedback about their performance or who they are. Athletes on the other hand are critiqued, ranked, and evaluated relentlessly, so it’s more difficult to be delusional when your ERA is 6.5 or your batting average is .113. Ministers on the other hand aren’t getting evaluated objectively. It’s easier to dismiss criticism in this context and easier to believe your own press.

    Our professor told us that it is important to have an accurate self-assessment and to set objective, quantifiable standards to see ourselves accurately. I think that seminaries should be considering ways that ministers can receive an objective, quantifiable assessment of their skills and growth as *one* way of counteracting this. Of course, these measures are not solutions–only trust in the Gospel can remedy the ravages of narcissism–but they may be helpful in exposing our latent narcissism.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    January 30, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Brandon, that is absolutely fascinating, and certainly convincing. Thanks very much for the additional fodder.

  6. January 30, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    […] via Narcissism in Ministry | Green Baggins. […]

  7. rfwhite said,

    January 30, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    I genuinely appreciate the point about and interest in objective, quantifiable assessment of skills and growth. I’m not persuaded that seminaries are suited for that assessment task; certainly not in all key respects. Even sessions are not necessarily well suited for this work, except in certain respects. Presbyteries might be the most plausible option. I’ve often wondered about the possibility of something like a reassessment process every 5-7 years.

  8. Truth2Freedom said,

    January 30, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

  9. Bob S said,

    January 30, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    If man centered arminianism prevails in evangelicalism, narcissism would have to be one of the fruits. Neither are the reformed necessarily immune to the prevailing cultural tendencies.

  10. January 31, 2015 at 12:54 am

    Tremedous article. Many of these things I recognized in my own life as I got older. God can change a person through recognition and confession and focus on doing his workbas you say soley for the sake of another. My wife swears When K was younger I was always glancing in the car mirror. There is something to say about growing in the Lord. Thanks for a grear article. K

  11. January 31, 2015 at 1:03 am

    Bob S, I agree, I dont think this problem is repector of any denomination, although I think Roman Catholicism is totally self focused. Preocupation with will and inner mechanics.But it just also be apart of fallen man in general. I meanGod cuts us a break when he says dont merely look out for your interests, but the interests of others. There is a healthy focus on self evaluation, and then there is narcissism. The Spirit would surely convict us of this if we are obeying God.k

  12. January 31, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    I’m very interested by Brandon’s comments (#4) and rfwhite’s response (#7). I agree that seminaries are not the answer but I don’t believe that some sort of Presbytery review is the answer either. It’s got to be up to the Sessions of our churches to give regular constructive feedback to our pastors. Do you all agree with me? And if so, how many Sessions do you think conduct regular reviews of their pastoral staff?

    Cheers….

  13. DM said,

    January 31, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    Is not the old way of following the directory for family worship the way this was handled in the past? The elders visited the minister’s family with the view that they were pastors to all his family members and gave special care to him as well even though his is directly accountable to the presbytery.

  14. DM said,

    January 31, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    Sometimes perhaps the presbytery operates more as a ministers’ guild, so the pastor can probably get better care with loving elders in his congregation. Annual family visitation should have the minister’s family at the top of the list.

  15. February 2, 2015 at 12:10 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  16. grateful reader said,

    February 2, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    I sent you a note at PB…….

  17. Greg said,

    February 2, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    T. David Gordon in “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” (pp. 33-34) wrote regarding preaching and annual reviews:

    “My final argument to prove that preaching is in bad shape today is the annual review–or, to be more exact, its absence. Almost no churches conduct an annual review of the pastoral staff. When I took my church in New Hampshire years ago, it had not been their practice either. So during the contract negotiation stage, I asked them to pay me less than they had proposed, but to give me two things in return; a week of study leave, and an annual review. I did this because I believe it is absolutely essential for any professional to have an annual review of his labor. Those of us who teach are reviewed; those who work in business are reviewed. Every other realm of labor recognizes the importance of an annual review, in which strengths and weaknesses can be assessed as a means to more fruitful service in the future.

    “So why don’t churches routinely conduct annual reviews of their ministers? Because ministers don’t want to be told that their preaching is disorganized, hard to follow, irrelevant, and poorly reasoned; and because churches don’t want to insult their ministers or hurt their feelings (and churches often know that the review would have some negative aspects). Therefore, I suggest that the very absence of annual reviews stands as glaring proof that preaching is so bad today that no one–neither the preacher nor the hearer–can tolerate the thought of how painful it would be to provide an honest assessment.”

