Rediscovering Nouwen | On Power and Intimacy

I’m continuing to reflect on Henri Nouwen’s 1972 book The Wounded Healer. Now 46 years later, it’s as important as ever to wrestle with Nouwen’s invitation, particularly when it seems that our political and ecclesial leaders operate more from a posture of power rather than intimacy, particularly as we see our own propensity to live from places of self-protection and power rather than vulnerability.

I’ve read a bunch of biographies of Nouwen over the years and I’m struck by how transparent he was about his woundedness, his neediness. His deeply subjective and experiential spirituality irked clerical authorities as well as colleagues at Yale and Harvard, even as his Catholicism remained quite conservative and as he resisted controversial subjects. His fragility rattled new friends who expected him to be the solid, stable sage. His neediness impacted close friendships, some of which were ruptured. And yet, his autobiographical and self-disclosing style was far from narcissistic. His writings are so popular, even today, because he names our secrets, he reveals our fragility, he exposes our brokenness. We see our stories in his.

It’s striking to me that Nouwen was tenured at Yale although he never finished his PhD! We strategize to rise through the ranks. We edit resumes to highlight our successes. We compile degrees and credentials and titles and achievements. When we do attain power, we’re careful to protect it. With power, it becomes even more important to hide our secret compulsions, our simmering anxiety, our burdening needs for approval and affection and belonging. Nouwen was invited into spaces not because he had the degrees but because he put words to our deep longings.

In another book, Nouwen muses on Christian leadership, writing:

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.  Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints. One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.[i]

Nouwen believed that the temptation to power, to success, and to relevance was greatest in those most out of touch with their own humanness – their needs for intimacy and connection, their fragility and fears. He believed that those most out-of-touch with their own stories would be most likely to project their psychic trauma onto others.

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Henri Nouwen

As we examine ourselves, it’s important ask: Why do we pursue power? What deeper needs are we attempting to meet through its attainment? Why do we crave position? Achievement? Success? Is there a deeper ache we’re neglecting to notice?  Indeed, testimonies of life-crises among those who’ve attained it only to discover an inner emptiness and lack of satisfaction ought to remind us that there is so much more available, if only we’d allow ourselves to be seen and known. The masquerade is exhausting. Show your true face, and be free.

[i] Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad, 1989), 60.

Becoming a Wounded Healer

“The great illusion of leadership is to think that one can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” Henri Nouwen

I’ve been re-visiting an old friend recently – Henri Nouwen – who is easily in my Top 5 most formative modern spiritual writers. The lanky Dutchman was a complicated man, a priest whose congregation was everyone, a psychologist whose greatest riddle was himself, a giver who could hardly get out of his own way, an outsider whose popular writings were ridiculed by his academic colleagues, and a prophet whose theo-autobiographical style connected with the masses.

I’ve seen myself in Nouwen, at times. He could be both compelling and awkward, dynamic and insecure, manic and depressed, spirit-filled and empty. His paradoxical life isn’t one we necessarily aspire to – after all, who wants to wrestle with the deep anguish of self-rejection, as one biographer calls his “primal wound”? It’s his honesty we aspire to. It’s a canon of writings that might be rightly called The Confessions of Henri Nouwen. 

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because fragility is weakness. I’ve long resented my own fragility.

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because loneliness is a sign of relational awkwardness. How often have I been lonely and not reached out?

It’s the life we’re not allowed to live, because trained priest-psychologists are supposed to have it all together. Place a check there, too.

It’s a life of a wounded healer, as Nouwen called it, a life in which our loneliness and fragility, awkwardness and anxiety, shame and insecurity, are not always hidden. To be sure, we’ll try to mask it. But those who know us best see right through us. And, paradoxically, when we risk being seen, we find that our presence is a gift. Others feel like a space is created for their own fear and awkwardness. Others find freedom in our spacious presence.

I’m drawn to Nouwen because he brought his wounds into the light to be healed. Somehow, he lived something I often only proclaim but fear living – that to be known intimately by another, to risk vulnerability, is to encounter the possibility of healing. I continue to crave the respect of academic colleagues, so I play the part as well as I can. I continue to crave the affirmation of ministry peers, so I play the part as well as I can. Nouwen seems so wounded that, in one sense, he couldn’t really get out of his own way. And yet, his great ‘genius’ is his radical, intentional engagement with the text of his own life. He was a master exegete of his own story.

He is a ‘wounded healer’ precisely because he brings his wounds into the light. Image result for the wounded healerOften, those who are wounded remain unhealed. Many become ‘victimizing victims’, not wounded healers. We hide, we numb, we settle, we avoid. The gift of Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer is its prophetic call to do the hard work of healing, to engage our own stories, to acknowledge our repressed needs, to name our deepest longings. This is a huge risk, especially for pastors. Congregations want the Put-Together-Pastor, not the wounded healer.

And yet, I’m more and more convinced that if we refuse to do the work, if we refuse to engage the pain of our own stories, we become wounded wounders. The plague of the narcissism, as I’ve written about, emerges when we’re disconnected from ourselves, from our longings. It’s ironic, because a condition which appears most self-centered is actually a condition of radical self-disconnection manifesting in a person utterly out of touch with his own needs, his own longings, his own story.

What if pastors were wounded healers whose stories were the fertile soil for connection with lonely, addicted, insecure congregations?

