When vacation comes around, I like to unwind by reading a book or two. This is especially true if I am laying on a beach and relaxing. This strikes some folks as odd, because most of my vocation as a pastor also involves reading. I have no defence. Yes, it is odd... but I've just accepted the oddity that I read for work and rest. ;)
Anyway... I began my 2021 vacation time reading Chuck DeGroat's latest book When Narcissism Comes To Church. As is my practice, I let folks know what I am reading through the socials. This book was no different. I took a picture and shared it as "Vacation Book #1".
Normally, I get a few likes and the odd comment when I share my latest book. This book was different. Several people reached out to me with public and private comments like:
Please let me know what you think of this book.
I've been hurt by BLANK person whom I suspect has NPD. Would this book be helpful for me?
I am so glad you're taking time to read this book. I've feel like this topic is something church leaders need to pay attention too.
The reaction to sharing this book was fascinating to me. It made me dig into the material with a sense of purpose and responsibility. I was eager to answer the many private and public questions I had received. More than that, as a young church leader I really wanted to grow in my understanding and awareness of the church cultures that enable narcissistic behaviours.
So... would I recommend this book?
Wholeheartedly, I believe this is an important read for the church in 2021. It expanded my understanding of what narcissism is and how it looks different across differing personality types. It expanded my understanding of the ways culture's can contribute and allow for the shadow self to grow in the darkness. And mostly importantly... this book challenged me to have empathy towards those who exhibit narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Let me share with you some important insights I gleaned from the book.
Narcissism is more than an inflated sense of self-importance.
I had often understood a narcissist as a grandiose character who is obsessed with themselves. They spend their waking days working all things into the orbit of the gravity of their ego. To have a narcissist as a friend is to feel like a accessory to their life. Think of the Disney movie Hercules. The animators chose to represent Narcissus the Greek god as a fashionable man constantly staring into a mirror.
|Narcissus as depicted in Hercules (circa 1997)|
The actual diagnosis of Narcissism is far more complex and nuanced. Throughout this book, Chuck DeGroat helps us see the complexity of narcissism as it relates different personality types. NPD is more than just a caricature of an inflated sense of ego. DeGroat quotes Terrance Real to help us understand the true definition of narcissism:
"People often think of Narcissus as the symbol the symbol of excessive self-regard, but in fact, he exemplifies the opposite. As the Renaissance philosopher Marssilio Ficino observed in the 1500, Narcissus did not suffer from an overabundance of self-love, but rather from its deficiency. The myth is a parable about paralysis. The youth, who first appears in restless motion, is suddenly rooted to one spot, unable to leave the elusive spirit. As Ficino remarked, if Narcissus had possessed real self-love, he would have been able to leave his fascination. The curse of Narcissus is immobilization, not of love for himself, but out of dependency on his image." [pg. 28]
|"Narcissus" by Amerighi da Caravaggio|
What DeGroat wants us to understand is that the narcissist lacks the ability to receive love. They are numb to the ability to love themselves and thus are often stuck in a shame cycle feedback loop.They are chasing externally that which can only be healed internally. As DeGroat makes clear, "narcissism is born in the soil of shame and self-contempt, not healthy self-love."
