It’s All About Me — NPD and Church Leaders

kinnon —  March 28, 2009 — 29 Comments

In one of Imbi’s many interviews for her documentary on the church & church leadership in the 21st Century, Mind the Gap, she asked one of the recognized church leaders why there seemed to be so many leaders in the church suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

His response was that as actual community means so little to the church in the west, it becomes an attractive place for people who crave power. We only know potential leaders via their external presentation – as we’ve not experienced them in community enough to know both their gifting and their flaws. (This leader’s response was in light of how seminaries and/or the church might weed out folk like this. Part of the response being that churches need to be the sending agencies – rather than people “deciding to get their M.Divs” or even “preaching for a call.”)

I’ve had the misfortune of working with someone suffering from a severe case of NPD. This three para excerpt I’ve pulled from Emily Yoffe in Slate is accurate, and rather scary,

A recent study titled “Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader” describes how narcissists have skills and qualities—confidence, extraversion, a desire for power—that propel them into leadership roles but that when true narcissists are in charge, other aspects of their makeup—a feeling the rules don’t apply to them, a need for constant stroking—can have “disastrous consequences.” Yes, we’re talking about you, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. After Blagojevich was caught on tape trying to sell a Senate seat, he reveled in the opportunity to appear on talk shows, making the case that he himself was a victim—self-pity being a favorite narcissist refuge.

A line from a New York Times profile of him is as trenchant a description of narcissism as is found in most psychology textbooks: “[He] is unapologetically late to almost everything, and can treat employees with disdain, cursing and erupting in fury for failings as mundane as neglecting to have at hand at all times his preferred black Paul Mitchell hairbrush.” There it all is: the sense that other people don’t matter, the belief others are instruments for the narcissist’s use, the self-admiration.

Narcissistic personality disorder is not simply about taking normal egoism to extremes. NPD is one of fewer than a dozen personality disorders described by the American Psychiatric Association. These differ from the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and manic-depression, which are believed to have a biological origin. Personality disorders are seen as a failure of character development. Others include anti-social personality disorder (these people are also commonly called “sociopaths” or “Bernie Madoff”) and borderline personality disorder (think of Livia Soprano). NPD has been officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association only since 1980, but descriptions of this syndrome go back to ancient times. The name for it, after all, comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who was unable to love until he saw his own reflection in the water and died pining away at his image.

For the NPD church leader, church is all about numbers and size. The church reflects who they are. And provides them with the lifestyle they believe they deserve. NPD’s are particularly gifted at winning affection by selling you what you want to be sold. “Converts” in their churches, to them, are really an increase in their adoring fandom. And should you choose to stand up to them, beware. They will stop at nothing to destroy you. Someday soon I’ll tell you my story where I dared challenge an NPD church leader. Let’s just say it was a very expensive costly decision on my part.

UPDATE: I should add that as I’ve spent a lot of the last 3.5 years engaged in producing videos and media materials in the missional vortex – this area of the Christian conversation is not immune. People who suffer from NPD will look for whatever area to build a following – to aggrandize themselves. If missional is the new, new then expect more than a few NPD types to join the characters on the platform. (How easily we build platforms in what many of us had hoped would be a plaftormless new world of the church – amidst and among rather than above. What was it Solomon said? Oh yes, “vanity, it’s all vanity.”)

UPDATE 2: Dan @ City of God has a good response with some good links to read, as well.

kinnon

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A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

29 responses to It’s All About Me — NPD and Church Leaders

  1. I am amazed that many lack discernment enough to spot this and fall prey to such so-called leaders.

  2. Just a random thought:
    “We” love these guys. We want these guys. We tolerate these guys b/c when one of them pastors our church it makes us feel like we’re a part of a successful enterprise.
    Who wouldn’t a pastor whose known, recognized, popular, dynamic, in control, larger than life, etc.?

    Man, are we sick.

  3. Well, it helps that in the kinds of larger congregations that attract/are attractive to such leadership types, the average attender has little personal interaction with the lead pastor. The external persona is all that I ever have dealings with, so the internal contradictions that Bill spells out here never really become all that evident to me.

    Meanwhile, if you happen to work closely with that person, say, on staff or on the church board, there is a (usually unspoken) culture of hurt and anxiety. I watched it for eight years at a church in Bellingham, WA that we were a part of, and it taught me so much.

