Narcissists are, by definition, self-centered, and leave a path of relational devastation in their wake. So, what happens when a pastor, or church leader, is a narcissist?
On this episode of The Roys Report, Dr. Langberg joins Julie for a second discussion—this one focused on the issue of narcissists in the church. As Langberg notes, “When you put (narcissistic tendencies) in the Christian world, and add position and verbal skill, and theological knowledge and Bible language, it can be extremely harmful and extremely confusing.”
So, what are the characteristics of a narcissist? How prevalent is this condition among church leaders? And what do you do if you suspect someone in leadership over you has narcissistic tendencies?
Diane Langberg Ph.D.
Diane Langberg Ph.D. is globally recognized for her 47 years of clinical work with trauma victims & clergy. She has trained caregivers on six continents in responding to trauma and to the abuse of power. She also directs her own counseling practice in Jenkintown, PA, Diane Langberg, Ph.D. & Associates, which includes sixteen therapists with multiple specialties. She has authored numerous books, including Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, On the Threshold of Hope, and Suffering the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores. Her latest book,Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, will be released October 2020.
Note: This transcript has been edited slightly for continuity.
JULIE ROYS: Though self-centered and cruel, narcissists can also be charming and magnetic and draw large groups of people to themselves. So what happens when your pastor is a narcissist? Welcome to The Roys Report—a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And today, I’m going to be discussing narcissism in the church with Dr. Diane Langberg. Dr. Langberg is a psychologist, author globally recognized expert in trauma and abuse. And she has so many insights to offer from her more than 45 years of clinical experience. And narcissism has become a very hot topic in the church because of repeated scandals. And so often at the center of these scandals is a church leader who is or at least appears to be a narcissist. Narcissism is bad enough among secular leaders. But when a narcissist is in a position of spiritual authority, the results can be absolutely devastating to the souls of so many people. By the way, this is the second conversation I’ve had with Dr. Langberg. Our first conversation focused on restoring abusers and the recent controversy at Cedarville University. The feedback from that podcast has been phenomenal. And if you missed it, just go to JulieRoys.com/podcast. You’ll find all of my podcasts there. Also, before we dive into this week’s podcast, I want to take a minute to thank Judson University, a sponsor of The Roys Report. And I want to remind you that Judson University’s next World Leader’s Forum is October 20th at the Renaissance Schaumberg Convention Center. The speaker for that event will be General David Petraeus, a four-star general and former director of the CIA. I know that’s several months away, which is a good thing given the current COVID crisis. But I encourage you to mark your calendars now for the World Leader’s Forum on October 20th. For more information, just go to JudsonU.edu. Well again, joining me today is Dr. Diane Langberg. And in addition to being a psychologist and author, she’s also a board member with GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment. So, Diane, it is such a pleasure to have you join me for part two of our discussion. So, thank you so much.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: You’re welcome.
JULIE ROYS: So, we’re going to be talking about narcissism today. And this has become such a big issue, I think, because, at least in my line of work, so many of the investigations that I do, when there’s corruption or abuse in the church, it seems like at the center of it, so often, is someone who is a narcissist—who is preying on the sheep instead of protecting the sheep. And it’s grievous. I’ve done several podcasts on the topic of narcissism. This is one of many, but it seems like every time I interview someone else with expertise in this area, I learn so much more. Something that I thought was really helpful—you define, very clearly, about the characteristics of a narcissist. I believe there’s what nine characteristics?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes.
JULIE ROYS: Could you describe some of those characteristics that will help us understand who a narcissist is?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes. I would like to preface that with saying that the nine characteristics are not my idea. They are from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that psychologists and psychiatrists use for diagnoses. And so, the nine characteristics are those of someone who has narcissistic personality disorder which is something that has to be evaluated and diagnosed by somebody who is a professional. Unfortunately, what’s happened in the church is that that word is being tossed around so much, that it could include people who have the personality disorder, which is a really entrenched kind of thing. Or people who have flavors. And everything human is on a continuum. I mean, on one level, we could say that that’s just human nature. It has a lot to do with being egocentric and more concerned about myself rather than how am affecting other people. Well, welcome to the human race. I mean, that’s what sin is in part. So, I think sometimes what the church does is normalize or equalize things like that when they have no business doing that. And other times they say things as if they have diagnostic proof that somebody is something when it’s not been evaluated. And everything in between. So I can give you, I will give you the nine characteristics, but it’s not license for people listening to run up and diagnose people in leadership. It may give . . .
