How do we limit narcissistic leadership tendencies in the church?

Churches are places where it is very easy for one man to hold all the power. Even in churches with multiple elders, it is possible for one man to be the de facto leader who wields a power that nobody else holds. Just as many narcissists end up in business and politics, both being concerned with power, the church holds a similar attraction for narcissistic believers. Those who crave power in Christian circles are bound to be drawn towards leadership roles where they may dominate.

The problem with narcissism is that it is fundamentally centred on the self. The problem with sinners is that we are fundamentally centred on ourselves (at the centre of sin is ‘I’ and all that). So it is very easy for sinners to end up sharing some of the personality traits of narcissists, being as we are essentially focused on the same thing. But, of course, narcissim goes beyond mere self-centredness of a general kind and manifests in nine traits:

  • Exaggerated self-importance
  • Fantasies about beauty, success, and/or power dominate thoughts.
  • Belief one is special and can only relate only to other “special” people.
  • Need to be admired all the time.
  • Belief they are entitled to most things.
  • Manipulation and taking advantage of others.
  • Lack of empathy; ignoring the feelings and needs of others.
  • Envy other people.
  • Haughty or arrogant behaviour.

Common behaviours of narcissists include:

  • Frequent lies and exaggeration
    • Narcissists often strive to make themselves seem superior and “special” by showing off, bragging, taking undeserved credit, and other forms of self-aggrandizement
  • Rarely admitting flaws & aggression when criticised
    • When challenged, the narcissist is likely to either fight (e.g., temper tantrum, excuse-making, denial, blame, hypersensitivity, etc.) or take flight (bolt out the door, avoidance, silent treatment, sulking resentment, or other forms of passive-aggression.
  • False image projection
    • Narcissists tend to project false, idealized images of themselves to the world, in order to hide their inner insecurities. This can exhibit itself physically, romantically, sexually, socially, religiously, financially, materially, professionally, academically, or culturally. The underlying message is: “I’m better than you!” or “Look at how special I am — I’m worthy of everyone’s love, admiration, and acceptance!”
  • Boundary violation
    • Many narcissists enjoy getting away with violating rules and social norms. Examples include direct or subtle marginalizing remarks, public or private shaming and humiliation, sardonic humor and sarcastic comments, internet trolling, angry and hateful speech, and virulent attacks on undesirable individuals and groups. Many narcissists take pride in their destructive behaviors, as their machinations provide them with a hollow (and desperate) sense of superiority and privilege.
  • Emotional invalidation and coercion
    • Narcissists habitually invalidate others’ thoughts, feelings, and priorities, showing little remorse for causing people pain. They often blame their victims for having caused their own victimization. Many have unpredictable mood swings and are prone to emotional drama. They become upset at any signs of independence and self-affirmation (“Who do you think you are!?”). They turn agitated if you disagree with their views or fail to meet their expectations. They are sensitive to criticism, but quick to judge others. 
  • Manipulation
    • Narcissists have a tendency to make decisions for others to suit their own agenda. Narcissists are also fond of using guilt, blame, and victimhood as manipulative devices. They often become critical, angry, intimidating, and/or hostile toward those who fail to bow down to their directives. They are often highly aggressive, with punitive measures (tangible or psychological) executed toward those who fail to recognize and obey their self-perceived authority.

I know you’re probably weighing up in your mind all the people you think this applies to. I shall leave you to decide which, if any, apply to you.

But my purpose in putting this out there isn’t to start labeling people. I think there is a ready and easy temptation to start pointing fingers at others. But if the ministry is particularly prone to such leadership, how can we make sure that we aren’t leading in these ways and how do we stop our structures from allowing us to lead in these ways?

Genuinely plural leadership

It is easy to tell ourselves that we have a plurality of elders because we have more than one person that we call ‘elder’. But if your elders play second-fiddle to your pastor – especially if you use terms like Lead Pastor, Senior Pastor or such things – you immediately undercut genuine plurality. If you adopt the concept of primes inter pares, you are effectively setting one elder above another. Worst of all, if you self-select your elders and make sure they are all ‘yes-men’ who cannot call you out, then you have actively sought to undermine true plurality and parity.

But an eldership where all elders are genuinely co-equal will not allow any one man to run amok. Elderships that have the ability to stop a pastor (or anyone else in a leadership position) from always setting the agenda, always pushing through their ideas and never being challenged will all help to limit narcissistic tendency. The more power that is shared meaningfully, the more the each elder is seen to humbly and willingly submit to the others – both in their teaching and their leadership in different areas – the more we restrict the possibility for narcissistic leadership.

If we allow things to centre on one man, we feed narcissism. The more we spread authority and power – functionally and relationally – we limit the possibility of narcissism being able to take hold.

Make space to hear criticism

If you think you are special and are the only one who could possibly lead your church to glory, then you will not react well to criticism. In fact, you are likely to do all you can to make sure that nobody is able to criticise. The show must stay on the road; the illusion cannot be broken. The only way to avoid such narcissism is to actively make space for people who are likely to criticise to be able to do so.

Whilst not a catch-all defence, the congregational members’ meeting would be the natural and obvious place for this. Allowing people to hear your plans and then critique them publicly will limit the possibility to any messiah complex. Allowing people to have an active stake in formulating and discussing the direction of church matters will also help. Giving people the room to tell you that your plans either won’t work or need modifying will help to impede the inevitable pride that will well up in us if we only ever surround ourselves with those who tell us we’re wonderful; those we’ve appointed on the principle that we’re a superstar and the team will only function if they all acknowledge it is so.

But beyond church meetings, allowing people space to criticise your plans and leadership is important. It doesn’t mean they will always be right but it cannot possibly be the case that they will always be wrong. Narcissism thrives when people cannot critique thoughts and ideas – whether that is because there is no space to do so or because they know the leader will unload on them if they dare to demur.

Centring on Christ not “your” ministry

If you view the church as the means of advancing your fame, your name, your glory you will inevitably exhibit narcissistic tendency. Most of us are happy enough paying lip service to the idea of serving for God’s glory. But it is easy to tie God’s glory to our ministry success, which is only a short leap from ministry success to our own personal advancement. We can then connect the dots straight from God’s glory to our personal glory and serve our narcissistic tendencies whilst salving our Christian conscience.

But, of course, it is God’s glory we ought to be serving. And that, ultimately, has nothing to do with your ministry success as we might judge success. Your ministry is a success if you have been faithful to Christ and faithfulness might mean ploughing on in difficult circumstances, sharing authority as scripture commands, receiving no platforms, seeing minimal numerical impact for the kingdom and then retiring in obscurity. And if you faithfully do what the Lord calls you to do, then your ministry has been a success regardless of how important you look to anybody else.

The Lord delights to serve his glory in ways that appear humanly lame. Isaiah’s ministry of nobody listening, Jeremiah’s 40 years of no response, Jesus’ own ministry ending on a cross. And the Lord’s word to Jeremiah is the same to us: ‘seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not’. Centring our ministry on Christ’s glory, and worrying much less about our own, will help. The moment we tie “our ministry” and worldly success or platforms to Christ’s glory, we have shifted away from our call to faithfulness and instead indulged our narcissism in seeking great things for ourselves.