In one of Imbi’s many interviews for her documentary on the church & church leadership in the 21st Century (coming later this year), she asked one of the recognized church leaders (I can’t remember which one) 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.