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.
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).
DeGroat’s work on narcissism is very helpful for people who live with narcissists or contend with narcissistic leaders. Still, we may question his claims about the prevalence of narcissism in the church. If most people who claim to speak for God have narcissistic tendencies, does that mean most prophets, apostles, teachers, and preachers in history were narcissists (Eph. 4:11–16)? When DeGroat approves a colleague who thinks one must be a narcissist to want to “speak on behalf of God,” he questions the motives of all preachers and almost makes “godly preacher” an oxymoron.
Scripture offers an alternative motive for preaching. Paul explains that people preach if God equips and calls them to it: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). Throughout the Bible, God sets apart people to preach for him and to do so with authority (Acts 5:42; 9:15; Rom. 10:14–15). Thus Paul commands Timothy, whose fault wasn’t self-promotion but timidity, to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Pastors Need ‘Healthy Narcissism’
To be sure, some teachers and preachers are narcissists. Mike Cosper brilliantly explicated the role of narcissism in the fall of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. And many others have become impossibly selfish, seduced congregants, and abused power. If concerns about narcissism and moral failure lead churches to guard against promoting leaders who have more talent than character, that’s healthy. If we guard against wounding pastors with privilege on one side and relentless criticism on the other, that will also serve the church.
The “ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality” comment appears early in DeGroat’s book. Later, he asserts that the narcissism spectrum includes “a healthy narcissism” marked by “confidence rather than certainty” as well as empathy, humility, and curiosity (36). I wish DeGroat had mentioned healthy narcissism after asserting that the “vast majority” of pastoral candidates are narcissists. The failure to mention and explain what a number of people see as a healthy quality risks leaving readers suspicious of pastoral leadership.
Ernest Becker says, “A working level of narcissism is inseparable from self-esteem, from a basic sense of self-worth.” Psychologists link “healthy narcissism” to proper self-protection, a sense of agency, proper self-respect, and the will to make plans.
We might have doubts about the term “healthy narcissism”—we need a better term for this—but healthy self-regard is necessary for leaders. Surgeons, politicians, pro athletes, and CEOs need confidence. They need the ego strength to believe they can contribute to their world. Leaders need a sense of their competence, their voice, and their mission.
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.
Let’s Revisit the Question
Late in the book, DeGroat rightly says “we swim in the waters of narcissism,” and he hopes everyone will “explore his or her own narcissism” (167–70). Various sources name medicine, entertainment, sports, media, law enforcement, politics, corporate leadership, religious leadership, and academia as fields that attract narcissists. Anyone who leads or addresses the public needs a dose of confidence and a capacity to win people.
Pastors, in particular, need courage and fearlessness.
So if we revisit the questions “Is narcissism the problem behind pastors’ moral failures?” and “Does the church attract narcissists?” we might now answer, “Healthy narcissism seems helpful in many fields” and “Most leaders are tempted to misuse their self-confidence and their ability to win people, but they can resist that temptation.”
While some preachers do love to be the center of attention, others hate it. Some leaders—like Timothy and many of the prophets (Isa. 6; Jer. 1; Amos 7)—have been reluctant to speak for God. Many pastors testify that they resisted God’s call. For them, preaching spurs self-doubt and self-criticism. But they persist because they believe God called them.
Yes, some pastors are unhealthy narcissists, but pastoral ministry has other dangers. Some young pastors constantly question themselves. In recent self-evaluations at the seminary where I lead, ministry candidates seem more likely to shun power and spotlights than to seize them. Like many pastors over the centuries, they need to find fortitude in God. For that, the confident thought, I am God’s ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20) seems correct and essential.
Dan Doriani will publish an academic article on this topic in the Spring 2023 issue of the Westminster Theological Journal.