  18. paigebritton said,

    February 10, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    I think I would agree with Andrew that the most relevant and proximate reviews would come from those who know the preacher best, so those within the congregation (rather than Presbytery, which seems to have more involvement with a pastor’s doctrine than with his active preaching and shepherding). I wouldn’t, though, necessarily limit this to the Session. I could see a team of thoughtful people involved, maybe representing the different demographic groups the pastor is serving.

    Regarding quantifiable measurements for evaluation and feedback, a descriptive rubric developed by knowledgeable leaders could be helpful for evaluating sermons, at least. As a teacher I use this approach to grade written projects, which seem to demand a different kind of “quantifying” than, say, a multiple choice test. Different areas of concern (exegesis, organization, application, delivery) would be scored according to whether certain criteria are met. Bet there’s a few homiletics profs out there who could supply such a thing, in fact.

  19. rfwhite said,

    February 11, 2015 at 11:13 am

    Andrew (and Paige!): in truth, I’m reluctant to endorse any one answer over another. It seems to me the key is the criteria used by whoever gives feedback. In my experience, for example, the criteria shift from one group to the other, frequently without notice or awareness and other times without recognition of the validity of different criteria in different contexts. As you know, pastors often serve a variety of constituencies with varying authority and responsibility, and the standards of evaluation among some of those constituencies are anything but uniform and often merely personal.

  20. paigebritton said,

    February 13, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Dr. White — I completely agree with you! Wish there could be as much general knowledge of what is needed, beneficial, and sound in a pastor as there is general sentiment of what is appealing, entertaining, and “inspiring.”

  21. roberty bob said,

    February 13, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    As to why Johnny can’t preach . . . ?

    Being six foot three with an extroverted personality and a sense of humor is no guaranty that you will deliver a sermon. You will deliver something, but it might not be a sermon.

    Preaching is a craft that requires mastery over a wide array of materials and the requisite tools of fine craftsmanship.

    Few pastors are good preachers because they do not make preaching their priority; they let themselves get pulled into all manner of other work to the neglect of their craft.

  22. Reed Here said,

    February 16, 2015 at 9:20 am

    Agreed RB

  23. Ron said,

    February 17, 2015 at 7:38 am

    “So why don’t churches routinely conduct annual reviews of their ministers? Because ministers don’t want to be told that their preaching is disorganized, hard to follow, irrelevant, and poorly reasoned; and because churches don’t want to insult their ministers or hurt their feelings (and churches often know that the review would have some negative aspects). Therefore, I suggest that the very absence of annual reviews stands as glaring proof that preaching is so bad today that no one–neither the preacher nor the hearer–can tolerate the thought of how painful it would be to provide an honest assessment.”

    Or maybe ministers are reluctant to have their pulpit ministry evaluated by unqualified members. It’s not uncommon that those who are to come alongside their pastor (the elders) in order to humbly assist them in their preaching have been lobbied by congregants – even their own children and grand children! I’ve seen several times people complain about the worship service, including the preaching, and when they didn’t get their way they went down the street to get the Arminian application of does and don’ts they wanted from their Reformed pastor. Forget the indicative. Give me a NT Leviticus. Tell me who to vote for and if and when to spank my kids.

    I appreciate the pastor who wants to be critiqued, but I’d advise against it as a general rule. It too often becomes open season. Rather, I’d suggest that the humble pastor seek out certain ones who he feels safe with and believes to be thoughtful on the subject.

  24. roberty bob said,

    February 17, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Hear, Hear, Ron!!!

    This shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it always does: congregations that love an entertaining sermon from a humorous preacher more than they love an enriching sermon from an honest-to-God’s-Word preacher.

  25. February 8, 2016 at 11:22 pm

    […] the fear of man is that it also tempts us to rather severe forms of narcissism. On that subject see this post I wrote about a year ago. The fear of man is what drives us to react in narcissistic ways both to […]

  26. February 10, 2016 at 12:03 am

    […] the fear of man is that it also tempts us to rather severe forms of narcissism. On that subject see this post I wrote about a year ago. The fear of man is what drives us to react in narcissistic ways both to […]

  27. February 10, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    […] the fear of man is that it also tempts us to rather severe forms of narcissism. On that subject see this post I wrote about a year ago. The fear of man is what drives us to react in narcissistic ways both to […]

  28. Jenny Brown said,

    June 26, 2016 at 12:31 am

    I recently read a good book called “Rethinking Narcissism” (Craig Malkin). (It is a secular book.) I found it extremely helpful in understanding what causes and triggers narcissism and how to relate to people who have narcissistic characteristics. The author discusses narcissism as a spectrum, with unhealthy self-doubt or self-abnegation at one end and narcissism at the other. I’d be happy to discuss it more privately, if you want. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the topic lately.


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