JULIE ROYS: Do not use this. Do not try this at home.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Right. However, it can inform them and help them understand, perhaps, some things that they are seeing in people either to lesser degrees or even absolutely. You know, they go check nine times, then, you know, somebody else needs to be brought in to help.
JULIE ROYS: My understanding is that you don’t need to have all nine of these characteristics. Was it five of them?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes, you have to have five to meet diagnostic criteria.
JULIE ROYS: Okay.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: So one of them, which seems so obvious that you might fall over it, is a grandiose sense of self, you know—a bigger than life way of thinking about yourself and having other people see you. People are also often very preoccupied with themselves as a success. They’re either fantasizing about it or they’re demanding people treat them as if it were true whether or not true. And another one is that they’re special—there’s nobody like me. Well, on one level, that’s true since we’re all uniquely created, but it is a category that elevates. And it is also a way sometimes a narcissist will not only think that they’re special, but they only will allow people in their lives who are special—nobody ordinary, whatever that means. They usually demand submission to their authority. And this is a very tricky one in the Christian world because it’s so often laden with Biblical language and concepts. You know, what do you mean, you’re not going to do what I say? I’m your shepherd. And so it’s very cloaked, often in ways that are confusing to people. They demand admiration from people. They want to be praised all the time, and it’s excessive. They are exploitive in terms of people. And so people are used to feed them. The main thing in many ways, that is really the troubling thing, is the fact that they don’t have empathy. Which means they’re not able to feel what’s going on with other people. And, you know, if you go back to the original story of Narcissus—I mean the word narcissism comes from the word “narc” in the Greek. Which means basically that you can’t feel. I mean, we talk about narcotics. So, narcissism is a way of not feeling what other people feel. And so, when you have somebody with this, and they are in a position of power, they are not aware of and cannot enter into the impact that they are having on other people that they are damaging. They often, and the others, anybody that seems like they’re as good as or better than, they have a problem with that. And needless to say, they’re generally very arrogant.
JULIE ROYS: You know it’s interesting where you mentioned the lack of empathy. I know that was one of the things that really struck me in my Harvest investigation on Harvest Bible Chapel and James MacDonald. I must have interviewed—it was over two dozen people. And I would get done and sometimes I’d be in tears. I’d just have to process because I felt so bad for what had been done to these people—so punitive, just so nasty. And that’s what I thought. How can you do that to somebody and be so vindictive and not feel for them? Why is that that there’s no empathy? What causes that?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, I’m not really sure we know. For example, in an extreme case, you could go back to a little boy who, you know, would set bugs on fire or hurt animals or something like that. I mean, so there’s probably possibly a genetic component in some of these things. Oftentimes, you go back to significant neglect and abuse. It depends. I mean, it’s not—first of all, it’s not like there’s one cause, probably, and secondly, we don’t know. Not really.
JULIE ROYS: And people are so complex. It could be a myriad of factors that have to combine in just the right way. And the same factors might produce narcissism in one person and something totally different in another.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes. And the other thing is with of course, narcissists is that they’re very hungry for the power. And there’s some really interesting research out there that talks about the descriptions of those with high power and low power. And when it talks about high power, you know, it talks about how they don’t have social restraints on them. You know, they make exceptions for their behavior. They can’t judge or have empathy with other people’s emotions. They don’t react to them. They don’t respond to them. They stereotype people. They don’t read distress in somebody’s voice. You know, if you’re talking to somebody who’s upset, you read that and you respond to it. But a lot of the research on people with high power is that they don’t do that. Their behavior is self-serving. So high power people are often quite narcissistic in some of those tendencies. And when you put that in the Christian world and you add position and verbal skill and theological knowledge and Bible language, it can be extremely harmful and extremely confusing.
