Manuscript: When Narcissism Comes to Church: Further Reflections

Calvin University Noon Lecture Series

Sept. 3, 2020, 3:00pm

Glad to be with you today, even virtually. My daughter is now a sophomore at Calvin, and when I first got invited to speak I imagined a day on campus, maybe working at Peets with Emma, visiting Jack Droppers, dropping by a few faculty offices. Yet, here we are – 2020 seems to get more challenging by the day. I’m grateful that you’d take an hour on a Thursday afternoon, even over Zoom, to explore narcissism in the church and in our culture with me.

I’ll say at the outset that I’m out of my comfort zone for this lecture today, doing something I don’t often do and that’s reading a manuscript that I’ve prepared. My lecture style tends to be free form, but talking narcissism is serious business and I wanted to offer serious and sober words. As Marilyn McEntyre says, it’s more important than ever to care for words in a culture of lies. And so, for those of you interested in following along, I just posted this talk at my website – chuckdegroat.net – and you’re welcome to navigate there and follow along. Stay tuned to this, however, for some Q and A at the end.   

While we’re here today to explore the phenomenon of narcissism in our Christian community, it’s hard not to take a short detour at the outset to highlight the intersection between my work on narcissism and your very own Kristin Dumez’s incredible recent release – Jesus and John Wayne. I was so spellbound that I read the 350 page plus book in two sittings.

If you haven’t read it yet, it’s a witness to the more ‘recent’ history of evangelicalism’s conflation of church and empire. I write in my book that this unchecked conflation “undermined the ‘kenotic configuration’ of the church (a phrase of Walter Brueggemman’s – it undermined the self-emptying configuration of the church) replacing cruciform humility with hierarchy, patriarchy, and power. Today, evangelicals too often look like 1st c. Zealots eager to take up arms and Sadducees angling for political clout than Jesus, who – according to Paul,

being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Jesus self-empties while we grasp.

Jesus chooses servanthood while we sidle up to the powerful.

Kristin Dumez tells this story so well that I felt physically sick reading her book at times, like my family story was being re-told, this time with the demons out from the closets.

We have a family problem. And we need to talk honestly about it. My work on narcissism in the church is a modest attempt to name it, to describe and diagnose it, to look at its appearance but then to look under the hood, so to speak, to understand what drives a grandiose, entitled, even shameless leader. Kristin’s work is historical. Mine is psychological and theological.

Adam and Eve grasped, and we’ve been grasping ever since.

Adam and Eve hid, and we’ve been hiding ever since.

We didn’t recognize Jesus because we assumed he’d come in our own image – Zealots and Pharisees and Sadducees that we are. Somehow, we wish to proclaim a Gospel of the Cross but elevate leaders who are anything but cruciform and employ tactics that are anything but Christ-like.

Just last week we learned of a Christian University President’s secret life, albeit with a bit less shock that we may have had given his bits of provocative content on social media. We watched a popular Christian author and radio host haul off and punch a protestor after a Presidential nomination acceptance speech. And it seems that we’re becoming numb to obnoxious and arrogant rants from Christian pastors and pundits. Many times, evangelicals report that the tough, arrogant, boisterous posture of their leaders is necessary and justified because Christians are under attack. I wonder if Jesus would see it that way.

We have a family problem, and it’s not going to go away with a tweet, it’s not going to disappear with a shift to a different political party in power, it’s not going to relent until we name it, face it, confess it, and do the deep work of rooting it out, in ourselves and in our systems. That’s what I’m here, albeit virtually, to talk about. So, if you’re intrigued, let’s begin by looking at the original story that inspired the narcissism conversation. Maybe through that we can begin to tease out some definitions and applications.

Shame vs. Self Love

We begin with the myth of Narcissus which dates back to ancient Greece. It’s often told as a tale of excessive self-love. Narcissus was just too full of himself, we surmise, kind of like your 10th grader who spends three hours a day creating Tik Tok’s. In fact, we say that narcissists love themselves so much that they exude an elusive confidence and sense of empowerment that we secretly wish we had. But does confidence and empowerment necessarily mean that someone is narcissistic?

