Is narcissism the problem?

The Gospel Coalition have just published this article offering further engagement with Chuck De Groat’s book “When narcissism comes to church.”  The writer, Dan Doriani, is positive towards Chuck’s work but has some concerns, particularly with the thesis that:

narcissism is especially common among pastors because they often enjoy a high profile. Narcissists crave power, admiration, and a stage.”

Whilst, Doriani agrees that there is an important challenge, he questions the suggestion that most pastors fit the category. He insists that in fact that:

While some preachers do love to be the center of attention, others hate it. Some leaders—like Timothy and many of the prophets (Isa. 6Jer. 1Amos 7)—have been reluctant to speak for God. Many pastors testify that they resisted God’s call. For them, preaching spurs self-doubt and self-criticism. But they persist because they believe God called them.

I welcome Doriani’s challenge.  I am among those who have spoken for some time on the need of the church to be alert to the dangers of narcissism but I would also be concerned if the assumption was allowed to take root that all pastors and leaders had a narcissistic personality disorder for two reasons. First, it would, falsely create the impression that all churches and all church leaders are dangerous.  Secondly, it would distract our attention from when narcissism turns up in church, it is not always through the pastor. Other members can be narcissists too.

At the same time, I think we should be cautious about rushing to blunt the critique and get ourselves off the hook if we are pastors. If the result of Doriani’s article is for people to conclude that there is nothing to worry about then we are in danger.

I wonder if part of the problem is that we’ve got a couple of red herrings floating around.  One hint that these might be present is when we start attempting to discuss whether or not there is such a thing as healthy narcissism as DeGroat suggests.  Such a nonsensical term suggests to me that we might not quite have got our definitions and understanding right.

Narcissism is primarily about being self-centred, it’s about being so preoccupied with oneself, with your image, status, needs etc that you lack or have a diminished concern for the needs of others, you are unaware or less aware of their existence, their value, their contribution and their voice. Even when the narcissist is alert to others, it is primarily to use them as a vehicle for their own ends.

What this means is that astute readers will be recognising that we are in effect describing the human condition. Does this mean that we are all narcissists now?  Well, I would argue that there is a bit of a continuum and that we are all under pressure and temptation to behave in narcissistic ways, in other words to prefer our own needs and own honour over that of others.  All sinners struggle with what Augustine referred to as “love turned in on itself.” However, we tend to use the word to describe those where there is an extreme and persistent problem and often where their personality is so disordered that we are ready to consider the possibility that there may be particular mental health or other issues at work beyond what would be the case with most people.  It is only occasionally that we are saying that a person definitely has such a personality disorder.

If we recognise that narcissism is a way of describing the human, sinful condition then this might help us to see why many pastors are likely to show up on surveys and assessments as having the risk characteristics. It is possible that these are people who are particularly alert to their own sinful condition and struggle.  That is also why many at the same time struggle with imposter syndrome.

Ironically, in my opinion, sometimes it is those who are most vocal in accusing others of narcissism and persistently accusing church leaders who seem least aware of how their utter confidence in their own ability to assess, dismissiveness of others and tendency to turn any situation towards their narrative who seem least aware of their own tendency to turn the focus in on themselves. The greatest danger and perhaps the evidence of a personality disorder is when someone is completely unaware of and unable to see the problems with their own character. 

The other red herring, and the one which leaves me not completely comfortable with the TGC article is that if narcissism is about that inward focus on oneself, then it is a bit simplistic to assume that the narcissist will always desire and revel in the limelight.  I remember Mike Ovey pointing out that if pride is love turned in on itself, as per Augustine, then pity is in fact a form of pride because it too is about turning the attention onto that person. 

Similarly, it is possible for me to genuinely insist that I don’t seek the limelight, that I don’t want to be on stage and that I don’t desire authoritarian power whilst behaving in a manner which ensures that I am receiving the bulk of attention.  It is possible for me to find other ways to exercise tight and manipulative control over others without relying on charismatic authority or seeking positions of power and control.

If the problem with narcissism is, as I suggest above, that the true narcissist is dangerous because they are utterly unaware of themselves, then we have an irony here. Despite their constant navel gazing, they are unable to properly see the very thing they are gazing at. Perhaps that reflects the manner in which the original Narcissus fell into danger because he was attempting to get a better focus on his own blurring reflection in water.

This also means that part of the cure for narcissistic behaviour must include a level of self-awareness and self-reflection. Some introspection isn’t always a bad thing, providing it pushes us then to look outward again.

This is why I believe that we would do well to look out for particular dangerous character traits and behaviours rather than simply labelling a few high-profile individuals. It’s also why we need to look out for those specific traits and deal with them rather than just lumping people into an all encompassing category.

What this means is that yes, we can talk in terms of narcissism as a significant problem but we want to carefully distinguish narcissism as a personality order, narcissism as serious and sustained public sin and narcissism as a label for the struggle and temptation we all face.

This will challenge us to first remove the mote in our own eye and it will encourage us to keep a watch over ourselves and then over the flock in our care.

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