Do you remember the story of Narcissus? Walking by a pond one day, Narcissus noticed his reflection. Captivated by the image, Narcissus remained by the water, immobilized. He longed to maintain the image, recognizing that touching the pond or leaving the pond pool would ruin its appearance, and so he remained beside the pool. Narcissus is a haunting reminder for many of us as leaders, who long to maintain our “glittering images,” and prevent anyone or anything from disrupting that image. 

Chuck DeGroat’s book, When Narcissism Comes to Church (IVP, 2020), is an important book for leaders. It’s easy to read through the book and point our finger at another leader we’ve worked with. The strength of the book comes in using it as a self-reflective tool.

DeGroat notes that ministry seems to be a magnet for narcissistic personality. Since ministry creates an atmosphere where we speak publicly on a regular basis, with “divine authority,” it becomes easy to fall into the narcissist trap. Our ecclesial systems lend themselves to this trap. After all, who wants to be the person who speaks against the “man of God?” (DeGroat observes that the vast majority of narcissist leaders with whom he works are male.)

Characteristics of a Narcissistic Pastor

DeGroat notes ten characteristics of a narcissistic pastor:

  • All decision-making centers on them (The pastor uses his spiritual authority to invoke their right to make a decision. “I’m called by God to lead this church and make all the decisions.”)

  • Impatience or a lack of ability to listen to others (the leader is unable to accept his own responsibility for a conflict, and provides his own slant that privileges his special perspective. “You heard me wrong. This is how it really happened.”)

  • Delegating without giving proper authority or with too many limits (the leader keeps staff in ambiguous roles, and sees staff as clear subordinates, teasing authority without actually giving it. “You don’t respect me enough because I’m the lead pastor.”)

  • Feelings of entitlement (normal limitations don’t apply since she gives so much to God already. “I deserve this!”)

  • Feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff (his insecurity leads him to be unable to trust anyone, afraid that he’ll be exposed as deficient. “Your actions make me feel resentful or jealous.”)

  • Needing to be the best and the brightest in the room (the pastor is the only one who can be in the limelight, even using the public recognition of another staff to service his own ego. “Look how good I am because I hired this leader!”)

  • Inconsistency and impulsiveness (a tendency to start new projects rather than sustaining them. “I have this new plan I’m springing on you!”)

  • Praising and withdrawing (when the pastor’s ego is threatened, they withdraw from relationships, avoiding communication. “I’m cancelling this meeting again.”)

  • Intimidation of others (narcissist leaders are effective gaslighters, parading their power to force others to comply. “I can do what I want because I’m the pastor. You report to me.”)

  • Fauxnerability (this is a twisted form of vulnerability, that appears transparent but is actually masking one’s deepest struggles. They consistently present themselves as the victims).

Hope for the Narcissistic Pastor

This can be a hard list to read. However, this is why it is important for us to be relentlessly committed to doing our own inner work, protecting ourselves and others. It’s vital that we embrace our sources of pain so that we can lead from a place of compassion, not rage.

Like DeGroat, I’m concerned at the high rates of perceived narcissism among church leaders. But also like DeGroat, I’m optimistic that change can happen. For the health of you, your family, and your organizations, don’t neglect your own soul care. 

Places to Start

  1. Don’t hesitate to reach out. Our CBAC staff are here to support you, and one of our strengths is our Department of Clergy Formation and Wellness. Rev. Dr. Cheryl Ann Beals is a fantastic support and she’d love to connect with you.

  2. Finding a counsellor is an important piece of soul care. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who can help you navigate your pain.

  3. There are great books to help you start to consider soul care:

    1. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership

    2. The Emotionally Healthy Leader

    3. Becoming a Resolute Leader

  4. One of the best steps I took as a leader was investing in the Arrow Leadership Program. This was a transformative program that I continue to benefit from. I’d love to chat with you about my Arrow experience.