To understand narcissism, we’ve got to take a deeper look at the origin story, perhaps with the help of a bit of psychology.

And when we do, we discover something surprising. We see that Narcissus wasn’t in love with himself. To the contrary, he was incapable of real love, even real self-love.

In fact, I’d argue that it is precisely self-love that Narcissus was lacking. Self-love, in its best sense both theologically and psychologically, frees us to love God and to love our neighbor. When we love ourselves, we’re free for vulnerable giving and receiving, we’re capable of knowing and being known, we’re confident without being arrogant. Narcissus enjoyed none of these things.

So, who was Narcissus anyway? What we know according to the ancient myth is that in his youth Narcissus ran free, hunting in the forest like most young boys. We’re also told that the young women of the forest were enamored with him and desired him. He was the captain of the football team and the star of the high school play all rolled into one. He could have had love many times over. But something was amiss.

What was the problem? Narcissus would let no one touch his heart. Narcissus was incapable of vulnerability.

As the story goes, Narcissus finds himself thirsty one day and makes his way to a clear pool for a drink. In the water he sees his reflection, an image so striking that he reaches in to embrace it. You can guess what happens next.  

Of course, you could’ve predicted it – the ima­­ge is lost when the water is disrupted, as it is with each future effort, leaving Narcissus all the more desperate. Like an addict in search of his next dopamine surge of glory, Narcissus becomes fixated. He keeps trying and trying, as most addicts are apt to do, pining for the reflection to return. Eventually, he is immobilized, stuck, numbed, unable to leave even to eat or drink or tend to his basic needs. He dies searching for the illusive false self. He dies in his addiction.

Terrence Real is a psychologist and he articulates the tale’s meaning well. He writes:

People often think of Narcissus as the symbol of excessive self-regard, but in fact, he exemplifies the opposite. As the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino observed in the 1500s, Narcissus did not suffer from an overabundance of self-love, but rather from its deficiency. The myth is a parable about paralysis. The youth, who first appears in restless motion, is suddenly rooted to one spot, unable to leave the elusive spirit. As Ficino remarked, if Narcissus had possessed real self-love, he would have been able to leave his fascination. The curse of Narcissus is immobilization, not out of love for himself, but out of dependency upon his image.

Narcissus is not in love with himself, he’s entranced by an image of himself that is actually other than himself. In other words, he’s trapped in a vicious narcissistic feedback loop. The name Narcissus comes from the Greek narc, which means numbness—a kind of stupor.

Healthy self-love would have motivated him to seek health, to tend to his needs, to exercise self-care. However, this is not a story of self-love. It’s a story of self-contempt, of shame. Shame fueled a vain search for an image he thought he needed to be, only to die from a neglect of what he really needed.

Already in this story we get a hint of where we’re going in our time together today. We see that narcissism’s self-fixation is not about self-love fundamentally, but about shame. And if we get that, we might not just begin to understand the narcissist, we might just discover a bit of empathy for him.

The Longing to be Freed from Longing

In his well-regarded book The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch defines narcissism as the “longing to be freed from longing.” It’s a fascinating definition, isn’t it? Maybe one of your own can help us out. Many of you know the work of Calvin’s own Jamie Smith, who reminds us that defining human beings primarily as thinkers or believers doesn’t go deep enough. We are desiring creatures – homo liturgicus – desiring, longing, imagining beings, who are created in and for love. The tragedy of narcissism is that the narcissist is cut off from love. He longs to be freed from longing, from love, from the ache of desire.

Addiction, even addiction to an illusive false self, disconnects us from desire, clogs our hearts, fixates us on a version of ourselves that isn’t real – an illusory self. 

In truth, the narcissist cannot tolerate the limitations of his humanity. What Lasch seems to be saying is that narcissism is about control. It is a refusal to live within God-ordained limitations of creaturely existence. And here’s the paradox – our desire to be superhuman dehumanizes us, wreaking havoc on our relationships, and turning us in on ourselves. In the end, narcissism makes us less human. Eventually the masks meant to protect us and to ease the ache of our longings become the only faces we know.

