The church is supposed to be a haven from the evils and turmoil of the world around us. And church leaders are supposed to be safe people to trust with our lives and wellbeing, both physically and spiritually. But, when the evil of narcissism in church leaders rears its ugly head, the church becomes anything but safe. So, how do we identify the evil of narcissism in church leaders and protect ourselves and the church at large from it?
As a general rule, the evil of narcissism in church leaders can be pretty quickly and easily identified. But, once it is identified, actions taken to remove narcissistic church leaders from power over the people they should have protected and make sure they don’t abuse again is not so easy, albeit very possible.
Let’s take a closer look at how to identify narcissism in church leaders and how to prevent narcissists from destroying the peace and purity of the church.
Table of Contents
Why Do Narcissists Gravitate Toward Church Leadership?
Narcissists love to find positions of power and leadership: political leaders, school principles, CEO’s, doctors, nurses, celebrities, sports stars, military, government agents, lawyers, therapists, professors, and even priests and other religious leaders. Almost all of their career choices are in professions of service, making them seem like a trusted servant when they are in fact vampires looking to control and suck the life force out of everyone who they fool into thinking they are there to take good care of them.
This is exactly why narcissists gravitate toward the church and its leadership. Church leaders are generally trusted without having to earn their trust. They are representatives of God, who is beyond reproach. Therefore, they are supposed to also be beyond reproach.
Unfortunately, that is just one of the masks a narcissist wears. They realize they don’t need to earn the trust they have. And they know that often, members of the church are trusting but also very forgiving. They will either believe the pastor didn’t mean to do harmful things, or they misinterpreted them. It almost never occurs to church members that a church leader could be intentionally malicious, destructive…or narcissistic.
There are two cases where church members will pick up on the narcissism of a church leader. The first is when they have experienced narcissism in their life and can recognize it. And the second is when they have been taught how to be emotionally healthy and recognize the signs of narcissism and know how to stay out of its grip.
So, how do narcissists gain control of the church and how do we identify them and keep the church from suffering under narcissistic leadership? Narcissists gain control of the church by being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We can identify them by being perceptive and wise enough to see the abuse for what it is, even when the narcissist tries to hide it in “godly” terms. And we can keep the church from suffering under narcissist leadership by exposing the abuse instead of letting the narcissist operate behind closed doors and in hidden places. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
How Do Narcissists Gain Control of the Church?
There are several ways that narcissists gain positions of control in the church. Here are some of them:
- Narcissists will convince members of the church that they are delivering the very words and expectations of God. They are, in effect, God’s spokesmen or messengers.
- A narcissist will actually be an actor of sorts to convince people that he is a genuine servant. And, surprisingly, he will even convince himself that he is being genuine through his acting. When I asked my then-husband why he chose to lie about things rather than tell the truth, he would tell me it was because he wanted what was said to be the truth. So he claimed it as such. It is the same with church leaders that want to be seen as such. If they claim it and believe it, then maybe it will just end up being true.
- Narcissists take advantage of the fact that Christians and other religious people are supposed to extend grace and mercy to others. Forgiveness is the order of the day in the church.
- Narcissists can gain control in the church easily because churches always need more help in leadership. Because churches will almost always take anyone who is willing to serve in the church and makes a good first impression, it is easy for narcissists to slip into positions of leadership without proper vetting.
- Often, when a narcissist shames church members and abuses them, it is easier for them to quietly walk away from the church rather than make a scene. Because of this, the narcissist can stay in power for decades undetected.
- Narcissists lies won’t be challenged in the church because church members will either believe what they say or think that the narcissist believes what he is saying. They don’t ever really think the narcissist is intentionally using and abusing them.
There are many more ways. For more of them, visit my article on why narcissists are drawn to the church.
How Do We Identify Narcissistic Church Leaders?
There are many red flags you can see to indicate that a church leader is narcissistic. Many people won’t necessarily see these signs because most narcissists try to hide them. Those of us that do have experience with narcissists and extreme narcissistic behavior will likely be able to spot a narcissistic church leader a mile away.
But, those of us who are experienced in narcissistic issues also need to be careful that we don’t see narcissism in all inappropriate behavior. Remember, we all do things that are narcissistic from time to time. We are all selfish at times. It doesn’t become a problem until it is a persistent pattern of narcissistic behavior.
Let’s take a look at some of those red flags or signs of narcissistic behavior in church leaders.
The Narcissistic Church Leader Talks More About Himself Than his Ministry
Everybody talks about themselves from time to time. That isn’t a problem. But when a church leader spends more time bringing attention to his accomplishments, appearance, ideas, or other bragging points rather than his ministry ideas, goals, and teachings, than you may very well be dealing with a narcissist. You will have even more confirmation when the things this church leader says about himself turns out to be either exaggerated or outright untrue.
I had a pastor one time that established himself more as a celebrity than a church leader. Every sermon was geared more toward all of the people he had run into in the past week that proceeded to pay for his dinners, entertainment, or other special items. He constantly talked about how much people loved coming to his church and how much they gushed to him over being able to see him and give him of their time and resources. Nearly every week, he talked about someone that paid for his dinner as they ran into them at whatever restaurant he was at on any given Sunday after church.
