The most dangerous tendency in church leadership is towards narcissism.
No other topic I’ve addressed on ScottBall.net has attracted more attention, questions, and conversations than the issue of narcissistic leadership in the church. Back in 2015, one of my most popular articles was “Five Warning Signs of Narcissistic Leadership,” and was picked up both by ChurchLeaders and The Malphurs Group. The reality is that this issue is so wide-spread in the church that I felt the need to revisit it.
The sad truth is that ministry positions, perhaps only second to positions in the medical field, are the most susceptible to narcissism. People rely on clergy for guidance, hope, wisdom, and comfort. The words of pastors carry weight because they’re (allegedly) Spirit-filled. Church leaders stand on the authority of Scripture (rightly) but sometimes (wrongly) abuse that authority to manipulate people.
Since writing the first article, people have asked me dozens of times if it was written with anyone in mind. Truthfully, no; unless that person is myself. Any leader reading this article right now will hopefully admit that the pull towards narcissism in leadership is strong, and only by God’s grace do leaders minister in humility.
Further research on this topic, though, has led me to understand that narcissistic leadership left unchecked, can wreak havoc on a church. I’ve seen and heard the tragedies, and don’t want anyone to be unaware of the warning signs of narcissistic leadership run wild.
Some of the most helpful and eye-opening research I’ve come across on the topic has come from Dr. George Simon, Jr. In his writing, he indicates that there really are two different types of narcissists: the more neurotic type which relies on belittling others to fuel a lacking self-esteem and the grandiose type who truly believes he/she is better than everyone else. The first article I wrote really addresses the warning signs that are common with the first type, this article deals with the warning signs of the second, more dangerous type.
Here are five more warning signs of narcissistic leadership. In particular, how to know when a leader is a grandiose narcissist:
1. Grandiose narcissistic leaders believe reality is what they say it is.
This is an important and critical characteristic of narcissistic leaders: not that they are intentionally dishonest about reality. They honestly believe that reality is what they say it is. In every topic and every issue, they intrinsically know that they’re right and others are wrong. In Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs, he describes what Apple employees called Jobs’ “Reality distortion field.” Jobs, a certified narcissist, had such firm convictions about Apple and his abilities, that others were convinced to believe it, too–even if the convictions were not based on anything true. Grandiose narcissistic leaders are self-assured to a fault, and can’t lose an argument because they’re incapable of being wrong. Narcissistic leaders often don’t even feel a need to argue a point because they sincerely believe that given enough time others will come around to their point-of-view (the right one). In truth, this self-assurance is attractive to people–especially insecure people. This is why narcissistic leaders can become so influential so quickly, and why they’re dangerous.
2. Grandiose narcissistic leaders inject fact with fiction.
Very rarely do narcissistic leaders tell out-right lies. In fact, they often have a low tolerance for liars and are quick to point out dishonesty in others. However, narcissistic leaders are masters of injecting just enough fiction–or maybe even mere nuance–into historical fact in order to manipulate others. They rely on rooting their statements in enough truthiness that others cannot accuse them of being dishonest, and can boldly state in conflict that they are not liars. An example of this would be to quote a conversation, but recount the quote with a different tone of voice or a slight alteration of the statement:
Actual statement by Team Member A: “I’m tired. I think I need to take a day off.”
Recounted by Narcissistic Leader B: “Team Member A is thinking about quitting. He said he’s burned out and needs to go on vacation.”
See what happened? Team Member A simply expressed tiredness, but in the recounting it’s shifted to burnout. A day off was shifted to “vacation,” an accurate but more vague term. And an assumption was placed in front of a statement that was technically true-ish. This creative use of truth not only manipulates people and situations, but leads to the consequences in point three.
3. Grandiose narcissistic leaders cause you to question your sanity (and innocence).
Because narcissistic leaders are masters of manipulation, it can be easy for spurned team members to wonder if they’re sane anymore. Since narcissistic leaders are definers of reality and truth, it isn’t uncommon for followers to feel disoriented and question their own mental health when separated from the leader. What was true? What was real? How did this go unnoticed? Followers can also find themselves doubting their innocence. Narcissistic leaders can manipulate others to the point that their followers believe that they were wrong and begin to apologize for situations where they were, in fact, victims. Not unlike what happens to victims of other forms of abuse, those working or serving under a narcissistic leader can blame themselves for the issues that result from their relationship with the leader. Know that continuing to serve under a truly, unrepentant grandiose narcissistic leader is to knowingly subject yourself to a form of emotional and spiritual abuse. Let me be clear, narcissistic leadership is not an all-or-nothing situation. As I said before, most church leaders have a tendency towards narcissism because of the people attracted to the position, and because of the adoration many church leaders receive from their congregation. It’s a fight to remain humble. Put simply, there’s a spectrum ranging from the mildly narcissistic to the grandiose. But when the leader is off-the-rails, it’s time to leave.
4. Narcissistic leaders reject a need for others.
Beyond mere self-assurance, narcissistic leaders feel as though they’re emotionally independent. They don’t need the support of others. If anything, they believe that others need them. This is a common trait among pastors because others do seek them out. Healthy leaders understand that they cannot give to others without a network of support for themselves. The narcissistic leader believes that he or she can stand alone while others are the beneficiaries of their greatness. This is why I recommend that all pastors become intentional about building a network of outsiders that they trust to whom they can be accountable. This isn’t an official “board.” This is a select group of people–preferably not all “ministry” people–who can call you on it when your head is getting too big. You must fight for humility by being intentional about allowing others to speak truth into your life. When you isolate yourself from constructive criticism rooted in love, you’re likely to begin believing you don’t need anyone but yourself.
5. Narcissistic leaders enforce their dominance through a mask of service.
Perhaps the most insidious warning sign of narcissistic leadership is also the hardest to detect. The narcissistic leader manipulates people through a tactic called gas lighting. By hiding malevolent intent and abuse behind a title or mask focused of service and humility, narcissistic leaders in the church can easily manipulate their followers. Because they’re a pastor, surely they couldn’t be an emotional abuser? Because they’re here to serve you, surely they aren’t taking advantage of you? Unfortunately, this is all too common.
A word of caution.
Don’t go throwing the term “narcissistic leader” around like a hand grenade. You’ll end up with the same results a real grenade.
The vast majority of Christian leaders in the church have sincere hearts and a dedication to the work of the Kingdom.
Show grace to the leaders in your life. If they’re showing one of the warning signs from this post or the first article, confront them about it honestly and personally and lovingly. Most will respond positively (eventually, if not initially). If you have concerns with a particular leader, you should follow the advice in Matthew 18 and take it to them directly.
However, if you’re a church-goer or a church-staffer and you feel stuck under a leader who you’ve approached Biblically but have seen no change or desire to change, feel permission to leave. Spiritual abuse is real.
If you’re having trouble determining what your next step needs to be, I’m here.
Not as a consultant, or a writer of a blog post.
I’m here as a fellow staff member who’s been in your shoes, wondering what to say or do. I’m here as a leader who has battled the pull towards narcissism in his own life. I’m here as a fellow Christian, wanting to do right by others and my family.