Can you “narcissist-proof” a system?

If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?

Seth Haines asked this (@sethhaines on Twitter…a must follow), and I’ve been chewing on it since. His question took me back to conversations with friends from different backgrounds, some who’ve thought great systems and structures could safeguard from narcissism, and some who believed good doctrine (defined differently depending on who I talked to) could do it.

As I mused, I remembered the story of a pastor I’ll call Jake. Jake started on staff at a medium-sized seeker sensitive church, and it didn’t take long for him to realize he was working for an image-driven, stage-loving, leadership-guru pastor whose staff/system adored and enabled him and who only had time for Jake when he was pitching a potentially successful new initiative. This pastor employed all of the popular leadership techniques and created structures that buzzed with efficiency, but everything revolved around the grandiose ego of the lead pastor.

So when Jake and his therapist agreed it was time to move on, he transitioned into another associate role at a small Anglican church plant, a welcome new place of rootedness after his seeker-sensitive sojourn and a church connected to a global community. The liturgy moved Jake and Sarah, his wife. The music was indescribably beautiful – folksy and engaging and lyrically rich. But then, the Bishop and Jake’s pastor got into it. He watched his vestry passive in the face of the Bishop’s abuse of his new mentor and friend. Soon enough, the exasperated pastor left and the Bishop started filling in, barking his way through the once-rich liturgy like a field marshal.

Tired and confused, Jake found himself hopeful again when a young urban church asked him to join the staff. This church was theologically progressive, unlike the others. He served alongside a competent and savvy staff. The lead pastor, a winsome, energetic, tatted up rock star embraced Jake from the start. In her, he found an acceptance he thought impossible. But then she began confiding her lack of confidence in another staff member, questioning her loyalty. In fact, while being the favorite felt so different and even gratifying, at one level, he felt gross and used at another. And while the staff read all of the best church health books available, he knew he was trapped in an awful, sticky web of narcissism once again.

When Jake finally came to me, he was going to plant a church. I talked him out of it. I was pretty confident all of that ‘stuff’ was in him in such a way that he’d show up on day one with good intentions, but with a trauma-laden body capable of inflicting pain on others.

Seth asked, “If you’re building an organization/community from the ground up, what are steps to ensure it has the best shot of narcissist-proofing itself? Are there parameters you can set for health on the front side?”

And as I’ve pondered this today, and over years of navigating ecclesial and institutional narcissism myself, I keep coming back to a simple (maybe simplistic) gut-level response – healthy people.

  • Healthy people. People who’ve navigated the messy terrain of their own stories, and are honest about their beauty and brokenness.
  • Healthy people. People who create safe spaces wherever they go. They’re not inclined to lead by power but by creating space for empowerment. (This is code for “trauma informed”).
  • Healthy people. People who are differentiated. They are not pulled to-and-fro by every passing wind of relational tug-of-wars. They do not merge or disconnect.
  • Healthy people. People who know in their bodies the crazy-making, gaslighting feelings of an abusive, narcissistic leader or system. And are able to name it.
  • Healthy people. People who are secure. Safe in their own being and “in Christ” not merely as an identity marker but a lived reality. They don’t demand respect, but people give it to them. You sense the gravity of their person.
  • Healthy people. People who show up as a non-anxious presence. They show up in a room, and everyone else breathes a sigh of relief. Their presence turns down the anxiety volume.
  • Healthy people. People who are honest. They name reality. They are not afraid to lay their cards on the table, not in some act of gamesmanship, but because integrity is in their bones.
  • Healthy people. People who’ve done their inner work. They tell on themselves. On the first day of work they say, “This is me…the good, the bad, and the ugly…let’s live in the truth together. Feel free to name when I’ve hurt you.”

Seth may be looking for a more sophisticated answer, but I doubt it. He knows messiness. And he knows the long-and-winding journey to health. I think we’ve both been around long enough to be suspicious of idealized, naive answers to complicated questions like his.

And so, as I say often to people, do your own work. Do your work and show up, anchored in your deepest You (Catherine of Genoa), which is secure in God’s infinite love and goodness. My hope for health in churches and systems of all kinds is…well…you. All of you who’ve connected to Love and who live in love, not in some cheesy me-and-my-sweet-Jesus-pie-in-the-sky sentimentality, but in the Eph. 3:16-18 ground-of-our-being sense of it.

Narcissism feeds off of the lie that our persona (Jung), that our illusory self (Merton) is all there is. That’s paper thin. What the world needs is people of substance…grown-ups like you who show up not with some agenda but agenda-less (see Bonnie Bandenoch, The Heart of Trauma), calm and curious and compassionate and connected to the infinitely Secure source of all health and wholeness. People who reveal Christ simply in their being…and being present.

Be there. And you can be anywhere.

Grace and peace.

 

Resources…off the top of my head

Miller and Cook, Boundaries for your Soul

Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety

Herrington and Taylor, The Leader’s Journey

Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma

Allender, Leading with a Limp

Laird, Into the Silent Land

Cox, A Conscious Life

Haines, The Book of Waking Up

Me, When Narcissism Comes to Church (coming March)

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