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Denominational Dodging on Narcissistic Personality Disordered Pastors
Though few, there are research papers that take up the task of examining the important issue of personality disordered pastors, in particular, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Ball, 2014) and (Ball, Puls, 2015). See links at the end of this article.
Both of these papers bring to a light a problem in the Church that is very often either denied, buried, or just ignored by the larger denominational systems. Understanding the kinds of ‘dodges’ that larger Church administration uses and why they use them is key to mounting successful challenges to the dodges and effecting real change in the Church regarding this out-in-the-open-hidden dysfunction.
The damages that a Narcissistic Personality Disordered (NPD) pastor can create are not limited to a few individual members or even one congregation; there will be horrific damage to all of the congregations they are assigned to. Damages can range from killing the attendance at a congregation to interpersonal abuse of other staff and members, to literal crimes like sexual abuse of children. NPD in pastors, like the general population, tends to be a spectrum disorder, varying in intensity and severity, but always having predictable, characteristic markers.
Common Sources of Denominational Dodging
While there is a serious lack of information and education in the general public about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and in this case, NPD pastors, the plea of ignorance may be a legitimate source of the ongoing damages that can occur. The sheer covert, premeditated evil that NPD's engage in is nearly incomprehensible to most people, and especially when applied to an ordained person. It is not uncommon for NPD pastors to carry out whole pastoral careers for decades of damage.
In many Christian denominations, there may be a genuine shortage of ordained people to serve in congregations, leaving the local bishop in a quandary. This puts the bishop or administrative body in a position to ‘find the cleanest dirty shirt’ to fill a pastoral vacancy. Often, the problem pastor is presented to the unsuspecting congregation in the most glowing terms, usually accompanied with the phrase “we think this will be a good fit!”
On the other end of the spectrum, problem pastors are a problem for the bishop or assignment committee of denominations that guarantee their ordained people jobs. Though it happens in all denominations to some degree, there are countless examples, in the Catholic Church in particular, of very ill pedophile/NPD pastors who are simply shifted from one congregation to another in a disingenuous, dangerous, and sinful shell-game.
At a deeper level, flawed administrative structures and flawed human beings tend to shift unpleasant difficulties and culpability; usually down the chain of command, or simply deflected away from themselves for one of the reasons above, or because they do not want any hint of failure, scandal, or difficulty to tarnish their own image and position in the larger institution. The institutional image as well, plays a significant role in the pressure to deflect or deny the realities of the damage that ordained people with NPD can do to those they are charged with caring for.
NPD pastors create a long laundry list of offenses that church administrators want to dodge, and because many of the NPD pastors are ‘covert’ or are very skilled, they do not cross legal lines (like a NPD pastor sexually abusing children). These offenses can range from deceit and lying to sexual indiscretions with members or staff orthe congregation or people in the larger community, to issues of money mismanagement or even theft. Further and much more common, NPD pastors have a reliable record at creating intense in-fighting and chaos in the good order and serene relationships of congregation members that escalates to a running battle that eventually gets noticed by administrators in the denomination. And denominational administrators just hate such ‘messy stuff’.
The common dodge of simply covering up the difficulty is an over-arching tactic that denominational administrators engage in. This very well could have its source in either avoiding embarrassment or ‘scandal’, placing these issues ahead of the welfare of congregants, or even more concerning, a genuine lack of caring on the part of the denominational administration.
Sadly, there is truth in that at the root of many evils lies money. Many issues of abuse by ordained people carry with them legal issues that can be pursued for money by victims. And attorneys know that the largest part of the organization likely has the most money, so that is who they go after. Denominational administrators then, have good reason to dodge NPD abuse issues that NPD pastors perpetrate: not only to avoid scandal that reflects poorly on the denomination, but for legal and financial self-protection as well. Indeed, many, many NPD pastors get away with abuses that are crimes, just because they are ordained. Who sues a ‘man of the cloth’, right?
Lastly, and most frighteningly, perhaps, is that among NPD’s, there is a kind of twisted, loose fraternity that can develop, with NPD’s forming alliances to help and protect each other, even though they will turn on each other if it benefits themselves. This fact implies that in a profession with such a high number of personality disorder, there is a distinct possibility of what amounts to conspiracy.
Common Denominational Dodges
Ignorance is a frequently used denominational dodge, even when there is plethora of overwhelming evidence that NPD is the central issue. In many cases, willfully naïve administrators and assigned 'interm' pastors, pastoral ‘healers’, or ‘reconcilers’ will focus on the topical complaints and thereby intentionally miss the genuine, core issue: there is someone who is central to the escalating conflict, and that is the pastor (or other pastoral leader). The excuse seems to be: if we don’t know anything about NPD, how can we be held responsible for firing or defrocking this person?
If denominational administrators were not dodging, they would insist that when a congregation demonstrates dysfunction that was not there prior to the new pastor, that pastor and congregation be required to be evaluated by a mental health professional trained and experienced in congregational dysfunction and personality disorder. There are in fact, some very valid and reliable tests to discover personality disorder, including the MMPI.