Thomas Merton says it well:

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life around which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, feeling loved, in order to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world.

The story of Narcissus and the insights of Lasch, Smith, and Merton, among others, give us a window into the complicated reality of narcissism. In truth, narcissism describes the false self, not the ontological reality of who someone is. This is why labels like “narcissist” or “alcoholic” only help insofar as they define a pattern of relating and behaving, not the true, core reality of a human being made in the image of God.

I was reminded of this many years ago the first time I read Susan Howatch’s magnificent novel Glittering Images. In the novel, Charles Ashworth is a conflicted Anglican priest and theologian who meets with Jon Darrow, a keen spiritual director. Ashworth, like most pastors and priests, I suppose, aspires to live a godly life, but at this point in the novel he is faced with his many contradictions. He is very weary. And he isn’t well.

Jon Darrow – the wise spiritual director – is used to dealing with the polished and pastoral false self. Sensing the contradiction in Ashworth between who he thinks he should appear to be and who he is, Darrow says to him:                     

“He must be exhausted. Has he never been tempted to set down the burden by telling someone about it?”

“I can’t,” Ashworth replies.

“Who’s ‘I’?” said Darrow.

“The glittering image.”

“Ah yes,” said Darrow, “and of course that’s the only Charles Ashworth that the world’s allowed to see, but you’re out of the world now, aren’t you, and I’m different from everyone else because I know there are two of you. I’m becoming interested in this other self of yours, the self nobody meets. I’d like to help him come out from behind that glittering image and set down this appalling burden which has been tormenting him for so long.”

“He can’t come out,” Ashworth responds.

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t like or approve of him.”

“Charles, (Darrow says) when a traveler’s staggering along with a back-breaking amount of luggage he doesn’t need someone to pat him on the head and tell him how wonderful he is. He needs someone who’ll offer to share the load.”

In this exchange, we see a clash of two realities. There is the “me” we want the world to see, and then there is another me that no one really ever gets to know…the me that is scared that he’s a phony, the me that wonders if anyone would really love her if they knew her secrets, the secretly lonely and anxious and ashamed me. 

What the myth of Narcissus tells us, helped by the wisdom of Thomas Merton, Susan Howatch and Terrence Real, is that narcissism describes a pattern of relating that operates out of a deep disconnection with one’s true self. The narcissist clings to this false, illusory self because he feels more in control, but like any addiction control is just an illusion. Ultimately, the narcissist has to deal with his humanity – his shame and loneliness, his terror and heartache – and if he doesn’t, he seals off any possibility of honest, vulnerable relationship.

That’s a lot of content, so maybe a story can help illustrate this. (Keep in mind that any story I tell or name I share has been changed substantially to protect the confidentiality of those involved. In truth, the stories I tell in my book are always syntheses of multiple stories.)

Rage and Shame in a Narcissistic Leader

Years ago I provided some consulting for a church in the Deep South, a historic church with a rich heritage, whose pastors faces appeared on a kind of wall of fame after their long tenures. David had been a successful church planter, but when he was pursued by First Presbyterian to be their next senior pastor, he told me about a surge within him that he hadn’t felt since he was named the starting QB in his senior year of high school. First Pres was the big leagues. He followed T. Eliot Rutherford who’d served for 16 years. The previous pastor served for 27 years before him.

By the time I started working with David and his church as a consultant, tensions were high. David was used to being an improvisational church planter, a dynamic leader who led by a deep sense of intuition often, switching up sermon series in mid-stream, sometimes even changing the whole complexion of a worship service after some Saturday night inspiration. David’s team at the church plant was hand-picked back then, a weary but loyal group of devotees. David assumed that his church planting successes would translate into a coronation at First Pres. He’d never felt more successful, admired, and complete, he told me, than in those first weeks at First Pres.

Two events interrupted David’s momentary glory.

The first was a detailed set of accusations from many of his former staff about his eccentric, addictive, bullying, and flirtatious behavior during his 7 years at Ascent Church, a church plant whose name illustrated something of their ministry vision.

The second was an early review from the longest tenured ruling elder at First Pres about the dissatisfaction with his character, disposition, and behavior during his first six months at the church.