What if we lived so freely that confessions of our fear and loneliness were welcomed, even easy to offer?

My plan in the coming weeks is to reflect further on what it means to be a wounded healer on the heels of the year 2020, two decades (if you can believe it) into the new millennium. Nouwen’s 1979 book was a gift, but it was written 40 years ago. What might Nouwen have to say to us today? Let’s explore this together in coming posts…

 

The Lost Pastor

I got the call again a few nights ago. It’s the same call I get quite often, often by anxious pastoral colleagues or overwhelmed elders or frazzled denominational executives. It’s a call I get amidst a pastoral crisis, and it arrives with a familiar cadence and pattern which goes something like this:

“Hey Chuck, I have a tough situation with Pastor so-and-so…we’ve recently discovered a pattern of so-and-so…we’ve only had an initial conversation but need help determining so-and so….and we need your help exploring our next steps.” 

Pastor so-and-so passed his ordination exams with flying colors. He can quote Barth and Bavinck. He’s got a “hot take” on cultural issues on social media. He’s a conversationalist who is the last to leave church on Sunday morning. By most measures, he’s a “success.” But (in truth) he’s a burning cauldron of neglected needs that manifest in sneaky and secretive behaviors which will likely cost him his pastoral ministry and maybe his family.

He’s the lost pastor. He’s lost in this sense – he’s lonely and busy and empty and radically disconnected from any kind of inner conversation with himself, with his heart, with the God who is more near to him than his very breath. As the 17th c. Presbyterian clergyman John Flavel wrote in Keeping the Heart, “There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.”

Something akin to what I’m speaking of is narrated wonderfully in Susan Howatch’s great novel, Glittering Images. In the novel, Charles Ashworth is a conflicted Anglican priest and canon who meets with Jon Darrow, a spiritual director who confronts his false self, what he calls his “glittering image,” that public persona who plays the part all-the-while neglecting a deeper, inner conversation.

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As his spiritual director, Darrow does something remarkable. He speaks directly to the “glittering” part of Ashworth, saying, “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’?” Darrow responds.

“The glittering image.”

“Ah yes,” says 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.

Darrow asks, “Why not?”

In a moment of stunning self-clarity, Ashworth says, “You wouldn’t like or approve of him.”

With gentleness and honesty, Darrow responds, “Charles, 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.”[i]

The back-and-forth between Darrow and Ashworth is quite remarkable. The lost pastor can make it a long way on the fuel of the false self. He may be successful, influential, endearing, charming, smart. But beneath the veneer is a man (or a woman) deeply afraid, lost and lonely, a cauldron of unmet and neglected needs. There is a story that has never been explored, pain never acknowledged, violations of others unconfessed.

Take Jim. He was a top seminary student and a star church planter who had just published his second book when his ‘sexts’ were discovered by his wife. He chalked it up to a foolish one-time mistake before years of porn were discovered on his laptop, and before several women came forward to describe their encounters with him. Jim thought getting counseling was silly. He reported a healthy family-of-origin, loving parents, a loving spouse. His sexual exploits were characterized as an “attack by the evil one,” which elicited empathy from his spouse and elder board, convinced that he was a special target of Satan because of his fruitfulness as a pastor.

But soon enough, we discovered little Jim, the eight year old version of himself, constant caretaker of his mother’s emotional needs and perpetually anxious about his father’s long business trips and secrecy about his work life. In the vacuum of truth, little Jim languished in loneliness and confusion until the age of 13 when, on a rainy April day, his father called to say he’d be staying in Brazil with his lover. Jim quickly became the surrogate father to his siblings and surrogate spouse to his mother. But a budding rage and resentment grew in him toward her. He felt simultaneously responsible for her and controlled by her. In the meantime, he fantasized about his father’s exploits around the world. While he chose the path of the responsible good boy, he hid a shadow self burdened by shame, rage, and loneliness.

Fast-forward to Jim’s mid-30’s, where his wife is mothering two children under 3, where their emotional disconnection is unaddressed, where Jim holds within storehouses of unmet emotional needs. The unaddressed resentment toward his mother transforms into fantasies of submission among the women he ‘sexts’ and the scenes he views online, many of which portray women meeting the sexual needs of men at their own expense. In his fantasy world, he is as free as his father while remaining the dutiful church planter and husband in real-time. Unwittingly, Jim plays out his unaddressed story of trauma in a way that gives him some sense of control over his chaotic interior life, but in a way that abuses and harms women, sabotages his own marriage and ministry, and violates the sacred trust of his ministerial office.

There are many lost pastors today, some of whom lead large churches or ministries, exert influence, have platforms, write books, and use their privileged role to gain intimacy and trust. Indeed, I now assume most pastors I meet are more lost than they realize. This has been confirmed in twenty years of pastoring, counseling, consulting and training pastors in different denominations. We know that pastors have stunning rates of narcissism and porn usage. We know that many fear that their shadow side will destroy their ministry, so they become adept at hiding.