DeGroat leans on the work of Christopher Lasch for a more holistic undertstanting of narcissism. "Lasch defines narcissism as the 'longing to be freed of longing'. In other words the narcissist cannot tolerate the limitations of his humanity. What Lasch seems to be saying is that narcissism is about control. It is the refusal to live within God-ordained limitations of creaturely existence. Paradoxically, our desire to be superhuman dehumanizes us, wreaking havoc on our relationships." [pg. 4]
Narcissism is both a personal & cultural problem
"It's not enough to look at narcissism through the lens of an egotistical political figure or an emotionally abusive spouse, and arrogant CEO, or a powerful religious figure. We swim in the cultural waters of narcissism, and churches are not immune. Western culture is a narcissistic culture, as Christopher Lasch declared decades ago in his famous book The Culture of Narcissism. The same vacuousness we see beneath an individual's narcissistic grandiosity can be found at a collective level in American culture, evidences most recently in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. While we tell ourselves stories of American exceptionalism, we hide what's beneath-- fragmentation, systemic racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, addiction, shame and so much more. We've got a problem–– all of us. It's an us problem, not a them problem. " [pg. 4]
The Narcissistic Pastor Defined
"A narcissistic pastor cannot step away. In fact, in his (or her) mind he is essential in every decision. While he may speak of a vision that empowers the laity and staff, his actions say otherwise... His hidden insecurity manifest in anxious, hyper vigilant leadership in which significant meetings or decisions cannot happen without his blessing or presence. Often he arranges leadership structures and polity in such a way as to protect his authority at every level of decision making" [pg. 71]
"Narcissistic pastors are often inpatient with process and thus impatient with people. With the sense that it should have happened yesterday, his leadership can be harsh and brutal... If a staff team is not quick to get on board with a new idea, or if a staff member doesn't get back to him right away after a text message is sent, he can be quick to the draw. In the end, his impatience reveals an absence of empathy, In his self-referential reality, others are a mere commodity." [pg. 72]
"Because he ignores his own limitations, he is impatient with the limitations of others." [pg. 72]
"The narcissistic pastor sees others as an extension of his own ego and is unable to respond with curiosity, empathy, or compassion, in part because he has none for himself." [pg. 72]
"Many narcissistic pastors have little ability to empower others in meaningful ways. They keep staff in ambiguous roles, perhaps changing titles often or realigning structures. This is confusing and demoralizing for hardworking staff members... In the end, the narcissistic pastor may see empowerment as a threat to his control and authority." [pg. 74]
"Narcissistic leaders are notoriously insecure. While they project confidence outwardly, they mask a fear that it could all come crashing down, that they might be exposed as incapable or unsuccessful, that they'd be revealed as deficient." [pg. 76]
"Unlike other professions where narcissism is prevalent, narcissistic pastors walk the fine line of omnipotence and feigned humility." [pg. 77]
"While narcissistic pastors love visibly successful projects and programs, they're often better at imagining and starting new projects rather than sustaining them.... One reason for this phenomenon is that the narcissistic pastor must live in a constant state of ego inflation. The long hard work of building one thing comes with many disappointments, and thus is inherently ego delating. Proposing and starting multiple things allows the narcissistic pastor to receive all the grace for the successes and blame 'incompetent staff' for any failures. " [pg. 78]
"Those within the narcissistic debris field will experience a confusing vacillation between praise and withdrawal. The loyal soldier who hunkers down and does the bidding of the narcissistic pastor is sure to get praise. She is an extension of his ego, so the praise is mostly self-centred." [pg. 79]
"Some narcissistic pastors are bullying intimidators who use their power to wield control... The narcissistic pastor can intimidate in direct ways with condescension, threats of termination, long stare downs in a staff meeting, cutting comments about someone's work ethic or appearance, or removing someone from a key position or visible leadership role." [pg. 81]
"In more structured and accountable settings, a more subtle, yet toxic, form of intimidation is required. Indirect intimidation often occurs through isolation. If you cross this of leader, you'll find yourself on the outside, wondering about your future.... Sometimes intimidation happens through triangulation. Ignoring you, the leader will draw in your peers, ingratiating them through approval and attention, all while planting seeds of distrust about you." [pg. 82]
‘Fauxnerability’ – as in, faux (not genuine) vulnerability – is a word Chuck DeGroat coins to describe the sophisticated and socially aware narcissist. It speaks to a growing phenomenon seen among narcissistic pastors and leaders who may know some psychological language or talk about their personality type or even see a therapist – but who manifest a kind of false vulnerability." (Check out this article for an extended discussion on this term)
The things to be aware of when encountering a fauxnerable person:
- Disclosures that focus on the past
- Staged fauxerabiltiy
- Victim mentality
- Lack of curiosity
And So Much More...
I could share so much more about this book, but probably not without incurring some sort of copy write infringement from IVP. ;) This is all to say, let me suggest that you move this book to the top of your reading list soon. I believe that in 2021, the evangelical church in North America is in a crisis of leadership. The past few years we have heard the reports of scandal after scandal. We have heard the testimonies of #churchtoo. In my mind, the evangelical church of North America needs to rebuild a vision of a more Christlike vision of leadership. This is one book that will help the North American church on its way.