If you’d combine the feedback from both churches, you’d notice that there an exaggerated self-appraisal and sense of being exceptional. David pretty much saw himself as gifted beyond your “ordinary” pastor.

There was also an inability to develop depth and intimacy in any relationship along with a marked lack of empathy. David surrounded himself with people, but no one felt known by him. He loved to throw around psychological terms or guess people’s Enneagram types, but had little capacity to show compassion or real concern.

If you were checking the boxes for Narcissistic Personality Disorder according to the DSM-V, you’d be pretty well there.

Grandiose – check.

Entitled – check.

Attention seeking – check.

Lack of empathy – check.

But was David really psychologically disordered, or merely a confident, self-assured, and bold leader as his church planting assessment team noted years earlier?

This is a question I often get…or should I say the “pushback” often get. Another important detail may help. 

It’s often valuable for folks to understand that narcissism isn’t a binary – it’s not a “you-have-it” or “you-don’t-have-it”. Rather, narcissism exists along a spectrum.

Imagine for a moment a line across a page. On the left, you see the word “Style.” In the middle, you see the word “Type.” And on the right, you see the word “Disorder.”

Some folks merely exhibit traits of narcissism, a characteristic or two. We say that they exhibit a Narcissistic Style. It’s like having the sniffles but not having the flu. I’ve assessed many pastors with a small elevation on the narcissistic spectrum. Most of them get along just fine in ministry when accompanied by good friends, mentors, and spiritual practices.

Moving down the line to the middle, some folks feature a more pronounced set of characteristics that may be troubling and disruptive. They exhibit what we call a Narcissistic Type. Those elevated to this level of the narcissism spectrum may not have the full-blown flu, but their symptoms are serious and can impact others significantly. But one notable difference that I’ve seen over the years is a willingness, at times, to engage the hard work of emotional and spiritual growth.

However, David checked off all the boxes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a psychological phenomenon which psychologists call “characterological” – impacting the whole of one’s character. In other words, there isn’t a quick intervention, miracle medication, or behavioral fix. Switching medical metaphors, this is like saying someone has a chronic condition, requiring a major life adjustment.  

I’d been working with the church and with David for about a month before we sat down in David’s large office, surrounded by books and commentaries, including his own release the previous year – The Dynamic Leader (not the real title but you get it). He was well-dressed and armored up, I sensed. He’d recently taken the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, a reliable test of clinical pathology. I began by telling him that I do this kind of thing a lot, and that I’m not the kind of person who lives to take down pastors. After all, I was a pastor for 15 years. I love pastors and love the work. He said, “It helps to hear that you’ve suited up for the game, too.” David loved sports metaphors.  

I shared that we had to get serious about the feedback he’d received from both churches, causing very real pain in people’s lives. And we had to get honest about him. Sensing his metaphorical bent, I used my own sports metaphor. “David, let’s imagine I’m the team doctor and we’re here to talk about a serious injury. Neither of us like the place we’re in right now, but the more honest we are about it, the sooner the recovery process can begin.”

That helped David. He took a deep breath, his eyes appearing less suspicious and more resigned as if to say, “Let me have it straight, doc.”

In my work with narcissists over the years, I’ve shifted from powering up in a posture of confrontation to coming alongside for the sake of engaging that hidden, terrified part of them. I know that they’re apt to become defensive. But I also know that my early confrontational style said a lot about my own anxiety in these situations. As my empathy and compassion has grown, so has my capacity to see each person as a human being, created in the God’s image – beautiful and yet broken.  

When you know what’s underneath, you grow in empathy, even when you know you’re working with men (and yes, sometimes women) who’ve caused harm. Narcissism, after all, is the longing to be freed from longing, and that means shame, indescribable pain often resulting from childhood abuse, bullying, and being shamed.

Doing this work also means recognizing the roller coaster of ego-inflation and ego-deflation. David road the roller coaster to its peak, experiencing the dopamine surge of glory at his installation service at First Pres, something he viewed more like a coronation. At his high point, he experienced ego-inflation, a sense of indomitability.