I’d prefer to not cast a wide umbrella of suspicion on all pastors, but there are realities we cannot avoid anymore. So, we need to talk. Sin-and-lust management strategies don’t work. Self-help strategies are bandaids on soul wounds. Until we risk telling our stories, moving from the shadows to the light, the unaddressed dramas within will continue to wield unconscious control over us. I recommend 3 pathways:

Develop Transparent Relationships – Pastors need safe relationships where they can open up, specifically and transparently, to another. This is something more than an “accountability partner.” It’s not about reporting in, but about being known. One pastor I know gathers with two other men weekly for an hour-and-a-half in the home of one of the pastors, and they take time to disclose struggles from the week. But even more, they try to dig down on these struggles – what patterns do they reveal or what needs are illuminated or what sadness opened up? This can be terribly frightening for pastors who’ve lived with strategies of secrecy and hiding for some time. To be seen and known is to risk feeling shame, as exposing the shadow-side of ourselves can be excruciating. Safe relationships can be found in honest friendships, but I encourage pastors to find a wise therapist, one who is curious about the part of you no one else sees.

Increase Your Self-Awareness – Addictions plague us when we’re not present to ourselves, to God, and to others. We must engage in practices which wake us up to the present moment, to God, to our breath, to our bodies, to creation, to those around us. Many pastors are too busy. Life feels like a hamster wheel they cannot get off. Awareness – real presence to self, to God, to others – feels like a luxury they cannot afford. And yet, these same pastors will confess experiencing anxiety, panic, dread, and health-related problems which are the by-products of unaware, inattentive lives. Like a church planter who came to me with symptoms of panic attacks experienced during the preview services for the new plant. He wanted a quick fix, of course. But we discovered that he was a stranger to his own body, unaware of the anxiety, the pent up anger within, the trauma of an early failure in ministry. I recommended Contemplative and meditative practices, which are essential for spiritual wholeness, but are also remarkably helpful for physical and psychological health, too. He began exercising and doing yoga. He was amazed by how quickly his anxiety dissipated and how deeply interconnected his body and emotions are.

Tell Your Story – We must recognize that we are unconsciously replaying our unprocessed dramas in the present in ways that harm us and others. We need to explore our stories. As we connect the dots of our story, we recognize that in replaying our old dramas, we sabotage ourselves, our relationships, and our work. When I work with pastors who begin to connect these dots, they often discover that they’ve been enslaved to old relational patterns and childhood wounds. One pastor discovered that she felt 12 years old when she showed up to meetings with her leadership team. The feeling of being small and ashamed emerged years before when her Dad would have executives over to their home for “Scotch-and-Poker” nights. This pastor recalled how the men treated her – a traumatic combination of sexualization, demands for her to fill drinks, humiliation, dismissiveness, and crude humor at her expense. She realized that sitting around a leadership table with elders from various backgrounds, including executives and business people, was a major trigger for her. While the prospect of engaging these things can be daunting, many who do the work realize a freedom internally and in their relationships that brings new hope and joy to life.

Developing transparent relationships, increasing our self-awareness, and telling our stories are three initial ways we can experience healing and hope.

Like the prodigal son and the elder brother lost in their own strategies of enslavement, there is the promise of homecoming for the lost pastor, the promise of being known. God who is both father and mother longs to embrace us, longs for us to flourish. We need not live under the burden any longer.

In fact, as a former pastor myself and as one who has been lost time and again, I long to say to every pastor what Darrow says to Ashworth, “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.”

There is life beyond the burden. It may require some intentional steps for us to engage in a process of opening ourselves to God and others, but on the other side is a life and freedom each of us longs for.

___________

[i] Susan Howatch, Glittering Images (New York: Ballantine, 1987), 224.

 

BETRAYED BY THOSE WHO WE THOUGHT ‘GOT IT’ – NARCISSISM AMONG THE “ENLIGHTENED”

Years ago during the Vietnam protests, researchers studied the level of consciousness and self-awareness of those engaged in protests. The assumption was that the protestors engaged this work out of a larger consciousness, a true love for justice, a global worldview, a sense of compassion. What they found was that the large majority were still highly egocentric, “pre-conventional” as some call it, and invested in the cause from a place of self-interest. In other words, their efforts were narcissistic.

Ken Wilber’s investigation into this phenomenon in Boomeritis and later in A Theory of Everything demonstrates how central egocentricity is in narcissistic people and movements, even those that appear more just, compassionate, even “right”! Wilber’s turn-of-the-millennium critique (which equally ticks off progressives and fundamentalists) targets the shadow side of their supposed enlightenment, and it was remarkably prophetic. As he argues today, the election of 2016 was, in part, an evolutionary corrective to the egocentricity of the enlightened. Hillary’s “deplorable” comment is the best example of it. He points to an inclusionary movement which contradicted itself in its often harsh, polarized practices. While we thought we were progressing toward justice and inclusion, in truth we hadn’t yet worked out our collective developmental shit (my translation). We have more growing up to do, individually and collectively.

While Wilber’s cultural reflections are helpful for our larger political conversation, I receive his insights as valuable for the church. I sometimes hear – “He preached so beautifully. His vision of the Gospel was so rich. I felt God’s love through his presence. How could he betray me?” Or I may hear, “He’s such a courageous warrior for justice. His story is so compelling. And yet he is so manipulative. Why?” What is important here is that Wilber frames this conversation developmentally. Again, if we haven’t worked out our developmental growth (our shit, as I translated it earlier), we’re prone to engage in higher level, important conversations from a lower level of consciousness and self-awareness. And that’s when the damage is done.

