I have always believed that the highest character trait of a Christian is humility. There are many statements in the Bible that support my position. Here are just a few:
- This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2b
- Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4
- Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3
- Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, to show true humility toward all men. Titus 3:1-2
I was thinking of these verses last week as Tara and I worked on a magazine article on the topic of responding to narcissists in your church. Initially, I thought it a bit strange when the editor asked us to write on this topic. After all, neither Tara nor I carry special education or training in diagnosing or dealing with narcissism. But the editor asked us because he rightly discerned that many times, church conflicts involve people who could rightly be described as narcissists:
Having excessive and grandiose interest in self; displaying extreme arrogance and a sense of entitlement; full of hubris (overweening pride) and often unwilling to accept any hint of criticism.
In fact, it breaks my heart to say it, but all too often the most narcissistic person at the center of a church conflict is not just any old narcissist, he is often a narcissistic pastor. Rather than teaching his congregation that he is nothing but a mere messenger and then doing everything in his power to deflect praise away from self and toward the true author of the message, the narcissistic pastor relishes the tickling of his ears even unto the utter destruction of his congregation.
The human ego accepts praise and the result is pride in self (narcissism). The first victim is the pastor. The second is his congregation. This is what the dangerous downward spiral looks like:
- The pastor preaches a powerful message that really communicates.
- Church members congratulate him on his fine work as a powerful communicator of difficult theological material.
- The pastor is praised for “changing lives” and is pleased that the church members respond so positively.
- The next week the same thing happens—praise, adoration, applause … for “the man.”
- Week after week, the pastor receives this praise and feeds his ego by gathering close to himself only the people who agree with him and praise him; he tunes out (or even destroys) anyone who dares to challenge the view that he is a great man (the most theologically astute person in the church; the only real visionary; the one whose passions and ideas are “right”).
- And then something devastating happens … the pastor begins to believe he is a great man; that he alone is the one making the real difference for the cause of Christ in his church.
- The pastor and his congregation are destroyed.
The greatest danger to your pastor’s spiritual growth and ability to lead you into a life of holiness is your adoration. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Pastor—you must recognize the danger signs of growing narcissism in your own life and repent rightly:
- Pride in your voice, appearance, intellect, and cleverness
- A willing acceptance of the praise of man
- Self-confidence in your “high” position
- A growing inability to accept any hint of criticism or feedback; listening only to those who agree with you and continue to feed your ego
- Impatience and criticism to anything done in the church that fails to live up to your perceived standard of “excellence”
- When conflicts develop in your church, you fail to lead as a shepherd and instead respond as a know-it-all autocrat
Other church leaders and members—you must take steps to protect your pastor and congregation from any growing narcissism in your pastor’s heart:
- Pray for your pastor—that he would be a truly holy and humble man who eschews the hollow praise of men and pours himself out only for the praise of God and the building of God’s Kingdom (never the kingdom of man)
- Encourage humility as the most valued character quality of any church leader
- Define “success” as faith and holiness, not numerical success that reflects the values of the world
- Thank God, not your pastor, for his spiritual gifts
- Be a genuine friend to your pastor—always ready to speak the truth in love since he too struggles with sin, disappointment, and loss
- Never allow your church to be defined by cliques or any “inner circle” of people in a place of prominence with your pastor
- Faithfully exercise your own spiritual gifts so that your leaders are not forced into ministry areas where they are not gifted (see 1 Corinthians chapter 12)
For all of us, may we strive to never “think more highly of ourselves than we ought” (Romans 12:3).
For the King of Kings,
- Dave Edling