Narcissism in the church, a new book with huge benefits for all of us
David George Moore
This interview revolves around the recently released and much discussed, When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat. Chuck is a professor of pastoral care and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary. He is the author of several other books including Wholehearted.
This interview was conducted by David George Moore.
Moore: You mention that you have been thinking about the topic of narcissism in the church for twenty years. Why did you decide to write a book on the subject?
DeGroat: Early on, I began seeing cases of emotional and spiritual abuse among church elders and leaders and discovered the harsh repercussions of naming these sins. The ecclesial world I was in boasted of its church planting success and fidelity to God’s word, but I’m confident I’m not the only one who heard of and witnessed stories of profoundly unhealthy pastors and churches where emotional and spiritual abuse, sexual manipulation and assault, gaslighting, and more went unchecked. In the past five years or so, we’ve heard of high-profile ecclesial leaders who’ve violated the sacred trust of pastoral care and leadership, motivating me to write a book which serves as a kind of roadmap to understanding narcissism, abuse, and the devastating impact on God’s people.
Moore: A few times we see Christopher Lasch’s line in your book that narcissists have a “longing to be free from longing.” Would you unpack a bit what Lasch meant with those trenchant words?
DeGroat: My simple take is that Lasch describes the age-old problem of power and control. We are creatures designed to desire, created to long, but prone to control. This goes back to Gen. 3, of course, and manifests across the ages in pastoral and ecclesial temptations to power, dominance, victory, conquest, and empire. The way of Jesus runs counter to this, inviting us to humility, surrender, poverty of spirit. But those who are diagnosably narcissistic long to be freed from this burden of surrendering, waiting, longing.
Moore: How common is narcissism, and is church life populated by more, less, or the same amount of narcissists as the population at large?
DeGroat: This is a tough question, because we’re largely without good data on this. My own assessment work reveals a startling reality – the large majority of my candidates test within the “Cluster B” grouping of personality disorders, featuring narcissistic traits. This doesn’t mean that they’re all narcissistically disordered, but it does prompt a question that a veteran seminary colleague raised to me after 30 years of observing this kind of testing for pastoral candidates – Is it a coincidence that the majority of students test on the narcissistic spectrum when the job asks us to say “This is the word of the Lord”?
Moore: I mentioned to you via email that I am not a cynic about God effecting deep change in people, but when it comes to narcissists my faith gets tested. The narcissists I’ve known remain so. There may be slight modifications in behavior, but the habituated patterns of abuse continue. How common is it to see a narcissist deeply change for the better?
DeGroat: This is a tricky question. When it comes to those who elevate on the spectrum to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), you’re right – we see very little change, if any. Sadly, they’re often so self-protected and addicted that they’ll protect their ego at all costs. However, narcissism exists on a spectrum. I’m sure we all know many folks with narcissistic traits. But the difference is often seen in one’s capacity to self-reflect, to confess with honesty, to empathize with someone they’ve impacted with their narcissistic behaviors. I don’t discount at all the possibility of real change for these folks, while remaining (like you!) quite agnostic when it comes to real change in someone with NPD.
Moore: This question is one I could easily be misunderstood on, but my curiosity presses me on! Could there a place for mockery when it comes to narcissists? That is, are there ever times when clever, even humorous mockery may cause a narcissist to realize how idiotic and inappropriate their behavior? I am not convinced that our present arsenal of tools in dealing with narcissists is doing a ton of good. Perhaps we need to be more nimble and get more creative!
DeGroat: You’re not entirely off-base here! I remember sitting with a leader of a large Christian organization. His narcissism was catching up with him. The walls were closing in. Strategies of behind-the-scenes scheming weren’t working anymore. I stumbled into an unintentional bit of humor when I said, “Man, you’re not really as good as you thought you were at chess!” I was attempting a lighter form of exposure. He sat quietly, but quickly broke out in tearful laughter. Using a choice explicative, he said, “I’ve always *&%$# hated the game of chess!” And somehow, this little breakthrough led to extraordinary self-revelation. He was so exhausted. He gave up the game, quit the ministry, and worked toward reconciliation with his wife. It was quite beautiful.
Moore: Years ago, I heard a Christian leader tell a large group of people that you are “either with us or you should consider going somewhere else.” In the providence of God, I had just studied I Ki. 22 where the prophet Micaiah tells Jehoshaphat the hard truth. I told this Christian leader that he gave a false dichotomy in that one should be able to disagree, yet not get dubbed disloyal. He reluctantly acknowledged his error. How would you recommend responding to a narcissist who pronounces that it is either his way or the highway?
DeGroat: This is hard. Those with NPD are not afraid of verbal combat. They love it, in fact. They might pounce on the chance of a debate. You’re right – narcissists demand loyalty. But remember that deep fear and shame lie beneath this. Ultimately, they’re afraid of being alone, unloved, unseen. If you think you’re in a troubling dynamic with a narcissist, I’d recommend finding a therapist who gets these dynamics. Don’t go in alone. Think carefully about what you need, and then with wise counsel decide whether or not you want to engage.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers take from your book?
DeGroat: First, I hope readers realize they’re not crazy. So many have already said, “You’ve helped me understand a crazy-making situation.” Second, I hope they find accessible words to put around sometimes complex experiences. In this, the book offers a lot of boxes to fit experiences in to. Finally, I hope the reader finds hope. While pastors and churches may operate according to dynamics of power and control, Jesus invites us to a radically alternative way of living and relating. I hope that those who’ve been hurt by the church or church leaders don’t lose hope in the one who life and death witness to a better way for all of us.
Some of Dave’s teaching videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com. He can be reached at www.twocities.org. His next two books are Making Connections: Discovering the Riches of the Past and with Michael Haykin, Odd Couple: Ralph Waldo Emerson Talks to Jonathan Edwards about What Matters.