Consider a church planter whose vision, personality and story were compelling. I knew him as someone who seemed moderately self-aware. And yet, a year into his plant, his egocentricity began to show in technicolor. As the Seventh Day Adventist church they rented swelled to overflowing in time, so did his ego. You wouldn’t see it on Sunday mornings or during a visit over coffee. But it came out in cruel emotional abuse of his wife, condescension toward his mostly-volunteer staff, and inordinate spending of their limited budget. Confronted with these things, a healthy pastor would lean toward curiosity and humility. But he reacted in rage. For so many in the congregation who would be told the church plant was being shut down by the governing body above it, there was confusion. Some said that they’d never heard the love of Jesus preached more clearly, more powerfully.

Consider the young social justice warrior who appeared to be the only one speaking for a marginalized group. Seemingly brave in social media spaces and in his local contexts, he argued in ways that made you think, “If I’m not with him, I must be a terrible human being.” His pleas for justice appealed to God’s compassion and mercy, and he knew his Bible well. And yet, those closest to him, even trusted allies, began to wonder about his integrity. He’d lie, engage in manipulative self-pity, and make up stories of pain to raise money for the cause. When he was found out, he’d go ‘scorched earth’ on his previous community, leave town, and start again. Those he left behind, especially the marginalized group he befriended, wondered how he could so quickly abandon them.

Sometimes people mistake narcissism as an inordinate focus on the self. In fact, narcissism is seen in people who lack any self-awareness. The (false) self they inflict on the world is not a self they know or are aware of. In our early, pre-conventional developmental states, we simply act, without awareness, and often from a guttural urge or when blended with some tribal consciousness. In other words, we speak and act unaware. As the myth of Narcissus shows us, Narcissus was not connected with his (true) self, but an image beyond himself, ever-illusive, uncontrollable, and ultimately enslaving.

In 25 years of ministry (with two stints as a “Pastor of Spiritual Formation” in Reformed contexts), what I see so often in pastors is a profound lack of healthy self-awareness, what many throughout the centuries have called “knowledge of self.” Calvin’s doctrine of double-knowledge may not have been sophisticated psychologically, but it bears the honest self-reflection of his theological mentor, St. Augustine, whose Confessions represent to us an early example of pastoral wisdom. As my counseling professor in seminary might say, “Learn to tell your story well…and honestly.” Honest self-examination allowed 19th century London preacher Charles Spurgeon to confess to his congregants that he couldn’t preach as often as he’d like because of his depression. Honest self-examination led pastor Richard Baxter (author of The Reformed Pastor) to write a tome called The Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance. Or the 17th c. Presbyterian clergyman John Flavel to write in Keeping the Heart, “There are some men and women who have lived forty or fifty years in the world and have had scarcely one hour’s discourse with their hearts all the while.”

Enlightenment, as it turns out, isn’t about getting it. Perhaps, in the end it’s about not getting it. I see many pastors who can turn a phrase, cast a vision, or please a crowd. I’m looking for women and men who are humble, who follow in the way of a suffering servant. Today, we need disciples of Jesus, women and men who go on a journey of self-knowledge which, paradoxically, is a journey of self-denial, because who would not want to cast off their egocentric self to become truly human?

A quick story to end this piece…

When I was in Orlando, a student who most didn’t think had promise made his way from Orlando to Montana (I’m changing some details here, of course), to take a small, frustrating congregation. It was the only job he could get. He packed his family of five into their beat-up Ford Windstar and headed Northwest, hopeful to find some extra income to supplement the pittance he was offered. By day, he pastored. By night, he packaged eggs in a factory. He buried, he married, he baptized. And five years later, when several legends of the seminary were dealing with charges of adultery or pornography or theft, he was still pastoring. And ten years later, when his peers had left ministry to sell insurance, when the star of his class had to resign in disgrace, he was still preaching, and teaching, and baptizing, and packaging eggs.

He’s still there. Loving and leading, baptizing and burying, laughing and crying with his beautiful and broken people.

Eugene Peterson calls this a long obedience in the same direction. He stumbled in Greek class. He couldn’t keep up when we’d engage fast-paced, heated theological debates. And, he’s not at all concerned about social media, which kind of ticks me off…because to make my point, I’d like to link you to his church. But, that would be self-serving, of course – a monument to egocentricity, the ministerial idol of our age, the developmental roadblock which both confuses and terrorizes. I swim in these dangerous waters too. Lord, have mercy.

Noverim me. Noverim te. 

Those are the words of Augustine.

Let me know myself. Let me know you.

Let it be.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Too far to fall: The pastor’s worst fear – Failure

Failure. It’s a f-word of pastoral ministry. It’s the worst fear, the deepest dread. “I’d rather be diagnosed with a fatal disease than fail,” one candidate wrote on his psychological assessment. “Failure – that’s just too far to fall,” said another.

I was fired in 2003. It was my greatest vocational humiliation. After serving a church for six years, I was invited into a brief elder meeting after teaching my regular Sunday adult course and told that reconciliation and relationship with the lead pastor would be impossible, that my termination was the only recourse. Sara found out as I walked through the front door of our home in tears. Our two babies were there. We’d recently put a deposit on a new home build. There was no goodbye, no thank you. I was not even allowed to keep my own Rembrandt painting – The Return of the Prodigal Son – the one Sara had gifted me after framing it. The prodigal wasn’t being asked to consider a return, I suppose.