Now he’d descended to the bottom – ego deflation – and this moment, this fragile moment, was significant for any possibility of healing, confession, reconciliation and more.

I opened the narrative assessment provided by the testing company. David swallowed hard.

I read a few words from the assessment. I shared the findings – Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I showed him several clinical scales that mattered, as if to say, “This is the test saying this…and we’ve got to take it seriously.” And we talked about narcissism for a bit. Sensing his anxiety, even a tinge of terror, I put down the assessment and looked at David. I said to him:

            I don’t believe this is who you are at your core.

He looked down. I wasn’t sure if I’d see tears or angry indignation. It goes either way in this moment, and most of the time I get clobbered. I asked:

            David, what age were you when you first felt this empty and alone, this scared?

He was silent for so long. Maybe a minute, maybe five. I can’t recall. His head was down, and he’d rub his eyes every now and then. I wondered if he was trying to force tears back into his ducts. And the he said

            8.

I paused. You were only 8. Wow.

And then the torrential downpour. Tears came, and they came like a Category 5 storm. Within minutes I was holding him – 8 year old David – as he cried “don’t let them hurt me, don’t let them hurt me.”

David and I spent the better part of two hours together as he meticulously recounted things he’d completely forgotten about until I asked the question that evening. Bullying and sexual abuse by older neighborhood boys. A busy lawyer father who called him a sissy and told him to grow a pair when he finally got up the nerve to share his pain. A psychologically immature mother who feared her husband’s wrath and used her son as a surrogate for emotional intimacy.

I saw a little boy that evening, terrified, empty, alone, confused. He looked at me like his emotional world depended on my gracious response.

I held him in that space – fatherly, tender – like he’d never known before. When he left, I felt like I’d witnessed rebirth, death to resurrection. I wept, partly in exhaustion but mostly in pure joy in the face of radical authenticity.

These moments are rare in my work. Narcissists are like well-guarded castles, and we mostly only see the outer armament and defenses. I long to see the scared and fragile soul inside, though. I know he’s there because he lives in me, too.

Before David left, I told him that I was eager to connect again within the next two days. I was honest – this is only the beginning and there’s a lot of work to do – but I also told him that I trusted that this was a very important and promising day for him and for the church. I never give specifics like “You’ll be the pastor again in no time” because it’s unhelpful and untrue and because personality disorders don’t allow for quick fixes and microwavable outcomes. I only encourage the next brave step in trust forward.

Within the next 24 hours, two more alarming accounts of David’s abuse of power came into my inbox, along with an impatient and anxious response from a few ruling elders, who wanted closure and termination. The First Pres system was alive with anxiety. Ascent Church, too, was alive with anxiety. I felt the weight of multiple church systems, anxious leaders, exhausted and skeptical abuse victims, and my own terrified little boy inside, too, lurking just beneath my put together and professional self.

I was eager to see David and hear how he was processing this new life emerging from deep within his interior castle. I’d gathered a group of folks David had agreed to share a bit more of his story with, along with his first inklings of remorse. Of course, in these moments, I know that deep and true confession won’t come, if it ever does come, for months or more. A narcissist, by definition, is mostly incapable of empathy. But David texted me that he had some things to share, and I hoped for something sincere.

He walked in that morning in a suit. Red flag number one.

He’d never worn a suit before, even given the history of formal dress from the pulpit of First Pres.

And he didn’t make eye contact with me. Red flag number two.

My heart sank. I’d been here before. I could see a prepared document in David’s hands, which he read – without affect – once the meeting started.

The terrified little boy was gone and David had transformed into a defense lawyer, but even more his statement came with accusations towards his previous staff, his current staff, the elder board, and finally…me. I had gone from tender father to master manipulator, just a cunning psychologist who used the tools of the trade to try to exploit him and gain a confession of things he hadn’t done. That was his narrative. He’d sealed off the little boy, never to appear again. The castle defenses were high. His forces were marshalled to assault us that day, much like he’d been assaulted so many years ago.

Narcissism is the longing to be freed from longing, Lasch says. Human limitation, fragility, and weakness hurts too much.

“How long do I have to feel the ache,” David might have asked?

