By Jeremy Caris
Although narcissism is a broad subject, it is marked by an exaggerated self-importance and perceived superiority, abnormal levels of selfishness and entitlement, and extreme self-centeredness. Generally speaking, a narcissist is a person who thinks too highly of themselves and continuously feeds on the egotistic admiration from others, typically rooted in unresolved and exaggerated feelings of inferiority and shame. As a result, they often manipulate and exploit others to fuel their delusions and fend off the ever-looming threat of severe depression. People who pathologically display these characteristics may be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissism Is Everywhere
Today, in the business and political world, narcissistic behavior is often celebrated, encouraged, and even taught to some degree. In fact, it can be argued that narcissistic behavior even contributes to their success (as they define it). But it is not only limited to the business and political world. Narcissism affects every area of culture because it affects people. Therefore, it affects churches, ministries, and families as well. Narcissism is not a church issue—it is a human issue.
Diagnosing Narcissistic Personality Disorder is definitely beyond my expertise and the scope of this blog, but I wish I would have been able to at least identify the signs of it many years ago as a leader in the Church. It is my personal conviction that most narcissists probably need inner healing, psychological counseling, and someone to walk with them and provide personal accountability to help them overcome it. Unfortunately, the very nature of narcissism opposes the likelihood that they will seek the help they need.
I also want to be clear that my intent is not to inspire a “witch hunt.” Rather, I have found that the more I understood the roots, behavior, and effects of narcissism, the more compassion I have for those whose lives are deeply affected by it on all sides. So in sharing this, I hope to help equip you to face narcissism with some understanding and with compassion for those involved—especially within the Church.
Identifying Narcissism & Narcissistic Traits
There are many excellent resources available with lists of some of the most common traits and helpful pointers to identify narcissism. Inspired by those lists, I have compiled my own list of situational narcissistic traits, in the way that I have personally observed them within the Church.
- Narcissists approach social interaction from a very intellectual place. They don’t really care how you feel unless it directly affects their life, such as your ability to meet their needs. At the same time, they have an overly heightened sensitivity to any type of emotion or behavior which they perceive to be a personal insult or an indication of assault on their superiority. The bottom line is that if it doesn’t affect them, it usually doesn’t matter enough for them to care.
- Since they have difficulty empathizing with others, they often minimize or trivialize the emotions, opinions, and ideas of others. They don’t want to talk about you, they want to talk about themselves, their plans, their accomplishments… unless they are trying to learn how to manipulate and exploit you for their service or ego.
- They have difficulty maintaining meaningful relationships with anyone who is not family (since family is unavoidable). Even with extended family, they have to be the one ultimately in charge.
- Social situations are typically well planned and may feel disingenuous because they almost always have some specific end goal in mind. Otherwise, they socialize to become or feel important, to establish or enforce their power, control, and superiority, or to fuel their ego and vanity.
- Narcissists typically have no time for anyone who does not offer them anything, is not vulnerable to flattery, and does not seem to care about their narcissistic requirements. But they make time to flatter people who they perceive to be important, useful to them, or who show signs of reverence or admiration toward them. Flattery seems to be a common tool of either a happy, or possibly a desperate, narcissist.
- They don’t know how to think or behave properly on their own because their deep and unresolved shame and insecurities have been such a prominent factor in their life, so they mirror the ideas and behavior of those whom they believe to be an authority. They become masters at copying others. Therefore, their behavior, beliefs, and ideals change whenever they begin to admire different authorities.
- They are never wrong in the moment and they never truly apologize. They will say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” but they will never tell you they are sorry for their actions. They will only admit guilt long after the case. Saying that they recognized their error and corrected it long after the fact allows them to seem mature at a later date.
- They have no problem exaggerating or distorting facts and past events to support their agenda or to manipulate others. This involves a lot of blame-shifting, which results in accusations against others and labeling people in an attempt to marginalize anyone who opposes them or makes them feel belittled. They always want a final admission of guilt from someone; in part, so they can make it clear that they are not the one to blame (which would be a perceived blow to their superiority).
- They are subtly divisive and may even set people against one another overtly and deliberately. This is especially true when they have to interact with both a husband and wife and they perceive that one of them admires them but the other does not. They don’t respect the boundaries of marriage or other relationships; they only care about maintaining the fulfillment of their narcissistic demands.
- They are highly driven to “win” at everything since a loss triggers their deep feelings of inferiority. Therefore, they are very harsh on themselves when it come to their own performance. They will not relent until they feel it is clear that they have “won.” They are very sore losers and are likely to cheat or change the rules if necessary to come out or remain on top.
- Narcissists love confrontation, so much so that what others may view as an argument, they see as a joyful opportunity because it gives them reason to relentlessly engage someone until that person concedes. They are either then the winner, or if they have highly developed abilities of persuasion (as many do ultimately develop), then they twist things until they receive repentance, admiration, or even flattery, fueling their ego. Arguments become a means of narcissistic satisfaction.