It took years to reconcile this – to forgive, to bless that church, its pastor, and the leaders I’d grown to trust and love. But the sting of failure and rejection stayed with me for a long time. I had failed. At least, that’s how I narrated it. It was my worst fear as a pastor. Perhaps, even more bitter for this tender Enneagram 4 was that I felt utterly misunderstood. The short blurb in next Sunday’s program didn’t acknowledge the tears I’d cried for people in that place, the above-and-beyond care I offered, the new initiatives I started, the relationships we forged, the promises not delivered. Never before for me had rage and shame kissed in this way. Image result for shame

Failure.

It’s 15 years later, and the sadness still lingers. Each time a pastoral candidate answers my question “What is the worst thing that can happen to you in ministry?” on a psychological assessment, I hear my own voice in their responses. I hear the terror of potential failure. One pastoral candidate said, “I can never imagine it and I’d never recover from it.” Another said, “It would be so humiliating letting down myself, my extended family, my church.” Still another said that the question provoked so much anxiety that answering it was impossible.

In those days after, I wondered if we would make it. I vacillated between rage and self-contempt. I dreamed of payback. I felt the sting of my Presbytery’s silence in the face of what I considered an injustice. I scrambled to launch a counseling practice, hoping that I’d be able to pay the bills before our severance was done. I had little trust that the God I called sovereign and loving and gracious could hold all of this. My contemplative practices died on that day I was fired, replaced by frantic efforts to do the job God had failed to do for me.

I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside. (from Psalm 73, NLT). 

It’s 15 years later. Another young pastor asked for a Skype call this week, and as we talked he said something I hear quite often, “How have you managed to “make it” unscathed in ministry? Everything you do I want to do.” Honestly, I’m not sure who I’d be today without it. What if that first call was a “big win,” in which I was celebrated and sent? What if I wasn’t thrust into a dark night where my smaller box for God was exploded? With what credibility could I have written Finding God in the Wilderness Places (Leaving Egypt)? Would I have gotten the therapy I needed? Been called out on my own stuff?

What if I didn’t fail?

Richard Rohr titled a book Everything Belongs. I turn 48 in a few short days, and while I thought I’d have things figured out at 40, I now know that 50 will not likely deliver either. I do sense that it all belongs, though. Each detour on the journey was beyond my control or prediction. My girls have endured two cross-country moves and seven different houses. I’ve shifted denominations. I’ve been given tremendous opportunities to be at the forefront of new initiatives. I’ve faced shadow sides of me that frightened me.  I’ve chosen to make some unorthodox moves that I sensed would grow me – risks I’m not sure I would have taken without failure.

I titled a little Lent devotional I wrote a couple of years ago Falling Into Goodness. It was my way of theologically reconciling what I’d come to terms with emotionally. God wasn’t at the top of the ladder but in the dust. Jesus wasn’t waiting on the altar with an award, but embracing me as I wept and wept and wept. When I went to places of self-sabotage, I felt a mysterious presence. When I succeeded, I felt gratitude and a decent dose of humility, knowing that I’d fallen so far. As Augustine might put it, “God was more near to me than I was to myself” all along. Or as the father said to the older brother, “Everything I have is yours.” Just breathe. Just relax into the arms of Goodness.

I got a text from a student yesterday who is scared to fail. I wondered how to respond. I thought – maybe experience is our only teacher. I wanted to say something wise, even proverbial. And then, I knew. I had only the words of one deeply acquainted with suffering, a saint of the dust, Lady Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

The myth of Narcissus and the hope of Redemption

The little boy is terrified. Everyone is looking to him to lead, and he’s not sure he can. Tears well up as he folds his arms and starts rocking. Everyone is looking at me. His heart races. His jaw clenches. I hope I don’t pass out. His face burns with a fire that reaches up through his chest and wraps itself around his head, squeezing. I can’t do it. I can’t. I’m too scared.

And then in an instant he declares, “Welcome friends!” as the congregation stands, eager for his leading. Everyone is looking at me, and it feels so good. His heart races. Adrenaline releases like lightning through his tense body. The little boy fades as he commands the stage. “God is good, isn’t he?!” he exclaims. They love me.

The little boy or little girl lurks within each of us. Our fears lurk within. Our shame lurks within. A sense of deficiency lurks within. If we are relatively healthy, we befriend our fear, our shame, and our deficiency, becoming an integrated person. If not, we flee from these emotions like threatening strangers, living instead from a contingent self, polished and put together, disconnected from our core, true self where God dwells. But while this contingent self feels the momentary bliss in its detachment from the inner storm, it is in truth not free at all but stuck on never-ending hamster wheel, acting out the same script day after day.

The myth of Narcissus tells the story well. While the story is often told as a tale of excessive self-love, it is precisely self-love – a healthy self-love – that Narcissus was lacking. It is instead a story of being stuck, immobilized, fixed in a death-dance. In his youth he ran free, hunting in the forest, loved and desired by young women. But he would let no one touch his heart. Such is the wound of shame. One who is ashamed cannot connect. He is untouchable.

Narcissus finds himself thirsty one day and makes his way to a clear pool for a cold drink. It is in the water that he sees his reflection, an image so striking that he reaches in to embrace it. But the image is lost when the water is disrupted, as it is with each future effort, leaving Narcissus all the more desperate. Immobilized, he pines for the image which will never return his love, eventually succumbing to the neglect of his basic needs.

