Is Narcissism the Problem Behind Pastors’ Moral Failures?

Is Narcissism the Problem Behind Pastors’ Moral Failures?

Pastors, in particular, need courage and fearlessness to endure disapproval, opposition, foot-dragging, sabotage, and whisper campaigns. If confidence is an aspect of “healthy narcissism,” preachers need it, lest they falter due to criticism.

Why has the church witnessed the moral failure of so many leaders in recent years? While there are many reasons for the recent rash of failures, surely the most cited reason now is narcissism. 

In When Narcissism Comes to Church, Chuck DeGroat states narcissism is especially common among pastors because they often enjoy a high profile. Narcissists crave power, admiration, and a stage, and DeGroat says, churches choose narcissistic celebrity leaders because they appear in “glittering” packages, full of “confidence, strong leadership, clear vision” (see chaps. 1 and 4).

Lacking empathy, narcissists can exploit and discourage others. They charm colaborers, then dismiss them when they serve no purpose. Narcissists also think they do no wrong.

Therefore, when anyone calls a narcissistic pastor to repent, this registers as a gratuitous attack, and rage follows. Meanwhile, the church that has profited from the charm and skill of the narcissist is prone to defend him.

Has DeGroat found the culprit behind pastoral failures? Given that all men are flawed and sinful, it’s certainly true that the church attracts flawed leaders. But does the church especially attract the power-hungry and the narcissistic?

Ego Is a Problem 

Scripture decries egoists who love themselves most. Jesus recognized religious leaders often seek status and power. In Matthew 23:1–15, he says men seek the status, authority, and titles (like “rabbi” and “father”) that spiritual leadership confers.

Also, in Paul’s list of vices in 2 Timothy 3:2–4, self-love is at the top: “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” Notice that the list begins and ends with false loves. People love themselves, money, and pleasure rather than God. Donald Guthrie rightly said, “Moral corruption follows from love falsely directed.” Even if you think today’s emphasis on narcissistic pastors is trendy and exaggerated, Paul does decry egoists who put themselves first because they love themselves most. The vices Paul names—pride and abusive speech—certainly sound like the fruit of egotism.

Is It Narcissistic to Speak for God? 

Narcissism is surely a vice and pastors, like everyone, can succumb to it. But does the church especially attract the narcissist? And if so, why?

DeGroat asserts that “the vast majority of ministerial candidates” test on a spectrum of “personality disorders which feature narcissistic traits most prominently.” He adds that rates of narcissism are “even higher among church planters” (19). Why is this the case? DeGroat quotes an unnamed colleague who says, “Ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality—who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week? While the vast majority of people struggle with public speaking…pastors do it regularly [and] with ‘divine authority’” (19).

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