7 traits of a narcissistic pastor
It is painful to watch shepherds fleece the flock they are leading, and so what follows is written with an eye to those churches who may be suffering from the effects of a narcissistic pastor.
Question: What hath narcissism to do with church ministry?
Answer: Absolutely. Nothing!
As far as the east is from the west, so self-seeking motives for ministry has nothing to do with genuine pastoral leadership. Yet, too often churches find in their leaders tendencies that can only be called narcissistic.
This problem is so great that Chuck DeGroat wrote an entire book about it, When Narcissism Comes to Church. What follows is not dependent on his work, but is the result of watching churches and church leaders over the last few years. It is painful to watch shepherds fleece the flock they are leading, and so what follows is written with an eye to those churches who may be suffering from the effects of a narcissistic pastor.
Seven traits of a narcissistic pastor
1. A narcissistic pastor habitually turns the conversation back to himself.
Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:48). Such is the case for all people. It is a principle of human nature: What we talk about reveals what we love, and what we love drives our conversation. And if we love ourselves, we will habitually draw conversations back to ourselves.
In the case of the narcissistic pastor, the conversation has a magnetic pull back towards self. Because the narcissistic pastor loves himself, he loves talking about himself. If he is preaching, he becomes the hero of the sermon illustration, if not the hero of the sermon. If he is casually trading stories in the hallway, the narcissistic pastor may feel compelled to let others know he’s been to the moon. Or, if he disagrees about a church situation, he is likely to defend himself by appealing to how hard he has worked or how much he has suffered to get the church where it is. If a narcissistic pastor has a long tenure in a church, that congregation will often know more about him than about the Bible he preaches.
Beware of the pastor who constantly brings attention to himself.
2. A narcissistic pastor responds to correction with anger and self-defense.
Closely connected to self-oriented conversation is the fact that when others don’t follow the narcissistic pastor, he responds in anger. Unlike the wise man in Proverbs 10:17 who delights in the correction (“Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.”), the narcissistic pastor will practice a policy of non-confrontation. While he has little trouble confronting, correcting, and critiquing others, he doesn’t receive the same. For him, the street runs one way, and he is deft at pointing out the traffic violations of those who approach him.
Sadly, the narcissistic pastor who is unwilling to receive correction does not simply injure himself. He injures others. Instead of modeling humility, a precious garment all Christians must wear, he models folly. As Proverbs 18:2 puts it, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Anger and defensiveness are sure signs of trouble.
Beware of the pastor who refuses to consider criticism or receive correction.
3. A narcissistic pastor is more concerned with the immediate welfare of his ministry than the long-term health of God’s sheep.
When Hezekiah was informed that he would be secure in his day, but his children would be carted off to Babylon, the king took comfort (see Isaiah 39). Such a spirit of self-preservation exposed the wickedness of his heart. He cared little for the long term effects of his actions—showing the wealth of Yahweh’s temple to the Babylonians.
Instead, he thought about himself and his own personal peace.
Sadly, this is the attitude of a narcissistic pastor. While “a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” (Prov. 13:22), a narcissist is someone who is only thinking about his own day, his own ministry, and his own glory. Plans are not laid down which will last for generations. The plans of a narcissistic pastor are hatched so that numbers will pop this week, this month, or this year.
Such a minister might be willing to spend through church savings to make his ministry flourish. Or, he might see the budget as his own personal account. This might look like spending lavishly on office furniture, media platforms, or stage lighting—anything that would make him look good in front of others.
Or, he might be willing to use the church to advance his own reputation outside the church. For instance, he might see his ministry as a stepping stone to something else, or he might be willing to cut church membership in half to double attendance. I once heard a pastor with a big vision for his ministry say to his church, “If you call me, you will lose half of your members, but you will double its size in the process.”
Such honesty is appreciated, because many with an unconstrained vision for ministry are not as truthful. But such honesty also reveals a wicked heart that cares little for God’s sheep (Acts 20:28) and much for the size of one’s stable. Such a commitment to one’s own ministry is but another evidence of narcissism.
Beware of the pastor who is using the church to advance himself.
4. A narcissistic pastor uses church structures and sermons to support themselves.
If short term gains and self-interested use of money are a evidence of narcissism, so is the use of church structures to achieve his ends. This pastor might be quick to use church discipline to get rid of problem people. He might use leadership sabbaticals as a means displacing non-compliant elders or deacons. Or, he might make a habit of blaming others for church problems or taking credit for the good work others have done—whether those people are in the church or not.
One specific application of this relates to using the sermon material of others. While not every narcissistic pastor is guilty of this, it’s symptomatic of narcissism or some other problem.
There are many reasons why preachers plagiarize sermons, but one is that they desire to look or sound better than they are. Instead of taking personal ownership for their sermons, trusting in who God has made them to be and progressing in their handling of God’s Word through hard work (see 1 Tim. 4:11–16), those who plagiarize sermons are offering a false product, even if they speak biblical truth.
Some may justify this practice of borrowing material as a necessity of modern ministry. Busyness makes it impossible to produce a good sermon each week, they reason. And solo pastors, they might add, just don’t have enough time to prepare a good sermon.
But such a view of sermon-making comes from a misunderstanding of a pastor’s first priority—namely, to study the Scriptures (Ezra 7:10) and preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:1–2). At the same time, if narcissism presses a pastor to steal other’s sermons, in a short time this will undermine his qualifications for ministry.