Terrence Real articulates the tale’s meaning well when 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 becomes dependent on his image. He is trapped in a vicious narcissistic feedback loop. The name Narcissus comes from the Greek narc, which means numbness, a kind of stupor. It is the sting of addiction Narcissus experiences.

Image result for narcissus flower

Healthy self-love would have motivated him to befriend every wounded and weary part of himself. Self-contempt motivated him to search in vain for what he thought he needed to live, only to die from neglect of what he really needed. But even this story is not without hope, for out of the death of Narcissus emerges a flower. Everyone is capable of a redemption story, and every redemptive story of a narcissist is a story of death to resurrection, death to ego-centricity and resurrection into vulnerable intimacy with God and neighbor. Perhaps this was the story of King David and St. Paul?

In one sense, narcissism is an addiction to self – not our True Self, hidden with Christ in God, but a grandiose, entitled, part of us that takes over like a rogue sailor who declares mutiny. One who is diagnosably narcissistic is out-of-touch with their deepest core, inaccessible, immobilized, incapable of real intimacy. They inflict pain on those closest to them because they cannot love, because they are not living in Love.

But I learned a long, long time ago not to forget that God is in the business of redemption stories. Even after multiple toxic experiences with narcissistic men that left me angry, cynical, and at times plotting creative plans of payback and revenge, something in me refused to let the story of judgment overcome the Story of Hope. In twenty years, I’ve had narcissistic clients and parishioners (particularly angry husbands who blamed me for enlightening their wives to abuse) rage on me, stalk me, threaten to sue me, send me threatening letters, have their lawyers send me letters, subpoena my files, threaten my employment, attack my reputation, spread false rumors, and more. But to do this work, you’ve got to be able to see beyond the proud, manipulative, and grandiose false self to what Buechner calls “the original, shimmering self…buried so deep.”

The Dutch Jew murdered at Auschwitz, Etty Hillesum, gives me the capacity to hope even when I’ve lost it. From the cozy confines of my clinical office, replete with all of my privilege, I can sit back and judge, I can label, I can decide who is worthy of hope and who isn’t. Etty Hillesum, however, had no such privilege. Her captors and would-be murderers were her enemies, and yet her own deep union with God and newfound intimacy with Jesus did not allow her to write anyone out of the Story. These words from her breathtaking journals pierce me every time I read them:

Like us, they too, are bearers of the Divine image however deeply marred and buried it may be, and so they are people to whom we belong. To remove from the mind the label of ‘enemy’ is like removing the blinds from a window and letting the light in. If you will not hate them, then you may begin to see them.

I can think of few narcissistic debris fields more ugly than that of Hitler and his henchmen. I’ve seen so much debris in my years, so much abuse, so much hopelessness, that sometimes my own soul chooses cynicism and despair over hope and love.

But there is a larger Story, and a prodigious God who seems hell-bent on a revolution of Love. I participate in this redemption story in fits-and-starts, because my own spirit bears wounds. Yet, the reminder is that I, too, am Narcissus, stuck in a much smaller story, narrowly focused on what I can control rather than open to the Mystery of Love. As Rilke says, I must be defeated by continually greater things.

Perhaps the redemption story must begin with my death. Maybe I must plunge into the pool of water, and be raised again. Then, maybe I will have the eyes to see what Etty saw, “bearers of the Divine image and people to whom we belong.”

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

When Narcissism Comes to…Church Doctrine (Part 1 – Introduction)

(v. 2)

Narcissism is not merely a psychological phenomenon. It’s a theological one, too. It concerns how we speak of and participate in God’s life. In the coming blog posts, I’m going to highlight how this impacts key doctrines and themes that are often used and abused by narcissists, especially narcissistic pastors, for the sake of their self-protective strategies. This in turn leads to what I often call the “narcissistic debris field” in churches and among Christians who once trusted their unassailable leader, but now question faith and wonder about God’s goodness.

I may not get to everything I’d like to get to, and I want to save some of this as further content for the book I’m writing (When Narcissism Comes to Church). But I’d love to hear how you resonate with the themes I present. How have you seen this play out? What are ways you’ve seen theology used and abused? Offer your thoughts in the comments section or via email.

This is not intended as a criticism of any particular doctrine – that would make for a much longer essay, and one I may not be qualified to write. It is to ask the questions: how do our psychological needs lead us into particular doctrinal stances? How do our self-protective strategies prompt us to re-frame doctrines? How might we become more reflective about our theology, not less, in pursuit of psychological health?

So, let’s first summarize the biggies, and I’ll go into more detail as I can in the next few weeks.

A theology of sin – It may be ironic that pastors, churches and denominations that claim “a high doctrine of sin” often protect, hide, and defend the sinner. I may see this more because of my familiarity with and work within Reformed contexts, but I’ve never seen a high doctrine of sin jettisoned more quickly than when a narcissistic pastor’s reputation is on the line. Sure, the doctrine comes in handy when the elders are tracking down folks having premarital sex or preparing their statements on homosexuality. But quite miraculously, the get-out-of-jail Grace Card seems readily available to the charismatic, grandiose, and inspiring leader who…well…probably just had a bad day. More often than not, I see sin reduced to bad behavior/actions. Sin is something he did wrong (but, of course, he repented and all is well…more on that to come). They do not see sin as a complex matrix of motivations, attitudes, and actions which are rooted in hiding, self-protection and self-preservation (Gen. 3), requiring a deep commitment to self-understanding over a long period of time. They do not have categories for psychopathology (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, etc) which are deeply resistant to change, constantly morphing into new shapes and identities, and requiring long-term care. Picture an iceberg where only aImage result for iceberg small shard of ice is visible above the waterline. This is the sin they treat, ignoring the massive mountain of ice beneath. And in so doing, the debris field of damage within and without is ignored.