JULIE ROYS: Yeah, absolutely it is. Well, let’s talk about it in the Christian context. And this is something that I don’t know unless you know of a study. I don’t know of a study where we really know what the prevalence is of narcissism in the church among church leaders. I know there was one that was done by Darrell Puls, and I actually interviewed him and then found out that the study was seriously flawed.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes, it was.
JULIE ROYS: And it had said that it was, you know, extremely prevalent among pastors. And so now, I think with the lack of data, we only know, maybe anecdotally, what’s going on. But what is your sense—because you do work with so many church leaders and you work with people who have been victims of narcissism, which might make your perspective believe that it’s a larger problem than it is. Although, I think there’s very few people that would say this is not a major problem in the church right now. But how prevalent is narcissism in the church right now according to your perspective?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, as you’ve said, number one nobody knows, in my understanding from the research in general, is that it’s actually not that high a percentage of individuals, you know, if you were to evaluate an entire population or something. However, I would assume that people who either are or have tendencies in that direction—and again, that’s two different groups—are drawn to positions of power with audiences. I mean, that makes sense. If you throw in, “God is on my side,” you know, you’ve upped the ante. But the other thing I think is the way that we think about the church invites this. Again, it is institutional. It is about statistics. You know, how many people are coming? How much money do we have? How big is our building? How many programs do we offer? None of which have anything to do with bearing the fruit of the Spirit in a character. Zip. And what we have lost sight of is the fact that churches can be statistically marvelously successful and an utter spiritual failure.
JULIE ROYS: And we’ve seen that. And eventually, the failure catches up and there will be an implosion of the numbers and the church and everything else, like we’ve seen at so many churches, unfortunately.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes, but there’s a very vulnerable time there because I have had experiences with churches where that’s happened. And because they feel so little, the people, because they feel big when the person in front is big. So, if they lose the person in front, they don’t feel special. And so they’re extremely vulnerable for some other messiah to ride in on a white horse and hire another one.
JULIE ROYS: And that’s so important, I think to mention, because I think there is a dynamic between, “we’re getting what we want,” and what we put in our job description for a pastor. And we need to deal. I think congregations—I mean, this is the thing that stuns me because I’m in the business of exposing some of the corruption and financial abuse and it’s like people will not hear it. And I think when they will not hear it, to the point where it’s just like they’re plugging their ears and trying to drown you out, there’s something going on inside of them. And I want you to speak this.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Oh, yes, yes.
JULIE ROYS: What is going on inside of them that they need this narcissist?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, first of all, we all need a messiah. That’s why there was One.
JULIE ROYS: Exactly.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: So human beings are vulnerable to being rescued—to having the best person for whatever job it is or anything like that. There’s a fascinating book that came out years ago called The [Seduction] of Eva Volk. And it is about the church in Germany prior to World War II. And how he was the messiah on the white horse. He was going to restore their honor, he was going to raise them up, he was going to do all of those things. And so, it’s like being in junior high, and the person who’s most popular in the school wants you for a friend. You’ll cover up for that person. You’ll follow them anywhere, because they are feeding off of you. And you are, in turn, feeding off of them to feel big instead of little. It’s catching. It’s contagious.
JULIE ROYS: But it’s false. That’s a false sense of . . .
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: It’s all false. And that’s where I go back to the church, which Oswald Chambers—whom I think I’ve read since I was 14 years old—but one of the things he says is that crisis reveals character. And so, you could have a big crisis or a small crisis. But a small crisis might be that somebody confronts you with something as a leader. But what’s going to tell us who you are? How you respond, whether you care about your impact on that person, how you respond to the damage that that’s done, whatever. And the same thing is true with institutions or systems. Crisis reveals the character of those systems.