Beware of the pastor who uses the work of others to bolster himself.
5. A narcissistic pastor is overly independent and unwilling to share ministry with others.
The next two traits of a Narcissistic Pastor are related, even though they may appear mutually exclusive. The first trait concerns a high degree of self-reliance and unhealthy independence.
After his baptism, Jesus began his earthly ministry by preaching the gospel and making disciples (see e.g., Mark 1:9–20). In fact, Jesus never did anything in his earthly ministry without his followers. On the night of his crucifixion, he told his disciples that he would send his Spirit and that those who followed him would do greater works than he had done (John 14:12).
What an incredible testimony—that our Lord and Savior, who alone is God and who alone is building his church, told his disciples that their works would be greater. Of course, their works and ours depend entirely on God, his Word, and prayer (see John 14:13; 15:1–11; etc.), but such a selfless way of speech models the kind of king Jesus is. In perfect humility, he did not discount the works his followers would do. Rather, he entrusted them with the world’s biggest task—to go into all the world and make disciples.
Following Jesus, we find that the healthiest ministry is one that is by nature inclusive. Just look at the end of Paul’s letters; he was like an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, receiving sorties and sending out new missions. As we learn from Jesus and Paul, ministry should lead to friendships (3 John 15), partnerships (Phil. 1:4–6), and cooperative efforts in missions (3 John 8). Like Jesus, healthy pastors expect that those who follow them will exceed them in the work. And instead of squelching ideas, actions, and pursuits of ministry—for fear that others might have a greater ministry—they foster it.
By contrast, narcissism leads pastors to do all the work themselves. Instead of releasing others to do good works, they believe they must do it. Occasionally, they collect a few close associates who serve as their entourage (more on that below), but more often they believe what they do is best and they don’t let others use their gifts.
Beware of the pastor who doesn’t share ministry, but puts himself in the center of it all.
6. A narcissistic pastor is often unapproachable and surrounded by an entourage.
While Jesus had a select group of disciples, he also made himself available to all who came in faith. Unclean women, little children, and blind beggars were just some of the people he welcomed. Likewise, a pastor is to have a welcoming heart and a hospitable home. 1 Timothy 3:3 even assigns hospitality—i.e., the love of strangers—as part of their ministerial qualifications. For this reason, a pastor who avoids contact with the congregation is pursuing a way of ministry foreign to Jesus.
I use the word “avoid” intentionally. I am not saying that a pastor will spend equal time with all members. Scripture calls for churches to have a plurality of elders (see Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; etc.), therefore, the “teaching elder” or “senior pastor” should be one of the pastors who cares for the flock. It is unreasonable for members to demand one pastor to be on call 24/7 for all members. Yet, this expectation has often been fostered by pastors who have tried to do everything for everyone. See Number 5 above.
Interestingly, if being the omni-present / omni-competent pastor is a sign of narcissism, so is its inverse—the pastor who hides himself behind his entourage. This is especially true in smaller churches, where a narcissistic pastor aspires to have a big church.
Beware of the pastor who hides himself behind an inner circle and dismisses the whole congregation.
7. A narcissistic pastor misuses the Bible to defend himself and glorify his ministry.
When narcissism is manifested in all of these ways, it’s not uncommon for such a pastor to defend himself and glorify his ministry with Scripture. All too often narcissistic pastors, whether from insecurity or poor hermeneutics or both, identify themselves with Old Testament figures. Likening their ministries to that of Moses, Joshua, or David, they chastise anyone wo questions what they’re doing.
The line goes like this: If God was displeased with Israel for contending with Moses or David, he will be displeased when anyone questions or confronts the pastor. This line of reasoning is exacerbated in churches where the pastor is treated as God’s special anointed servant—never mind that all members have the anointing (1 John 2:27).
Such a pedestal is dangerous for the most humble man, let alone a narcissist. In fact, I’d argue that churches that treat their pastor like a local celebrity create a context where young men look up to the pastor and desire to be like him—not for the purpose of preaching the Word and prayer, but to have such a position of honor. I’m not saying churches create narcissists; the world is overrun with them. But I’m saying certain characteristics in a church can tempt men to become pastors, because it strokes their ego and offers them an opportunity for local fame.
When such an approach to ministry occurs, one sign of danger is a pastor who uses the Bible to defend himself and glorify his ministry. This use of the pulpit, when it goes unchecked, makes it nearly impossible to correct such a pastor. Instead, it creates an entire church that looks up to and supports the pastor, regardless of his vision. And worse, if his interpretation of Scripture permits him to be the center of the sermon, instead of Christ, it won’t be long before that pastor goes astray—with or without the church. Such are the high stakes of permitting a narcissist to be pastor.
Beware of the pastor who uses the Bible to glorify his ministry and defend himself.
Beware of (Being) the narcissistic pastor
As with any list, these seven traits aren’t exhaustive, nor are they without some degree of personal caricature. I pray these seven traits might open the eyes of those who are currently sitting under the ministry of a narcissist.
I pray it might even embolden prayer and action if a church finds that their pastor is unfit to serve because his narcissism. And I pray that perhaps, this post might even open the eyes of a pastor who exhibits these traits to a greater or lesser degree.
I’m not immune from narcissism in myself. By seeing narcissism in others, it puts me on high alert to fight such temptations in my own heart. And thus, I take these observations to heart too and press into Christ to know more of his way of pastoral ministry.