- Narcissists are jealous and deeply resentful of the success of others around them since it makes them feel that their superiority is being challenged. They may even view the success of others around them as a betrayal if their ego is not reaffirmed quickly.
Narcissists in positions of leadership:
- Typically, they have a “king” or “queen” mentality and carry a strong sense of entitlement, requiring others to serve them in ways that they would never serve themselves. They cannot stand to work for or serve others—they must be the one in control. They may have tolerated working for or serving others in order to “climb the ladder” of power, but once they have done so, they are not about to do anything they view as menial, common, or “ladder climbing” again. Instead, they will always find a way to get others to do those things for them.
- They do not recognize boundaries with those close around them because, as is typical with any narcissist, they seem to believe that others exist for their service. They want “yes men” who will do what they expect and never confront them, try to balance them out, or do things their own way. Opposing their wishes, plans, or demands may trigger what has become known as narcissistic rage, which is not only real anger, but it is also a power play to regain perceived control.
- Since they act as if others exist to serve them, they have no problem delegating work. Yet because they have a delusion of their own superiority, they feel that they need to micro-manage everything they delegate. They do not allow leaders under them the freedom to actually lead. Instead, they expect leaders under them to micro-manage others in turn, to take the blame for any failures, but to pass on any success to their accounts.
- Narcissistic leaders are only willing to take blame indirectly when they recognize that it reinforces their position of superiority. In other words, they may say, “I’m ultimately the one responsible for the blame since I’m the leader,” because it makes them seem like they are taking the high road of accountability. But like any narcissist, they will not admit personal guilt in the moment.
- They create high stress working and living environments marked by an atmosphere of relentless anxiety, fear of failure, and emotional fatigue. This results in an ongoing turnover of people close around them or on the staff they employ, which they typically attempt to diminish through guilt and blame-shifting.
Now that I’ve painted a fairly clear picture of what narcissism often looks like, let me illustrate what I mean by the term “spiritual narcissism.” Spiritual narcissism is simply the flavor that narcissism takes on when it is blended with spirituality. In truth, narcissism is diametrically opposed to the gospel of Christ and His Kingdom, as well as any religion that practices piety, humility, love, and service. That is why I believe that spiritual narcissism deserves a category of its own.
I can only speculate how spiritual narcissism plays out in other religions (or in business or politics for that matter), but I have, unfortunately, seen it up close and personal within the church world. In fact, I’ve developed a keen sensitivity to it. I would hope that I don’t have to qualify this statement with the fact that I love the Church, my life’s calling is to the Church, and the vast majority of believers in the Church, including leaders, do not fall within this category. Yet it is a reality because the Church involves real people in all stages of growth and maturity. I’m particularly focused on spiritual narcissism because I’ve seen the spiritual and emotional abuse it causes in churches, ministries, and Christian communities.
The Narcissistic Minister
It should be an oxymoron, but by far, the worst situation is when the lead minister is a narcissist. They carry the hallmark traits typical of narcissism, except that they are constantly promoting or reinforcing their own superior spirituality and greater maturity as well. It’s not so much about winning as much as it is about being the best and brightest in the room. Obviously, they never say it outright because they know intellectually that real spiritual maturity necessitates humility. In turn, they become masters at promoting themselves while wearing a mask of humility.
They talk a lot but listen very little. To be more precise, they only listen for what they want to hear or to find perceived weaknesses which they can pounce upon and take advantage of. They may present it to you as problem solving, counseling, or even love, while it is usually for the purpose of reinforcing their dominance and your dependence upon them, for promoting some deeper agenda, or to solicit your admiration and praise for “caring enough to confront you.”
To balance this reality, let me state clearly that any sincere pastor will care enough to confront you, will counsel you, and will help you with the issues in your life. They will be truly humble, yet strong and secure. If you are not familiar enough with them on a personal level, you may not be able to tell the difference from the outside looking in. It’s the motivation that makes the actions right or wrong. Be careful not to make assumptions about anyone’s inner motivations and mistakenly turn against a leader who actually is legitimate.
Narcissistic Church Culture
When the lead minister is a narcissist, there is a definite culture or atmosphere established in their church or ministry that reproduces narcissistic behaviors within the body. As Jesus said, you will know a tree by it’s fruits (Mat 7:16). For instance, one thing you will always find is a prevalent attitude of elitism. You will also often find a deep sense of competition juxtaposed against leaders who are hesitant to make decisions. Leaders serving under a narcissistic leader quickly learn that they can never be good enough, can never make the right decisions, and are always going to be corrected in some way because the narcissistic leader is always working to reinforce their position and superiority.