Then, one Sunday, as my kids and I were eating at a local restaurant, lo and behold, there he and his wife were. But they weren’t surrounded in people who loved them. And they didn’t seem to be having a very good time. They ordered their food, sat and ate in silence, and were never approached by any admirers eager to pay their tab. It wasn’t even close to the stories he told literally every week. The celebrity status was merely a construct used to convince people he was something that he really wasn’t.
A Narcissistic Church Leader is More Concerned with Himself Than in the People he is Supposed to be Guiding, Loving, and Caring For
This sign of narcissistic church leaders becomes more obvious over time. While he may speak about how to protect the sheep in his care on a daily basis, he is largely absent when his care is needed in the congregation. As with most other types of narcissists, the determining factor of their narcissism is whether their actions meet their words.
If you hear your church leader constantly talking about how they need to help those who are less fortunate than yourself, and they may even do that when everyone is looking, but they don’t do it behind closed doors when nobody is looking, then you are likely dealing with a narcissist. Time will tell for sure one way or the other.
A Narcissistic Church Leader Doesn’t Share his Authority
A narcissistic church leader needs to be the final authority. They don’t take suggestions, no matter how much better they may be. Or they may take your suggestion if it happened behind closed doors with no witnesses. Then they can steal it as their own idea.
They need to be large in charge as an overt narcissist, or in charge “in the background” so they can get credit for their sole leadership without anyone realizing how they are stacking the deck.
Ways to see this in action are if the pastor is in charge of everything going on in the church. Or they could be making the heads of various ministries in the church report directly to him for permission to do anything in their respective ministries.
One final way a narcissistic church leader hogs the authority in his church is to make you believe you are making decisions when he is pulling the strings the whole time.
A Narcissistic Church Leader Will Take Scripture Out of Context in Order to Make Himself Look Better
As much as every church leader wishes they could be 100% accurate about all they preach and teach about, nobody is perfect. That being said, if your narcissist is claiming that everything he says is right at the expense of everyone else’s beliefs, he is looking to his own power and knowledge instead of God’s. Or if he is preaching scripture in ways that do not agree with the context of the rest of Scripture, then you are likely dealing with someone who cares more about himself than about the God he is supposed to be sharing with you and leading you to.
Often, a narcissistic church leader will use Scripture to build themselves up while knocking everyone else down a notch or two. They will take on the tone of total humility, throwing everyone’s radar off and making them think he is being truly sincere, if somewhat wrong about his interpretation of Scripture.
These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing that the Bible speaks about in Matthew 7:15. Using Scripture for any nefarious reason is potentially heretical. Their very salvation is at risk if it ever did exist. While many narcissists ranking lower on the narcissism scale could possibly be honestly trying to serve God but not doing well in the scheme of life, other narcissists are absolutely aware of the gravity of their heresy. But they don’t fear God or the consequences of exercising undue power over others. Or they feel that they can fool God into thinking they are sincere by acting that role.
Interestingly enough, narcissists will put their whole self into a role, thinking they become the thing they are playing. And I think they take that a step further in thinking that if they “become” that role, they can make God believe that’s what they are.
A Narcissistic Church Leader Gets Angry if Anyone Questions Them or Suggests a Different Pathway
You can tell the narcissistic church leader that they are wise, amazing, and totally right. But if you dare to question something, even for your own clarity in understanding, watch out. Even if you are asking the narcissist for more information, not because you think they are wrong, but because you are confused, they will interpret it as not agreeing with them. And they will waste no time in smacking that down. They cannot ever be seen as less than perfect in every way.
If someone actually does question their rightness in anything, especially publicly, they may do one of two things. An overt narcissist will have no problem putting them “in their place” in front of the whole congregation. The more people that witness it the better because witnesses will be wary of crossing the narcissist in the future for fear of the public humiliation that will result.
But it is a different story for the cover narcissist church leader. He will do whatever he can to save face in a graceful, servant-attitude way. And then he will let you have it as soon as you are alone with him or out of earshot of everyone else. And you won’t even know what hit you.
Covert narcissistic church leaders get away with this for a very long time because their victims will be confused by how different they perceive the narcissist between his public persona and what they have seen behind closed doors. And most people don’t want to cause a fuss. So they gracefully move on to another church, allowing the narcissist to get away with his abusive behavior. And he continues to abuse certain people, knowing that as long as he is careful, he won’t get caught.
A Narcissistic Church Leader Makes Himself Unavailable in Order to Bolster his Celebrity Status
It’s the allure of mystery. We are always drawn to what we have limited access to. We wonder what wonder is being shrouded behind that aura of mystery. So we find ourselves drawn to it.
Narcissists in all walks of life realize this. But in religious circles, the sign of a true servant leader is their availability, transparency and openness.
This does not mean they have to be totally available to everyone all the time no matter what in order to be a good church leader. But it also doesn’t mean they can be some distant, mystery person either. There is a healthy balance.
