There are two basic types of dysfunction for those wanting to serve others in ministry–the narcissist and the co-dependent.
There are two basic types of dysfunction for those wanting to serve others in ministry–the narcissist and the co-dependent. We all lean one way or the other on that continuum–some so little it’s not really an issue, but others, so much so that left unchecked we run the risk of shipwrecking our ministries … and even ourselves.
If “narcissist” or “co-dependent” don’t mean anything to you, think of it this way: The need to succeed or the need to please and avoid conflict.
The narcissist, with his or her need to succeed really doesn’t care what others think. When these people leave ministry, it’s because they are asked to leave, driven out. Their self-centered nature and inability to empathize or think of others can easily pass for vision and leadership charisma–someone with focus and determination that gets the job done. Unfortunately, when the truth comes out it’s usually after people begin to see the long, long trail of metaphorical bodies that get left in the wake. After years of stepping on and over people the toll becomes obvious and the narcissist leaves or everyone else begins to.
On the other side is the co-dependent. Helping professions are ripe soil for people who need others to aid them in establishing their sense of identity. It’s a place where I can be fully and completely co-dependent and get rewarded for it. In fact, the more sold out a pastor or ministry leader is to you and your needs, the more he or she is (often) praised. The narcissist doesn’t mind conflict–in fact, they kind of enjoy it–it’s another chance to focus attention on them and their leadership skills. The co-dependent is motivated by the need for others’ approval and will avoid even necessary conflict whenever possible.
The narcissist needs to be more empathic and what they do must begin to be motivated more and more by the needs of others, not just their own. In other words, they need to care more about what other people think.
So, is the opposite true? Does that mean the co-dependent needs to care less about what other people think?
The answer for those who tend to be driven by what others may or may not think of us, for those who tend to be devastated and hurt when others express disapproval or dislike is to be self-differentiated.
In the book The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Change, differentiation is defined as "the ability to remain connected in relationship to significant people while choosing not to allow our behavior and our reactions to be determined by them … the differentiated person lives an ‘undivided life’ by remaining true to his or her principles even though it may involve rejection or conflict."
I’ve been thinking through these things the last couple of days–every once in awhile you run into one of those speed bumps in ministry that make you question where you are and what you are doing (well, not if you are the narcissist type) and occasionally, for some of us, even who we are.
And that right there is the clue: When your identity is based on what others think of you–which, let’s be honest, is a huge part of the pastoral gig–you are already in deep trouble.
Here’s the truth, and it applies to everyone no matter what you do. A healthy person doesn’t disregard the thoughts and feelings of others, but rather, uses that input appropriately, to help make decisions–not identity.
I told you that narcissists get driven out of ministry by others. The other type drive themselves out. Co-dependents eventually hit a point in their lives when they either drop out or burn out. The burden of being all things to all people, of maintaining an identity built on the approval of others, becomes too much. The narcissist leaves a trail of bodies in his wake–the co-dependent does the same thing, but it’s usually a spouse and children who suffer. This type often sacrifices family for "ministry" and in the end hates the church and regrets ever listening to the call of Jesus.
The only way forward is to base our identity on the one constant–the person of Jesus and what He thinks of us. Learning to hear His voice and have His heart–trading co-dependency with others for dependency on Him. I know that sounds easier said than done, and It is. I think it’s the work of decades, not days or weeks.
To care what people think, but not be consumed by it–it’s the key to sleeping well at night. I know for me, and maybe for you, it’s the difference between making it in ministry and being completely shipwrecked by a vocation and a calling that, not lived out in a healthy manner, has killed better men or women than you or I.
Do you struggle more with narcissism or co-dependency?
As a leader, what do you do to make sure you’re identity is found in Christ and not your vocation?