Does a Church Setting Attract and Foster Narcissistic Behaviour?


I don’t like conflict! But at any time in North America 20 per cent of congregations are in conflict. Knowing I was not going to avoid conflict I started studying it, to learn to recognize it and how to deal with it. With the course work completed, it was time to find a thesis topic. I was conflicted on what to study. A friend responded, “Just tell me the challenges you are facing in the synod ministry.”

From a page – long rant came, “We have ‘the Princes’ who believe they are entitled to run around beating up the people in their congregations, and when things explode, as they always do, they cannot comprehend that they have done anything wrong, or why the presbytery is calling them to change their ways, or that they need to change their own pattern of behaviour.” His response was, “What you have described here is Narcissistic Personality Disorder!” And so my capstone project for Trinity Seminary, Newburgh, Indiana, was to learn about NPD and the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

As my friend noted, narcissism is a personality disorder. Narcissists believe the world revolves around them. They are exhibitionists who feel they are entitled to the best of everything. They can have explosive tempers. They build up their own contributions and belittle the accomplishments of others. They are actors and thrive in administrative positions where they can hide behind rules and regulations, seeking to avoid dealing with the people and their problems.

In the Bible, narcissists are found in patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets and apostles. Some of them, by the grace of God, were transformed; others are not and end up destroying themselves and their family, church and nation. If we want to see a church grow and thrive we need to know how to recognize them and learn how to deal with them.

Narcissists seek praise, which leads to an inflated ego. They ask, “What is in it for me?” Medicine, the entertainment industry and the military show signs of higher levels of narcissism due to the sense of power and influence that these careers provide. But the ministry can also be an attractive career for a narcissist. There are plenty of possibilities for praise in the ministry. The call process appeals to them because they make a good first impression. Their narcissistic supply is fed by those who tell them “that really spoke to our hearts!” There is a temptation to believe that clergy are God’s gift to the local church. Many clergy work alone, without colleagues who are able to help them remain accountable to living the gospel they proclaim.

For my study, surveys were sent to clergy, lay ministers and students for the ministry in the PCC and more than 420 responded. I used the Netherlands Narcissism Scale developed by Hessell Zondag because it measures various narcissistic factors in individuals. Three factors are of interest to leadership in the church: overt narcissism, NPD and covert narcissism. The surveys indicated that there is a serious problem with narcissism in the leadership of the PCC.

Now everyone needs a little bit of this quality for self – preservation and enough confidence in their own ability to be a leader. This can manifest itself in overt narcissism, which is found in approximately 60 per cent of our clergy. This is what enables us to get out of bed Monday morning saying, “So what if I missed the mark yesterday, today is a new day! By the grace of God, I learned something and it is time to face today’s challenge!” They exhibit strong leadership skills when coupled with such qualities as creativity, empathy, transience, humour and wisdom. But take away the empathy and the ability to laugh at themselves, and you quickly loose the wisdom. Then leadership degenerates into narcissism in its unredeemable forms.

Likewise, add too much self – centredness and this leads to NPD. Narcissism begins in early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five or more of the following nine characteristics: a grandiose sense of importance, fantasies of unlimited success, the belief that they are unique in status, the requirement for excessive admiration, feelings of entitlement to special treatment, taking advantage of others, lack of empathy for others, being envious of others or believing that others are envious of them, and arrogant and haughty behaviour or attitudes. It is revealed among those who think only of themselves as well as in those who are self – deprecating. It is seen also in those who bully their way through life.

This is not good news. These are the people who leave congregations decimated. As one respondent noted, “anyone with high scores in these areas should not be in ministry.” Yet 25 per cent of our clergy cross that boundary into the egocentric realm of NPD as opposed to five per cent of the general population.

Those with NPD do not learn from their mistakes and will move, on average, one year sooner than other clergy. Because they do not learn from their mistakes a pattern of failed ministry follows them. They are the ones least likely to attend continuing education events or to join a study or accountability group, because they feel they already know everything. They seldom take advice from others, and belittle others’ accomplishments as a way to build themselves up.

We also have the covert narcissists who comprise five per cent of all clergy and 25 per cent of those with NPD. They possess the same character traits as NPD but seek to hide these traits. They are intent on shifting the blame for problems onto others. While they seek to be as gentle as doves, they are inclined to have the temperament of dragons. These would be the individuals Jesus called hypocrites; they say one thing and do something else. They can change their attitudes quickly and deny that their own actions affected others. They suffer from low self – esteem or a form of self – loathing. They try to appear as servants, but can show great resentment if they are not honoured as they feel befits their status. The statistical analysis indicates that covert narcissism emerges over time, peeking at 10 per cent of those with 15 years of ministry, while overt narcissism and NPD are at their peek early and decline over time (See Figure 1).

Levels of NPD rise with the size of congregations served, while covert narcissism was not found in the larger congregations. The data implies that a covert narcissist either cannot work effectively with a larger congregation or that over time they will reduce the congregation to a level that they can control (Figure 2). Both possibilities can have devastating consequences for the church.

The study also looked at personal spiritual practices. Respondents were asked to place either a high or low value on the regularity of their practices of daily prayer, scripture reading, pastoral care, music, stewardship, etc. The intention was not to dictate an answer but rather to honestly see if there was a spiritual co – relationship with the level of narcissism. Yes, there are connections to spirituality. Narcissists prefer working with paid staff, are the least intentional about congregational visitation, and are less likely to maintain practices of regular prayer and biblical devotional reading.

How do we deal with narcissists? Some of these individuals are not currently in ministry as noted by the levels of NPD found in “Others” on the appendix to the rolls of presbyteries (52 per cent NPD). (See Figure 3).

It helps to know what a narcissist acts like. Pride and vanity are signs of a narcissist. It helps to look at their previous ministries and early life. Those with the lowest levels of narcissism approach life with a desire to learn. They are able to work with volunteers of all ages. They try to maintain daily spiritual practices, and are methodical in their work with all parts of the congregation and seek not to favour any. They know who their mentors are. Narcissists don’t feel they need mentors.

Narcissists may view any congregation as a stepping stone, not as a mission from God. Listen carefully to what they say about their previous experiences; they will eventually say the same things about you.
Narcissism is the hardest personality disorder to overcome. But by the grace of God all things are possible. The apostle John changed from Son of Thunder to the Beloved servant of God. When conflict happens, the body of Christ is broken. Those at fault must work hard to discover humility and a servant’s attitude, and then they can change and grow.


About Glenn Ball

Rev. Dr. R. Glenn Ball is minister at St. Andrew's, Brandon, Man.