By Samuel López De Victoria, Ph.D.
Narcissism is rampant among Christian leaders. Many ministries can often be blindly headed up by highly narcissistic leaders. They are in the churches, in denominational positions, in the mission field, and in mission/para-church organizations. In order to understand how bad this narcissism could be we need to first understand narcissism. Knowing what it looks like helps us to spot it when we see it. Let’s explain narcissism. Everyone is a narcissist to some degree. How is that? Having too little narcissism means that you have a low self-esteem. Having a little is healthy because it means you take care of yourself in the important things needed for basic survival in the world and society. Having too much narcissism is destructive. I call this extreme narcissism. This is the type of narcissism I will address.
Let’s define extreme narcissism. Egotistical preoccupation with self, personal preferences, aspirations, needs, success, and perception by others are at the core of extreme narcissism. As I have said in a previous article (Lopez De Victoria, 2008, para. 3), “narcissism, in lay terms, means that a person is totally absorbed in self. The extreme narcissist is the center of his own universe. To an extreme narcissist, people are things to be used. It usually starts with a significant emotional wound or a series of them culminating in a major trauma of separation/attachment. No matter how socially skilled an extreme narcissist is, he/she has a major attachment dysfunction. The extreme narcissist is frozen in childhood. He/she became emotionally stuck at the time of his/her major trauma of separation/attachment. In my work with extreme narcissist patients I have found that their emotional age and maturity corresponds to the age they experienced their major trauma. This trauma was devastating to the point it almost killed them emotionally. The pain has never totally gone away and the bleeding is continuous. In order to survive, this child had to construct a protective barrier that insulates him/her from the external world of people. He/she generalized that all people are harmful and cannot be trusted. The protective insulation barrier he/she constructed is called a false persona. He/she created a false identity. This identity is not the true person inside.” With the creation of a false person the real person inside practically disappears. As he/she grows older , the false person hardly knows that real person any longer.
So how do ministries attract narcissists? Some ministries, especially ones with great public exposure and influence, are like sweet-smelling fly-paper to a narcissist. Since grandiosity implies being bigger and better, then the public forum of doing some ministries is an attractive opportunity for selfish promotion in the name of God. Doing God’s will has come to mean becoming a superstar. Young and upcoming leaders have been falsely trained to think that in order to be a great Christian you have to be in the limelight, however big that might be. We have forgotten that humility is having a servant’s heart and knowing that we have feet of clay. The greatest must be the servant of all. True promotion comes only from God and is blessed by God. We cannot bless or anoint ourselves.
There are many types of false personas or identities that an extreme narcissist can create. Some have the ability to change into a variety of identities according to the situation. The wounded child inside may choose to present a front of a tough and austere individual. He/she may look, by appearance, intimidating and scary to the average person. He can also play the “nice guy/person” whom everyone likes. Another version is diplomatic, proper, and appearing to care but in reality does not. A very likeable form of extreme narcissism can also be that of the comedian role. He/she is the life of the party and has everyone in stitches, making them laugh constantly. Everyone wants to include this person because they are fun to be with. Try to get close or ask personal questions as to how he/she is internally feeling and they will try to quickly distract you. They will sidestep the question with another joke, making you suddenly forget what you were asking. Narcissists are very skilled at dodging and ducking personal questions. If you press them, they will then slot you as “unsafe.” They will start to avoid you and exclude you from their life. There is also the success oriented narcissist who will be your friend and keep you close to him/her as long as you are useful. Once you do not have anything more to offer and he/she has taken all they wanted from you, you are history. You are cut off. He/she will no longer look for you or need you.
The following is a limited list of the types of narcissists you may encounter in ministries. I’m sure the list can be endless but the basic core is the same. One kind of extreme narcissist in ministry is the one that recruits you to help him with his ministry. Note, I say “HIS” ministry, not necessarily God’s. As long as you can make him look successful, he needs you. When you start to question things or challenge his thinking or views, you are categorized as “rebellious” and “prideful.” This is a nice way to theologically turn the tables on you and make him look innocent and sincere. You are seen as a malcontent or stubborn person. It is a set-up in order to dispose of you. These types of narcissists are very skilled at looking so concerned when they say, “I am concerned for our precious and dear brother/sister so-and-so.” In this way, he slanders you and stigmatizes you to your fellow co-workers and those you serve. He does this with the disguise of Christian concern. These narcissists are extremely skilled at managing their image and carefully putting themselves above the rest.
