As Americans, we love narcissists, maybe not in our personal lives, but they make for great drama. Just think Frank Underwood and Tony Soprano. They’re iconic. Just as much as we root for an underdog, we are entertained by the extreme personality traits of the narcissist. Narcissism is defined as someone characterized by extreme selfishness and a ruthless hunger for accomplishment or admiration. Sometimes, we even root for them to win at the expense of everyone and everything else in their life as a symptom of our culture’s obsession with success.
The Church is a cross-section of our culture and unfortunately, this institution is not immune to the powerful, dysfunctional personality disorder that allows a narcissist to thrive. In fact, some churches may even have a hand in giving this dysfunction an avenue to express itself in the worst ways.
A lack of checks and balances
Narcissists seek positions of power and influence. And once they have gotten those positions, they often begin to eliminate perceived threats like people who ask questions, keep them accountable or otherwise challenge them. Cronyism and leadership drenched with fear are sadly not foreign to the church.
When asking questions becomes a threat to leadership or seen as creating division, the ability for honest conversation and respectful discourse has been replaced with a sense of fear and insubordination. So in the quiet and the dark, the underbelly of dysfunction begins to grow.
Healthy choices will remove the margin for error by keeping leaders accountable and connecting them to a community that will challenge and grow them. Insulation and isolation are all too common in high levels of leadership, regardless of industry but in the church, it can be devastating.
Remember why the emperor ended up walking naked in the streets in The Emperor’s New Clothes. No one spoke up. They were scared. The emperor was surrounded by “yes” men. There was no one on the inner circle speaking truth, helping him to make wise decisions rather than humiliating or damaging mistakes.
Worshipping the created instead of the Creator
Within the Church, there seems to be a temptation to worship those who stand on the stage each week instead of the person they should be pointing to. It is much easier to worship someone you can actually see each week and desire validation from them. Celebrity pastors exist because each party gets the validation they need from the arrangement. Pastors can be unwilling participants in this situation, but when they forget to deflect the glory from themselves to God, it’s an easy cycle to get trapped in.
In these kinds of environments, difficult conversations are often discouraged. Many communities choose to live with dysfunction over making anyone feel uncomfortable through a tough talk. This is reminiscent of the Edmund Burke quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
But as the Church, this is an opportunity for collective growth towards something more. When we as individuals respectfully and openly call out the growth areas in our community, we shine light into the darkness. We need to speak to institutions that don’t align with God’s vision for the Church. This means having standards and expectations and calling on each other to meet those as you sharpen one another in love.
After all, the Church is the bride of Christ and it is our responsibility to press her on to purity, faithfulness, loyalty and truth. The Church’s honor is worth protecting and fighting for. In acknowledging the narcissists among us, or even patterns that let the narcissists hurt others, we take a step forward in building a place that produces children of God instead of mini-celebrities.
Where we go from here
Rather than avoiding the topic or turning a blind eye, a good way to address the dysfunction is through honest conversation. Perfection will never be reached on this side of heaven but we can still strive to live honorably and exalt one another above ourselves in the choices we make day to day. We can call out destructive, inexcusable behavior when we see it. We can seek justice for all, not just betterment for one. This requires bravery, character, maturity and emotional competence but it’s a responsibility we have to protect the namesake of Christ’s bride.