“As long as it takes,” I may have said.

But he wasn’t prepared to live with the ache of longing, to cope with uncertainty, to feel the sting of humiliation, to hold the reality of causing immense pain. David had been to the mountain top. He’d seen his reflection in the pool, and it was delightful. He strived only for its return.

There are more details I could tell you about how things transpired, but you’ve heard enough to understand what I call the inner life of the narcissist. I devote a good bit of time in my book to this Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon among Christian leaders, highlighting both the rage and shame at work in them, and I do it because it illustrates the complexity of the human soul, the both/and of the good boy and the bad boy, the one who is terrified and the one who terrorizes.  

Why We Follow Narcisissts

But if you’ve followed thus far, we can now explore another angle of narcissism, another level of complexity, and this one implicates us. I think you’ll find it relevant in light of what we’re seeing today in our culture and in our churches. This next angle might help you understand why some people seem to revere narcissistic leaders and might help explain why whole systems can be characterized as narcissistic.

The question I’d ask is: Why is that some people follow, promote, vote for, even idealize a heroic narcissistic leader? How is it that Christians find themselves caught up in this phenomenon, even when we follow Jesus – the image of the invisible God, the self-emptying one?

As it turns out, some of us are “ideal-hungry” followers, according to author Jerrold Post. These are people who so desperately long for the ideal image of strength in another that they’ll ignore his shadow side, and simply ignore the debris field of damage she causes. We ignore or minimize the harm and justify the heroic deeds because by leeching to the narcissist, we feel empowered, emboldened.        

For many who experience themselves as weak or incomplete, a powerful other can serve as a needed battery source. We might plug into this person for a sense of power we feel we don’t have. I’ve worked with a number of folks who served narcissistic pastors and leaders and who discovered that they experienced an empowerment they longed for under the leader, only later realizing that it wasn’t a true sense of empowerment after the leader turned on them.

One pastor within a larger church planting network revered the network leader. He’d never heard anyone preach and teach with authority like this man. When he was handpicked to work alongside him, he felt as if God has specially chosen him for something significant. Working alongside him, he started to notice minor indiscretions at first. On occasion, this network leader would feel entitled to leave a restaurant without paying or take books and items from staff offices without asking. In time, the leader’s sexual abuses of power were revealed. The man came to his defense. Later, he’d tell me that even though he knew the leader was guilty, he couldn’t imagine losing the sense of empowerment, significance, and purpose he felt when he was around him. He, the ideal hungry follower, was an addict himself, fixed on an ideal image of himself that he could only see through the lens of a narcissist.

Likewise, whole groups of people and systems can constellate around a narcissistic leader. This is more prone to happen in seasons when these groups feel particularly threatened. Groups plug into the energy, the power, the grandiosity, even the dogmatic certainty of narcissistic leaders, at times. We see this phenomenon in wide varieties of systems, from cults to political parties. Not a little bit of ink has been spilled on trying to understand why Republicans, so called values voters, chose a man many psychologists have called a malignant narcissist, a particularly severe and cruel manifestation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A possible answer ventured by some – when you feel cornered and under assault, you choose a bully to defend you.

In this case, psychological needs trump theological convictions. And sometimes our need is so great for a quick and potent defense that we, like unfaithful Israel of old, place a king on the thrown to do our bidding even after God has said time and again, I will fight for you.     

Collective Narcissism

This phenomenon is so powerful that a collective group of people or system itself may even become narcissistic, exhibiting the same features of individual narcissism. We call this collective narcissism. And the power of collective narcissism is in the energy experienced within a whole group of people, whether a political party or a sports fan base or organizational staff. Collective narcissism allows each member of the system to feel like they’re a part of something special, powerful, blessed, anointed, chosen.

Here’s a picture for you. Years ago a friend of mine called. He’d taken over a large Christian ministry and he was only a couple of months in when he began to grasp the organization’s pervasive narcissism. The original founder had long ago retired, but he knew enough to put the pieces together. The founder was a larger-than-life figure who talked often of how God had specially chosen him to do great things. By extension, each of his flock of poorly paid ministry staff were special by virtue of their connection to him. In time, a narrative grew that while other Christian organizations tried to do evangelism and mission like this ministry did, they paled in comparison. This ministry was specially anointed.

