I recently saw a post suggesting that church often functions in narcissistic ways. I have the same concerns. The ten reasons listed on the blog are compelling. Below, I suggest some actions which will move a church away from a narcissistic tendencies. First a brief review of narcissism.
Narcissism is when someone is excessively enamored with themselves. Sometimes there is a pursuit to be exceptional in response to some earlier experience of shame or from a fear that their true self is deficient. Whenever the shame is in threat of exposure, the person may overreact in a harsh way, as a subconscious defense mechanism. Perhaps you can see how the top ten list in the afor mentioned post relates.
Addressing potential narcissistic behaviors is a balancing game of affirming the individual (or entity) in a healthy way, truly addressing (healing) the shame, and supporting an acceptance of their true self in contrast to the exceptional faux version of them.
- Some approaches to evangelism may unwittingly support and feed narcissistic tendencies within a Church. Making the salvation call a big production which gives excessive attention to those proclaiming conversion could actually be damaging. This approach could feed the ego of one needing attention rather than introduce them to the Savior who wants to forgive their sin and cover their shame and bring them into his holy community. The big production approach can attract the emotionally weak to the promise of being AMAZING without addressing their shame or offering needed follow up. Follow up is needed to invite people into a new way of being (holy) in a new community based on authentic relationship and mutual exchange.
Shame Covering Theology
- In preaching, instead of eliciting shame and guilt as an emotional response to sin, exalt grace and repentance as solutions to shame and guilt and sin. While we need to run from sin, it is valuable to be able to sit with our sinfulness and own our depraved nature. While we have a new nature, we must humbly confess we still have the old. We must realize the worse thing is not sin but to deny that we do (see I john 1:). This is delicate. Sin is bad and destructive and I’m not condoning an acceptance of it. But the narcissistic personality avoids shame at any price and can disassociate himself with sin in a way that refuses to acknowledge and own up to their own sin. It’s the whitewashed tomb syndrome. That is why I’m condoning an ability to self-search with honestly knowing it’s better to be honest about sin than to portent perfection. If we don’t, we risk denying deep personal flaws for fear of being shamed or exposed, while that exposure is what can bring us to grace.
- Leadership which works in teams (to support each other) acknowledges human limits and weakness. This is healthy. Sharing the pulpit occasionally can be a good thing and proves that it’s not all about the senior pastor. It also may give him a much needed rest.
- Pastors: Be free to be you, and don’t fight for membership – let the people go to where is the best fit for them. It isn’t a reflection on you and doesn’t mean you aren’t gifted or skilled. If your elder board doesn’t realize this then you have an opportunity to teach them about different giftings of different congregations and about God’s providence in conversion of souls in his time. Being clear about your calling and the direction God has for the particular church you serve will cast a vision which will compel the people to stay who are on board. Set expectations. Similarly, encourage other leaders of other churches to be clear about their calling and rejoice with their successes.
- A congregation needs to allow their leaders to be human (and fail) instead of always being perfect and ‘amazing’. Is your pastor the greatest? Is he Amazing? Is he the Best? If you talk about your pastor in hyperbole and extremes you are contributing to the narcissistic approach. Many congregations need their pastor to be the spiritual success that the members aren’t. That’s a lot of pressure. It is neither helpful nor healthy for your pastor. The pressure promotes a form of legalism. The expectations, which often aren’t even Biblical, are hard to live up to. You put him at risk. Instead, treat him as a normal person (but with respect). Give him some slack with his family (especially if his kids aren’t worse than yours). If your life or spiritual life is disappointing and less then what you’d hope, take action in the area of spiritual disciplines and pray regularly for the church before requiring more from the church. It’s not the churches (or pastors) responsibility to make your Christian life “Amazing”. You are called to obedience.
- Begin practices (service initiatives) which cultivate empathy – helping, in love, those in a place of weakness without needing to change or fix them, and identify with them in their weakness and brokenness. To merely serve them as a privilege giver is not the same as identifying with them in their poverty or brokenness. To cultivate empathy you need to be with them. I heard of a soup kitchen which first required of all volunteers – including the rich executive – to eat with the homeless and be served food by homeless people, before being a server. Being with and accepted by those in a place of societal shame will challenge but also perhaps help heal narcissist.
Other Practices to combat narcissism
- Acknowledging other groups and churches which are doing good things to realize your congregation isn’t the only gift to God’s earth.
- Respond with patience and grace when criticized especially from other churches; acknowledge different viewpoints while remaining clear about your own.
- Allow others to think differently then you (more on this in a future post)
My honest reservation
I’m concerned with a post like this, in that, if some of these suggestions are followed the congregation may be disappointed. This discomfort is the growing pains the church experiences when growing out of adolescent narcissism. They may no longer have that Amazing Pastor for which a narcissistic church longs. A wise Pastor and Elder board will realize a shift in congregational personality may take time.