Q. What hath narcissism to do with church ministry?
A. Absolutely. Nothing!
As far as the east is from the west, so self-seeking motives for ministry has nothing to do with genuine pastoral leadership. Yet, too often churches find in their leaders tendencies that can only be called narcissistic.
This problem is so great that Chuck DeGroat wrote an entire book about it, When Narcissism Comes to Church. What follows is not dependent on his work, but is the result of watching churches and church leaders over the last few years. It is painful to watch shepherds fleece the flock they are leading, and so what follows is written with an eye to those churches who may be suffering from the effects of a narcissistic pastor.
(Apparently, I’m not alone in my observations. After drafting this list I found this article, Ten Ways Narcissistic Leaders Can Devastate a Church.)
Seven Traits of a Narcissistic Pastor
1. A Narcissistic Pastor habitually turns the conversation back to himself.
Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:48). Such is the case for all people. It is a principle of human nature: What we talk about reveals what we love, and what we love drives our conversation. And if we love ourselves, we will habitually draw conversations back to ourselves.
In the case of the Narcissistic Pastor, the conversation has a magnetic pull back towards self. Because the Narcissistic Pastor loves himself, he loves talking about himself. If he is preaching, he becomes the hero of the sermon illustration, if not the hero of the sermon. If he is casually trading stories in the hallway, the Narcissistic Pastor may feel compelled to let others know he’s been to the moon. Or, if he disagrees about a church situation, he is likely to defend himself by appealing to how hard he has worked or how much he has suffered to get the church where it is. In fact, if a Narcissistic Pastor has a long tenure in a church, that church will often know more about him than about the Bible he preaches.
Beware of the Narcissistic Pastor who constantly uses his speech to bring attention back to himself.
2. A Narcissistic Pastor responds to correction with anger and self-defense.
Closely connected to self-oriented conversation is the fact that when other don’t follow the Narcissistic Pastor, he responds in anger. Unlike the wise man in Proverbs 10:17 who delights in the correction (“Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray”), the narcissistic pastor will practice a policy of non-confrontation. While he has little trouble confronting, correcting, and critiquing others, he doesn’t receive the same. For him, the street runs one way, and he is deft at pointing out the traffic violations of those who approach him.
Sadly, the Narcissistic Pastor who is unwilling to receive correction does not simply injure himself. He injures others. Instead of modeling humility, a precious garment all Christians must wear, he models folly. As Proverbs 18:2 puts it, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Because pastors are often gifted speakers and charismatic leaders, it can be difficult to challenge them. And Narcissistic Pastor may be quick to use 1 Timothy 5:19 (“Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses”) as a shield against any correction. Yet, anger and defensiveness are sure signs of trouble.
Beware of the Narcissistic Pastor who refuses to consider criticism or receive correction.
3. A Narcissistic Pastor is more concerned with the immediate welfare of his ministry, than the long-term health of God’s sheep.
When Hezekiah was informed that he would be secure in his day, but his children would be carted off to Babylon, the king took comfort (see Isaiah 39). Such a spirit of self-preservation exposed the wickedness of his heart. He cared little for the long term effects of his actions—showing the wealth of Yahweh’s temple to the Babylonians. Instead, he thought about himself and his own personal peace.
This, sadly, is the attitude of a Narcissistic Pastor. While “a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” (Prov 13:22), a narcissist is someone who is only thinking about his own day, his own ministry, and his own glory. Plans are not laid down which will last for generations. Rather, the plans of a Narcissistic Pastor are hatched so that numbers will pop this week, this month, or this year.
Such a minister might be willing to spend through a churches savings to make his ministry flourish. Or, he might see the budget as his own personal account. This might look like spending lavishly on office furniture, media platforms, or stage lighting—anything that would make him look good in front of others.
Or, he might be willing to use the church to advance his own reputation outside the church. For instance, he might see his ministry as a stepping stone to something else, or he might be willing to cut church membership in half to double attendance. I once heard a pastor with a big vision for his ministry say to his church, “If you call me, you will lose half of your members, but you will double its size in the process.”
Such honesty is appreciated, because many with an unconstrained vision for ministry are not as truthful. But such honesty also reveals a wicked heart that cares little for God’s sheep (Acts 20:28) and much for the size of one’s stable. Such a commitment to one’s own ministry is but another evidence of narcissism.
Beware of the Narcissistic Pastor who is using the church to advance himself.
4. A Narcissistic Pastor uses church structures and church sermons to support themselves.
If short term gains and self-interested use of money are a possible evidences of narcissism, so is the use of church structures to achieve his ends. For instance, he might be quick to use church discipline to get rid of problem people. He might utilize leadership sabbaticals as a means displacing non-compliant elders or deacons. Or, he might make a habit of blaming others for church problems or taking credit for the good work others have done—whether those people are in the church or not.