Another aspect of extreme narcissism in ministry is seen when one is threatened by a person who is genuinely more gifted than they are and potentially more influential than they are. They don’t want their lightning to be taken from them. They jealously guard it rather than being very excited and celebrating the fresh wind of God’s spirit on that newcomer. It takes incredible humility to submit our egos to God and rejoice with someone who is better than we are. True greatness is when a greater-one serves a lessor-one. I know of a case where an influential minister cut off all dealings with a co-worker simply because he had obtained a distinguished academic higher degree. He felt insecure and could not take having a person with more pedigrees than him with him.
There are those in ministry who exaggerate their accomplishments or twist them in order to make themselves look bigger in peoples’ eyes. I call this “magical thinking.” They like to create something out of nothing. In keeping with this, the extreme narcissist can fall prey to grandiose fantasies about themselves and their ministry. I remember having lunch with the head pastor of a large church. I could not help but notice how in the couple of hours we were together, he never asked anything about me. I don’t need his interest but I often gauge peoples’ narcissism on the ability of a person to connect with others and enter their world. Jesus is our example of this. During our whole lunch all he could do was to talk about himself incessantly and what he was doing. How sad.
Another head pastor I’ve known once went on for over an hour about all the fantastic things he was going to do for God. He never gave credence to others in his community who had labored for years doing the same but with fewer results, less fanfare, and yet were humble and happy. I thought this man quite arrogant. I bit my lip and simply tried to encourage him to seek God in his life. A year later, I heard that his congregation got rid of him. Maybe now he is no longer a narcissist if he learned his lesson. Pride comes before a great fall.
One major trait of an extreme narcissist is that he/she believes they do not need people. I can think of quite a few Christian leaders who look good up front but have no humility to value and seek to be truly one with their peers. These leaders only can function in “one-up/one-down” relationships. They do not know how to and cannot function with other godly peers. They are “lone-ranger” leaders. They disappear when you want to talk to them about their lives. After sending many letters of concern to a leader of this kind about his hypocritical public life in portraying himself as a superstar with no wrinkles, problems, or defects, a former co-leader simply received the response, “The Lord bless you”. This leader always publicly presented a squeaky clean image, having a perfect wife and children. Never mind that this great leader often complained in private about his constant stomach issues. Those who knew him saw him experience frequent depressive episodes as he stuffed his emotions and problems. Every few years when a peer and co-leader would start to point out areas of need in his life, he would pick up and go plant another church for God, so he said.
Another kind of narcissistic leader is the one stuck in a scholar-like persona. These types love to impress you with their deep and superior knowledge yet they are clinically dead. They can parse the Greek and Hebrew texts and quote all the classical theologians and yet they cannot stand anyone challenging their positions. Some of these make a sport of criticizing anything remotely emotional or fresh in the kingdom of God. They can deliver a treatise on why a men’s movement or another ministry is not of God. Since they are emotionally disconnected form their own heart and feelings, they easily disdain and mock emotional aspects of what God does in His kingdom. He erroneously considers his intellect and reason superior to what is really Spirit-guided holistic experiences. Reason is just one part of the equation of ultimate truth. Truth is a Person and that means that to experience Truth is to experience Christ in His totality. Experiencing Christ is not just an intellectual and linear exercise. It also involves the messy and non-linear world of our intuition and emotions. The main reason why many Christians get on the intellect-only bandwagon is because the promoters can be individuals who have stuffed their own painful and unresolved emotions and traumas. To do that, you have to split off your feelings and disconnect from the “heart.” The “heart” is erroneously equated with the emotional and therefore categorized as “wicked.” Hence such a person lives in his head. He becomes clinical, dry, and cold. This type of leader attracts similar kinds as himself. We must guard ourselves of pride. Accumulation of knowledge can puff up the intellect. It can create arrogant learners instead of broken and humble ones. God resists such.
