Thursday, June 06, 2019

The Pastor of Disaster

Andrew sat back and stirred his tea. “What kind of church are you in?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “I was in a conservative evangelical group, but it seems perhaps I’ve been kind of bumped out.”

“What do you mean?”

“We were in one kind of church, but we had to leave; now we’re sort of in-between, looking for what the Lord would have us do.”

“I will tell you why you left.” His voice was even and certain. He leaned forward. “It was because of … that man.”

That Man

I looked at him in shock. It wasn’t that he was dead on. We had moved on for multiple reasons, the most important of which was a new convert we had taken under our wing who needed plain-language teaching. And we had left on good terms, in consultation with the elders of our previous local church.

But he wasn’t entirely wrong either: there had been a man, a person who had a stranglehold on the last church and who had decided to run things his way. He was a big reason why that church could not accommodate new converts — he was a strict traditionalist, a man with strong opinions and a controlling voice with the elders’ board. We had known that so long as he ruled there was no prospect of the church changing to help our new believing friend. We discussed the situation with the elders, and they said they understood why we had to move on. Superficially, no hard feelings on any side …

But there was a man. And in my considerable experience with local churches, I had seen that there had often been such “a man”.

Sometimes he was a clergyman, the formal leader of the congregation: sometimes, though, he was just a forceful personality whom the leaders were afraid to confront. Such a man rules, and he brooks no gainsaying. Those he does not like soon find themselves pushed to the margins — or out.

Technically, you might call such a persona a clerical narcissist; though as I say, he isn’t always formally a clergyman. He may be an elder or on a leadership team of some kind. Sometimes he’s just the longest-standing member of a congregation. Sometimes he’s the new-kid-on-the-block who seems so “gifted” that everybody just follows him, trusting him with power beyond the wisdom of his years. There’s not a single profile.

But there is a kind of formula.

Clerical Narcissism

Clerical narcissists are first of all narcissistic. That is, though they may come across as confident, eloquent, persuasive, personable, popular, strong, focused, visionary, self-possessed, knowledgeable or highly accomplished — some or all of the above — they are not humble. Rather, the world as they see it is centered entirely around them. They regard themselves indispensable to anything of real value that is going to be achieved. Anything not attributable to them is generally unimportant. They are essential, they believe.

Secondly, they have chosen to enact their narcissism through religious means. They may self-present as super-spiritual, or possessed of a fiery rectitude or lucid leadership vision; but they may also present as “everybody’s friend”, an informal counselor or a talented spiritual therapist. Whatever the case, they exercise their influence over the congregation through a pre-eminent role they carve out for themselves, one in which they appear incredibly adept. Everything in the local congregation starts to seem to be metered through its relevance to them or to the causes that, really, they alone can champion.

Thirdly, because of their narcissism and their certainty that they are right, they are practically impervious to any realization that they are hurting or pushing aside anyone else. How could “doing the right thing” be damaging? And in their own minds, they are forever “doing the right thing”. So they have an unnaturally diminished sense of empathy, and no real ability to be critical of their own perspective. And whatever fallout happens, it’s never really because of them: as they see it, it’s all the warranted side-effect of doing the right thing.

Finally, they are not modifiable through scripture. They know the Bible, along with systematic theology, creeds, statements of faith, or other kinds of technical jargon; but somehow the scripture never seems to be indicting them. Other people always need it more. And saying, “I was wrong” and repenting of something … well, that’s a foreign language to them.

Abusive Religiosity

Sexual and psychological abuse of all kinds are common topics of our society today. “Outing” such things has bred a cottage industry of psychology books, lectures, therapies and special interest groups. The sort of abusive behavior exhibited by the clerical narcissist has a lot less written about it. Under the catch-all title of “spiritual abuse”, it practically disappears into a mixed pot of religious pathologies that nobody really understands. Yet it is very real and very common, in my experience, for all that. And I can attest that the wounds of such a thing can actually be as deep, terrible and damaging as the better-known alternatives. So we do well to single it out and regard it carefully.

The Bible tells us that this phenomenon I’m labeling clerical narcissism is a very real thing. Acts 20:30 speaks of men arising “from among [the local congregation], speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them”. The male-flirt narcissist is mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:6. In 2 Peter 2:1, the ingress of the heretical narcissist teacher is actually promised. Their love of “commendation” from others, and their totally self-centered value system is pegged in 2 Corinthians 10:12; and their willingness to distort truth in order to obtain a following is indicted in Galatians 4:17.

Who is to Blame?

Now, in regular abuse cases, blaming the victim is a major no-no. And generally, that’s a warranted taboo: for guilt is what often keeps victims from coming forward, and when they have mustered the courage to do it, the most unjust thing would be to victimize them anew by accusing them unfairly of complicity in what has happened.

But the trauma produced by a clerical narcissist is different. Unlike other kinds of abuse, his achievement is often a cooperative effort between the exploiter and the victims. That is to say, that while the he is primarily to blame, long before he has done his dirty work the conditions for the abuse of power and exploitation of the flock have been prepared by other people.

How do we do that? Well, one way is by choosing the people we place in roles of spiritual authority by unspiritual criteria, and by maintaining the system that is conducive to exploitative relationships. What do I mean? I mean that when we put too much stock in a single human being, and make him a sort of substitute for our own responsibility to lead our spiritual lives; when we even treat him as though he were our doorway to Christ or to a higher plane of spiritual fulfillment, we prepare the way for an religious-leader type of narcissist to be created.

