Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers

I live daily with a paradox. On the one hand, grace is audacious, extravagant, immediate, and all-embracing. On the other, grace is painful, reconstructive, surgical, and slow. Grace is the deliverance from Egypt and grace is the long, grueling journey through a blistering wilderness.

I live with this paradox because of the work I do. With my multiple hats – professor, pastor, therapist, spiritual director – I become a conduit of God’s lavish grace, a steward of it, a surgeon of the soul in need of it. And because grace refuses simplification, refuses to be reduced to a get-out-of-jail-free card, we must hold the paradox when we work with particularly complex people.

I’m thinking right now of pastors I’ve worked with over the years whose narcissism was so entrenched in their psyche that lavish grace needed to work itself out over years and years. Some time ago I worked with a pastor whose masks of charm, personal fitness, and a keen intellect propelled him into success, but who was utterly disconnected from his true self. Revelations of abuse and sexual infidelity came as a shock to his adoring flock, many who were quick to say, “Who of us is without sin? Let us forgive as he taught us to forgive.” This pastor’s narcissism, now armed with a new mask of repentance, quickly turned the narrative from his sin to his redemption story, one his flock was happy to embrace.

I recall sitting with his wife weeks after as she struggled. “I feel like God calls me to forgive him, but I can’t help but feel like he gets off the hook and I’m left beaten and bruised. I’ve even had people tell me that I was to blame for his infidelity. Was I?” Mired in guilt and shame, she felt like she’d be failing him and failing the church if she didn’t quickly forgive.

As I sat with the pastor, he had many reasons for his actions – many years without a sabbatical, burnout, lack of emotional support from his wife, a ‘weak’ elder board. He was quick to say, “I failed.” But he never got specific. In one session, I asked him for permission to say something hard to him. He agreed. I offered this to him: “What would it be like to say this to your wife: For years, I emotionally abused you by mocking your effort, your appearance, your faithfulness. I played the part of obedient pastor, but in secret I abused and tormented you. When pornography was not enough to anesthetize away my shame, I intentionally and meticulously groomed women who adored me for back-rubs, blowjobs, and sex in my office, on the floor right next to my desk and our family picture.”

He sat silently, head down, as if it was the first time he’d considered something other than a narrative that would preserve his shiny veneer. I suspect he was weighing his options, as he always did, so very fearful of an ultimate confrontation with himself. He looked up at me, steel-eyed: “Chuck, can I say something to you? What would it look like for you to take the Gospel seriously, to help me gain my esteem back and to help my wife forgive me?”

I’ve had some version of this same story play out about a dozen times with pastors and/or ministry leaders of some kind.

This man needed the grace of wilderness. He wanted deliverance from Egypt and a quick flight over the wilderness to the promised land. He ultimately chose the latter. And he used his story as a real, live grace story.

When we treat grace like a bandaid rather than the major surgery it often demands, we trivialize it. Real transformation is a slow-cook process, especially for narcissists and abusers so hidden from their true selves and so prone to re-configure the masks for the sake of a new narrative and to avoid the pain of self-confrontation. The wilderness of grace is the place where the narcissist’s false self is dismantled, but it’s also the place where the systems and structures that buttressed and supported it are confronted and dismantled.

I sometimes wish I knew more about St. Paul’s three years in the wilderness. Once a murderous moralist, he was confronted by the living Christ on Damascus Road. Something new was born in him that day, but we know that he did not immediately take to the streets to evangelize. Some like to imagine these three years as an intense Bible-study training program. I like to think of them as a time of deconstruction – of old narratives, of the masks that served him in his old life, of an ideology of tribalism and abuse. I imagine that leaving his old life behind cost him dearly – relationships, reputation, income, so much more. When he did return, we know that he still had an edge, that he could be oppositional, that his words of reconciliation didn’t always match his relational style, that he wrestled with his inner contradictions. But he was an honest man – honest about his story, the toxicity of his old life, and his need for grace.

Grace is not about saving face. Grace often plunges us into the depths of despair. It requires the loss of everything that buttressed the old self. As much as we’re culturally conditioned to good, old American quick redemption stories, we’ve got to reclaim a biblical imagination for the wilderness of grace. I’m suspicious of those who are quick to return to ministry, quick to write their redemption story, quick to embrace the adoration of their devoted followers. Those who I’ve seen do the real, hard wilderness work of transformation go away for years, and have no expectations for what will happen. All is given to the surgical work of grace under the care of experienced practitioners.