One specific application of this relates to using the sermon material of others. While not every Narcissistic Pastor is guilty of this, it is symptomatic of narcissism or some other problem.
There are many reasons why preachers plagiarize sermons, but one reason is that they desire to look or sound better than they are. Instead of taking personal ownership for what they preach, trusting in who God has made them to be, and progressing in their handling of the word through hard work (see 1 Tim. 4:11–16), those who plagiarize sermons are offering a false product, even if they speak biblical truth.
Some may justify this practice of borrowing material as a necessity of modern ministry. Busyness makes it impossible to produce a good sermon each week, they reason. And solo pastors, they might add, just don’t have enough time to prepare a good sermon—one that matches up to the guys online.
But such a view of sermon-making comes from a misunderstanding of a pastor’s first priority—namely, to study the Scriptures (Ezra 7:10) and preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1–2). At the same time, if narcissism presses a pastor to preach the work of others, in a short time this undermine his qualifications for ministry. For as 2 Timothy 2:15 teaches, an approved worker rightly handles the word of truth. A pastor does not merely handle the work of others, but he himself must prove himself faithful with God’s word.
Beware of the Narcissistic Pastor who uses the work of others to bolster himself.
5. A Narcissistic Pastor is overly independent and unwilling to share ministry with others.
The next two traits of a Narcissistic Pastor are related, even though they may at first appear mutually exclusive. The first trait concerns a high degree of self-reliance and unhealthy independence; the second relates to building a small coalition of trusted associates. Let’s look at self-reliance and independence first.
After his baptism, Jesus began his earthly ministry by preaching the gospel and making disciples (see e.g., Mark 1:9–20). In fact, Jesus never did anything in his earthly ministry without his followers. On the night of his crucifixion, he told his disciples that he would send his Spirit and that those who followed him would do greater works than he had done (John 14:12).
What an incredible testimony—that our Lord and Savior, who alone is God and who alone is building his church, told his disciples that their works would be greater. Of course, their works and ours depend entirely on God, his Word, and prayer (see John 14:13; 15:1–11; etc.), but such a self-less way of speech models the kind of king Jesus is. In perfect humility, he did not discount the works his followers would do. Rather, he entrusted them with the world’s biggest task—to go into all the world and make disciples.
Following Jesus, we find that the healthiest ministry is one that is by nature inclusive. Just look at the end of Paul’s letters; he was an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, receiving sorties and sending out new missions. As we learn from Jesus and Paul, ministry should lead to friendships (3 John 15), partnerships (Phil. 1:4–6), and cooperative efforts in missions (3 John 8). Like Jesus, healthy pastors expect that those who follow them will exceed them in the work. And instead of squelching ideas, actions, and pursuits of ministry—for fear that others might have a greater ministry—they foster it.
By contrast, narcissism leads pastors to do all the work themselves. Instead of releasing others to do good works, they believe they must do it. Occasionally, they collect a few close associates who serve as their entourage (more on that below), but more often they believe what they do is best and they don’t let others use their gifts.
In fact, it may be the case that a narcissistic pastor functions as a magnet of ministries, such that members of the church are no longer able to serve because the pastor has taken over. For a season, it can be healthy for pastor to have direct input in an area of teaching, worship, or discipleship—but only for a brief season. Over time, a healthy pastor will gladly hand ministry to others. But a Narcissistic Pastor will evidence his self-reliance by not sharing ministry with others.
Beware of the Narcissistic Pastor who does not share ministry, but puts himself in the center of all ministry.
6. A Narcissistic Pastor is often unapproachable and surrounded by an entourage.
While Jesus had a select group of disciples, he also made himself available to all who came in faith. Unclean women, little children, and blind beggars were just some of the people he welcomed. Likewise, a pastor is to have a welcoming heart and a hospitable home. 1 Timothy 3:3 even assigns hospitality—i.e., the love of strangers—as part of their ministerial qualifications. For this reason, a pastor who avoids contact with the congregation is pursuing a way of ministry foreign to Jesus.
I use the word “avoid” intentionally. I am not saying that a pastor will spend equal time with all members. Scripture calls for churches to have a plurality of elders (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; etc.), therefore, the “teaching elder” or “senior pastor” should be one of the pastors who cares for the flock. It is unreasonable for members to demand one pastor to be on call 24/7 for all members. Yet, this expectation has often been fostered by pastors who have tried to do everything for everyone. See Number 5 above.
Interestingly, if being the omni-present / omni-competent pastor is a sign of narcissism, so is its inverse—the pastor who hides himself behind his entourage. This is especially true in smaller churches, where a Narcissistic Pastor aspires to have a big church.
