Pastors and Narcissism

Most people forever live on the follower side of leadership. On the follower side, it’s easy to criticize because you do not have the responsibilities or understand the special temptations which relate to it, much less have to face them. One of the special temptations or weaknesses associated with the pastoral role is what the world calls Narcissism. Although I probably will use the term a bit creatively, I think it’s a good umbrella for a specific and real pastoral pitfall.

I had a pastor once who had some issues for which his wife asked the church to have him psychologically evaluated at a famous clinic. He was very unresponsive with the evaluators and so they diagnosed him as narcissistic. At the time, I thought that was probably just because of the clash of worldviews. As a Christian he was probably not predisposed to show them a lot of respect, and nor were they, I thought. And that may well have been true, but with a number of years of experience and retrospection to look back on it, I wonder if not only this pastor had an issue, but if there is an endemic problem related to the pastoral role.

I think I’ve served most of my life under pastors who either A. Seem to care about everybody or B. Do not care enough about others. This second type of pastor has become all too common of late, as authoritarian theologies now prop him up. The first type of pastor, however, I think is often the kind of person that we would all like to be. Kenn Guilliksen is one that comes to mind. Here is the guy who was instrumental in Calvary Chapel, and also in the Vineyard, had led countless souls to Christ, loved by everyone, yet at the peak of his life has a breakdown. The “nice guy” pastors, the ones that we all love, are the ones most susceptible to this situation. They want to make everyone happy. But overtime this takes on a sort of life of its own. Their “personality” becomes so big that even they aren’t sure who they are apart from it. After all every week hundreds or thousands of us turn our eyes on them to hear what they say, not to mention all of the church staff and help who do whatever the pastor wants them to do.

One sign of Narcissism is when we are afraid to confront people. If there are no confrontations, then we know that we are doing something wrong, because all leadership involves confrontations.

A second sign of Narcissism is double standards. In fact, one of the greatest checks against it is to submit ourselves to the same standards we expect of others. We’re all blind to some extent about the character of our own actions, but the Narcissist has the issue to the degree that they are unable to actually see the issue when the mirror is held up. That’s scary.

Here are some thoughts about avoiding the pitfall:

1. Deep Christianity happens when we lose consciousness of ourselves. This is especially hard for those of us raised in the “I, me, my” culture. In fact, probably the most basic difference between secular and Christian music is the pronoun “I” versus the pronoun “You.” Secular music speaks to the flesh, to the “I”, but Christian music speaks to the spirit, and the spirit cannot be manifest until the flesh is dead. If you can get to the point where you are conscious only of God and of others, you’ll find incredible freedom. I don’t mean you are not self-aware, but you are fundamentally not self-centered. And it is possible.

2. We should not force or allow our pastors to become the center of a universe. The church is supposed to be a body where everyone brings something essential to body life. We do ourselves–and the pastor–a disservice to focus on one man only. Services and church life should not hinge on one man’s word or will, even if we are all following one man’s vision.

3. The Biblical idea of a pastor, I believe, is one who lays down his life for the sheep. The one who leaves the 99 in the open country to save the one. The one who protects the sheep from the wolves. The one who separates the sheep from the goats. He doesn’t allow the sheep to get fleeced. These are all pastoral functions. So part of a healthy pastorate is understanding that the pastor must be both caring and correcting. To be only one of the two is dangerous.

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