I reconnected with someone like this not long ago. I hadn’t seen him in years. His ministry fell apart when he cultivated a relationship with an old girlfriend on Facebook, and began secretly meeting with her. He resisted the wilderness of grace, at first. He scrambled to save his marriage and ministry. But he had a wise community. They held him firmly, in painful love, and showed him a desert path. They knew this Facebook affair was just a symptom of deeper unhealth. They held his wife, and didn’t allow her to be gaslit in the process. He completely left ministry, quit social media, and gave himself to the work prescribed for him, which included finding a completely new way to make ends meet. His church entered into a hard season of honesty, as well, mindful of its need not just to grieve but to address what allowed this pastor to slowly spin out-of-control.

It’s seven years later and he looks great. His marriage is healthy. He’s decided to start coming back to ecclesial gatherings, ever under the watchful care of his therapist and a few close advisors, with a tempered curiosity about re-entering ministry. Because so much of the old, addicted self is dead, he doesn’t feel the drive he once did to change the world. He wonders what it might look like to serve a small congregation somewhere, but he’s profoundly attuned to his family’s needs and hesitations about this. Seven years into the work, he suspects he has another seven to go. He’s in no rush. In fact, he’s waking up to a life that is so much more beautiful than he knew before, and little matters more than waking up each day whole and healthy, and loving and being loved by those closest to him. He says that for the first time in his life, he feels like Jesus smiles at him.

He’s a man who has experienced an extraordinary Grace.

 

A Response to Joe Carter’s TGC blog “The FAQ’s: What Christians Should Know About The Enneagram.”

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter has written a thoughtful and measured blog on The Enneagram. I’d encourage you to read it.

With Joe, I’ve seen the shortcomings of this tool in my 15+ years of using it. I’m seeing it become an evangelical fad, of sorts. I had a whole chapter on it in my 2014 book Toughest People to Love (reviewed here at TGC) , but the publisher nixed it with the rationale that evangelicals were not ready for it. Apparently they are, as I wrote about in a short piece on The Twelve called The Year of the Enneagram in which I share some reflections, positive and challenging.

I’m mindful that with the rise in popularity of the Enneagram comes needed critique. I’m quite saddened that my seminary alma mater, RTS Orlando, has banned the teaching and use of this tool. I introduced it in a vocational counseling course I taught in the mid-2000’s when I was regularly teaching there, and found it extraordinarily helpful in that context. Measured critique, like Joe’s demonstrates, is important. That said, I do have some thoughts.

Joe’s piece got me thinking about fear. My gut-level experience of reading his piece was that skeptics of the Enneagram would be immediately reinforced in their skepticism, and that concerns me. Not once in his piece, by my reading, does Joe describe the enormous significance of the Enneagram as a way of understanding sin and the deeper motivations which drive us to disordered desires. But while you won’t find the word sin in his piece, you’ll find some form of the word “occult” 7 times. That’s concerning to me.

In Joe’s first section “Where Did The Enneagram Come From?”, Joe’s treatment is all-too-brief. While he is correct that the origins story is murky, I’d remind us all that we can’t read Scripture without recognizing that major aspects of our primary stories, genres and forms, and even some of the Psalms we treasure were highly dependent on or lifted from their pagan cultures of origin. Whoever composed Psalm 29 wasn’t at all hesitant about re-appropriating a Baal song for Yahweh’s purposes. Our origins story and flood story, among others, were common pagan myths re-narrated for a new and better story. Moreover, who of us can read Augustine without the shadow of Plotinus looming, or Aquinas without Aristotle? A more generous origins story of the Enneagram would do a deep dive into the writings of Evagrius, Cassian and Gregory, showing how this modern-day tool is deeply reliant on a Christian theological tradition which viewed sin with a deadly seriousness and refused to settle for moralistic, sin-management techniques.

