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8 Signs of a Narcissistic Spiritual Leader

Since so much teaching on humility over haughtiness is directed to those who shepherd God’s people, we in the Gospel ministry must pay particular attention. Those that needed the strong Biblical injunctions against haughtiness are most often leaders, spiritual leaders. Haughty, self-serving, pastors seeking a spotlight inevitably pursued their self-aggrandizing at the expense of a care for souls. So, to put it another way, God calls His shepherds to be on guard against “Narcissus.”

Narcissistic leaders are like the infamous Greek mythological figure, Narcissus. This character, appearing in different mythologies, and thereby seeking to explain a universal problem in Mankind, was so self-infatuated that he bent over a pool to get some water, saw a reflection of himself, and fell in love with himself. The “affair” with self was unnaturally toxic from the start, and, predictably, ended badly. Narcissus died on the spot. A perennial flower sprouted over his remains and began to spread (the Narcissus, or, in Welsh, Daffodil). Narcissus is beautiful but the animals consider it (rightly so) poison. You never have to worry about squirrels eating your daffodils. They instinctively know better. Let us then do the same to recognize and avoid narcissistic pastoring.

Be on Guard Against Narcissism in Spiritual Leaders

It is my observation that narcissistic personality disorder is an ever-present threat to clergy, especially those in church planting and revitalization. In fact, these individuals are invariably highly effective and successful—for a short season. Eventually, like their Greek mythological namesake, they collapse under the weight of absurdity. However, their self-admiration is often seen as “strong leadership.”

We have noticed in our English garden that one of the most beautiful plants is beebalm. This sturdy perennial is bright and vigorous. It spreads wonderfully. However, in all of its glory, it crushes out other plants. No plant can thrive but beebalm. In a similar way, narcissism in pastors and other Christians is like the beebalm. Also, like the narcissus flower, this disease of the soul called narcissism spreads. This is the danger of narcissism in the Church. Shepherding others by self-aggrandizement is contrary to God’s will for leadership. To propagate narcissists in the Church is the opposite of the Great Commission. It is, rather, to create a veritable Corinthian Church franchise.

8 Signs of the Narcissistic Spiritual Leader

What are some of the traits I have observed in those who suffer from this spiritual disease?

1. Narcissistic spiritual leaders thrive on the energy of their own ambition. This toxic leader is the epitome of James 3:16: “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.”

2. Narcissistic spiritual leaders are masters of manipulation. Their powers in this dark art are often exhibited in sermons that hook the listener (to themselves) to perpetrate, e.g., toxic leadership with staff. Thus, the narcissistic spiritual leader knows that if a staff member complains to a lay leadership group (e.g., Board of Deacons, Session, Vestry, Council), he will be protected by the “hook:” “We cannot offend/lose/fire this kind of great preacher. This is the lifeblood of the church!” This most ungodly behavior is typical of narcissistic pastors, and the Bible describes them: “Their tongue is an arrow shot out; It speaks deceit; One speaks peaceably to his neighbor with his mouth, but in his heart he lies in wait” (Jeremiah 9:8 NKJV).

3. Narcissistic spiritual leaders weaponize grace and humility. I once had a narcissistic leader warn me, “I will cut you to pieces with grace. You cannot ‘out-humility’ me!” The Apostle Paul was not unaware of this behavior: “Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” (Colossians 2:18 NKJV).

4. Narcissistic spiritual leaders diminish others to inflate themselves. This often happens with jokes at others’ expense. It eventually leads to public verbal abuse of another person, often, staff members. How different this is from the godly shepherd and mature believer of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: Philippians 2:3 “Don’t act out of selfish ambition or be conceited. Instead, humbly think of others as being better than yourselves.”

5. Narcissistic spiritual leaders enlist others to sacrifice their well-being to promote their own. The narcissistic leader is a master of triangulation. He is the quintessential Haman that Esther recognizes as the master manipulator: “Esther said, ‘An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!’” (Esther 7:6 NIV).

6. Narcissistic spiritual leaders preach sermons that keep themselves at the center (either through rhetorical and dramatic devices) or narrative. How well, Paul knew of this kind of preacher: “The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains” (Philippians 1:16 NKJV).

7. Narcissistic spiritual leaders lack compassion for others under a well-rehearsed pretense that they care (Along this same line, see the following closely related sign). 

8. Narcissistic spiritual leaders often emphasize a prevenient grace to cover sins they are planning on committing. This highly manipulative behavior is often cryptic, given in a sort of Markdown XL language that doesn’t reveal the true output style. Our Savior spoke of this sinful phenomenon in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

Conclusion

Narcissistic spiritual leaders are toxic people lacking in an understanding of their standing in Christ, who must seek to steal the dignity of others to fill their own deficiencies. Such shepherds are far from leaders in the Christian sense of the word. Leadership is exhibited in consistent self-giving, building up of others, and servanthood. These individuals should not be in Gospel ministry or hold positions of authority in the local church of any kind. Be careful in approaching the subject with them. The condition of this spiritual pathology renders the carrier quite Machiavellian—adroit in political maneuvering. Seek the wisdom of the Scriptures in the counsel of godly men who have the responsibility of oversight. Do not accuse. Inquire: “Could this be?” We remember:

“Church discipline is to be patterned after and based on the divine commands of Scripture (1 Cor. 4:6). We have numerous passages of Scripture which both command and give us God’s directives on the how, why, when, and where of church discipline. Again, a failure to exercise this responsibility demonstrates a lack of obedience and belief in the authority of the Bible (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Matt. 18:17-18; Titus 3:10; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; Gal. 6:1)” (J. Hampton Keathly III).

If the matter is so, Paul says it will become manifest. The college of other ministers and lay leaders (e.g., a presbytery, association, or diocese) will need to be involved. They will need your prayers for courage. There is hardly anything more difficult or necessary that disciplining a minister of the Gospel in sin. Catch that: difficult but necessary.

What if this is you? However, we are a people on the way. The residual of the “old man” still runs through our veins in need of sanctification. Until total sanctification, i.e., “glorification,” we will struggle with many manifestations of sin. If this little article has sent a searing pain to conscience, then “blessed art thou.” You still have a conscience. That vital organ, the thermostat of morality, is not seared. Here is the remedy: recognize the forgiveness and new life that is always available in our God and Savior Jesus Christ. Meditate on these words:

“But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from the latter [sinful propensities], he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work.”

The blood of Christ can and shall purify the Church of all toxicities until the Bride of Christ, the company of all believers through the Ages, is adorned for the great Marriage Feast of the Lamb, the inaugural event of the New Heaven and the New Earth. 

*For a full treatment of this disease of the human soul, I recommend Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. (Carol Stream: IVP, 2022).

Sources:
J. Hampton Keathly III, “Church Discipline | Bible.Org,” Journal, Bible.org, 2022, https://bible.org/article/church-discipline.

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/AaronAmat 


Dr. Michael A. MiltonMichael A. Milton (PhD, Wales) is a long-time Presbyterian minister (PCA) and a regular contributor to Salem Web Network. In addition to founding three churches, and the call as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Dr. Milton is a retired Army Chaplain (Colonel). He is the recipient of the Legion of Merit. Milton has also served as chancellor and president of seminaries and is the author of more than thirty books. He has composed and performed original music for five albums. He and his wife, Mae, reside in Western North Carolina. His most recent book is a second edition release: Hit by Friendly Fire: What to do when Another Believer Hurts You (Resource Publications, 2022). To learn more visit and subscribe: https://michaelmilton.org/about/.

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