Pastoral Narcissism
Opportunities for self-promotion by church leaders are proliferating. But is there an antidote?

It was a silly thing to do, but I couldn't stop myself. During a "get to know you" conversation with a few acquaintances and a man from the church I serve, we were talking about interests, passions, and areas of ministry. I tried to keep the focus on others at the table. But then it happened.

The man from my church made a statement that I interpreted as making light of me. The fuse was lit, and within a few moments I managed to work into the conversation the areas where I was leading and the wide impact of those projects. I subtly reminded everyone what our church had accomplished in the city. I even managed to throw in some attendance figures for good measure. I pushed everyone else out of the conversation's spotlight.

When it was over, I felt like I had binged on junk food. Self-loathing set in: I hate when I do this, and I hate it even more when I do it as a servant of Christ. Why do I keep falling into this temptation?

I've been through this cycle enough to know that when I feel my capacity or identity as a leader isn't sufficiently honored (and when, really, does anyone ever feel that?), I slip into the sin of self-promotion. But how do I stop?

T.S. Eliot wrote, "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."

Although our mission in Christ is to do good in this world, we will actually do harm if our deeper mission is to feel important and "think well of ourselves." Eliot's words forced me to ask, How much harm do I do to my family, my friends, the people I am supposed to lead, all because I want to think well of myself?

What I've come to see since that day, is that I am not alone. Many other church leaders share this struggle to one degree or another. We may not all be full-blown clinical narcissists, but we share that bent toward insecurity and selfishness. Most gatherings of pastors will usually include subtle or overt self-promotion. I'm not the only one who has used attendance numbers or new initiatives or "my vision" as a badge of self-importance.

Although I'm now aware of my tendency and what triggers it, I don't pretend to have it solved. This is simply my effort to be honest about our struggle with ambition and self-promotion as pastors, and how we can address it.

There is a long and celebrated history of church leaders who struggled with narcissistic tendencies—starting with the original disciples. After following Jesus for some time and recognizing his power, these (probably younger) men debated with each other "Who is the greatest?" They jockeyed for power. Who would be closest to Jesus? Who would get positions of honor?

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November 08, 2010

Displaying 1–9 of 9 comments

Brian

November 24, 2010  3:57pm

I had a mentor tell me very early in Christian life that I should never forget that "the kingdom of God will go on and increase just fine without you." That thought haunts me (in all the right ways) when I feel a sense of self-accomplishment. Isn't that part of the problem? We forget that "apart from me, you can do nothing."

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Leah

November 13, 2010  12:47pm

@ Linda Stoll I really like what you said about coming from a place of our security in Christ as leaders. This truly does impact the way in which we view the need for approval from others. I am just beginning my journey in leadership, and yet, I am already experiencing this desire to be recognized for what I am doing. However, if my desire is really to serve the Lord, than recognition from others is just a drop in the bucket compared to the approval that I already have as God's child.

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Leah

November 11, 2010  7:40pm

@ Linda Stoll i really like what you said about coming from a place of our security in Christ as leaders. This truly does impact the way in which we view the need for approval from others. I am just beginning my journey in leadership, and yet, I am already experiencing this desire to be recognized for what I am doing. However, if my desire is really to serve the Lord, then recognition from others is just a drop in the bucket compared to the approval that I already have as God's child.

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muse

November 11, 2010  1:29pm

I'm a little uncomfortable with the twice weekly email from the pastor reminding me of what a great church we are and how much we have done for the community.

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Brandon

November 10, 2010  9:29pm

J.R.– Thanks for your honesty and openness in this post. I think you've identified tendencies many of us in Christian service–whether preaching, teaching, writing, publishing, etc.–fall prey to. I trust this will be an encouragement to many.

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Mark Kelley

November 09, 2010  11:10am

Its so easy to turn from a holy ambition to serve Jesus and to a ungodly urge to compete against others. I read an editorial last week that reminded me that competitiveness requires someone (someone else, preferably) loses. Ambition focuses on doing well at what I can control. When I am ignored, one thing I can control is the urge to assert myself.

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steve

November 09, 2010  3:19am

Pride. If it caused Satan to lose eternal bliss, what could it also do to us? "Those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will gain it." What is it to 'lose your life'? We think of those who physically died...but maybe it is, for the sake of following Christ, giving up materialism, lifelong cherished personal dreams, even pride and abandoning thoughts of 'being Kings for the sake of our children's stories'. How we bristle when someone makes 'light of us' or laughs at us! As if we are so great and wise in the middle of the glories of creation and God's universe. I like what's said about community and confession. We need our Churches. We need each other. And humility.

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Linda Stoll

November 08, 2010  3:45pm

The more we are able to find pleasure and satisfaction in who we are in Christ, the less likely we will be hooked on seeking accolades from others. If we're honest, our search for kudos through impressive numbers is a huge challenge for most of us who lead or write or whatever. So instead of checking out the blog analytics every day, I've instead begun to pray that just one person will be blessed. This choice has helped my focus shift away from kudos for me to being truly excited when I hear that someone has been blessed by something I have written. The pressure is off!

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Scott

November 08, 2010  10:31am

one thing that might help pastors would be an understanding of how insignificant their role is deemed amongst the majority of society. Church work cannot be about popularity, you'll lose every time. Put yourself in a room full of business people and see how you shake out. It's easy to feel self important in a role that a few people think of as mythical in quality. I used to tell people I was a social worker...

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