Repentance – A shallow view of sin leads to a shallow repentance. Shallow repentance looks like admitting the troubling behavior and committing to not doing it again – case closed. And thus, shallow repentance leads to quick restoration. After all, who wouldn’t believe the sincerity of a pastor who preaches so wonderfully and charismatically, and who has influenced so many? Shallow repentance can look like blame dressed in the garments of personal responsibility – “I’m really sorry that hurt you.” Shallow repentance can also look ‘raw and honest’, at times – see my blog on fauxnerability. It can be accompanied by words that seem spiritual – “Saul lifted up his voice and wept…I have sinned” (see 1 Sam 24; Matt. 7:3). But it’s another manifestation of narcissism’s grandiosity and incapacity to connect with the true self. It is repentance as self-preservation, not as confession “with grief and hatred of one’s sin,” as the old Puritan once put it. And narcissists do this really well! Even more, shallow repentance only repents of the above-the-waterline behaviors, for looking beneath is harder, more timely, and would likely reveal a depth of deceit within that he doesn’t want to see. (PS: Notice how quickly these pastors demonize therapists, and switch from one to another in order to find one who will collude.)

Forgiveness – All of this (above) leads to an expectation that the narcissist and/or abuser will be forgiven (which also means restored). In this, the burden quickly switches from abuser to victim, as anyone impacted is asked to forgive quickly and fully out of a spiritual duty. Anything less than full forgiveness is narrated as angry, petty, grudge-holding, and un-spiritual. Within this is a pitifully vacuous theology of Grace – again, grace as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ah yes, it’s dressed up in pretty words like Wild, Lavish, Unconditional, Prodigious, and more. However, if you’ve done hours of interviews with staff members like I have who’ve worked under these Grace-preaching folks, it’s not pretty at all, as they will tell vastly similar stories of abuse, gaslighting, rage, manipulation, deceit, addiction, and more. Grace extended to one who is diagnosably narcissistic is indeed a reminder of God’s lavish love for every broken sinner, but is made manifest in a careful and loving process geared to each particular situation, and with expert clinical consultation.

Sanctification – I’ll need to do some more work around this, but I have a theory that Protestantism’s centuries-long failure of imagination for sanctification has led to a tragic fissure between doctrine and life, manifesting in moralism/legalism (sanctification as law-keeping) on the one end and libertinism on the other (sanctification as enjoying your get-out-of-jail-free card). I think that one of the many reasons I and others have gravitated toward the larger tradition (Catholic and Orthodox spirituality) is for a more rich imagination for spiritual maturation, for character, for discipleship – theosis! I think that one of the reasons we see narcissism so embedded in evangelicalism, from the evangelical love-affair with Trump to our obsession with grandiose pulpiteers, is because we lack a substantial spiritual theology with implications and practices for becoming more fully human. We’ve given this over to the therapeutic community, detached from the church, which privatizes the whole thing. I’ll have much more to say on this, I suspect.

Guilt and Shame – We also have an inadequate understanding of the theological and psychological dynamics of guilt and shame. I have a working theory that narcissistic pastors are driven by shame (which, of course, they don’t see) but obsessed with guilt (which weighs on them mightily, leading them to preach against it with their Audacious, Robust theologies of Grace). Often, their theologies are adopted in service of quieting the devastatingly loud voice of shame within, which they misinterpret as guilt, leading to the adoption of overly juridicial atonement theories. Because they dismiss guilt as a manifestation of the law, they fail to develop a mature conscience, and this emotional stuntedness appears in secret battles with addictions (sex/porn, alcohol, nicotine, etc.) and an incapacity to relate healthily. They don’t realize that their real battle is with shame, which also exists beneath that behavioral waterline, and which drives their compensatory, grandiose, empathy-deficient false self. Every single narcissistic pastor I’ve seen shows up strikingly in a pulpit, but is stuck at a much younger emotional/developmental age in a way that creates a damaging debris field. The process of growth takes a lot of time, which makes me wonder about these quick turnarounds I’m seeing among recently scandalized pastors. Note: I’m writing for the community I know best, but I’ve seen shame-fueled NPD manifest in the theological constructs of Pentecostals and Progressives, Episcopalians and Emergent.

Ecclesiology – I’ve seen the most narcissism in contexts of church plants, non-denominational networks, and low-church settings. Yes, I’ve seen it among high-church Catholic priests I’ve seen, too. But more often than not, those with NPD like the freedom of starting something new (which means building their own leadership team, where power dynamics and inadequate training come into play). They like networks where structures are loose, polity is underdeveloped, seminary ed isn’t required, and accountability is low. They like the freedom and flexibility of creating worship experiences that center on the personality and sermon of the preacher. If they are grandiose and charismatic enough, they can and will find their way into more accountable settings, but they’ll use their power and ecclesial protectors to shield them from real accountability.

