Churches vulnerable to narcissistic leaders

Yesterday, I wrote about narcissistic leaders in the church. I outlined what narcissism is and then pointed out three ways we can limit narcissistic tendencies within our church. You can read that post here.

In this post, I want to think about the kind of churches and situations that are vulnerable to exploitation from narcissistic leaders. Here are different examples and churches that may be in danger.

Dwindling churches

If your church has dwindled down to a handful of faithful folks left behind, you may well be ripe for a revitalisation work. Such churches are most definitely ripe for narcissists to exploit. I want to be clear, not everybody who undertakes a revitalisation is a narcissist. But it is true that narcissists will be drawn to such situations.

A church that has dwindled in number – especially one that has dwindled down from previously numerically successful days – will inevitably attract people who think they are special and are able to turnaround what others couldn’t. It is not hard to see how somebody with a saviour complex, who believes they are special and uniquely talented, will be drawn to a turnaround church.

Exceptionalist churches

Any church that thinks it is special will not cope well with anyone who doesn’t also think they are special in exactly the same way. If a church keeps people by insisting there is nowhere else for them to go, we are the only truly biblical church locally, nobody else is properly biblical, they will feel the need to seek out somebody else who affirms their exceptionalism.

Narcissistic structures – churches that view themselves as special, exceptional and the only true church locally (or more widely) – will attract narcissistic leaders. They will not want a leader who challenges their structures because the structure itself is narcissistic. They will only cope with a narcissistic leader who affirms their exceptional status. Only somebody who thinks they are special, and can only be understood by other special people, will want to go into structures that view themselves as special and only properly understood by exceptional people.

Abused churches

Churches that have suffered abuse or trauma of one sort or another are also susceptible to narcissistic leaders. If your church has been through a difficult time, or has been abused, it is easy to see how you would want somebody who will make it all better. Everybody in that situation will long for somebody to come in and heal the brokenness and resolve the issues.

It is not hard to see how such a situation will appeal to a narcissist. I am the special guy who will come and resolve all the problems. I can fix what has been broken. I am the one specially gifted to make everybody feel better. I will definitely heal whatever divisions exist. Churches that have been abused by leaders in the past are vulnerable to charismatic narcissists who will promise to resolve all past hurts and bind up all wounds.

“Successful” churches

Churches that had a particularly fruitful ministry may well be vulnerable to narcissistic leaders. A particularly beloved minister who, by God’s grace, had an especially fruitful ministry may retire or move on. As the church is looking for somebody new, especially if the church remains large and numerically successful, there is a vulnerability to narcissistic leadership.

If everybody recognises the outgoing minister as a gifted, great leader, it is easy to see how a narcissist would be drawn to such a role. Those who view themselves as exceptionally special will be drawn by the idea that they – and they alone – could continue the much vaunted work. A church that is looking for a new minister following a particularly fruitful period or minister is vulnerable to people who view themselves as exceptional and special seeking to lead that work.

Divided churches

All churches will have problems. But churches with open divisions will be vulnerable to narcissists. They are vulnerable in two ways. They may be vulnerable to those who would insist that they, and they alone, can lead the church in such a way that the divisions might be healed by the exceptional leader. All that is required is that you all lay down your views and submit to the leadership of the special one who will make all things well.

Alternatively, divided churches may be vulnerable to narcissists who seek to exploit the divisions so that they may leverage themselves into leadership roles. They may not be applying for the pastorate but might come into the church, knowing of divisions within, and seek to exploit them so as to split the church and appoint themselves to leadership roles as the church divides. Narcissists are renowned for making decisions on behalf of other people to serve their own narcissistic ends. They may stoke up divisions, creating gossip and discontent, so that they may leverage themselves into a leadership role among a dissenting group.

Multi-site churches

Perhaps this may be a controversial one, but I would suggest multi-site churches are inherently built around a narcissistic principle. Why is it that we cannot permit these campuses (or whatever we end up calling them) become independent? Essentially, it stems from the main guy wanting to remain the main guy even as they plant out. It may be justified in terms of having the best speaker preaching at all churches, or maximising ministry whilst minimising outlay, but it always ends up with the main guy around whom it is built remaining the main guy within what becomes an effective pseudo-denomination of its own.

Whilst it may be possible to be involved in the leadership of one of the sites without being a narcissist, it is obvious how somebody wishing to take on the role of Lead Pastor over all the sites might well be one. The model lends itself to leadership by personality which feeds the very exceptionalism and sense of self-importance that narcissists crave. It also has the knock-on effect of raising what would be the pastor of a single church of people to an apparently (should we consider such things a measure of success, and for the avoidance of doubt, we shouldn’t) successful pastor over multiple sites containing many more churches.

Resourcing churches

In one sense, there is nothing wrong with a church saying they want to resource other churches. In fact, it is entirely right and proper. But churches that set themselves up to be the hub through which all resources travel, so that they can be the ones to setup other churches and send others into ministry will inevitably attract narcissists.

Being such a resourcing church can easily redound to our earthly glory. We are the ones who are seen to be planting churches, sending people into mission, training up pastors, etc. Somebody who believes they are special and who ought to be recognised as such will inevitably be drawn to a church that is set up to look special. Rather than funds and resources being sent from source to where they are needed, resourcing/hub churches suck in all available resources – keeping much of it for themselves – and then deign to use what was never intended for them to impress others by passing on in part what could easily be sent entirely apart from them. Such places are vulnerable to narcissists who will see it as an opportunity to advance their own standing and sense of self-importance.