As with other forms of abuse, knowledge is the key to preventing, or at least surviving, the damage inflicted by a toxic pastor. This is why I welcome the discovery of this new and very thorough book about the deadly combination of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and the pastorate. Darrell Puls and Glenn Ball don’t give us the definitive last word about the prevalence of the disorder in North American pulpits, but they have assembled a resource that lays a solid foundation for recognizing the problem and facing it with courage, honesty, and clear-eyed grace.
Puls and Ball were motivated to write this volume as a warning to the church after reviewing the results of a study they conducted among Canadian pastors in 2013. (One chapter of their book carefully details the study, so I will only touch on it briefly here.) With the permission of a Canadian denomination, they sent a “Leadership Qualities Survey” to 1,385 pastors, 30% of whom returned it.* Embedded within the survey was a psychological assessment of narcissistic personality traits developed by the Dutch. While the authors emphasize that this study should be replicated before its results are generalized, they were stunned to see that 31% of those who participated scored in the NPD diagnostic range. Concerned that the North American church has naively fallen prey to would-be leaders with severe mental illness, they sounded the alarm in this book.
Some readers will probably fault Puls and Ball for this rush to publication, and some may charge them with unreasonable sensationalism and fear-mongering about the prevalence of NPD (their subtitle calls it a “plague”!) among pastors. But while the study itself should be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism until it is confirmed by further research, the value of this book as a field guide to NPD and its effects on the church can’t be overstated. The authors provide a detailed overview of the origin and component elements of the disorder, describing how it manifests in the behavior of pastors and illustrating this background information with many case studies from their work as consultants to troubled churches. They devote one chapter to a careful analysis of the stages of forgiveness, necessary for the recovery of congregations and individuals who have been devastated by the rule of a narcissist pastor, and they offer a thorough range of suggestions for screening candidates applying for a pastoral vacancy.
Throughout, the authors sound repeated cautions that NPD is a mental illness with a very low rate of successful treatment (those suffering from it are by definition among the least likely to admit they have a problem), and they stress that churches should do their best to guard against hiring such people, resist them if they are already in place, and recover from them after they are gone. While the primary emphasis here is on identifying narcissist pastors and surviving their destructive influence, Puls and Ball are consistently humane in their presentation of the disorder as a manifestation of the deep hurt and rejection probably suffered by the narcissist pastor as a child, understanding the destructive relational patterns of the disorder to be desperate attempts to ward off the darkness within. This perspective doesn’t lessen the impact of NPD on a congregation, but it at least reminds us that we’re dealing with a profoundly broken human being, not a monster.
So, what is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and how does it look when it’s at home in the church?
NPD is a diagnosable mental illness included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), published by the American Psychological Association. It is described as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy,” and is diagnosed according to a list of prevalent behaviors and convictions (e.g., “Believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people”; “Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her ends)”) (23).* Puls and Ball persistently distinguish between the disorder and more run-of-the-mill narcissism, which, they assert, is at least mildly a part of everyone’s makeup (since enjoying adulation is a common thing!), and which exists on a spectrum of severity. They also make the point that many people with strong narcissist tendencies are able to channel that self-absorption in relationally healthy ways; their concern here is with the people who don’t.
Driven by deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, narcissists on the severe end of the spectrum seek the emotional lift of controlling others and being praised by them. Pastoring a church, it turns out, offers this opportunity in spades. The authors provide so many apt descriptions of what this looks like that I can hardly choose the best. Here are just a few samples:
“Narcissists can be chameleons of incredible proportion. They can bend and color themselves to fit almost any situation if it gives them what they need. They are often charming, intelligent, seemingly well read, and amazingly manipulative and non-empathetic to the problems of others. They are also vindictive, spiteful, and unrelenting in their attacks against their perceived enemies.” (15)
“In particular, they do not understand and will not abide by the normal understandings of personal boundaries, which they cross at will while expecting their own sense of boundaries to be respected.” (27)
“It is common for the narcissist to explode over seemingly inconsequential slights or disagreements.” (27)
“The narcissist uses power and manipulation as tools to control other people and keep them at a safe emotional distance, which in turn protects the narcissist from being used and discarded in the same manner that he uses and discards them.” (27)
“Narcissist pastors have a problem: all decision-making must center on them. They may appoint teams and have other staff, but the final decision in almost everything must be theirs . . . any delegation will be truncated by their need to control.” (35)
“One of the issues of working with a narcissist is that you never know when the explosion will come, only that it will. Consequently, the people who work for him or her are always walking on eggshells and never certain of the reaction they will get. They know that rage will come back to them; the only question is when.” (65)
Perhaps the authors’ most original contribution (besides the tentative results of their study itself) is their chapter of practical suggestions to churches searching for a new pastor, aptly titled “Prevention.” It’s a rare pastoral search committee that considers what it takes to identify a narcissist at this stage of the pastor-church relationship. Few Christians are even aware that pastoral narcissism is a problem to guard against, or what it’s all about, until they are suddenly in the middle of the storm. But an ounce of prevention may be worth a decade of congregational recovery.
