a thing or two about narcissism (+ church).

kathyescobar church stuff, crazy making, faith shifts, injustice, rants, relationships 73 Comments


For a lot of years now I have been journeying with a lot of women who have been in marriages or relationships with narcissists. I’m not talking about plain old self-absorbedness, of which we all have a touch of in different ways. I’m talking about something far more insidious and confusing, too–people with true blue Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or just-plain-real-and-deep narcissism that makes people around them feel crazy, unempowered, abused, and emotionally stripped.

Several years ago The Refuge hosted a gathering for women who had difficult ex-husbands or partners to gain strength and tools for navigating life for their children. It was an amazing night, and my brave friend–whose ex has NPD–shared some practical survival tools that she has tried to learn and also teach her kids as they navigate life with this kind of craziness over the long haul. On my way to the event, I asked one of my dearest therapist friends what one word of advice she had for these women.

Here’s what she said–“Tell them you just can’t ever win… (and they’re not crazy)”

The internet has been buzzing over the past few months with back and forth around this issue with a well-known emergent author and his ex-wife. There are plenty of people writing about that so I am not going to add to that mix. I sincerely hope that some of these oh-so-important questions get explored around these issues of abuse and what it takes for victims to be heard.

What I wanted to focus on was raising awareness on the insidiousness of narcissism in church culture–and how little we ever do about it.

In fact, we feed it.

Almost all of the men married to my friends were pastors or Christian leaders of some sort. Charismatic, powerful, strong, magnetic, charming, bright, and engaging, most everyone in their outer circle think they can do no wrong. In fact, they are often worshipped, elevated to higher and higher levels of ministry and power, and considered “amazing” by so many.

Those in close, close relationship with them, though, experience a totally different story.

Some of you have been married to them.

Some of you have been parented by them.

Some of you have been pastored by them.

You know what I’m talking about.

You know the crazy-making. You know the emotional abuse, and sometimes the physical. You know the hero-worship and the “he would never do that’s”. You know the fear. You know the confusion. You know the exhaustion of always trying to keep the peace. You know the eggshells. You know what it feels like to be misunderstood, accused, tossed aside, ignored–not just by the narcissist, but by their churches and friends and colleagues and fans and followers.

You. Know.

For those of you on the sidelines, an average-person’s definition of Narcisstic Personality Disorder is this: Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism (Mayo Clinic).

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner (Mayo Clinic)

I would add: “Lying. Blatant, unabashed, straight-faced lying.”

Not everyone has a full-blown personality disorder, but people in relationship with narcissists can never win, never give enough, love enough, _____ enough. Many are used to being berated and called the cause of all the problems. They know the truth but everyone on the outside only sees the good so it always feels confusing. When they begin to have boundaries or stand up for themselves or refuse to make that person the center of the universe, all hell breaks loose.

Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders are narcissists. In fact, some of the above symptoms are what get them to the top of their food chains and help them ascend to power. It’s fascinating–and scary, really.

We love our kings, queens, and royalty.

We love people who appear strong and squared away and confident.

We love people who charm us and sprinkle fairy dust on us.

We love people we can follow.

We love to hang on people’s every word.

I do believe there’s a radical shift happening right now in church-dom, where a lot more people are unwilling to give themselves over to strong powerful leaders in the same way. They won’t tolerate the bullsh*t any longer. I’m so glad for it.

However, we’ve got a long way to go to breaking our addiction to strong, narcissistic leaders. They still are the fastest builders of a lot of churches, the fastest creators of a following, the fastest risers to the top.

My heart and hope is that the scales keep falling off our eyes when we become more and more aware of the insidious of narcissism in so much of modern Christian culture.

It’s time to see more than what’s on the surface. 

To get sober from our addiction to celebrity and power.

To break the spell.

To get healthier.

To be drawn to humility. 

To believe victims on the underside of the craziness.

To get healthier. 

To get healthier.

To get healthier.