    Can’t say that I know exactly how to deal with the problem. As long as you have the capacity for masses of people to gather around such a person’s clear giftedness, you will continue to have a smaller group who will endure (and make excuses for) the flaws in that person’s character out of a sense of obligation to the ministry that God is doing through the Dear Leader. I strikes me as a kind of battered wife syndrome, wouldn’t you say?

  4. Looking forward to your personal story.

    I’ve only met one person who fit all the DSM criteria for NPD. A wonder to behold, medical science can’t do much. I’ve met many who have shown some criteria.

    Being on the boot tip end of a narrisstic leader must take a long time to heal from.

  5. Interesting when I think of some of the leaders I’ve dealt with.

    Looking forward to hearing your story. I’m still a bit close to mine to tell it publicly.

  6. I have to wonder: As long as we follow leaders based on appearance and “successful” results instead of based on their character, and their vulnerable-and-non-manipulative sharing about their suffering, we validate leaders who are bleeders.

    And yet, manipulators and martyrs go together in matched pairs. So, tailgating on Jared’s comment, perhaps we need to ask ourselves what we get out of following leaders we do not have any way of knowing other than public persona. What do other church staff/leaders get out of propping (in multiple senses of that term!) an NPD leader? What does our denomination get out refusing to question or confront such leaders?

    This isn’t theoretical and hypothetical – it’s practical. I had to ask a similar question in the aftermath of working with a leader who likely had a related type of personality disorder: What was it within me that made me susceptible to being taken in and strung along by him? What I learned about myself by asking that was as illuminating as learning to discern what his typical modus operandi tactics were …

  7. … it is a tough, tough deal. My year working FOR ( not with, and actually, trying to work for ) this kind of leader was the worst year if my life. But boy people are snowed by ‘em!

  8. Great post Bill. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

  9. This is a minor point in response to Bene D’s comment.

    There is a difference between a clinical judgment that someone is narcissistic, and someone who exhibits narcissistic behaviors. I’ve been interested in the place of narcissism in our culture since I read Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism while I was a seminary student in the late ’70s, early ’80s. We have a culture that rewards narcissistic behavior. It is a culture of self-deception and denial of reality. Many of the past cultural constraints on narcissistic behavior have been released. And in an error of happy Jesus churches, is it any wonder that pastor become increasingly narcissistic.
    Bill, I’m glad you keep point to these situations. I see it as a warning and not an intervention.

  10. Ronald Rolheiser writes and excellent book (title: The Shattered Lantern) that handles eloquently the reasons everybody loves a narciccist and…may even have aspired to be one…

    PastorM expressed amazement that “many lack discernment enough to spot this and fall prey to such so-called leaders.”

    I would counter that actually, this is not a discernment problem not is it a case of becoming prey… but rather, it is a heart problem. The Narcissist (whether this is a clinical diagnosis or not I don’t think is the issue – what we are talking about is a set of behaviors that ultimately destroys people – both the N and others around them) If the Congregated discern the N’s more “attractive” behaviors, and choose to place this person into a power-seat because they hope this person will DO for them… this is a rejection of the way the Body of Christ is supposed to work. The Body of Christ is not a bunch of people gathered around a human idol into which we pour all our hopes, expectation, admiration etc. as a shining representative of who we are. The Body of Christ gathers around CHRIST, and it functions together responsibly to do the work Christ calls us to do, thus the DOING is in the Body, not in its big-man-up-front (or anywhere else).

    Until hearts stop loving what we believe the Narcissist can do on our behalf (in OUR name, if you will), we will continue to see them in positions of leadership.

  11. My previous comment is ugly with typos. Yuck.

    J. Michael Matkin’s comment resonates with me strongly.

    I have two experiences to speak of, one firsthand, the other as an observer.

    In my first ministry position, I was the victim of emotional and spiritual abuse by two pastors. I was just a kid; early 20s, naive, no self-confidence, looking for mentors and guidance. Whenever I tried to bring up that these a-holes were different M-F than they were on stage on Sunday, I was repeatedly told that’s just how life works, that’s how all bosses are, that I was probably just exaggerating or being too sensitive.

    It seriously messed me up.
    Very similar to victims of abuse not being taken seriously.

