When thinking about dangerous leaders, the potential false shepherds and even wolves that might sneak in, being alert to the dangers of narcissism may be helpful. Narcissists are people with an unhealthy inward focus on themselves. They believe that the world should or does revolve around them, their needs and their priorities. These are the kind of people who tend to disrupt the church family in harmful ways and their relationships with others risk becoming abusive.
Here are some things to watch out for.
- Do they give the impression that they carry a sense of entitlement -that they are owed by the church, by society, by God?
- Do they have a problematic relationship to truth? I don’t just mean that are they guilty from time to time of the sin of lying -for which they repent. What I mean is that occasionally you meet a person who would struggle to recognise that they are not telling the truth. They’ve learnt to believe their own stories. They will deny things, they will blame others even when the evidence is set before them from multiple witnesses and in writing.
- Do they set themselves and their families on a pedestal expecting preferential treatment?
- Is there a tendency to over romanticise the good things that come their way? Yes we rejoice in answers to prayer but have they built a story of the miraculous around themselves?
- And does that play out the other way. Do they struggle to recognise that day to day difficulties may simply be part and parcel of life or even a consequence of their own mistakes? Is every catastrophe proof of spiritual warfare, that they are being attacked because of their faithfulness?
- How are they with money? Can they be trusted with it? Are they in the habit of frequently asking for money? Who do they go to for it? Constantly pestering vulnerable members of the congregation, especially widows for money should be a red flag.
- How do they respond to criticism? Do they hear it? It’s not just about their emotional reaction. Actually, some people can respond passionately, defending themselves and find the criticism hard in the heat of the moment but are then able to come back later and say “yes maybe you were right there.” Others, even if they are polite and charming about it are simply unable to accept that they might have room to improve or might have been in the wrong. Those are the ones to watch out for. But the narcissist may not even hear the gentle challenge at all because their conscience has been dulled.
- Is there a tendency to surround themselves with supporters -a love of sycophancy? Do they need to be the hero of the situation? I’d particularly be alert to situations where they particularly seek to build a kind of “groupie” relationship with members of the opposite sex.
- Do they need to be the last to be heard? Are they the one who controls the timing of decisions?
- Does it seem like whenever they propose something that there is an implicit or even explicit criticism of the gifting and ability of others?
One of the things that you see in situations is the way in which the narcissist builds up protective walls around themselves in order to close off criticism, challenge and correction. The sad thing is that this often means that they fail to learn and grow. I’ve seen gifted people plateau because they didn’t see the need to keep learning and listening. More seriously still they may close themselves off to God’s work in their lives.
Now, there is a dual challenge for us here. First of all, we want to protect the church from the dangers that such people bring. However, secondly at the same time we want to see them rescued, restored and protected from the damage they might do to themselves. So, whilst I want to be careful not to put them in a position of authority and responsibility in the life of the church, I don’t want to give up on them pastorally. I will keep loving them, I’ll keep seeking to disciple them with the Gospel.
Realistically though, we may have to accept, particularly in a small plant or revitalisation work that the most loving thing to do is not to keep attempting that Gospel discipleship within the church plant and so you may need to look at your interdependency with other churches.
Questions for discussion and Reflection
- When you look through the list above, are there examples of “warning lights” that you can see in other wannabe leaders?
- Can you see examples of those warning lights in terms of your own behaviour?