Katie Jo Ramsey has done an excellent job showing how this tool, although imperfect, is an important contemporary lens for understanding sin and sanctification. As I teach it through the lens of Augustine, Evagrius, Cassian and others, it reveals our sin as deadly passions, to use the ancient word. Theologian Wendy Farley writes,

The “passions” is an ancient name for some of the ways in which our own psyche helps to trap us in patterns of living that block us from our deepest joy. Passions have the connotation of bondage and uneasiness. They exemplify the way the soul can become twisted and turned in on itself (homo incurvatus en se) and alienated from the world around it. Anger and so on are passions when they move beyond passing emotions and take deep root in the soul, distorting mind, spirit, freedom, embodiment, agency, and, most of all, love. The passions muffle and distort holy desire. 

The Enneagram helps identify our passions as false self (or selves), a pseudo-identity which keeps us at a distance from our core identity (our true self) in Christ. While the Enneagram’s origins story doesn’t trace a clear line from this ancient wisdom to its contemporary form, Christians are no strangers to adopting forms and re-purposing them in service of Jesus. The Enneagram is clearly dependent on this orthodox spiritual tradition. Let’s not let fear keep us from using this one wisely.

A second reflection on Joe’s piece is the “why” of the Enneagram. The skeptic in me is sometimes hesitant to share the Enneagram with my students these days, knowing that it’s a wisdom tool, not a personality assessment. Sometimes my students are quick to adopt labels (“You’re a 3 because you’re such an Achiever” or “You’re an 8 because you’re angry”). This is unhelpful. Joe shares some helpful insights on the ‘why’ – the need for a classification tool, a MBTI replacement, a need for personality awareness. My addition would be a need for “story awareness.” As Katie Jo shows in her piece, a proper and wise use of the Enneagram opens us up to a larger conversation about how our family-of-origin, our relational and cultural contexts, and more contribute to ways of coping, often sinfully and maladaptively, in a broken world. In a time of identity politics, it probably feels like the last thing we need is another label-maker. But the Enneagram isn’t about telling you your personality or labeling you. It’s about raising questions related to your personality (your persona!), your ego, your style of relating, how you sin against yourself and neighbor. It raises the stakes in our conversations about how we hurt ourselves and each other. It gives us a lens through which we can see all the ways we’re living in exile from our true home in Christ.

Joe’s section “Why are some evangelicals opposed to the Enneagram?” was the least helpful to me. I’m not sure how he can say that evangelicals that oppose the Enneagram tend to be older and those who like it tend to be younger. Is this a research-based finding or an observation? It’s altogether inconsistent with my experience of it over 15+ years. In fact, those who are older are the great role models of how to use it wisely and well! And connecting people’s fear to the symbol of a Pentagram is, again, an observation Joe makes that is wholly inconsistent with what I’ve seen (I’ve maybe seen it once). Joe and I may run in different circles, but in my experience lay-evangelicals have been open and curious. I’ve found resistance among clergy and academics who are also resistant to psychology, who prefer Bible-only categories, and who haven’t spent significant time trying to understand it. This may simply be a difference in context.

Joe’s section on the accuracy or usefulness of the Enneagram offers helpful reflections, but I’d offer a few caveats. David Daniel’s work at Stanford is a rigorous, research-based work which seeks scientific validity and reliability for a tool that emerged outside of the sciences. Joe’s concerns about the Barnum effect are important, but if the tool is used wisely, effective coaches and spiritual directors will encourage people to take their process of self-understanding slowly, not trying to identify with a particular Enneagram type immediately, but engaging people who know them well and discerning their deeper motivations over time. What Joe doesn’t say is that the early practitioners did not want the Enneagram distributed widely for fear that it would be trivialized and over-simplified.

Over-simplication leads to quick typing. Wisdom leads to a slow process of self-discernment. Our deadly passions become so intertwined with our personalities that it is often hard to discern false self from true self. Again Farley writes:

At another level, passions become second nature and seem to he an essential part of our identity. The more they have entwined themselves with one’s self-identity, the more difficult they will be to dethrone. Passions blend with self-identity, though not in the sense that we conceive ourselves as terrified or enraged. These may be the last things we associate with ourselves. But we do incorporate the effects of these passions into our self-understanding.

Thus, the Enneagram, properly used, offers a slow process of self-examination meant to invite us to a larger conversation about our stories and our forms of self-sabotage, not a quick and convenient typing tool.