    In the second situation, I was a lay leader in a megachurch (the one Element started in and left a year or so ago) but knew nothing about the hideous abuse and toxic leadership of the lead pastor until the day the elders took the stage to announce they’d fired him. They finally decided to put an end to his Type-A, narcissistic, pastorpreneur, push-‘em around and verbally harass them sort of leadership after two associate pastors said it was either him or them. And this was a year or two after trying to get him to go into counseling and work on repentance and anger management, etc.

    So the dude got fired. And most of us, after hearing why, backed the elders. But, man, there were hundreds who loved his “preaching.” He’s so dynamic and funny and man, the church had 4,000 people, so surely he was doing something right! And I literally had people on my blog saying it didn’t matter what he did; he was a good speaker.
    I’m not making that up.

    That’s why I say we’re sick.

    And of course this dude never admitted he had a problem — and still hasn’t — and started a new church 15 minutes away from the one he got fired from, and while he’s lost some of his sparkle and swagger, he’s still the same dude and hundreds followed him.

    I really think the paradigm we’ve got has to pretty much die in order for things to get better.

  12. Oh, and the church that fired the pastor hired another dude for his dynamism, type-a personality, pastorpreneurial spirit, etc., but just made sure he was a nice guy. :-)

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Only he won’t yell at you.

  13. link to youtube.com
    I thought this video was relevant. Enjoy.

  14. I know my own heart. And my heart craves that adulatiion, the certitude, the limelight. The fans. By God’s grace I don’t have the natural talent or spiritual gifts to create such a following – because it would eat me up. By the grace of God I am not so gifted; by the grace of God I don’t face that temptation, except in my daydreams. I wish I could say I am a better man than they. I thank God for the men in my life who don’t let me go there.

    By the grace of God, people like you remind us that it is not in the fruitfulness, or appearance thereof, that godliness resides. It is in being faithful to follow Christ, to proclaim Him, to obey Him, to love him, to allow His grace to gently pry my fingers from the idols that daily wrap themselves around my heart.

    Your suffering at the hands of this leader has led you through a crucible of pruning to great fruit, my friend. Thanks.

  15. danny mac … you dear soul. I dare say that most of us crave love and people who will look to us for advice, etc. Those things which you call adulation, certitude, limelight, fans. But we also have built in filters, and friends (as you mention). The difference is that those who bend toward their own reflection (narcissists) ignore those filters and the friends who may question them are turned into enemies who must be obliterated.

    You could never be a narcissist because you care too much about the opinions of those closest to you and are looking for objectivity in your relationships rather than syncophants.

  16. Friends,
    Thanks for the great conversation going on here – and for the transparency. If I wasn’t rushing headlong into a massive deadline, I’d respond to every comment.

    I think this is an important issue. The broken bodies left lying in the wake of these kind of leaders is nothing short of a crime.

    B

  17. Hey Bill.

    Seems like pretty much everybody here agrees with your take.

    Not sure that trend contributes to battling individual or communal narcissism. In my experience that bad comes in both sizes.

    I don’t disagree that some leaders suffer from narcissistic personality disorders, or that those kinds of folks with unusual gifts and opportunities can do a whole lot of damage. But again, some communities may fit that description too.

    I’m not currently a big fan of evangelical leadership or follower-ship whether they suffer from personality disorders or not. Transparency.

    But dropping–by implication–the ‘personality disorder’ bomb on what might simply be dumb and fallen people could potentially qualify as overkill.

  18. Alistair McLaughlin April 14, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I went to school with a guy who is now a prominent church leader (actually a “youth minister”) in his community. He is, without exception, universally admired – adored even – wherever he goes. Yet he is most certainly a narcissistic sociopath. (Or a sociopathic narcissist – whichever you prefer.)

    He is charming, extroverted, always smiling, and has a way of instilling almost rabid loyalty in those around him, especially teenagers. (Thus his job as a youth minister.) Some people have written paeans to his virtue and his goodness on the Internet. He does all kinds of charity work, helps run a rehab and life skills program for addicts, alcoholics and street people, and many of them become his raving fans as well. But without a doubt, he is the most sinister person I have ever come across. I knew him when we were teenagers, and he has an ugly side to his character that is downright chilling.

    Just like Narcissus of Greek mythology, he was in love with his own good looks, his own “goodness” and his own good breeding. If anyone dared challenge his superiority (or that of his family’s), or questioned his morals, he would instantly threaten physical violence. He backed this threat up with constant weight training and – in his early 20s – steroid use. He was careless and cruel in his insults to others, which he dealt out generously without ever once apologizing or expressing regret.

