Twenty or more years ago, when someone was mean, we called him mean. When someone was self-centered, we called her that. When we saw egotism, we knew that person had an inflated ego. Even when we recognized someone as having an evil and manipulative heart, we knew they weren’t following Jesus or His loving ways. But we didn’t use the term “narcissistic” to describe all of these character traits in just one person.
Narcissism has become a very popular word in the last five or more years. And now we’re seeing it more and more in the Church as well – the end times are near. That’s why it’s so important we keep talking about this topic so we can recognize the narcissist’s folly and don’t get ensnared.
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The Definition of Narcissism and How it Shows Up in Leaders:
The definition of narcissism is having a grandiose opinion of oneself (lover of self), lacking empathy for others (brutal and without love), and the constant need for admiration (boastful, proud and conceited).
According to Psychology Today, “Narcissism and leadership have been widely studied, and there is some evidence that narcissists succeed in attaining leadership positions. This makes sense, because they are confident, assertive, and focused on self-interests. They know what they want (to be the leader), they believe they are the best person for the job, and they have no doubt that they should be in charge.”
A narcissist leader ruins the church by making everything about him or herself in these 10 ways:
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1. They turn everyone’s focus away from Jesus.
The narcissist’s constant need for admiration causes him or her to want to be worshipped. The church is the perfect place for a narcissist because Christians are expected to extend grace and mercy, especially to repeat offenders. Also, pastors and leaders are put on a physical pedestal (the stage or at the pulpit), so when someone has an inflated sense of pride, this physical podium might feel like the recognition he or she has always known they deserved.
When the focus of the sermons are about the leader, his or her life, and less about Jesus, then we start to see this leader as someone to be looked up to and worshipped. The focus of the Church is to make Jesus known, not make the pastor or leaders known.
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2. They put the focus on serving them, instead of serving God and others.
The narcissist not only seeks to be worshipped but also to be served in many ways. It becomes about his or her needs instead of the needs of the congregation and the community. He or she is looking to be the center of attention. Even if the community is being served through outreach projects the bulk of the applause and recognition comes back to the leader who planned and/or ran the event. The purpose of community events is to serve the community in need rather than self-serve to the church or its leaders.
I once heard a leader say that he pastors the entire town. I believed him until I saw other churches, church leaders, and outreach programs doing great things for the community, without any one person needing the admiration or acclaim for what was being done. When someone puts himself or herself upon that throne, the purpose of serving others becomes for selfish reasons rather than being Jesus’ hands and feet.
Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. – 1 Peter 5:2-4 NIV
3. They subtly make the focus about gaining members and other personal goals, rather than spreading the gospel.
Part of being a leader and a “shepherd of God’s flock” is learning to lead without trying to control. As part of my degree from a Christian university, we were required to take leadership courses. We were taught that the best leaders are followers – followers of Jesus and followers by example. The narcissist leader will expect to be more of a dictator and the one who is being followed – his or her purpose, his or her ways, and his or her goals.
Jesus made disciples of His followers. He told His disciples to do the work of going out and spreading the Good News, not “inviting your friends and neighbors to church.” When we make the focus about “the church” and its leaders, we’re no longer following Jesus.
4. They insulate themselves against criticism and destroy accountability.
A narcissist doesn’t like to hear any criticism or iron sharpening (Proverbs 27:17). He or she doesn’t want to be confronted about anything he or she is doing wrong – this would be the opposite to all the praise and admiration that he or she needs.
One way a narcissistic leader goes about protecting him or herself from being rebuked is by keeping only those who enable and accommodate the narcissist in his or her inner circle – the protectors. Those who express disapproval for anything the narcissistic leader is doing or has said will see anger and blame shifting from the leader and his or her protectors, while being at risk for being discarded. The lack of accountability in church leadership will hurt all those trying to do God’s work while those following the narcissistic leader are doing his/her work. A lack of a unified plan hurts the whole team.
