The beloved priest-psychologist Henri Nouwen wasn’t trying to define narcissism, but he might as well have been, when he wrote:
The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints. One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.
This sad abandonment of the humble way of Jesus shows up today in pastors of large and small churches, in beloved Christian celebrities, prolific clergy authors and bloggers, dynamic church planters, and seemingly godly men and women. The frightening reality of narcissism is that it often presents in a compelling package. Narcissism is the “glittering image” we present to the world, as novelist Susan Howatch describes it in her novel Glittering Images, which tells the story of a mid-twentieth century clergy narcissist. Could it be that the very men and women who are called to be shepherds of the flock struggle most with narcissism?
Sadly, narcissism in the clergy is under studied. When I did my doctoral work over a decade ago, I discovered vast resources on pastoral wellbeing, including studies on burnout, addiction, and depression. I found popular articles on narcissistic leadership but an absence of studies on the prevalence of narcissism. I had a sense that we didn’t want the world to know our dirty little secret. When I started doing psychological assessments for pastors and church planters, I saw that narcissistic traits were often presented as strengths. Narcissism can be interpreted as confidence, strong leadership, clear vision, a thick skin.
A colleague of mine often says that ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality—who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week? While the vast majority of people struggle with public speaking, not only do pastors do it regularly, but they do it with “divine authority.” In my own work, which includes fifteen years of psychological testing among pastors, the vast majority of ministerial candidates test on the spectrum of Cluster B DSM-V personality disorders, which feature narcissistic traits most prominently. The rates are even higher among church planters.
A colleague of mine often says that ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality—who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week?
Elevations on the narcissistic spectrum are coupled with testimonies that include fear of major failure (often moral failure), profound shame, and secret addictions. Hidden in the heart of these shepherds is profound shame. Power keeps the shame and fear at bay—at least for some time. The narcissistic mask is an armor of self-protection which both defends the fragile self within, but offends, oppresses, and alienates the other.
Narcissist pastors are anxious and insecure shepherds who do not lead the sheep to still waters but into hurricane winds. I’ve attended and spoken at dozens of pastor’s conferences, and I see this anxiety abuzz in the comparison and competition, the showmanship and dress, the addictions to substances and fitness and social media and approval. I hear it in the anxious voice of a young pastor who was recently contacted by a literary agent and proudly proclaimed, “It’s my time. Now I launch!” I feel it in the inauthenticity of a prospective church planter whose overly optimistic answers to my sincere queries about his health leave me wondering whether he’s ever been honest with anyone. I sense it in the endless selfie posts of a trendy clergywoman whose daily social media displays seem to be a cry of “notice me.” I see it in the veteran pastor who deems himself wise and enlightened and speaks with condescension to young staff members.
In my lifetime, the classic image of the devoted parish pastor who could be trusted to rightly preach the word, diligently care for souls, and wisely lead the church has shifted dramatically. With major scandals in both Protestant and Catholic churches, trust in clergy is down significantly over the last twenty years. Clergy trust has “dropped steadily since 2009, down from a high of 67 percent in 1985, the pollster reported. Pastors are now seen as less trustworthy than judges (43%), day care providers (46%), police officers (56%), pharmacists (62%), medical doctors (65%), grade school teachers (66%), military officers (71%), and nurses (82%).”
Seminaries tasked with training the next generation of ordained clergy are also in decline. Amidst scandals ranging from televangelists to Catholic priests to megachurch superstars, the pastorate is no longer seen as a noble vocation as it once was. Given this general decline, there is even greater pressure for those pursuing ministry to be good enough, smart enough, winsome enough, inspiring enough, and confident enough to bring revitalization, start new churches, and draw the dechurched back. The vocation of parish pastor is not as sexy as it once was.
Interestingly, in my earliest years in ministry serving as a hybrid pastor-therapist, I was often asked to write references for prospective planters. My warnings about their narcissism were often read as recommendations of their gifts to inspire, their quick wit, strong leadership, charisma, charm, and influence. In retrospect, I see the damage done by those deemed ready to lead and plant churches. In too many post-denominational ministry networks today, where traditional ordination processes have been abandoned, young leaders are snatched up and deployed without proper training or soul formation, simply because they’ve been successful in other arenas.
We’ve not yet learned. But as stories of damaging narcissism increase, and as social media serves as an amplifier for victim’s voices, we may be approaching a reckoning.