I have recently had the opportunity to read Chuck deGroat’s confronting book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (1). DeGroat’s purpose in this study is twofold: first, he explores the how and the why of narcissistic abuse within churches, and in pursuit of this goal he draws on his experience working with perpetrators and victims as he seeks to understand the complex dynamics involved. A secondary aim of the book is to provide readers with the knowledge and insights necessary to prevent narcissistic abuse before it occurs in congregational contexts. Throughout his timely work, deGroat does a fine job of describing the devastation wrought by narcissistic leaders within the church whilst simultaneously extending a measure of gracious understanding to narcissists themselves.
One of the few weaknesses of the book, however, is that it largely absolves congregations from complicity in fostering narcissistic churches (the title itself assumes that narcissism will always come from “without”). Perhaps this is hyper-criticism on my part, and I suspect that any study aiming to penetrate the complex and often hidden world of congregational dynamics would require its own volume (or two!). Yet it is a point worthy of being made. In the wake of narcissistic abuse from a church leader, it is often said that their hellish mixture of charisma, manipulation, and deceptive conduct had the effect of “fooling” innocent parishioners —thus absolving the congregation of any complicity. The cunning minister was perceived as being able to capitalize on a pervasive sense of blissful ignorance on the part of the congregation, whose goodwill toward the leader left them powerless to resist their evil machinations.
While the above scenario is an all-too-common reality, the dynamics involved in the relationship between narcissistic leadership and church congregations are likely to be more nuanced than they first appear. It is perhaps rather too reductive to assume that in all cases of narcissistic abuse within the church it is the result of a sole individual (i.e., a pastor or other leader) manipulating a whole congregation for her or his selfish benefit. That this can happen is clear, but one suspects that a range of enabling factors are at play that helps shape the ecclesial environment in which narcissism emerges.
Within the church context, I suggest that the problem of narcissistic abuse in leadership often has its origins in the expectations of congregations toward their leaders and that these expectations can reflect narcissistic longings. Most often, these expectations relate to an uncritical desire for self-preservation and a need to protect/enhance the institutional image. These expectations are then thrust upon the leader, whose job it is to realize these goals on behalf of the congregation.
This dynamic can help foster an environment whereby the leader feels themselves to be solely responsible for the “success” of “failure” (whatever these words precisely mean) of the church’s missional outcomes. It is easy to see how when times are good this dynamic can generate a sense of grandiosity and self-reliance in the mind of the minister or pastor. Perceiving themselves as an instrumental factor in the church’s success, the leader retreats into an internal sense of their utmost necessity, which is often reinforced by the congregation’s eagerness to celebrate and affirm the giftedness of the leader. Conversely, when the minister is perceived as “failing” the church (i.e., through declining numbers or decreased offerings), then the blame can frequently be placed at the foot of the minister without any concurrent examination about how congregational dynamics may have played a contributing part.
In both of these scenarios, the tendency of the congregations to outsource responsibility for the plight of the church to the “professional” leader can have disastrous consequences. Furthermore, it reflects an underlying sense of entitlement and avoidance of shared responsibility that reflect narcissistic traits. That these occur on a collective rather than individual-level does nothing, in my view, to lessen their impact. On this point, I was reminded of the justifications offered by many ordinary Germans in the post-war period who, keen to distance themselves from complicity in Nazism, chose instead to lay the fault solely at the feet of Adolf Hitler. It was Hitler, they alleged, who had “fooled” and “hypnotized” an entire nation of people who would have otherwise disapproved of such terrible excesses. Their guilt was that they had not discerned sooner what was truly happening. The reality, as we now know, was far more damning.
I conclude that any assessment of narcissism within churches should remain cognizant of the potential for an institutional form of narcissistic behaviour that operates behind a veneer of culture and tradition. While it is certainly the case that many church leaders possess an uncanny ability to manipulate congregations using a mixture of fear, charm, and power, this is often enabled by a group dynamic that confers upon leaders’ unrealistic expectations based on dubious notions of what it means to be “successful” in the marketplace of contemporary church life.
Chuck deGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (InterVarsity, 2020).