In time, the founder passed and two new CEO’s came in. My friend was the fourth CEO, a good strong leader, and a man of beautiful humility. So, it bugged him when he’d hear staff members disparaging other Christian ministries during a meeting. He began to notice small signs of collective narcissism in the organization’s Facebook posts and newsletters. One post alluded to the superiority of their discipleship resource in the marketplace of inferior resources. So, after some conversation with me, my friend began to engage some longtime staff members with empathy and curiosity around their reasons for working there.

Over and again, he’d hear story like Greta’s. She was a 50-something discipleship resource producer who’d been with the ministry for over two decades. She said that before working there, she felt empty and purposeless. She wondered if God had anything for her in the world. Almost immediately after being employed with the ministry, she described a sense of empowerment and impact she’d never before known. “You could tell the Spirit was here,” she said. My friend wondered what kind of spirit.

In fact, the surge of energy, purpose, and power one experiences within collective narcissism is profound. For Greta, this had become her tribe, her team. Her car was covered in stickers representing the ministry. She and her colleagues experienced a unique sense of belonging to the ministry and to one another. And whenever another ministry would come up, they’d experience a collective sense of condescension and judgment. Collective narcissism, you might say, is another term for idolatry.

I also saw collective narcissism in a 60-something member church in Iowa sometime ago. In this case, the church didn’t experience the grandiosity of the previous ministry. They actually celebrated their smallness. God’s blessing was upon them, they reckoned, precisely because they hadn’t succumbed to culture like all of those other churches with their big stages and bands and church staffs. As one elder said, they were the “true church,” spoken in his Dutch brogue. He went on to tell me precisely why each church in his small town was inferior, and how the spirit had departed from them. This, too, is collective narcissism, although packaged in a more subtle form. And this, too, is idolatry.  

Collective narcissism. As you see, it’s complicated, because while there may be truth in the statement that God is doing really big things through your church, that statement itself may also be a red flag for narcissistic tendencies. And while there may be truth in the statement that you’ve been following Jesus faithfully as other churches have veered away, you might also be self-deceived. And this raises the question: How do we know? And if we do know, what do we do?

Final Observations

I don’t have a whole lot of time left to help you think through this. This is often the kind of stuff that needs to be teased out on a case by case basis. But, allow me to turn the corner into the homestretch by concluding with some observations, some things to consider as you wrestle with the reality of narcissism in our churches, in our pastors, in our leaders, even invisibly hidden in the forces that animate our allegiances to team or party or nation.

A first observation: This ain’t new. People often ask: is narcissism a new phenomenon in the church? My answer: It’s not new, but it is evolving. With each new generation, we get a new twist, a new flavor.

Think about this: At the core of narcissism is an idealized sense of who we could be, and it’s always more grandiose than who we really are. And so, I think I could make an argument that when in the 4th century Constantine saw the sign of the Cross with the words, “In this sign you shall conquer,” the church didn’t hesitate for a minute to plug into the battery source of the Empire because it saw in that reflective pool an image of itself as powerful, strong, rich, influential, and unstoppable. The narcissism story of the church, ever since, is interwoven in the stories of power-addicted popes, prelates and priests. It animates colonialism, white supremacy, and nationalistic exceptionalism. It’s seen in concrete examples, like systemic sexual abuse within the Catholic church, prosperity Gospel charlatans, even in a New Calvinism that can’t seem to shake church planting scandals.

But here is a bit of hope even amidst the observation that narcissism in the church isn’t new.  Within this story are smaller stories of constant reforms, prophetic invitations to return to the humble way of Jesus. St. Francis and St. Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther and St. Terese of Lisieux, Howard Thurman and Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Elizabeth O’Connor. Each of these saints pointed away from themselves toward Jesus and toward a more generous Gospel. God never fails to remind us of the way of faithfulness, often through brave prophets who don’t care much for success, power, or relevance.  