There is another form of extreme narcissism that eludes most people. Most persons are fooled by this form because it is so subtle and deceptive. It is when the ego gets special attention through the role of being a victim. Welcome to the victimized extreme narcissist (Lopez De Victoria, 2010). Most persons recognize ego as arrogance but fail to see the subtle deception of ego when it takes the role of a being a victim. As kind and compassion-driven human beings, we easily are fooled by this form of extreme ego. The media constantly bombards us with the voices of the needy. The disenfranchised, the poor, the homeless, the hurting, the refugees, the abused, and the list goes on. What we often do not see is that we are many times shamed by these voices for not doing enough for them. All along it is easy to be manipulated as we respond from our hearts. The deception of the ego is that the narcissist can hide behind misfortune and victimization in order to shame you into feeling and believing that they suffer more than you do. They will say that you don’t care enough for them. They will make you feel that you have not done enough to help them. The ego wants attention, control, gain, and power over others by positioning itself as a “poor and helpless” victim. It does this all the while it soaks up the attention and control over others. In the eyes of an extreme narcissist, their situation is always right and totally justified. Instead of taking responsibility for self and consequences, this extreme narcissist tries to make others feel responsible for their plight. Because extreme narcissists are incredibly adept at the game of manipulation, they will always find a way to turn the tables on you. They will try to make you responsible and feel guilty for not helping them or taking their side and cause.
Even though this kind of victim narcissist can be found among those who are more public in ministry you tend to find more of these among those involved in relief and/or missionary work. How about the missionary who comes back to his home base to raise funds? Some of these, not all, can make you feel very guilty if you don’t help them. They almost imply that their cause is the only one. Their family has a pitiful look in the way they act or dress. Everyone has pity on them. Never mind that the wife or children could hate being on the field. Their smiles are empty. They have what I call a false pride in suffering for Christ. I don’t want to be harsh on these but sometimes going to the mission field is simply a cover-up for a person who is either lazy or would greatly fail in a modern cosmopolitan world due to being irresponsible and ill-prepared in life. When you take this kind of narcissist and combine it with a narcissist that might head up the mission organization then you could have both forms of extreme narcissism working hand in hand. Sometimes a missional leader can fall into the trap of exclusivity. He might fall into the temptation of being a doomsday-prophet trying to make you feel that it is “now or never.” Ignore his challenge and you will be left behind in terms of service to God. The narcissist can use such messages to lay guilt in order to recruit followers. I can think of groups whose leader has preached that their group is the one that God will use to finish reaching the world or that his group is the only group trying to recapture the true New Testament church while all other churches are to be pitied or avoided. Whatever legitimate or illegitimate doctrines or teachings they adopt, narcissists grab on to those that they perceive to be in neglect by other parts of the body of Christ and then ride those teachings all the way up to prideful exclusivism. They create a mindset in their followers just like the leader saying, “We are better because we have special truth.” Individual narcissism becomes group narcissism. The story goes on in many forms and gets repeated over and over. There are good but naïve Christians ready to swallow their story, falling into the manipulation of a skilled narcissist.
In this article I have tried to cover a slice of what a narcissist involved in ministry can look like. In no way do I mean to put down those ministers and ministries that are truly serving God out of humble submission to Christ’s lordship and love. These individuals are the type who can serve in the front, in the back, or anywhere with great contentment because they know whom they are really trying to please.
As you have been reading you may think that the extreme narcissist is a hopeless case. Even though traditional counseling, Christian or otherwise, has offered little to help an extreme narcissist, I have found that there is hope. To help the extreme narcissist he must be willing to recognize that he has a problem. He has to admit that he is carrying wounds and patterns of parental conditioning that contributed to his state. By seeking competent help that understands clearly how to heal these wounds he will be able to find his true God-created self. He will not have to then play protective image games any longer or abuse others in his path.
Lopez De Victoria S 200808 How to spot a narcissist. Lopez De Victoria, S. (2008). How to spot a narcissist. Retrieved October 3, 2010, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/08/04/how-to-spot-a-narcissist.
Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D., a former pastor/church planter teaches at Miami Dade College and also for the University of the Rockies graduate school of psychology. Dr. Sam has a thriving private counseling practice. He may be contacted via his website at www.DrSam.tv.