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Responding to the Narcissistic Personality Disordered Pastor
Congregations that suffer through the tenure of a pastor who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) usually incur significant damages to many individual members and the functioning and success of the congregation. In some situations, a congregation may suffer not only during the tenure of the NPD pastor, but for decades after in the process of struggling to recover from the wounds they received. Not only do congregations with NPD pastors fail to grow, but most often decline. NPD pastors can hurt individuals so badly that wounds of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can occur in the NPD pastor’s victims, and these wounds can include a total rejection by the individual of the Church and of the faith.
While many NPD pastors continue their destructive path for decades (even entire careers), there are ways, if the NPD is recognized, to respond and begin to limit the damages that they can cause to people, congregations, and the larger Church.Why do NPD pastors seem to operate with impunity for so long? First, it’s because most people, congregations, and denominations do not know about or understand the dynamics of NPD. Secondly, the Church is a place of ongoing attitudes and practices of graciousness, kindness, and forgiveness. The only problem is, these do not ever really help or heal the person with NPD; they only serve to hide and protect them.
General Principles of Response
Effective response to an NPD pastor requires that the lay leadership, especially those charged with the care and relationship of the pastor to the congregation, have a working knowledge of NPD. This is essential, because there is a noted high number of NPD individuals who are attracted to working in churches(both as paid staff and as volunteers), so the rate of NPD among pastors is relatively higher than other professions. Knowledge of NPD, and in particular, NPD in pastors can be gained from articles such as this one, as well as seeking out staff and volunteer training on the issue.
Response to individuals with NPD needs to be firm and kind, with clearly articulated boundaries and limits. There is a strong tendency for NPD people to be very manipulative, making firmness and boundaries a key element in controlling the damages that they can cause. Because NPD people will ‘up the ante’ by increasing pressure by way using displays of negative emotions, it will be tempting to strike back at them with the same level of viciousness that they will use. It’s important, for reasons not only of Christian patience and tolerance, to remain kind with the NPD pastor. Trying to match an NPD with their own tactics will only escalate and enrage them.
It therefore becomes important not to react to the NPD, but it is also very important not to ignore them, as this will usually result in their rage. This ‘rage’ can be very showy, or it can be very covert. Either way, the target will be in for a world of hurt.The answer becomes learning how to respond to the individual with NPD.
Responding rather than reacting to an NPD is difficult, because their behaviors can be so very annoying, irritating, destructive, deceptive, and outright cruel and evil. Most people have a very difficult time ‘holding on to themselves’ when interacting with a person who has NPD and is expressing their disorder to its fullest. If expressing a kind tone is difficult, the next best thing is to communicate with as neutral a tone as possible; remember: your reactivity will only add fuel to the fire. In church settings, the majority of NPD pastors are covert in their displays of narcissism. This covertness often leads to a pattern of secrets: secret meetings, secret interactions, secret dirt digging, and secret decisions. All this secrecy comes about because the overt NPD is always working to preserve the honorable, perfect pastor image while continuing to engage in what is essentially sick and sinful behaviors.
Thus, another key response is for the leadership and congregation to develop a strong tradition and habit of transparency in all of the congregational life. Learning about levels of information and information flow, as well as the development of a variety of means to enhance good, clear communication with individuals, groups, and the entire congregation are in order. A clearly written policy and training on levels of information and information flow need to be established and reviewed frequently for accountability.
A central characteristic of NPD is the consistent craving the individual has for others to react to them. To state it simply, NPD people have a disability in formulating and holding on to a sense of personal identity; their identity is largely a shifting image of themselves that fluctuates between dismal and outrageously successful and admired.The NPD individual needs the reaction of others to help them keep the image they hold of themselves stable. They prefer if the reaction is one of the other person being impress and adoring them, but they will settle with negative reactions if that is all they can get in the moment.
NPD individuals have a marked aversion to having a light shining in the dark recesses of their covert operations or character flaws. Resisting the urge to simply take an NPD for their word is fundamental to avoiding being deceived by their pathological confabulations, exaggerations, half-truths, and red herrings. Self-reports (any reports) by NPD people can never be trusted; it is always best to cross check the ‘facts’ that the NPD person is giving you. When, inevitably, the facts do not line up with what they told you, fact challenging, with kind firmness needs to be done.
One to One Response
One to one or small group interactions with a covert NPD pastor are initially where the behavioral signs of NPD become most obvious. Most people interacting with an NPD person will begin to experience a strong sense that not just their ideas and issues are of no real concern to the NPD, but they themselves are not a real concern of the NPD pastor. There is a persistent experience of no depth connection with the NPD pastor that is very disconcerting. As the covert NPD pastor proceeds to express their disorder, the first reactions of others is usually shock, disorientation, or confused silence.
As the pattern persists, most people either work harder to try to clear up their confusion, or begin to avoid the pastor. Some, unfortunately, begin to be ‘incorporated’ into the dysfunctional interactive world of the NPD pastor. This happens largely due to the title ‘pastor’; people inherently want to trust and like their pastor.
An overriding technique that NPD people use is to dominate the conversation, logic process, and interactions that they are involved in. In counseling terms, they take possession of other people’s locus of control.This eventually begins to expand from a simple conversations to the entire direction and mission of the congregation as well as more and more personal aspects of congregant’s lives. The key response to the covert NPD pastor is to steadfastly hold on to your own locus of control. This means disallowing the NPD individual from dominating conversation and squelching critical thinking processes.
