Recently a denominational leader within my denomination handed me a book with a fascinating and somewhat disturbing title: Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do About It, by Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls. I thought that this book would go to the bottom of my pile, to be read or skimmed in due time, if at all. But on the flight back home later that day, I did take a look and was struck by the cogency and relevance of the book's primary thesis: that indeed there are narcissistic persons who move into places of religious leadership and become “successful” – affirmed and appreciated in their roles. They can draw a crowd; their narcissism is not a liability, but is something that they actually leverage for the emotional connection they can make with their congregation. And the consequence is that – something I had not thought of before – the congregation itself becomes narcissist.
Narcissism, according to the authors, “is typified by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and power, rigidity, the inability to admit error, a sense of personal greatness, the use of power to manipulate and control others, an inability to feel or express remorse, and a lack of empathy for others” (p. 31). They then go on to note that all of us have some level of narcissistic behaviour, what we could call a self-centred and self-serving bent. However, when that narcissistic behaviour becomes extreme and when it is clothed in a religious veneer, it can easily lead to a highly dysfunctional form of religious leadership that often ends up within congregations who not only tolerate this behaviour, but actually endorse it.
The narcissist leader tend to be masters of emotional manipulation, of subtle non-truths (lies), and who live with a pathological need for attention and affirmation. Thus the shared life of the organization or the congregation ultimately revolves around them. They have no patience with any criticism or anyone who questions their decisions. They want compliant lieutenants. They want people around them who only agree with them, flatter them, and feed their egos.
This is dysfunctional leadership, of course. Congregations and organizations will grow, perilously, with such a personality – almost like moths to a flame – but the catalyst for destruction is inherent within such a pattern of behaviour, such that it is only a matter of time before a bad end.
What we need to do, of course, is learn how to recognize this behaviour early on, and learn how to not be swayed or impressed by those who are essentially narcissists – however attractive they may seem at first.
This book was written about religious leaders and pastors. And yet, I was struck by the chapter on the narcissistic church – a chapter that explores what it might mean that an organization, particularly a congregation, could also develop these kinds of harmful sensibilities, a kind of collective narcissism. The authors observe that groups – such as congregations – following the patterns of their leaders, are liable to mirror both their strengths and limitations and, potentially, their pathologies. Ball and Puls cite the example of a national narcissism in 1930’s Germany. What is noteworthy is how the collective – in this case a country – lose the capacity to think clearly and genuinely hold their leadership accountable. People are swayed by the "group think" – an assumption that as a group they are special, can do no wrong, and that their leader is above criticism.
How to respond? First, we ask: what are your leverage points for making a difference with a narcissistic pastor? Perhaps serving on an elders’ board, for example. Recognize what is happening and speak to what is needed, even if people are shocked that you are questioning “the lord’s anointed.” Sometimes our only leverage point is to distance ourselves from the leader and from the organization. That is, we leave the church; we resign from the organization. But if we have any kind of leverage, then we are morally obligated to do what we can to address the situation.
Second, if you are part of an organization that might come across as narcissistic, take the lead in emphasizing a different narrative: speak of how, as an organization or as a church, your group is doing its part, but that as a group you are no more exceptional or special than your partner/fraternal agencies. Uphold and affirm, as much as possible, your sister agencies and organizations and, most especially, how you can work together in common cause. If you are part of a narcissistic country, be an intentional internationalist – speaking about what it means to be part of a global interdependent community.
But, the main point: see it, know it – whether the narcissist leader or the organization – and don’t get sucked into that kind of an orbit.