JULIE ROYS: And the character the people who are sitting in the pews. Because, that’s been interesting to me to see. I mean, it’s a horrible betrayal. It is a horrible betrayal when you have someone who’s a pastor, and you realize he wasn’t who you thought he was, and you thought he was caring for you and really loved you. And it turns out, he’s a narcissist and he cares only about himself. And that’s just a shocking reality for folks and it’s disillusioning. And I don’t want to minimize that. At the same time, I have been able to see people who are 10 years out of that. And some of them are more compassionate—I say compassionate at the same time, boy did they see the reality of things. They’re not easily deceived anymore. I mean, they really get it. Once you’ve been through something like that, you get the difference. And they speak the truth. But you see this depth of spirituality in some of them. But I’m also seeing an awful lot of folks who are angry and bitter. And who can blame them? And not to minimize. I mean, to me, it’s such a grievous sin against them. That, I mean, I have compassion for people who have ended up there, because this is a horrible betrayal. But it does reveal, doesn’t it, where our faith is, where our hope is?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes. Part of it is, I think, there are people who have been so wounded in life before they ever got to that kind of church. You know, that the resources and the sense of safety in a relationship or the sense of truth telling, and all of those things, have not even been part of anything in their lives. So they don’t really have—and so then this person comes and they feel like they’re going to be rescued by this person, and then they feel absolutely let down again. And so, in many ways, it’s often a collective bitterness. Plus, you know, human beings are pretty entitled folks. Just in general. And when people don’t deliver what we want from them, we don’t like it. And they’ve been under a leader who, again, has no empathy. And they have not been taught how to enter into the suffering of others. I mean, a leader like that you can’t. And when we talk about narcissism in the church, we’re talking about wolves and sheep. I mean, this is not a new concept. Jesus just named it differently.
JULIE ROYS: Yeah. Well, and I’m glad you mentioned people who have been wounded. Because I have found, especially in churches, whether you call it heavy shepherding or a lot of these churches where you have a narcissist, people are attracted to that because they maybe have a father wound or they had just . . .
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Or they’re hungry for somebody to care for them and shepherd them truly. But they wouldn’t know a true shepherd from a false one if they fell over it.
JULIE ROYS: Right. And after having that experience, so many are just so devastated and they feel like they can’t trust their own judgment.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: They can’t. And so, the damage just piles on top of the damage.
JULIE ROYS: It does. Well, you mentioned power and how the narcissist uses power. I’d like to explore that a little bit. Can you explain the role of power in the narcissist?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, you have to back up and explain the role of power in all human beings, first. I mean power is simply the ability to influence. Every single human being has it. Doesn’t matter how important they are or how smart they are, or anything else. If you think about when your children were small, if you have a two-month-old infant crying in the middle of the night, exhausted adults jump out of bed. That’s influence. It’s just inherent in who we are. So as we get older, of course, we acquire more levels of power, more kinds of power. We also learn that some people don’t have so much and we have to figure out how we respond to them. We can feed off of them, we can reject them, we can care for them. We can look for ways to bless them. And so I think it’s important to understand that a narcissist is not the only person with power in the room. They may be filling the room with their power and things like that. But everybody has some. Most people think if they don’t feel powerful, they’re not. And oftentimes leaders of churches and things like that feel not very powerful at all because of their own history of wounding. And yet they’re the biggest person in the room and they’re damaging other people because they don’t see their impact. But they don’t feel powerful. They’re looking to feel powerful. They’re looking to have impact. Hence, the seeking for compliments and all of those things. What it is, is power given by God. I mean, you go back to Genesis, you know. He said to Adam and Eve before the fall, “Rule and subdue the earth.” Those are power words. Not, “over each other,” but, “over the earth.” So now the whole thing’s messed up. Right? We’re trying to rule each other and everything else and not be ruled by God and all of that. And so you have a continuum of people who feel completely powerless. Who, actually, there’s all kinds of people in United States who don’t have very much power at all. They’re taking a bigger hit on this virus. All of those things. And then you have people who insist on having all the power in the room because of their own damage or their own lack of empathy and all of those things. And that power then is used to care for the self, not for those under your care.