But, back to the narcissistic church leader who uses his “celebrity status” to bolster his narcissistic supply. Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” In the same vein, when a church leader shrouds himself in mystery and limits how often and how much his congregants see and interact with him, it makes him look mysterious, appealing, and superhuman. All these aspects, in tandem with his ability to master first impressions and his servanthood behavior can make him seem very close to Jesus Himself, and certainly a very amazing person that is just too good for us to hope to get close to.
This allows the narcissist to keep up a reputation that is far from the truth. And it allows him to remain in his position of leadership for a very long time because nobody ever gets to see what is really behind the celebrity. But if you look closely enough, the narcissistic behavior will be just under the surface and more obvious than he or you would think.
A Narcissistic Church Leader Will be a Different Person in Public Than Behind Closed Doors
Finally, and this last point will be very obvious to people who spend a lot of time with a church leader in his unofficial capacity, a narcissistic church leader will be an entirely different person in private than he in in public. You will mostly see the narcissist come out when he is in places that he feels relaxed and comfortable. It can be at a dinner, game night, or other casual gathering. Or even private time that the narcissist spends with personal friends, which is rare for two reasons. First, the narcissist doesn’t have many personal friends. He is afraid they might see beyond the mask. And second, the narcissist church leader won’t spend much personal time with people in his church because he doesn’t see them as friend material.
It would be very hard to see most narcissistic church leaders for what they really are when they are in private because they tend to be very private people. But where you may see a glimpse is in the people that they do choose to spend their time with that you would see in public. Proverbs 13:20 says, ” Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”
Take a look at this 3-minute video that talks about how churches are a great hiding place for covert narcissists:
How Do We Heal the Church From Narcissistic Leaders?
The easy and quick answer to how to heal the church from narcissistic leaders is to know what narcissistic behavior looks like and be careful not to let those people into leadership. But often, well-meaning people don’t see this behavior until it is too late. Here are some ways we can prevent narcissists from becoming church leaders.
- Don’t choose people for leadership positions that you don’t know very well or haven’t been in the church for very long.
- Schedule classes/seminars on how to recognize narcissistic behavior in the church and in family life. It is a guarantee that there are narcissists in your congregation, since it occurs in about 2-5% of any given population.
- Schedule classes on spiritual and emotional maturity so everyone will be able to recognize abusive or narcissistic behavior when they see it.
- Give a valid ear to people who come to you with reports of narcissistic abuse. While there are some false accusers out there, you can’t figure out who is telling the truth and who is lying if you don’t sincerely listen to the victims.
- Have a good working relationship between your church and a few solid, reputable counseling agencies in your area that can help to keep the congregation at large and families in particular relationally healthy.
- Make sure that all church leaders in your congregation/region/denomination are in tune with what emotionally healthy spirituality looks like.
Let’s take a look at some resources that will help us do all of these things.
Recommended Resources for a Healthy Church Body
There are a few books that my church leaders, therapists, and I worked through when we were working through my family’s issues with our narcissist (who had been a prominent elder in our church for many years before things blew up). Here are the best ones:
This book, by Peter Scazzaro, is the best book I have read that shows the critical relationship between emotional and spiritual health. If one isn’t working, the other one CAN’T work! It was the first book recommended by my therapist when my ex-husband dragged me to counseling to make me “a more obedient wife.” And incidentally, when she recommended it, he forbade it outright. It was over a year later that I rediscovered it, read it, and a whole new world was opened up to me.
Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life — Including Yourself
My ex-husband’s therapist recommended this for me toward the end of our marriage. I was seeing him because my therapist was on a summer sabbatical and he already knew all of our issues and participated in several sessions with my ex, my therapist, and me when we were trying to save the marriage. It is an excellent book for any difficult relationship in your life, and again, a perfect book for your whole congregation from high school age up to read and learn from.
This book by David Orrison was such a life-changing book for me that I gave a copy to my then pastor. He thought it was an excellent book too!
It talks about specific issues that happen in all levels of the church, from the members to the committee leaders to elders and deacons, and even to pastors, priests, and beyond. It shows us specifically how to recognize narcissistic behavior for what it is and learn how to avoid it and heal the church. But it goes a little bit deeper than the other books because it talks about how narcissism infiltrates both the culture and structure of the church.
This book, also by Chuck DeGroat, is his most popular book right now. Pastors everywhere are discovering it for the value of the health and growth of their congregations. And of course, this book is also perfect for anyone high school age or older to read and learn from as they learn healthy ways to relate to others in the church. Check out more by clicking the picture here:
It is bad enough that we have to deal with narcissism in the world. But to have to deal with it in the church, where we are supposed to find a haven from the evils of the world, is so much worse. Of course, until we get to Heaven we will never have a perfect place on Earth to let our guard down.
The good news is that we don’t have to be trapped or controlled by narcissistic church leaders. God has much better plans for us. What has been your experience with narcissists in church? What positions did they hold that you were involved with? Were you able to avoid their abuse? How did you and your church work through it?
I would love to hear your story. Feel free to share in the comments below so others may learn and grow from your experience!