Climbing our pedestals

Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself.

Philippians 2:3

I read a tweet recently which asked why so many churches of a certain background were so attracted to narcissist leaders. I won’t mention the particular background in question but I did wonder what would happen if churches started screening for such personality disorders. Would there be a lot of empty pulpits on Sunday morning?

A few days later, I met a counseling friend at a local bookstore and told her about the tweet. Without even blinking, she told me politicians and senior pastors tend to score very high for Narcissistic Personality Disorder on psychological profiles.

I don’t want to sound like I am only picking on pastors here. The symptoms of the disorder, as listed by Psychology Today, are certainly not unique to church leaders. Take a look at the list:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Belief that one is special and can only be understood by or associate with special people or institutions
  • A need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement (to special treatment)
  • Exploitation of others
  • A lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or the belief that one is the object of envy
  • Arrogant, haughty behavior, or attitudes

Other sites have more extensive lists but this one is suitable for discussion.

A grandiose sense of self-importance – I once had a pastor tell me he considered himself to be the father figure for all of the children in his neighborhood. In a neighborhood of 130+ homes, that’s a lot of self-importance.

But self-importance doesn’t stop there. As Christians, it can be pretty easy to put ourselves on pedestals and convince ourselves that people look up to us. Scripture warns us clearly against this attitude and tells us to remain humble.

If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.

Galatians 6:3

Preoccupation with fantasies – I’m not sure exactly what to say about this symptom. At times, we all dream of success and accomplishment, but I don’t think that is the point with this one. I think the word “fantasies” is the key point.

In the modern church, showmanship and performance can distract from the reality of the message. Pastors and worship leaders can easily get absorbed in a fantasy life where they are fooled into thinking their self platitudes are scriptural and their performances are more important than the message. Even staff leaders can fool themselves into believing their programs are more important than the congregation they serve.

People are hungry for God, not karaoke. If the congregation can’t make it to small group because you did an extra special version of the song you sing every week, you are missing the point.

Wesley placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of small groups. He believed Christians in community could teach each other and help each other remain accountable. It’s important but it often gets pushed aside for church fantasy.

Associate with special people or institutions – Jesus emptied himself of his divine nature and took the form of a servant so he could bring us the message of salvation. He sure is lucky denominations and pastors came along later to fix things for him.

That’s all I’m going to say about that. Y’all keep arguing!

A need for excessive admiration – Perhaps this is not a good reason to become a pastor anymore. A recent Barna survey showed a distinct disconnect between the way congregations viewed pastors and the way pastors viewed themselves.

In the survey, 100% believed their congregations viewed them as trustworthy (67% very trustworthy and 33% somewhat). In the same survey, only 31% of Christians believed their pastors were definitely trustworthy and another 40% believed they were somewhat trustworthy.

That’s a disconnect. If you’re reading this and have some thoughts on the matter, share them in the comments.

A sense of entitlement – I was binge watching The Chosen recently and saw a feature after the episode where a group of 20-somethings watched it together. One of the young men shared how he had turned away from his faith because, among other reasons, his pastor called a meeting to tell everyone they needed to work harder and earn more so they could provide him and his wife with nicer things.

I’m reminded of the parable of the guests at a wedding who rushed to sit in positions of honor. Jesus said it is better to take the lowest seat and be invited to a better one than to exalt yourself and be asked to move down.

As Christians, do we sometimes get indignant for the sake of getting indignant? How puckered do you get if someone tells you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?”

Exploitation of others – The example of the entitled pastor who demanded everyone work harder and donate more to bless him fits here as well. But there are so many ways church leaders can abuse people.

I talked to a church staffer who worked part time but was required to work extra hours as “volunteer time.” I love volunteering for good causes. It’s not volunteering if it is mandatory.

Churches can actually abuse pastors in the same way. If you hire a pastor and expect his or her spouse to serve as a free staff member, you are exploiting that relationship.

A lack of empathy – It can be hard to relate to some circumstances but that is no excuse to cut yourself off from emotions when someone shares a problem, prayer or concern. In counseling, it is important to try to understand where someone is coming from even when you don’t agree with how they might have handled an issue.

It’s important to listen with grace. Narcissists don’t listen. They are too important.

I once had a church staffer tell me about pastors returning from home visits and making jokes about the families they met. As Christians, we always have to treat others as we’d want to be treated and we should treat them as better than ourselves.

Envy – In the list, I linked to an article from a few years ago explaining the danger of envy. In psychology terms, envy is realizing you can’t have something and wishing for others to be deprived of it.

For any Christian, this is a dangerous form of jealousy. Pray for others to be blessed and pray for people who have harmed you. Never pray for anyone to be deprived of something you’d consider a blessing.

Arrogant, haughty behavior, or attitudes – We’re all called to witness. We’re never called to belittle people or place ourselves—or our pretend morals—on pedestals.

It is never our role as believers to assert our own ideals onto others. That includes using our position to control other people based on our own sense of self. We cannot assume other people have the same strengths, weaknesses or temptations we have.

Idolatry of position

When we think of the Bible’s warning against idols we often dismiss it as a warning from another era. I don’t know anyone carving statues or melting gold into calves to worship.

I do know a lot of people who have built idols in their lives. In counseling, and in my personal life, I have known people who have made idols of marriages, relationships, jobs, parenthood, education, and many other things.

I’ve even met people who have put themselves on a pedestal for their own perceived virtues. Placing your own moral platitudes above the teachings of Christ and above the needs of others is nothing short of idolatry. It’s a dangerous form of narcissism.

And here’s the real point of this longer than intended blog post. All Christians are called to serve others and to remain humble. I wrote a lot about church leadership because people tend to assume the behavior that is demonstrated to them and, as pastors continue to lose credibility it’s a good idea to pay attention to where they are losing respect because it’s where we, as Christians, need to be aware of our own witness.

Life is very short and the time you are allotted to have an impact in the lives of others is relatively microscopic when compared to eternity. Jesus stepped out of Heaven to be a servant. Follow his example.

And if your pastor is a narcissist, run.







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