Thursday, September 4, 2014

Narcistic Pastors

I've just finished reading Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter L Steinke. He has three slim  books published by the Alban Institute on different aspects of how emotional system and group psychology give insight to situations faced in churches, all are essential reading IMHO. This book has, as a postscript, an essay entitled "People of the Charm" on the subject of narcissistic leaders (not always the pastor!) in churches. A very brief and rough summary,
  1. Churches/public ministry naturally attracts those with a narcissistic.
  2. A narcissistic leader requires followers to feed their narcissism, the followers in turn need the leader's certainty, approval and reflected importance creating a self-reinforcing, self-sustaining and self-protecting circle/system which is very hard to challenge.
  3. A natural outcome of the "circle of charm' is a polarisation towards those not in the circle and a loss of objectivity hence why this syndrome is so destructive to churches.
  4. Churches often focus on the short term benefits of narcissistic leaders (strong leadership, growth, etc) rather than the long term less public issues (loss of other leaders, spiritual abuse, eventual scandal) which make them less likely to take effective action in good time.
It is a great essay and should probably be read carefully by every church pastoral search committee. I just want to add some of my own quick reflections at this point.

Steinke notes that narcissism is generally a product of insecurity. The pastoral role is one that naturally generates a great deal of insecurity: The multiplicity of different tasks and skill sets required makes it very unlikely that any one individual can do everything well; The experience of being employed by a lrage group of people rather than (as in most jobs) having just one boss to report to; The unlimited nature of ministry meaning the job is never finished and no matter what you do achieve there will always be a sense of needing to do more; The fact that all these could be remedied by a healthy spiritual life but that being a pastor is often detrimental to our spiritual walk; all this adds up to making narcissism, even for those of us who feel unlikely candidates for it, a very real temptation as an escape from a near constant feeling of inadequacy.

Secondly, the very real and unreflective pressure (at least in most evangelical churches) for results over principle and success and glamour over holiness and integrity means that we are unlikely to see the end of pastoral scandals, burnout and church splits. Deeply discouraging in one way but in another there are concrete ways we can positively influence the systems we are part of, as a pastor the cultivation of personal and structural honesty, accountability and vulnerability is essential (even though people often interpret it as you complaining) and as congregation members loving and objective interaction with pastors about issues of concern and weakness can help keep them off the pedestal. On a larger scale I would love to see a cultural movement within the western evangelical subculture towards holiness and integrity over success and image, if only I had enough success and enough of my own hair to be an influence! ;-)

Let me know what you think, :-)

PS are you impressed how I got through this entire post without mentioning Mark Driscoll?

2 comments:

  1. Hi Jonathan
    I think I've seen some of this work out in my observation of some pastors who seem to create their identity through power and control under the guise of leadership, which is sustained by people who may have been socialised (or something else) into "following" such "leadership" and this is perhaps a product of insecurity for both leader and followers... These ideas about narcism makes sense of that. Interesting thoughts - thanks. Mike

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  2. I think you're spot on Mike, "power and control" look like leadership to a lot of people but generally mean a failure of leadership to be able to lead in love.

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