God’s Sovereignty – Often, shame-based narcissistic pastors will adopt an overly transcendent and distant theology of God. The God who “holds one over the pit of hell as a spider” (not implying Edwards was a narcissist, btw) is a theology that actually revealsImage result for god as judge one’s psychology, one’s view of himself at the depths. But out of touch with his shame, he externalizes his self-deprecation in a theology that has a “theoretically” high view of sin (see above) and an overly transcendent view of God that distances himself from real vulnerability, with God and others. The last part of the last sentence is loaded, and requires unpacking, which I don’t have the space to do here. But a narcissist is incapable of real vulnerability, and an intimate encounter with Jesus requires it. With anyone I’ve ever worked with who is diagnosably narcissistic and has, with lots of time and therapy, grown into self-awareness and maturation, there will be an inevitable question they have about whether or not they ever knew God. (I’ll remind them that God is so kind that he has always known them and never left them…it was they who, addicted to the false self, lived apart from God). Note: what psychological needs might an overly immanent picture of God emerge from?

OK, that’s a start. There is so much more ground to cover. What about a theology of gender? A theology of divorce and marriage? A theology of victimization? What else?…let me know! I wanted to begin with the big categories.

Ultimately, this is a challenge to mature theologically, as well! With John Calvin and Augustine, I believe that self-knowledge is a prerequisite for any healthy God-talk. When theology and psychology become friends, wonderful things happen. I could name a number of more recent books by theologians that are beautifully self-reflective. How does this post invite you to reflect more carefully on your own theology? How does the theological tradition you are in reflect your own psychological needs or dispositions? What about this post connected with you, and needs further reflection on your part?

Image result for what are your thoughts

 

 

 

 

When Narcissism Doesn’t Look So Grandiose – “Vulnerable” Narcissism

I thought you’d be interested in this short tid-bit I’ll elaborate on in the book.

In nearly 20 years of counseling diagnosably narcissistic individuals and in two years of writing (in fits and starts!), I thought I had a pretty good grasp on definitions. That is, until I got the big green book, the Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Paging through the dense volume, I came upon the phrase Narcissistic Vulnerability. An entirely new dimension of narcissism was opened to me.

Cover art

You won’t find a distinction between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism in the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. As it sounds, grandiose narcissism looks like the classic definition of grandiosity – supposed superiority, a lack of empathy, impairments in identity and intimacy.

On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism looks more fragile, hyper-vigilant, shy, sensitive, and depressed. It may look a bit more like Borderline Personality Disorder, but it isn’t – it is another face of narcissism.

Craving attention and approval, vulnerable narcissists may act out of a fear of abandonment, demanding love and anxiously grasping after it. This may just be the flip side of grandiose narcissism for some, a kind of ego-deflated state they find themselves in when the world isn’t admiring them or when failure comes their way. But it can harden into a chronic state of helplessness, where the narcissistic ego becomes sticky, manipulative, even self-sabotaging. This narcissism ain’t quite as pretty as the dressed-up narcissism manifesting in grandiosity.

I recall a pastor who was a self-described curmudgeon. He was constantly picking fights – often theological fights – just for the sake of the drama and the attention it afforded him, especially when congregational spectators would gather around. He reminded people often that “few people get me,” and paraded a kind of “woe is me” theology (often citing Isaiah 6 as his life verse) that highlighted his belief that “no one is good, no not one” (Rom 3:10-12). But this masked something else – just about everyone who knew him saw this as precisely the opposite, a subtle arrogance masked in words intended to show humility. He controlled through passive-aggressive means, he quietly judged all who didn’t see the world like he did, and (as his wife would later tell me) he was the most depressing, self-centered man you’d ever meet. Yet, for many who followed his weekly blog, he was a saint, a defender of truth, the last man with theological integrity.

Vulnerable narcissists secretly clamor for affirmation and adoration, but instead of claiming it as a matter of arrogant entitlement, they manipulate and maneuver in ways that are just as toxic and harmful. Curiously, this kind of narcissism manifests within systems, too, and is sometimes called “low self-esteem narcissism.” Indeed, an entire church system may be infected with this ego-deflated, manipulative, and chronically depressive state. Some churches manifest the same qualities as the pastor above, secretly proud of their low view of themselves, claiming a high doctrine of sin but failing to see their judgmentalism, control, arrogance, certainty, and more often than not racism and sexism.

If you’re following me so far, you’ll sense that this is a tough form of narcissism to deal with and confront. The “superior-victim” dynamic is sticky. The self-centeredness allows for little to no real introspection. The narrative of being misunderstood or neglected shows up in blaming everyone but himself/herself. There is a circular, self-fulfilling prophecy, a belief that it will never get better with a corresponding pull for you to make it better, ultimately by seeing how special, great, humble, misunderstood, or saintly he/she is. I see an especially significant debris field of toxicity when someone divorces a vulnerable narcissist, as he/she can switch to yet another gear of manipulation, control, and victimization. Lord have mercy.

Narcissism comes in many forms – this is just one instance of a kind of narcissism that looks different than the caricature. In the book I’m writing, I devote an entire chapter to a kind of experiment – I’m looking at narcissism through the nine faces of the Enneagram. That’s a fun chapter, and reveals even more nuance. But allow me to say this – my goodness, this is the toughest book I’ve written…even tougher than the book with “tough people” in the title! Thanks to those of you who’ve said you are praying.

Peace.