Can you “narcissist-proof” a system?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be there. And you can be anywhere.

Grace and peace.

 

Resources…off the top of my head

Miller and Cook, Boundaries for your Soul

Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety

Herrington and Taylor, The Leader’s Journey

Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma

Allender, Leading with a Limp

Laird, Into the Silent Land

Cox, A Conscious Life

Haines, The Book of Waking Up

Me, When Narcissism Comes to Church (coming March)

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.

Image result for henri nouwen

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.

Image result for glittering images howatch

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.