“Houston, we have a problem.” One of the most understated comments in American history was made by Jim Lovell as he reported to NASA that his space craft was I trouble.
I believe the Evangelical Church in America also has a serious problem that threatens the very witness and mission of the church. It’s not COVID. It’s not the changing and hostile cultural circumstances. It’s not even the political posture of the church. It is our fascination with narcissistic leadership.
In the past couple of weeks, we have discovered yet another scandal with a prominent Evangelical pastor. At first, we hear that Carl Lentz of Hillsong Church in New York City (and pastor to Justin Beiber) confess to having an extra-marital affair. This is a heartbreaking revelation for the Lentz family, and we should have compassion for all involved. A family’s pain should not fair game for pundits and commenters (even one like me) to score points for their pet causes.
But as the matter was examined more closely, not only were more affairs discovered but also a pattern of narcissistic behavior. People magazine reported this week on comments made by Hillsong founder, Brian Houston: “‘When we talk about an affair, these issues were more than one affair. They were significant,’ a man reported to be Houston said. ‘And at least some bad moral behavior had gone back historically, but not necessarily those affairs.’
“‘Not just general narcissistic behavior, manipulating, mistreating people … I think sometimes other hurtful things, the breaches of trust connected to lying, constantly lying … basically, broken trust.’”
While Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a psychological diagnosis that few of us are qualified to make, we can point out abusive and narcissistic behaviors: lying, lack of integrity, lack of empathy, gas-lighting and manipulation. As a Christian leader is rising in prominence, these behaviors may be subtle and dismissed. I have had colleagues excuse lying as “giving a story-teller room to make his case.” Lay leaders have described cruel behavior or a loose relationship with facts as “carelessness.” We make these excuses usually because this leader is bringing the institution ‘success.’ “If you are going to make an omelet, you have to crack of few eggs.”
Unchecked, these patterns are disastrous for the leader and the organization. At its core, it is idolatrous and a betrayal of the Christ we preach. I believe many of us in the American Evangelical Church have made a Faustian bargain: we have given the church over to narcissistic leadership so they can deliver outward success, particularly with large churches and in church planting.
Please don’t hear me say every church planter or pastor of a large church is a narcissist. There are fine people doing hard work and often are the object of unfair criticism… like being a narcissist. However, we cannot deny that narcissistic behavior is often rewarded in leadership and it is a cancer living in the bones of Evangelicalism. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders between 0.5 and 1 percent of the general population is a narcissistic personality. 75% of them are men. That means for every 800 people, between 4 to 8 are NPDs, between 3 and 6 of them are men. The percentage is higher among clergy, however. Getting a clearer sense of the percentages is difficult but one study in Canada suggests that narcissistic personalities rates among clergy may be 400% to 500% higher than in the general population. (for every 200 pastor, 4 to 8 are NPDs, 3 to 6 of them are men)
In their book How to Treat a Staff Infection: Resolving Problems in Your Church or Ministry, Craig and Carolyn Williford list six signs of narcissism in clergy: 1) all decision making centers on them; 2) impatience or a lack of ability to listen to others; 3) delegating without giving proper authority or with too many limits; 4) feelings of entitlement; 5) feeling threatened or intimidated by other talented staff; and 6) needing to be the best and brightest in the room (Williford &Williford 2006, 104–110). Others have included an inability to form and maintain significant relationships, a lack of empathy, or sense of proportion and pathological lying. Narcissistic vulnerability leads to defensiveness in the form of belittling others and self-belittling jokes. While the narcissist may present at humorous, they actually use sarcasm in place of healthy humor.
Earlier, I use the term ‘we’ when talking about the bargain we have made with narcissistic leadership. I did so quite intentionally. I have been a part of systems that have enabled leaders like this. I would say that it has been unwitting enablement but that does not absolve me from being more spiritually discerning or the part I have played in systems that hurt people. When I have become aware of the hurt, I have done my best to go back and apologize and put things right (if one can ever really do that) though I know I have more work to do. A recent anonymous comment on a blog entry I wrote accused me of being complicit. I don’t deny it and I am sorry for any pain I have caused because of that complicity.
Moving forward I, as must we all, seek to be more discerning. We must be willing to love our leaders enough to challenge them on bad behavior. So, this requires courage, knowing there will be backlash. But most of all, we must abandon the idolatry of the ‘successful’ church. When faithfulness to Christ becomes more important than likes on FB, views of our sermons and money in the offering plate, our fascination with narcissistic leadership will wither and die. Lord, may it be so.
Check out Chuck DeGroat’s book, When Narcissism Comes to Church for guidance and resources if you think you are in a narcissistic church system.