And that leads to a second observation: Whether for an individual who is narcissistic or a local church that exhibits collective narcissism or, even more, the evangelical church in the United States, I don’t see a way forward apart from an honest reckoning with the depth of our sin and its impact on others. But this is going to require us to wake up.

I’m afraid that we’ve been swimming in the waters of narcissism for so long that we’re asleep, unaware of it. We don’t know a different game. We continue to elevate narcissistic church planters, network leaders, institutional leaders, even calling some apostolic. Even after significant disclosures of infidelity, financial abuse, gaslighting and abuse, and more, I’ve seen popular pastors evade real accountability and remake their ministries in another form, with great success. And again, we don’t have to go beyond our Reformed family to find these stories in significant numbers.  

And here is my fear. Because the American church, and particularly the white church, is in a season of profound disorientation, disillusionment, and decline, I wonder how bad it will need to get for us to once-and-for-all cry out in repentance that we’ve elevated leaders that, as Isaiah says in ch 30, “prophesied illusions, benefited from oppression, and depended on deceit.” I wonder if and when we’ll be courageous enough to include ourselves among those who benefited from oppression and depended on deceit. Yes, that’s a fear I have for myself, too, because it’s easier to write a book and point the finger than indict myself in this.

And so, as I say to clinical clients, the work is ahead of us, it will be slow going, it will require radical honesty with ourselves and radical humility before those who we’ve hurt and offended.

A final observation – if narcissism involves the evasion of human limitations, fragility, even ordinariness, then part of our repentance may be surrendering the expectations and language of grandiosity.  

Here’s what I mean: If winning is our bottom line, then by all means raise up narcissistic leaders. Ordain them. Elect them.

But if we’re really interested in forming people in the image and likeness of Jesus, in the cruciform way, then we’ve got to talk about what we define as success and failure, growth and decline, effective and ineffective, extraordinary and ordinary, progress and limitation.

Because I was a pastor for 15 years, I might just offer this – pastors are collapsing under the weight of expectations and definitions of success, influence, power, relevance, and winning. They’re exhausted. I spoke to a pastor who planted a church that worships at 150 people who is literally crushed under the weight of his own shame for not being more successful. His church is 5 or 10 times the size of most 1st century house churches, but by the metrics of American church planting, he’s a failure, or so he thinks. His evidence – he’s not invited to write the books or speak at conferences. He’s not a social media influencer who is followed because he’s somehow figured out the secret sauce of gathering 1000 people. And he knows it.

But the thing is – he’s a pastor. He sits with the dying. He prays with the hopeless. He weeps with those who weep and laughs with those who laugh. He’s just very ordinary, which isn’t good enough when we’re trying to make things great.

Can ordinary be enough? I love Brene Brown’s reflection. She says, “Narcissism is the shame-based fear of being ordinary.” Isn’t that so helpful? We’re so scared of being ordinary these days. We need to be the greatest country with the greatest military. Where did that come from? Is that from the Sermon on the Mount? We need to have the most effective ministry with the largest attendance. Did I read that in Acts? We are so addicted to the great that we’ve lost sight of the good – the ordinary, even upside-down vision of flourishing Jesus us to catch in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the ptochos, he begins…those who’ve come to the end of themselves. Jesus meets us in our fragility. Maybe it’s time to relinquish our Zealotry and follow Jesus along the narrow and humble way.

I’ll close with this. We’re living amidst a pandemic, to be sure. But the invisible virus I’m speaking of is narcissism in the church. Henri Nouwen said years ago, “The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.” I’d like to invite us to engage a season of sincere self-reflection, not just about the narcissistic leader over there, but about ourselves.

What will it take to reckon with narcissism not just as a psychological feature of a disordered person, but as a spiritual crisis in our church, in our nation?

How will this animate how we confess our sin, how we shape pastoral job descriptions and evaluate churches, how we understand success and failure in every area of our lives? And how might we be invited to follow Jesus in new, fresh, and much more humble ways into the future?

I’m grateful to Calvin University for this opportunity to share some of my reflections, and even some of my hard questions, today.

Thank you.

Some excerpts are from my March 2020 release via Intervarsity Press below:

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