While anybody would try to put his best foot forward when applying for a position, the narcissist will exceed most other candidates in charm, energy, and friendliness. Puls and Ball encourage churches to include a licensed psychologist on their search committee, who can review written personal statements and evaluate answers and behavior in interviews for telltale signs of narcissism.* They also challenge the searchers to ponder, Why are you looking for a pastor who is looking for a job? In other words, what’s the back-story here? What really happened at his last church, and at the church before that? Practice due diligence. Dig into the references, finding people three and four times removed from the individuals named on his resume, and ask them the hard stuff. When you begin interviewing the final candidates, come up with questions that will disconcert and even provoke them (they offer some good ones). As the authors explain,
“You do not want to make interviews into a collegial interchange of banalities—you want to have hard questions asked by someone not afraid to confront and follow any threads of evasion to their source. The reason is simple enough: the narcissist is likely to respond to confronting questions with confusion, hostility, or by simply shoving it aside with a minimalist answer, all of which are red flags. You want to ‘push their buttons’ in order to see how they react.” (181)
Puls and Ball are most definitely trying to scare their readers (they admit as much; see p.184). But they give a lot of attention as well to the hard work of healing a church damaged by a narcissist, and to the task of forgiving (which doesn’t mean sweeping things under the rug or denying the seriousness of the offense—see Rachael Denhollander’s amazing CT interview for what it does mean). And the balanced approach that they have taken throughout the book regarding both the causes and the effects of Narcissistic Personality Disorder enables them finally to present forgiveness of the abusive pastor as a credible step in individual and congregational healing.
Part of that healing has to involve an honest assessment of what went wrong, because the last thing a church wants to do is fall into the same mistake again. I’ll end with their list of self-evaluative questions, which are worth considering anytime:
- What behaviors did you tolerate even though they were demeaning or insulting?
- What did you observe that you silently said, “That is just not right!” but then did not confront?
- What did you rationalize as being nothing more than eccentric behavior even though you silently knew it was more than that?
- What fears held you and others back from confronting what you knew to be wrong? In other words, how did you and so many others aid and abet what happened?
May your responses be worthy ones, if you ever have to answer these for real.
*Note that I read the Kindle edition of this book, so I’m not certain whether the page numbers I cite in this review match the paper copy.
*The authors did not append a copy of the survey or offer any sample questions from it. I’m totally curious to see how I’d score…
*Puls and Ball are careful to state and reiterate that they are not qualified to diagnose anyone as having NPD, even armed with these official criteria from the Manual. Readers should follow their example and remain humble in their conclusions, though realistic about the possibility that the behaviors they’re witnessing point to NPD. (If I were to put my finger on the greatest weakness of this book, though, it would be the authors’ equivocation about diagnosis. You could say that most of their book assumes that they are describing, and in some cases have dealt with in person, pastors who have full-blown NPD. They call them “narcissist pastors,” after all. But at the same time, they also deny that they have the authority or expertise to offer this diagnosis. Additionally, part of their scheme of healing and forgiveness requires the assumption that the person who has hurt the congregation is a diagnosed narcissist, because his victims must have empathy for the deep woundedness that gives rise to his behaviors. This seems to me an unnecessary and therefore forced conclusion–since it’s also possible that coldhearted manipulators have no such post-traumatic excuse for their actions. None of these inconsistencies lessen the usefulness of these warning signs of destructive pastors, however–whether or not the pastors are truly diagnosable.)
*Though probably just about anybody could tell you that you shouldn’t hire the guy who insists that “God told me that I am going to be your next pastor.”
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