In the end, Joe leaves his readers to discern personally whether this tool can be a helpful pathway for self-knowledge. I appreciate that. I suspect Joe would agree that self-knowledge is of supreme important to the Christian. I remember slowly and reflectively paging through Richard Baxter’s massive tome On the Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance back when I was completing my MDiv and transitioning to a second degree in mental health counseling. I needed a strong anchor for this work. I am suspicious of quick and simplistic appropriations of psychology, and I hope that is evidenced in my books and other writings. Rightly used, I think the Enneagram is a gift to the church. In a time when we’re consumed by taking off and putting on our various identities like masks in a play, it invites us to name our illusions and rest in union with Christ.

If you are interested in a process that does this slow, wise work of self-knowledge, I commend to you a wise Christian and Enneagram coach Beth McCord. I lead Enneagram retreats and do coaching, as well, but Beth’s work is really impressive and thorough. My friend AJ Sherrill has written a book and leads retreats, and his connections to spiritual practices as well as his pastoral wisdom is significant.

Resist the gimmickification of the Enneagram (Yes, I made up that word). But don’t abandon it as a helpful way of knowing yourself.

Joe, if you read this, thanks for your measured piece. I hope this is received in the spirit of thoughtful and charitable dialogue among Christians.

Bill Hybels and the Future of the Church After #ChurchToo

When I read Phyliss Tickle’s The Great Emergence five years ago, I couldn’t help but think of that oft-misquoted line about Mark Twain’s imminent demise: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I’d read Regele’s The Death of the Church more than a decade before, but after watching the so-called Emergent movement emerge and stumble, never quite getting traction as an ecclesial reformation, I had my doubt that the behemoth of the American Christendom church could die.

That was all before #MeToo and #ChurchToo.

Intellectual critiques of church as Empire are powerful, but it often takes experiential learning for change to happen. Many pastors (like me) who were trained in the 90’s and fed a diet of Peterson, Brueggeman, Wright, and others like them learned to ask hard questions about Christianity’s collusion with Empire. Some of us experienced painful lessons in churches that were run like corporations and led by clergy-CEO’s. There might be a quiet advocacy for marginalized women, abuse victims, or the silenced, but it felt like nothing would ever change. Even in my early experience of a supposedly-accountable Presbyterian context where polity was a friend, the systems preserved the powerful and the influential. Ideas weren’t enough to change entrenched systems designed to protect the powerful.

If there is to be a great emergence of some kind, a new reformation, a dying-and-rising of a new kind of church and a new kind of Christianity, the moment is now – at least for the American church. It was never about becoming more progressive or more conservative, I don’t think – it was about us, our character, our health, our willingness to give ourselves over to the dying-and-rising necessary for growing up. The big new idea wasn’t going to change us fundamentally – it would take a revelation that we have a disease within us to wake up to our bad habits, seek out the treatment we need, and encounter profound change.

Revelations of scandal and coverup in the Catholic church have been trickling out for years. Televangelists have been exposed as counterfeits. And megachurch and movement leaders in the evangelical church like Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, and Tullian Tchividjian have experienced their own reckonings for abuses of power. But these were not enough to shake us, evidenced in remarkably quick restorations inspired by a cheap form of grace. However, the revelations about Bill Hybels in this #MeToo and #ChurchToo moment are exposing much more than the ‘sin’ of one leader. The church is waking up to the nature of systemic sin, the embedded narcissism of institutions, the impotence of those called to govern and hold leaders accountable. This time it’s not just about the man – it’s about an entire system.

We’re slow to wake up. When I consult with churches entrenched in narcissistic systems and led by narcissistic leaders, I often see a kind of collective “Stockholm Syndrome” among staff and leaders. If I pull a thread and things begin to unravel, I watch as one-by-one they awaken to the toxic waters they’ve been immersed in. Narcissistic leadership in the church is especially toxic because, unlike politicians, we tend to believe that the pastor is saintly. Narcissistic pastors are adept at waving their magic spiritual wands, putting those that follow them in a trance. It is gaslighting, plain and simple, as followers, staff, and leaders question themselves well before they question the omnipotent pastor. When the thread is pulled and the systemic narcissism begins to unravel, the wake-up can be abrupt and deeply painful. Those around the narcissistic leader will question themselves, their faith, even reality as they’ve known it. This experiential crisis is the only hope for lasting change in the church.