5. They steward money poorly and church ministries suffer for it.
Often the narcissist is materialistic and self-indulgent because he or she thinks he or she deserves to have better things than others have – especially those in his or her congregation. He or she is special and deserves special treatment. The narcissist has an image to protect and having a new car, a bigger home, expensive jewelry, and other material items projects that he or she is better and higher up than everyone else.
The narcissistic leader doesn’t stay humble as the church grows because he or she only sees more members as dollar signs. This can cause him or her to use church funds unwisely, seek more and more income to support his or her extravagant lifestyle, or even take what doesn’t belong to him or her. The leader’s protectors might even allow and cover for these things so as the narcissistic leader doesn’t have to face any consequences.
6. They twist and misquote Scripture, leading others in the wrong direction.
Most narcissists are very charismatic and charming. This is why some narcissistic pastors are able to draw in large crowds of people as followers and listeners without ever preaching a Bible verse or using any condemning word.
I once heard a TV pastor say, God helps those who help themselves. But upon research, I quickly learned that the Bible never says that – which I pretty much knew. Narcissistic pastors are usually pretty good motivational speakers rather than leaders and shepherds of the Church, which can turn us all in the wrong direction. We can end up serving ourselves rather that serving others.
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7. Once people realize the toxic nature of their church leader, they will leave the church, perhaps forever.
Most narcissists are only interested in a conversation as long as it’s about them or they benefit in some way. Because of this, a narcissist is unable to have deep emotional connections or really listen to the cares and concerns of others – which are vital qualities in a church leader. To the narcissist, people are dispensable – easily replaced for someone else. A church that doesn’t allow people to feel listened to and valued in some way will lose members, or worse - pushing people away from the Church altogether.
Once people realize that they are just another number or dollar amount (of giving), they will either move on to a place where they can feel more accepted and appreciated for who they are and what Spiritual gifts they have to offer the Church, or simply become jaded and struggle to trust the Church.
8. They neglect critical aspects of church ministry that are oriented toward service.
One of the main traits of a narcissist is their inability to experience genuine concern for someone other than him or herself. They often mirror others in their quest to pretend to care for others but behind the fake facade there is no real empathy.
I’ve attended churches where there was no care ministry. No one visits when someone is hospitalized, not one brings hot meals during times of grief, and there is no phone calls made to ask to pray together. What’s left of a church when there is no compassion for the sick and the hurting? Church leaders are not expected to do it all of these things but they do need to lead the way.
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9. They create an environment that is unhealthy, hostile and toxic.
In homes where an abusive narcissist lives, the environment becomes toxic for everyone living there – because toxic relationships change you. We are living in very turbulent times where a lot of leaders of our countries are publically unkind and downright cruel to each other. Their bad example trickles down to us as we become unkind to each other when talking about world leaders and other important issues.
This is also affecting our church environments. Gossip, unfair judgment, and hypocrisy are destructive in a church. And things are much worse when there is a narcissistic leader participating in and directing the destruction.
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10. They can negatively, permanently impact how churchgoers view God.
A narcissistic leader who motivates the congregation through manipulation, shame, and rage will not only hurt people but also scare the community away from the church, and from God. We expect to see the loving character of God in our church leaders so when we don’t, we assume God is angry and controlling as well.
Initially, we might like a charismatic, showman church leader but when he/she’s unable to serve those who need to be served, love those who need Jesus’ love, or point us all to the only True Savior that deserves our worship, then he or she could be ruining the church.
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Narcissism in Scripture: Discussed and Defined in 2 Timothy:
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.” – 2 Timothy 3:1-9 NIV
A great leader has a loving, caring, and servant heart. But because a narcissist does not, putting one in charge of a church can lead to devastation!
Jen Grice is a Christian Divorce Mentor and Empowerment Coach, author of the book, You Can Survive Divorce: Hope, Healing, and Encouragement for Your Journey, a speaker, and a single homeschooling mom. She writes full-time at JenGrice.com and empowers women to survive and heal after their unwanted divorce on her YouTube channel as well. Jen believes that through God's healing, grace, and redemption that all Christian women can survive... and even thrive, after divorce. Navigating this foreign territory we call divorce? Feeling alone? Start here!
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Originally published Monday, 27 January 2020.