JULIE ROYS: You know, it’s interesting that you bring this up. And I know, even in your writing, you talk about how the effects of the fall—I mean, one of the first effects was that for the woman, your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you. This ruling, which had been over creation—over the animals, over the plants, bring order and subdue the earth, now has been changed to really abuse and ruling over one another. But it’s interesting to me in the church, we tend to think that that might be okay.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes. I find it fascinating because, you know, we’re okay with anesthesia for surgery if we’re going to have it. We’re okay for things that kill weeds in our lawn. Those, you know, those were part of the curse, right? But ruling over her is treated as if it weren’t part of the curse. (Laughter) So okay, you can rule over her because you’re told to do that. That was a curse actually. So, no more weed kill. (Laughter) No more anesthesia for surgery.
JULIE ROYS: Right. Right. I mean, we’ve institutionalized that and condoned it. And it was interesting to me because we were having a discussion on Facebook. And I just remember one woman’s comment, in the comment thread, is, she said, happened to say, well the job of the pastor is to rule over his congregation. And some people responded. Thank God that that triggered some people. But I thought, we have this view sometimes of our pastor—that he should rule. So, explain to me what would be the proper understanding?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: He’s a shepherd. And a shepherd leads his flock. A shepherd goes the right way so that those who follow him will go the right way. And if you think back about Jesus, who, of course, is the good and great Shepherd, He doesn’t rule. He says if you will follow Me, if you will be My disciples, if you will love Me, then this. There’s no coercion. He stands at the door outside and knocks. You have control over the door. It’s a completely different concept. We’ve injected cultural stuff and all kinds of things into it that have nothing to do with what the Scriptures say. And the word, in terms of husbands in the New Testament, is love. Not rule. Love. Usually means a cross, at least that’s what it meant in its ultimate.
JULIE ROYS: And that’s, yeah. Love is defined—no greater love has a man than this that he lays down for his friends. Or if you want to talk about the male/female relationship, we’re supposed to follow the example of Christ. Husband’s should give themselves up for their wives—sacrifice themselves for their wives, for their families as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us. And yet we, we’ve changed this whole view of what it means to be a pastor. And somebody said, “Boy, there’s an awful lot of talking about servant leadership. There’s just not an awful lot of actually doing it.”
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, and maybe perhaps given our propensity as human beings, we should drop the word leadership and just call us servants. His first and then of others. That’s what He did. That’s who He was.
JULIE ROYS: Well that would be healing, wouldn’t it?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Oh, it would. It would bring lots of hurt people out of the woodwork if it happened. Which, you know, lots of hurt people came out of the woodwork when Jesus was here.
JULIE ROYS: Yeah. You use this metaphor and you do it when talking about narcissists or sexual abusers or, I mean, really anybody who is preying on their people. But you use this metaphor of food. That one, a wolf eats his sheep, but that the victims are often food for the predator. Can you explain a little bit more about that? Why you use that metaphor and why that’s helpful?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, if we all are honest and think about ourselves, we can think of some memory, of a small way, where we navigated a conversation in order to get a compliment. That’s feeding. If I do that with you, I’m using you to make me feel better or bigger or smarter or something. That’s in all of us, number one. And when you think about that in contrast with the Scripture’s description of who Jesus was when He was here—as a servant, and a shepherd, and all of those things—He didn’t feed off of anybody except the Father. That’s where His food came from. He was food. He said, whether you were sick or dead, or a tax collector or whatever. He said He gave what people needed, not necessarily what they wanted, which was always truth and always love. But it was never to give Him something. So, I think about it that way because, you know, if you think about, for example, somebody who grew up in a home, let’s say with incest, so the father is sexually abusing the children. He is doing all sorts of things, exploiting and everything else, but what he’s doing is feeding himself with his children, which is diametrically opposed to what a father is supposed to be with his children. But there’s something in doing that, that gives him something or several somethings.