When scandal hits Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, we take notice. But when scandal hits Willow Creek and Bill Hybels, we wake up. It hits us in the gut. Bill Hybels? Willow Creek?

The thread has been pulled, and we are all beginning to see the toxicity of narcissistic systems. Our systemic disease is no longer a story for Christianity Today, it’s a story for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Our illness has been exposed and the watching world has taken notice. The icon of ecclesial leadership has fallen, and it wasn’t just a misdemeanor offense. The sins of Hybels are not just his, but an entire system is implicated – other pastors in the system, governing leaders in the church, allies outside the church, and more. This isn’t a Hollywood scandal we can gawk at, this is our scandal, our reckoning, our moment to wake up.

Academic conversations about a great emergence or the end of Christendom have made for interesting conversation, but Willow Creek is our moment of experiential learning, our opportunity to die a painful death to our collective ego, grandiosity, celebrity worship, and more. Willow Creek is happening in small rural churches, suburban multi-sites, and city center churches, in black churches, liberal churches and evangelical networks. Many of us who’ve been working in and consulting with churches for decades have seen this virus at work, subtly spreading it’s disease. Now we see that it’s not just about a few fallen men, but about a collective.

It’s systemic narcissism.

It’s embedded in our structures, rampant in our institutions, spread throughout our networks and denominations – it’s the toxic ecclesial water we swim in. It protects the powerful, mocks and silences victims, and covers it all in a shiny spiritual veneer. It’s en-trancing effect led the evangelical church to overwhelmingly vote for a morally-vacuous narcissist whose manufactured daily reality show reveals how prone we are to being gaslit, how ignorant we’ve become to unhealth, to moral bankruptcy, to sin. It’s time to remove the blinders and look long and hard at our disease. Our collective disease.

This is an experiential moment of reckoning for the Christian church – for Catholics and Protestants, for progressives and conservatives, for each of us. We can’t not take a long hard look at our church, our pastor, our institution, our network, our denomination. We can’t chalk this up to a few bad eggs, a few big egos. We’ve got to wonder – together – how did we get here? What about us even craves narcissistic systems and leaders? Why is our American culture a perfect petris dish for narcissistic systems and leaders? How do our structures and systems cultivate this quick-spreading virus?

Our addiction to success, to grandiosity, to winning has gone unchecked. We forgot that we were followers of a suffering servant, bearers of the Cross, participants in a cruciform story. Willow Creek became the ultimate how-to-do-it-and-succeed counterfeit story. That isn’t a knock on everything it is and was, just a gut check for every pastor who thought – why isn’t my church growing like that one is OR if only we could discover their secret formula. Again, it revealed a lot about us. If you’re reading this as a post about Hybels or Willow Creek, you’ve missed the point – this is about us. Their story reveals ours.

What’s next? I hope it’s something beautiful, something remarkable – not the next-big-thing but a real death-to-resurrection story for the church in the United States. It won’t happen if we ignore our disease, though. How might you begin?

  1. Begin with you. What are your blindspots? Where are you unhealthy? How might you be a participant in systems that are unhealthy? Who in your life is brutally honest? (Ask people how they experience you) Are there repercussions for those who are honest with you?
  2. Start learning about systems – how they function in health and unhealth. Read Friedman’s Generation to Generation or Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church or Steinke’s How Your Church Family Works. Understand how your own family-of-origin story plays out in your current system.
  3. Learn more about narcissism. Become curious about your own. Follow this track and learn about narcissistic systems, about psychological abuse, about gaslighting.
  4. Seek out the resources at NetGrace, become Grace Certified, and follow and read people like Diane Langberg. Lindsey/Justin Holcomb, and Wade Mullen.
  5. Engage in 360 review processes in your church, org, networks. Invite consultants in to advise and assess the health of your church or org.

That’s just a modest start. Keep exploring, but don’t ignore the hard work of personal change and honest engagement with the systems in which you participate. Become stewards of the healthy dying – in yourself, in your church, in your org’s – so that we may become witnesses of something beautiful and new.