Consider this: we talk a lot about seeking spiritual leaders of “integrity”. But for most of us, this remains a fairly vague and criterionless idea. When it comes down to it, what we’re looking for in a leader, clergyman or guide tends to be much more common-sense, much more natural and much more fleshly than perhaps we would be happy to admit.

Setting Ourselves Up

What are the criteria people general use when they select a spiritual leader? I suggest four:

Charisma — We want someone who draws people, someone with a winning character and an attractive style of self-presentation. Good looks, wry humor, a good bank of anecdotes, folksy appeal, a gloss of real sincerity, down-to-earth-ness … the kind of guy that all the other guys want to make their best friend, and all the ladies secretly find kind of dreamy. We want a person who people enjoy following, who makes us all feel positive and special, and makes our church the envy of the neighborhood.

Expertise — We want someone who manifestly possesses skills and knowledge that exceeds those of ordinary folks. We want an expert, somebody who really “knows stuff” about what we’re doing. Formal certification or academic credentials give us confidence that is what we’re getting. And if he doesn’t have them, we’re going to want to know why. We need to know in advance that the man can do the job.

Vision — We want a guy who knows where he’s going, and is going to take us along too. We want definiteness, confidence and a real sense of direction. We want him to call us into line and set us on a pace where we really feel we’re getting somewhere. We don’t want him easily discouraged or quick to back down: we want a guy who will stand up to the voices of the past and overcome our doubts. We want him to convince us, make us believe in what he’s doing, and then motivate us as we go forward. That’s our guy.

Youthfulness — We want a guy who is youthful in spirit, and ideally in body as well. The longer his career stands to be, the longer our problem will be solved, and the more we can bank on being there for us. Ideally, we also want the “Bono factor”: a guy who is in touch, relevant, hip, casual, cool, a tiny bit edgy, and certainly promising for the indefinite future. Or we’ll take gracefully middle-aged, if we have to, so long as his attitude is youngish and his interests remain contemporary. But none of the mustiness of old age, please.

Now, who wouldn’t want a pastor, teacher or leader like that?

Calling in the Narcissist

However, there are two problems with this list. The first is that it’s entirely extra-biblical. The second is that it’s also the perfect profile of a clerical narcissist.

Think about it: a guy who everybody adores and trusts, who galvanizes our interest and makes us want to believe and like him. Everybody wants to hold a good opinion of him all the time. He’s bestowed the task of addressing our most profound issues, the spiritual ones. He makes us feel blessed and special — often even leading us to real moments of inspiration and growth. He challenges us, and gives us a sense of fulfillment and direction, so the closer we are to the guy the more alive we feel. Not only that, he’s the man-with-the-plan, the one who has taken this church from zero to sixty. Our kids look up to him and want to be like him. He seems like a high-water-mark of spiritual integrity.

But no one feels competent to question him. The elders’ board is made up of “non-experts”, people who have jobs in the real world. Few of those even imagine they can invest the time or have the ability to second-guess him. Moreover, the consequences of a split between a pastor or esteemed teacher and the elders is likely to be a political disaster for the congregation: better to make suggestions, but to back off when a real conflict of views follows.

The View from His Side

From the pastor or preacher’s side too, the world is distorted. His experience of life is pretty much one of unremitting approval, at least from those he values and admires. He’s bedecked with the honors of theological school, and has been steeped in their self-serving, quixotic narrative about how pastors nobly endure the discouragement of the less-spiritual sheep whom they nonetheless serve unselfishly. It’s a “unique” calling, he’s been told; a “noble” calling, a “lonely” calling, “the call of Christ himself”. He’s been singled out, chosen and approved.

And this myth is reinforced in his congregational experience. People defer to him instinctively. After all, he’s the only one with the degree, presumably. When he was hired, he was hired to lead. The congregation had already admitted their need of him: they couldn’t do it themselves.

Sure, he’s faced criticism. Sometimes it’s been really hard. But hasn’t he always been the noble servant of God, persevering when misunderstood, and forgiving all the ways people have let him down when he was only pursuing God’s will? And he’s worked hard, wearing himself out in the task. Like Moses, he’s been given a difficult and obstinate people to shepherd; but by the grace of God, he’s bringing them around, one by one …

Nowadays, he’s continually praised for being so “gifted”, and everyone seems to believe they’re lucky to have him. People continually come to him for consolation and advice; when he succeeds in helping them, they thank him effusively. They all pay his way in life. And every weekend, hundreds or even thousands of people gather for an hour or two for no other purpose than to participate in a program he orchestrates and to listen to him hold them spellbound with his oratory.

Elders make way for him. Children hug him. Women flatter him. Men defer to his authority. Nobody is in a position to check him if he errs. And nobody even wants to try.

Just how long can anyone stand to be told they’re God’s gift to the congregation before he starts believing it?

And because he is youthful, he’s inclined to believe it.

The Diagnosis

Okay, so that’s the diagnosis of a clerical narcissist. You can now see how he comes to exist. It’s a collusion between two interests: the narcissist himself, seeking to boost his ego, and the congregation that creates the position for him to exploit. By seeking leadership through extra-biblical criteria and by creating a top office with high prestige, the local congregation actually brings on the disaster. And the narcissist appears on cue, to take advantage of what has been prepared for him.

Next Wednesday I’d like to reflect briefly on what it is about Christians that makes us susceptible to being exploited. The week after, we’ll consider what we can do about it: Is there an alternative, and what might that look like?

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