Remember though, that narcissism is a human condition, not a Church condition. Therefore, sometimes it is present in a church even if the leader is not narcissistic. For instance, some people model a mild form of spiritual narcissism by carrying an air of spiritual superiority about themselves at their work or with their family. They may even act this way in the church because they believe they stand out as special among the rest of the church. People like this often feel the need to compete with others, especially to look superior, happier, and better off.
The Rogue Narcissist
Another version of spiritual narcissism at work in churches is more damaging. A rogue narcissist is what I would call a person who is not in a position of leadership in a church but believes they are entitled to be. They fully display the traits of a narcissist. They believe that by revealing their deep spirituality and knowledge, it is only reasonable that people will receive them as an authority in their individual lives and, hopefully, that church leaders will eventually come to them for advice, counsel, and ask them to be part of the leadership. These are all delusions, of course, because although they do often succeed to “catch a few fish,” they most often get booted out by the church leadership.
They are always talking about what they know, debating with anyone who will engage them, talking about their constant dreams and visions, or telling someone else what to do. Simultaneously, they will caution others who share their testimonies of spiritual experiences or wisdom from God because it triggers their insecurities. They view it as a challenge, and therefore, they also often oppose others with a strong leadership gift or real maturity. The exception to that is when they believe they may be able to eventually influence them, control them, or use them to become part of the “in crowd.”
The rogue narcissist will knowingly manipulate anyone who allows it, although they will never admit to it. Their intent is to make people feel dependent upon them as a spiritual leader, which in their mind is ultimately for the greater good. They try to train people to question their ability to get things right without their superior help, creating unhealthy spiritual codependent relationships. They will be sure to go out of their way to be there for people who are at a low point because they know they can likely exploit the situation for their agenda.
Again, let me balance this with the truth that sincere friends do go out of their way to be there for you, encourage you, help you through the hard times, and so on. But their motivation isn’t for control, power, or to fuel their own ego. Be careful not to flippantly assume you know what a person’s motivations may be.
The rogue narcissist constantly stirs up drama and situations between people in the body, but they especially love to engage church leadership and rob them of time and attention. One way or another they become a topic of conversation at every church leadership meeting as long as they are attending. And they will take as much attention as they can get as long as they can get it. Remember, a narcissist never relents—they don’t quit until they win. And in a sick way, they eventually require either a position of power, effective control, and constant admiration, or the “left foot of fellowship,” as some people used to call it.
Getting kicked out of churches becomes a normal and expected part of the cycle they endure. They think to themselves, “Of course established leaders are going to remove me since they must feel threatened by my presence.” They’ll twist the truth to make themselves a humble victim and suddenly it becomes a win for them in their book. Then, they move on to another church and repeat the same cycle.
What To Do
I don’t have a profound statement to summarize how to deal with spiritual narcissism or the people who display it’s traits. Historically, I’ve followed the principle behind, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” although I don’t consider them enemies by any means. I’ve tried to buffer others whom I was responsible for from the damage and abuse as much as possible. But at the time, I didn’t understand narcissism and I simply didn’t know what else to do.
Today, I can only tell you what I would do now about spiritual narcissism. Serving from a position of leadership, I would be far less likely to tolerate it for long. I would love the person but be firm and straightforward with them privately about my concerns as I observe trademark indicators of narcissism.
If I was serving in a pastoral capacity, I would help them walk out of it if they would humble themselves, although I do not recommend that most people put themselves into such a situation. You would need to be strong and secure in your self, very perceptive and discerning about others, unmotivated by flattery, and willing to shut it down and walk away if it becomes clear that they are taking the opportunity as a tactic to drain your time, energy, and resolve.
For situations where you believe a church leader or someone of direct spiritual authority in your life is narcissistic, first, don’t jump to conclusions. Anyone who has a leadership gift on their life may come across as very strong and sure of themselves, and with good reason to be. You don’t want to create situations where there are none. But, if you observe clear and consistent indications that they are narcissistic, pray for them… and then make sure you are not allowing them to maintain any type of direct personal control over your life, your time, your free will, or your money.
If they make you feel that you cannot survive without them or that you will be cursed if you remove yourself from under their authority, that’s a really bad sign. If the idea of questioning them or telling them, “no,” causes you to feel deep anxiety and fear of backlash, that is a bad sign. If you’ve confronted them about your concerns in the past and you’ve walked away thanking them for the disciplinary confrontation that resulted, that’s a strong sign indicating they may be high level manipulators. If that is the case, you will not likely overcome their control unless you learn to recognize the way they think and continually confront them. As a result, they will make you seem to appear to be what I described as a rogue narcissist and kick you out of their church. If you are dealing with a leader bearing traits such as these, you will never be able to separate cordially or without damage of some sort—you will have to just walk away.