Transferring is a basic cover-up tactic. Moving a ‘problem pastor’ from one congregation to another in a damaging shell-game is one tactic to cover-up the facts. Rarely does anyone in the next congregation go on a serious background check of the new pastor...after all, this is a ‘rightly called’ individual, right? Much like NPD’s out in the larger world, when things get too hot in one locale, they move to another and start the game over again.
Minimization of the problems is a typical dodge that is used, perhaps with a promise to ‘look into’ the complaints that are made by congregants to the denomination’s leadership. More often than not, the administrator in charge calls the NPD pastor in for ‘a talk’, and the NPD is able to con the boss just as easily as they can anyone else. The NPD will use minimization in that meeting, convincing the (bishop?) that things have just gotten blown out of proportion, and the congregant is somehow emotionally ill, perhaps. The ‘good old boy’ tendency is not just in secular politics, it works the same in the Church as well. Just as likely, the NPD will get the name of the complaintant from the administrator, allowing the poor congregant to now be targeted by a vengeful NPD.
Quite often, churches have a policy that no anonymous complaint about a pastor will be addressed; that only signed complaints will do. This is a dangerous practice that allows the NPD important protection from light being shed on their dark behaviors. Victims who understand the NPD know full well that without anonymity, they are at serious risk for at least the ruination of their reputation.
Misdirection, accompanied by a gush of spiritual platitudes from denominational leadership is sometimes used to calm the masses. This usually tends to be an intense focus on the details of any complaint or incident, dodging the genuine issue of a very ill ordained person. The spiritual platitudes will be something like: ‘Let this be a time of reconciliation and healing’, often accompanied by a sermon series or ‘healing service’. Again, this is simply a red-herring; NPD’s rarely change their behavior sets. It’s pretty much a guarantee that they will take a break, but pick up their sick campaign once again in the near future.
Avoidance is also a basic dodge. Bishops or other administrators will simply toss the hot potato back to the victims in the congregation, perhaps chastising them and ‘instructing’ them to become more obedient, or making some impossible contingency that causes even more damage to the congregation. One noted tactic is to impose upon the perpetrator and victims a demand that either the perpetrator or victims must back down and work out which will resign (leave the congregation, even), which is an incredibly questionable ethical imposition to make, and clearly a dodge of the administrator’s responsibility.
Key Elements of Effective Challenge and Healing
Education in cases of a disordered pastor is key to helping the victims understand and genuinely heal from the damages created. Though it is best to avoid the clinical term ‘personality disorder’, especially if the NPD is still in place, the problem can be euphemistically called ‘personality conflict’. Or, if the NPD pastor is recently gone, but still has wounded supporters, ‘difficult personality’. Ultimately, though, a dynamic understanding of what happened and why is essential for the remaining leadership to get a solid grasp on, for if they do not, true healing will not take place; the infection will just be swept under the carpet with unreasonable expectations that a new pastor will make everything all right.
A Treatment Plan, just like healing a physical or mental ailment, it is important to cover the all bases and stay on track towards recovery. This includes things like outreach to the wounded and those who have been alienated and disenfranchised, helping to process the events of the NPD's campaign, and steadying and shoring up collapsed programs and congregational organization. Most congregations who have been devastated by an NPD pastor never have a plan or do these things in an effective manner.
Compassion and gentleness is essential in dealing with an NPD; there are clear ways of interacting with them that are not advisable and advisable. One general rule is to discipline oneself to interact with compassion and gentleness, remembering that the NPD is a genuinely wounded person with no real understanding of their own illness (and likely never will).
Lowering your own reactivity is the basis for being able to hold onto your emotional reactivity and resulting positioning and behaviors with the NPD so that you do not go ‘poking the tiger’. This does not mean you walk on eggshells, it means that you learn specific skills to interact with difficult people.
Self-validation can flow from lowering your own reactivity. NPD’s have great skill in pressing you to question yourself and your thinking. Once you can be calm, you can think clearer, and assure yourself that you are approaching the issue with reason and correct conclusion. If you are able to examine your own conscience and find that you are correct, validate that for yourself.
Solidarity is something NPD’s have a hard time with. Generally, they ‘cut from the herd’ those that they feel they have a good chance of conning, or isolating to destroy. They work very hard at dividing people into enemies and flying monkeys. The healthy congregational leadership will be made to look sick, selfish, vindictive, foolish, or sinful. This is simply the NPD doing what they do: project their own behaviors onto others. The healthies people in leadership in a congregation need to stick together for the welfare of their church home. Because of NPD pastors, the healthiest people tend to quietly go out the backdoor to find a more Christian-like congregation.
Experienced and skilled clinical evaluation and consultation is usually needed, but not secured by congregations who have been spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and sometimes even physically abused by an NPD pastor. Just like one does not set a broken arm on their own, or just say a prayer over it, congregations need qualified, skilled, and experienced professional help to overcome the NPD pastor. Much like a dysfunctional family, congregations need family therapy to have a real chance of recovery from such a devastating experience. Unfortunately, congregations that will spend hundreds on carpet cleaning or thousands on a new roof, never consider spending money on a skilled counselor.
Links to Works Cited
- CLERGY AND NARCISSISM IN THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN CANADA | Glenn Ball - Academia.edu
By Glenn Ball in Christianity and Education.