i know some really amazing pastors in this world–dedicated and humble men and women who love people so well and truly care about their congregations and groups. some have the official title “pastor”and some don’t. i wholeheartedly believe there are lots of ways to pastor that are not properly valued and so many people pastor and shepherd others without titles, money, or power.
but there’s almost nothing worse to me than “pastors” who have created power structures that serve them and who take advantage of people’s good hearts for Jesus underneath them. i hear all kinds of stories about church pain but once in a while certain stories point more clearly toward unchecked power, our addiction to inspiration, and desire to be lead by a strong “king.” sometimes i think that maybe narcissism and pastors have become synonyms. of course, if we’re honest, most of us are narcissists to some extent; i know i am. but what i’m talking about here isn’t average run-of-the-mill human narcissism.
i’m talking about leader-narcissism-abuse-unchecked power that harms people over and over again.
here are some characteristics of narcissists. they:
- believe they’re better than others
- fantasize about power, success and attractiveness
- exaggerate achievements or talents
- expect constant praise and admiration
- fail to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings
- expect others to go along with their ideas and plans
- take advantage of others
- express disdain for those they feel are inferior
- have trouble keeping healthy relationships
- set unrealistic goals
- have a fragile self-esteem
when considering the parallels between narcissism and church leadership, i am reminded of ezekiel 34:2-3 – “this is what the sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of israel who only take care of yourselves! should not shepherds take care of the flock? you eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.”
after watching yet another church in denver crumble when the top of the empire goes awry i felt compelled to talk openly about the reality of our flawed systems yet again.i know i sound mad and sad and passionate about it. i am. too much harm keeps being done in God’s name to just ignore it.
this article in one of our local newspapers is a hard one to read for all kinds of reasons; it hits close to home because i know many people personally affected by it. i have laid low on it because i haven’t want to feed the monster; however, it’s points to a bigger problem far beyond this situation. over and over, from big cities and small towns, i hear stories that have similar threads and all point to something so important:
charisma causes us to lose our heads and turn a blind eye to abuse, control, and manipulation.
we let abusers–especially christian leader ones–charm their way out of the truth. in some weird twisted way, we get sprinkled with fairy dust and it blinds us. after this article ran, the same church continued without a hitch that sunday and these women were deemed as crazy, grabbing for attention, and trying to tear down God’s work. the show went on as usual, without missing a step.
this happens all the time–in little churches, in big churches, in thriving successful ministries and in small striving fledgling ones, behind closed doors in families, sometimes right in the open–and people still don’t do anything about it. denial is strong, and fear of rocking the boat even if we know something’s not quite right is even stronger.
meanwhile, there’s always a whole new crop of church casualties on the side of the road, more people with faith wounds to deal with, and more people completely disillusioned with God.
it’s easy to say “well, that’s just an unhealthy system and people need to find a healthier one”. unfortunately, it appears that so few exist. power has trumped humility, growth has trumped transformation, and Jesus’ upside-down ways have been trumped by the world’s. we have bred a whole system that pays narcissists a lot of money to make people feel good (or bad in the case of some shame-based pastors who seem to grow churches, too).
i understand all humans are flawed. i sure am.
i understand we are all in need of grace. i need heaps of it by 9 am every day.
i understand that God uses broken people. i am personally so thankful for this.
but these realities don’t make it okay for pastors to harm people. to use vulnerable women (and men) for personal gain. to verbally and emotionally abuse their congregants. to use God’s name and authority to control and manipulate sincere and faithful men and women for their own purposes. to make a disproportionate amount of money. to hire and fire at will. to hoard power. to twist the gospel.
i know charisma is intoxicating. i’ve for sure been charmed by it many a time over the years, but no more.
the church’s best hope for the future is to develop an immunity to it. to become braver and more willing to call a spade a spade. to quit exalting leaders to an unhealthy place. to quit feeding systems that perpetuate sexism, narcissism, and elitism. to stop feeding the performance church monster. to refuse to be charmed.
meanwhile, for those of you out there–men and women alike–who have been harmed by abusive pastors, please know my heart aches for you. what happened to you is wrong. what others stood by and let happen to you is wrong. what others refused to acknowledge is wrong. what others covered up to keep the wheels of the church turning is wrong. what others couldn’t let themselves believe is wrong. what happened to you or your church as a result of unchecked power, abuse cloaked in God language, and narcissism-at-its-worst is oh so wrong.
may peace come from despair. may hope rise in the end. may our good and true shepherd gather you up in his arms and carry you close to his heart as you heal. may you know you’re not alone, you’re not crazy.
but the system that keeps these kinds of pastors in business sure is.