JULIE ROYS: Seems like so much of breaking out of narcissistic systems involves, obviously, there’s awareness and being aware of how you’re in it. I want to talk from the standpoint of someone who has been on the receiving end, or suspects that they might be the victim of a narcissist or in a narcissistic system. Because this is what I’ve noticed is that narcissists do not operate in isolation, at least not in the church. It’s often a part of the system, and it’s inherent in every part of the system. So, if you’re on the receiving end of that, or suspect you are on the receiving end of that, what are some steps you should take to get free?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, I would suggest that one of the first things you need to do is talk to somebody not in the system. And then, in other words, in the office, we have lots of people coming in who, I mean, even if they don’t the Word but they know something’s not right. And but you can’t find a real pair of eyes unless you’re outside the system. Because the people in the system are drinking the Kool-Aid. They were part of it. They’re inhaling the oxygen. And so, they’ll find ways to excuse it or minimize it or only name one part of it when there’s actually twenty-five parts, you know, or something like that. And so, it needs to be looked at with another or others who are outside and who have some knowledge of such things—who can help you figure out what to call things and what the right names for things are as opposed to what they’re being called.
JULIE ROYS: If you believe that you’re in relationship with someone who’s a narcissist, or your pastor’s a narcissist, does confronting, does that help? It seems to often just make things explode.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Well, it’s wounding and wounding is not allowed. So, if somebody would find themselves in a marriage where they would, or something like that, where they would feel like they were in relationship with somebody who at least had some of these qualities, whether they’re diagnoseable, or not. The fact, again, I keep saying this, but you have to talk to somebody outside your system. Because if you’re going to approach it, you need to know how to do it. And you need to know, understand, this particular person and what maybe fed into these feelings or characteristics that they have and how to approach them in ways, which what you really want, especially if it’s somebody you love, or at least did love, what you really want is for them to see. So, you have to find ways to speak to it that invites seeing without doing such damage to them that they can’t bear to take it in.
JULIE ROYS: Or to yourself, ‘cause they’re going to lash out, right?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes. Yes. So, you know, I just think whether it’s a family system or a church system or a business system or whatever it is, when these things are there, you need to have outside—no breathing the oxygen of the system kind of person—sit with you. Help you look at who you are, how you’re responding, what you’re seeing and experiencing and ways to handle it that will not, hopefully, increase the damage but invite change. And if no change comes, then you have a decision to make.
JULIE ROYS: It’s hard for us, as Christians to even suggest this but I’ve heard so many say that the narcissist—that this isn’t a curable condition. Yet I’ve heard some people say, well, no, it’s not an incurable thing. Nothing’s beyond the reach of the gospel. So, what’s your opinion? Can narcissists change? Can they be healed of this disorder?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: The classic psychologist answer that I’m going to give you is, “it depends.” But we have the same question with pedophiles. We have the same question with serial rapists. We have the same question with really violent men in the home. And it depends. The work that is required is gut wrenching and long term. Not everybody will do that. Lots of people won’t. It’s too hard. It’s too time consuming. They’d just like to go back to the way that it was. So, on the one hand, do I think anything is beyond God’s redemption? Absolutely not. But, unfortunately, I think in Christendom we often use that idea to say, of course it will be okay and, you know, whatever. Which, I mean, Jesus is capable of redeeming anybody and having them be like Him. And they crucified Him. They didn’t listen, not only that they were full of hate. So just because redemption is always possible, doesn’t mean we should count on it, or see it just to make ourselves feel better when it really isn’t there.
JULIE ROYS: Well, Diane, thank you for taking the time and exploring this issue with me. Looking forward to—also you have a book coming out in the fall. Is that right?
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Yes. It’s called Redeeming Power— Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. It will be out in October.
JULIE ROYS: Fantastic. Well, I hope when the book comes out, we can discuss it. I would love to do that and revisit this discussion and this topic. So thank you again and God bless.
DR. DIANE LANGBERG: Thank you.
JULIE ROYS: Well, thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report—a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And if you’d like to find me online, just go to JulieRoys.com. Hope you have a great day and God bless.