Yes, ministers are more likely to be narcissistic than people in general


“What research shows (disproportionate?) narcissistic tendencies linked with ministry?” asked a  reader. Let’s test some recent research.

“In this moment, Chuck DeGroat has written a manifesto for our age: When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse,” a review in the Gospel Coalition’s Themelios magazine indicating that the topic has made a splash – and “the age” is now: the book came out in 2022. A Carey Nieuwhof podcast interview gives some detail on what DeGroat says about narcissism, writing as Professor of Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. (That’s a Reformed Church in America institution – a traditionally Calvinist church. Nieuwhof is a conservative evangelical.)

Getting down to practicalities, DeGroat tells Nieuwhof the critical characteristics of narcissists: “The textbook definition gets some characteristics of a narcissist. So, we’ll talk about grandiosity. We’ll talk about entitlement, talk about attention-seeking, low empathy, relational and vocational impairments.
“And when you look at the constellation of those things, grandiosity, entitlement, attention-seeking, low empathy, in particular, you have the makings of it of a definition there, in those things. But oftentimes what I’ll say is the underbelly of a narcissist is one, who is wounded and traumatized and uses other people as a salve for their own wounds.”

They drill down on grandiosity. “I’ll often say this, when people ask me about large church pastors, megachurch pastors, I’ll often say it doesn’t matter if your church is 10,000, 1,000, or 10, if you perceive yourself to be bigger, better, stronger faster than those 10, if you’re the hero of their story, you suffer from grandiosity at some level.”

DeGroat is making an important point If the pastor thinks he or she is better than the people they serve, there is a red flag.

It’s not just megachurch pastors: “In those smaller settings, you’ll find what is called this more covert narcissism or vulnerable narcissism, as some put it, which is more of a smug superiority. I’m better than they are because fewer people come to my church. We must be more faithful than that large church down the road.”

Detached from their own woundedness, narcissists find empathy difficult. “Almost always, you’ll see a debris field of pain in the workplace for the relationships of a narcissist.” This is where the question from our reader came from – a discussion on pastors who mistreat staff.

DeGroat reveals that after 20 years of doing psychological assessments, “75% to 85% of the pastor’s that I’ve done the assessments with are elevated in what we call Cluster B personality disorders. And so that’s histrionic personality, narcissistic personality. And it’s primarily those two, not so much borderline personality, your anti-social personality.” He defines histrionic as someone who does not need to be on the stage as a narcissist but wants to be at the centre of things. A little bit of narcissism may not be bad for someone who has to do a lot of public speaking, but from his background working with church planting in the Presbyterian Church in America, “Got to be tough, you know? And we pick the tough ones out of the lot. You know, we picked the ones that weren’t as sensitive, weren’t as needy.
“Well, turns out at times we were picking the ones who may be ripe for narcissism.”

An oft-cited research paper by Darrell Puls, Head of Faculty at Pacific Northwest Christian College, points to a troubling statistic: “The Barna research organization confirmed that narcissism runs high in pastors through self-image questions, concluding that 90% of American pastors scored themselves as excellent to above average preachers and teachers.”

Puls points out that despite this and a similar study in Poland that found that 80 per cent of pastors had a form of narcissism, this “healthy” narcissism did not harm, and the pastors did much good.

But not always. In his work, Puls describes working with extrovert pastors – overt narcissists, and introvert pastors – covert narcissists: “As a nondenominational church consultant, I have interacted with many of both types of narcissistic pastors. However, they all saw themselves as victims of ungrateful church members who did not appreciate how blessed they were to have them leading their congregations. Knowing I was there because of problems in their churches, those who show overt narcissistic tendencies have tended to be somewhat hostile towards me. The covert narcissists have tended to be more welcoming and friendly, self-effacing but also clearly pleased when complimented. Since I am responsible for analyzing ongoing problems in their churches, covert narcissists have complained with resignation that a generalized rejection was their cross to carry as pastors. Both types accuse their staff of incompetence and sabotage. They claim that staffers, including associate pastors, need constant supervision and correction.

“Their congregations had welcomed them warmly but now have been actively undermining them. The pastors had considered leaving but decided to stay; Jesus suffered, and so must they. One proclaimed that Jesus was only crucified once, but this was his third personal crucifixion.”

Both authors believe that while some level of narcissism may be expected in pastors, the church must be careful. Humility might be a good test.

“Perhaps the simplest definition of humility is placing God and others above oneself in importance, loyalty, and action,” Pulls writes. Humility, however, also requires honesty in sharing doubts and questions of faith. The vulnerable narcissist might hint at this, but it is always accompanied by a story of overcoming. The overt narcissist is unlikely to express anything that might indicate vulnerability.

“It can safely be concluded that true narcissists know little to nothing about humility, let alone practice it.”

Image credit: Damian Gadal / Flickr

One Comment

  1. Interesting, though the American cultural context values self promotion. Re the 90% who think they are excellent or above average preacher, presumably at least 20% will in fact be so.

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