Because people with NPD have thought processes that are focused like a laser beam on their own agenda of self-aggrandizement, their thought and logic processes will often be revealed to be severely flawed. The impression of the sharp observer is that their logic is circular and thought processes are always self-serving. On the surface, the logic and thought processes can seem very reasonable and the way that the NPD person presents them can be exceedingly seductive. It is therefore very important to engage yourself in critical thinking when interacting with the NPD pastor.
Accessing your own emotional information is a useful tool to cue yourself that the NPD individual is ‘playing their game’. The emotions mentioned earlier are a good place to start: confusion, disorientation, feelings of ‘no connection’, or irritation and even anger are all important clues that you need to beware and slow down the process so that you can begin to analyze what is really going on.
And it’s not just negative or confusing emotions that should send alarm bells, but very positive ones as well. Many NPD people are able to turn on (and off) their charm in the blink of an eye. They are masters of knowing what to say, how to say it, and how to demonstrate a reasonable facsimile of genuine regard. Yet one is left with a spooky feeling of shallowness and insincerity at the end of the encounter.
Don’t be duped; always be self-aware by paying attention to your emotions and letting them inform you that you are just a ‘mark’ that will be used.
Lay Leadership Response
Once identified, the NPD pastor will require a strong and decisive lay leadership that responds in a timely manner in order to contain and halt the damage. And of course, this is easier to recognize than to accomplish. Churches, by nature are places that culture a strong sense of cooperation, and often have grave discomfort with any hint of confrontation and disagreement.
Yet a congregation must ask itself what the response would be if the pastor were to be discovered in an affair with a member, or having abused a child is some way. This is not to say that NPD pastors will engage in these behaviors (but have a higher likelihood of doing so), but that interpersonal damage is interpersonal damage.Just as one act of moral violation can hurt many, many people,the cover NPD pastor hurts hundreds, maybe thousands or tens of thousands during their career (not to mention the Church of Jesus Christ). Response is not pleasant, but must be engaged, a surely as it must be in the other examples. Failure to do so carries its own moral culpability for the lay leadership.
An expected development is the attempt of the NPD pastor to shape committees and councils into passive bodies that engage in ‘group think’. Group think is when a group of people begin to avoid any dissension or disagreement under the guise of ‘unity’. In most cases, the group think process is led by and encouraged by a central leader. Essentially, the members become ‘yes-men’ to the NPD pastor, and all dissension or critical analysis is discouraged strongly. Those that attempt to engage in even constructive criticism will be squelched to the point that they leave the committee. Thus having a ‘stacked deck’ of committee members, the NPD pastor gains in power, with the (imagined) cooperation and adoration of the people left on the committee.
Group-think must be spotted and challenged assertively, and this cannot be done by just one member of the committee. No one member of a committee dedicated to group-think and led by a NPD individual can sustain their stance for long.
The tools to battle an emergence of group think is for lay leadership to insist on following established rules of protocol for electing committee members, and those for decision making. If all expenditures are to be passed through the finance committee and the approved by the church council, then choosing to pay for the pastor’s babysitting during church activities cannot be simply slid under the radar.
Frequent and routine lay leadership review of information being presented in the congregation is a good habit. Rapid and assertive correction of any misleading or out and out wrong information that the NPD pastor announces needs to be done, followed by a private ‘clarification’ with the pastor by whichever lay leader or lay committee is in charge of such supervision of the pastor.
Lay leadership can help themselves by making fair and professional notation in the personnel file of the behavioral signs of NPD that they are experiencing from their pastor. While these do not (and likely should not) be labeled as ‘NPD’, such an accounting is important for any church staff employee to remain accountable to their calling and position in the congregation.
To the best of this author’s knowledge, there is no mainline denomination that has a policy or response protocol to help congregations deal with personality disordered pastors. In most cases, those at the denominational level that are charged with supervising pastors either have their hands tied by policies that actually protect the NPD pastor, or they do not have a clue as to what NPD is let alone how to deal with it. Most denominations simply shuffle the offending NPD pastor to another congregation, hoping this will improve things; even polishing up the pastor to make them a good ‘sell’ to the unsuspecting congregation. Following the steps outlined thus far in the article, accountable staff at the denominational level should be able to identify a NPD pastor. There may be a stab at trying to ‘advise’ or ‘mentor’ the NPD pastor in house (in denomination, by, for example, a bishop). Unless the bishop is a trained and licensed professional in the field of mental health, everyone is kidding themselves that there will be any real, long lasting improvement. Suspicion that the pastor may have NPD needs to be assessed and treated by someone with the credentials and skill to do so.
At the denominational level, the NPD pastor may first be encouraged and offered an appointment, assessment, and treatment with a credentialed clinical counselor. If they balk or refuse (a good bet), then the denomination may decide to wait until the next congregational crisis comes to their attention and then insist on a clinical course of action in order for the pastor to keep their position.
Most denominations have protocol-process for decommissioning pastors who make grievous moral or criminal acts, and there should be an adaptation of this for issues of ongoing mental health, though it may fall short of revoking ordination.
The damage that pastors with Narcissistic Personality Disorder do to individual believers, congregations, denominations, and the Christian faith is incalculable. Ignoring the issue will not make it go away. Prayer is certainly in order, as is compassion and forgiveness. But informed, positive, and assertive response by lay leadership and denominational leadership is imperative if the great damage of NPD pastors is to be contained and healed.