By Jeff Matas
In the last two months, a well-known Christian apologist’s legacy and life unraveled before our eyes. He was brilliant, articulate, influential, and morally unhinged. We knew about the brilliant and influential part, what we didn’t discover fully until his death was the morally unhinged part. He follows a long list of celebrity pastors and leaders that have fallen due to moral failures of various kinds. This month, a pastor that I knew (but not part of our tribe) was fired. He was in the last few years of a long ministry career. He wasn’t famous, his fall will never make the national news or even the local paper. But the lack of infamy doesn’t lessen the tragedy of losing a career, reputation, marriage, and the respect of children and grandchildren all for an affair with someone young enough to be his daughter.
All this has been going through my mind as I process yet another moral failure in pastoral leadership. Sadly, it’s nothing new and there will be more stories like this in 2021 and in the years to come. So much has been written about fallen pastors in the wake of recent scandals. Lots of ink has been devoted to things like keeping wise boundaries, having a robust devotional life, and establishing healthy accountability. You are not going to find a lot written on narcissism and the destructive role it plays in pastors and churches. We are only recently discovering how narcissism is a primary root cause of so much moral failure, abuse, and damage in the church.
In 2013, Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls conducted research to determine the prevalence of narcissism in pastors. They surveyed 1,385 pastors, of which 30% participated by completing the survey. Of those participants, 31% were in the spectrum of having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). What is NPD? According to the American Psychological Association’s DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), it’s “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”
Most of those reading this are pastors. If over 30% of pastors fall into the narcissistic spectrum, you might wonder, am I one of them? Am I a narcissist? A true narcissist will never ask that question. That is a reason that NPD has such a low rate of successful treatment.
Jeff and Terra Mattson authored the book, “Shrinking the Integrity Gap: Between What Leaders Preach and Live.” As they address the issue of an integrity gap in pastors, they spend an entire chapter on the problem of narcissism. According to Jeff and Terra Mattson, here are some key behavior characteristics of a narcissistic leader:
1. Their ideas are always the best
They view their thoughts as brilliant. They are always the smartest person in the room. They tend to hire people that drink the Kool-Aid, that think the sun rises and sets on the leader. Also, their teams tend to have high turnover as over time people gain a clearer and more sober view of the person. The scales fall off their eyes and they leave. Those that stay with a narcissistic leader for a long time are often wounded themselves and because of their emotional woundedness they can’t see it, or they don’t want to see it.
2. They lack empathy
They lack the ability to empathize with others. There is no compassion, no tears. If they do cry, it’s for themselves, for self-pity, for attention, or to manipulate. A narcissistic leader that is pushing an idea forward and has exhausted all their brilliant arguments, will often resort to emotion and tears as a final last resort to get what they want. This lack of empathy will also create a staff that is fearful of failure. They know their leader is not empathetic and lacks compassion, so they avoid risk and play it safe. A narcissistic leader is not a safe leader that one can come to with personal issues and problems.
3. In times of conflict, they are never wrong
The problem is never with them, it’s always with you. You are the problem. You are always the problem. They can never see themselves at fault or even part of the problem. Confront a narcissistic leader, and you will walk away thinking, “they didn’t hear a word I said.” You will never feel heard, never feel listened to, never feel like you were understood.
4. They have no close intimate friendships
A narcissist will not have anyone that they are close with. They don’t see the need for deep relationships. It never crosses their mind. They might know and interact with a lot of people, but they don’t have close intimate friendships. Not surprisingly, their marriages aren’t healthy. They tend to be the focus of their marriage. They are the brilliant light of the marriage and the other person tends to stand in the shadow. Their spouse’s identity and life are completely centered around them.
5. They tend to defend every decision they ever made
If there is a failure in their life or their organization, it is never their fault. They were the victim. Someone else made that decision. Someone else made that mistake. It was circumstances beyond their control. It wasn’t them. They never take the blame. They never take responsibility. If someone disagrees with them over a period of time, they paint them as the enemy with disparaging personal attacks.
Returning to researchers and authors Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls, they remind us that churches should do their best to guard against hiring anyone with narcissistic tendencies. If the person has already been hired, their advice is to resist them, and then to take steps to recover from them once they are gone. They even go so far as to recommend that every pastoral search team have a licensed psychologist as part of the team. That is impractical or impossible for most churches. So how do search teams protect their churches? Protecting a church from a narcissistic pastor is difficult. After all, a narcissistic candidate will be the one that exceeds most other candidates in charm, energy and friendliness. They exude self-confidence and enthusiasm, the very qualities that we look for in a candidate.
Here are some steps to take to protect your church during the hiring process:
1. Why are you looking at a candidate that is looking for a job?
Not to say that every candidate that sends you his/her resume is running from something, but ask the candidate, “What’s the story?” “What really happened in your last church, and at the church before that?”
2. Practice due diligence.
Dig into references. Find people that are two, three, four times removed from the references on the resume and ask them hard questions. Think of some questions you can ask the candidate that might unsettle them and even provoke them (not in a flippant way, but in a targeted way) and see how they react, listen to how they respond. “You do not want to make interviews into a collegial interchange of banalities—you want to have hard questions asked by someone not afraid to confront and follow any threads of evasion to their source. The reason is simple enough: the narcissist is likely to respond to confronting questions with confusion, hostility, or by simply shoving it aside with a minimalist answer, all of which are red flags. You want to ‘push their buttons’ in order to see how they react.”
3. Don’t be blinded by the candidate’s charisma, talents and gifts.
Let’s be honest, just because someone is charismatic and a brilliant communicator doesn’t mean that they have integrity, are close to God, and are emotionally healthy. After speaking at a church recently, I received an email from someone in the church complementing the sermon. They observed, “it’s obvious that you spend much time at the Father’s feet.” To be honest, the week I prepared that sermon was not a particularly special week in my relationship with God. Yes, I was in the Word. Yes, I had times of prayer. But more often than not, I feel like a I’m not where I need to be in my devotion to God. I always feel the need to go deeper, to walk closer, to pursue intimacy, to live a purer life. Just because a sermon was well received doesn’t mean that I hit those marks that week, it means that God was gracious. My point is this, don’t allow what you see on the platform to blind you to a person’s humanity. Some of the best leaders I know wouldn’t be considered unparalleled as a communicator, yet they bring the leadership skills, integrity, and emotional intelligence to lead their church to renewed missional effectiveness. And all of us have known example after example of some of the best communicators that shine on the platform but lack emotional intelligence, integrity, and ultimately fail as leaders.
Narcissism is the tragic iceberg that leads to so much tragedy, abuse and carnage in the grand old ship called the church. And like an iceberg, if we navigate by what we see above the surface, we are in trouble. It’s what lies beneath that should cause alarm and concern. It’s what lies beneath that needs to be known and illuminated.
 Darrell Puls and Glenn Ball, Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do About It. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017
 Ibid, page 181
Wow, Jeff, I felt like you were preaching right to me.
Hmmm, I guess that proves I’m a narcissist.
Great job. You deserve a Christian Pulitzer for this.