Here’s how it works: In large churches, there are structures for ministry that meet the needs of a large body. In these structures, it is wise to protect a teaching elder from being everyone’s counselor, prayer partner, problem solver, etc.. This protection is for the purpose of the teaching elder to study the Word for preaching. Yet, in smaller churches, those with aspirations of making the big time—which is a wholly secular view of ministry—may try to live like their big church heroes. Instead of being involved in the lives of church members (cf. 1 Thess. 2:8), a Narcissistic Pastor may surround himself by a group of disciples, interns, etc. Unlike the large church that has a team of people to meet the needs of a larger body, the smaller church pastor who builds an entourage does so to feel important.
Such an entourage compounds the habits outlined above, because wit such an inner circle, the narcissist lives in an echo chamber. Because he is generally unavailable to the congregation, he does not hear the cries of the sheep, he doesn’t receive correction, and he doesn’t seek to equip the whole church for ministry. In such a setting, partiality is very easy, as the pastor plays favorites and spends most of his time with a certain set of people.
Again, a balance must be struck between doing everything in ministry (#5) and hiding behind a small group of associates (#6). It might even be said that these two traits contradict one another, but I would respond by saying that they actually go together. Just as hyper-individualism often creates a collectivist society, so a man committed to doing everything himself is going to bring a couple associates into his inner circle and guard himself from most others. When this happens, the narcissistic pastor is in the best position to damage to the church, for he has taken from the church every members calling to serve and he has failed to keep in mind his calling to equip all the members with the Word of God (see Eph. 4:16). There are variations to these traits, but . . .
Beware of the Narcissistic Pastor who hides himself behind an inner circle and dismisses the whole congregation.
7. A Narcissistic Pastor misuses the Bible to defend himself and glorify his ministry.
Finally, when narcissism is manifested in all of these ways, it is not uncommon for the Narcissistic Pastor to use Scripture to defend himself and glorify his ministry. All too often Narcissistic Pastors, whether from insecurity or poor hermeneutics or both, identify themselves with Old Testament figures. Likening their ministries to that of Moses, Joshua, or David, they chastise anyone from questioning what they are doing.
The line goes like this: If God was displeased with Israel for contending with Moses or David, he will be displeased when anyone questions or confronts the pastor. This line of reasoning is exacerbated in churches where the pastor is treated as God’s special anointed servant—never mind that all members have the anointing (1 John 2:27).
Such a pedestal is dangerous for the most humble man, let alone a narcissist. In fact, I would propose that in churches that treat their pastor like a local celebrity, they are creating a context where young men look up to the pastor and desire to be like him—not for the purpose of preaching the Word and prayer, but to have such a position of honor. I am not saying churches create narcissists; the world is overrun with them. But I am saying that certain characteristics in a church can tempt men to become pastors, because it strokes their ego and offers them an opportunity for local fame.
When such an approach to ministry occurs, one sign of danger is a pastor who uses the Bible to defend himself and glorify his ministry. Such use of the pulpit, when it goes unchecked, makes it nearly impossible to correct such a pastor. Instead, it creates an entire church that looks up to and supports the pastor, regardless of his vision. And worse, if his interpretation of Scripture permits him to be the center of the sermon, instead of Christ, it won’t be long before that pastor goes astray—with or without the church. Such are the high stakes of permitting a narcissist to be pastor.
Beware of the Narcissistic Pastor who uses the Bible to glorify his ministry and defend himself.
Beware of (Being) the Narcissistic Pastor
As with any list, these seven traits of a Narcissistic Pastor are not exhaustive, nor without some degree of personal caricature. As I mentioned in the beginning, the impetus for this post comes from watching a handful of churches suffer under the narcissism of their pastors. It goes without saying, therefore, that I am offering my perspective on this. And as with any such perspective, it is liable to error.
But that being said, I pray these seven traits might open the eyes of those who are currently sitting under the ministry of a narcissist. I pray it might even embolden prayer and action if a church finds that their pastor is unfit to serve because his narcissism. And I pray that perhaps, this post might even open the eyes of a pastor who exhibits these traits to a greater or lesser degree.
In myself, I am not immune from narcissism. By seeing narcissism in others, it puts me on high alert to fight such temptations in my own heart. And thus, I take these observations to heart too and press into Christ to know more of his way of pastoral ministry.
I invite you to do the same. Whether you are a shepherd or a sheep—and if we are in Christ, we are all sheep—ask God to root out narcissism in you and his church. May Christ give his flock faithful under-shepherds who serve not for their own glory, but for the glory of God alone. This is the true motivation of a shepherd. And in the church we need more men who are compelled by God’s love and not love of self.
Lord, have mercy on us sinners, and be merciful to you church!
Soli Deo Gloria, ds