    He and I are both near 40 now. I have not seen him in 15 years, and do not wish to ever cross his path again. But I have been following his career on the Internet. He is following the exact trajectory I would have expected. He oozes charisma, has carefully built a reputation as a compassionate and thoroughly holy individual, and has accumulated hundreds – if not thousands – of admirers. (Not surprisingly, his Facebook page lists several hundred people from all over North America.) This guy is the real deal, and he is easily the most conscienceless person I have ever met.

    I’ve always thought he was the perfect case study of the charismatic sociopathic leader, and he fits your prototype of the NPD church leader to a T. I fully expect him to be on TV someday, by which time his admirers will have multiplied to the tens of thousands.

  19. Alistair McLaughlin April 14, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Oh, and I forgot to mention, he has his Masters of Divinity too.

  20. These people (NPD pastors) are real and they are out there – even in your little country churches. I was the prime narcissistic supply to my pastor for several years, and when I, and the remainder of the “faithful” were finally betrayed and dumped, it about drove me out of my mind. Our church had disintegrated. I suffered from all sorts of physical symptoms. He is on to his next church.
    By the grace of God, I have turned this experience into an opportunity to learn and educate myself and am passing that knowledge on. And, yes, he was a great preacher. It was very, very hard to see through his outer persona, as he is a rigidly “moral” person and very charming and fun to be around. He avoids the outward sins of adultery, drug use, pornography, etc., but, boy, does he mess with your mind and heart. He still thinks of himself as not having a divisive bone in him!
    To complicate things, he developed as enemies in our church several very narcissistic men, and their behavior in their actions to destroy him were also despicable. I was glad to leave the whole bunch. These type of pastors have victims who desperately need understanding and affirmation, especially when they still associate with those who continue to think of the NPD pastor as wonderful. It all feels so crazy and unreal.

  21. And also look for this personality heading up stand-alone “ministries” with little or no accountability.

  22. As I read this post and the comments I want to start to cry in relief to see that there are people out there who understand. I worked for a NPD pastor for several years and left my job very wounded. As if that wasn’t enough, when the NPD pastor was finally fired he came after my husband with a law suit. It’s part of the NPD to need to find a scapegoat, and it was us. The denomination completely turned a blind eye to the lawsuit–we were lay people and thus dispensable– he was a “Pastor”. Once the elders and all the staff were deposed for the lawsuit and the truth was revealed, the NPD went running out of town dropping the suit, but only after three years of making us suffer through the worry, the way our name was smeared in our small community, and the out-of-pocket legal expenses.

    All of you have explained it so well–the charm; the support of people who say they don’t care what he did, they don’t want to lose him; the fact that he destroys people…thank you for all the input!

    We all have narcissist tendencies, but NPD is different. Something important is missing in them that is in the rest of us–empathy? a conscience? ability to self-evaluate? I wish so much that the church at large could understand better because our current church institution is a perfect set up for NPD pastors. We just can’t go back–not to any church.

  23. Suzie,
    Thanks for telling your story here. I confess that I’d forgotten about this post and it fits well with one I’m attempting to write today.

    My family’s experience with a couple of NPD types was very costly for us – both spiritually and monetarily. I look forward to the day when I can freely tell the whole story.

    Bill

  24. All in one inclusive:

    link to perrynoble.com
    <

  25. I will be involved in a meeting tomorrow night to discuss firing our NPD pastor. I can’t begin to tell you what he’s done to people. And what he is about to do to our church. Sigh. No good way out of this one.

    Please pray for us.

  26. I am being destroyed by NPD deacons at the moment and just being me means I am on his list of people to exclude, destroy and kick out. My church life has become pretty shitty in a matters of months.

  27. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 That’s who you are all describing.. That passage is not talking about people in the world because people in the world never had a “form of godly devotion.” They are called ungodly. So these ones are those who profess to be Christians but are not. The ending command is pretty tough but plain: “Have nothing to do with them”

  28. So amazing to read all this we have a person at church that is NPD was a leader, but most enjoyed putting the pastor down, and any one else. /a family was destroyed because of him. A child lived with her grandmother 15 years and was talked into leaving her because of him. What can we as true Christians do to reveal these sick people put a stop to them it has got to stop.

What do you think?