The Problem of Narcissist Pastors

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They’re wolves in sheep’s clothing—pastors who are narcissists, who claim to be serving God but are really serving themselves, and leaving a path of devastation in their wake.

In this episode of The Roys Report, Chuck DeGroat —a professor, clinical therapist, and author of the book, When Narcissism Comes to Church — joins Julie for an enlightening discussion. 

DeGroat offers keen insights on how to identify narcissist pastors, as well as the church systems that protect them. He also describes the many faces of narcissism, explaining how narcissism manifests itself differently in various Enneagram personality types. And unlike many of his therapist peers, DeGroat explains why he believes some narcissists can be healed of their condition. 

This Weeks Guests

Dr. Chuck DeGroat

Chuck DeGroat (LPC, PhD) is professor of pastoral care and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and senior fellow at Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco. He served as a pastor at churches in Orlando and San Francisco and founded two church-based counseling centers. He is a licensed therapist, spiritual director, and the author of Toughest People to Love and Wholeheartedness.

Show Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited slightly for continuity.

JULIE ROYS:  They’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. Pastors who are narcissists who claim to be serving God but are really serving themselves and leaving a path of devastation in their wake. 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 talking about an extremely serious problem in the church—the problem of narcissism. And joining me will be Chuck DeGroat—a professor, clinical therapist and author of the book, When Narcissism Comes to Church. But before I talk to Chuck, I just want to say a brief word about the crisis we’re in concerning the coronavirus pandemic. And I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. I know I haven’t. And I’m glad that churches and Christian institutions are taking this seriously. Many are closing and encouraging people to just stay home. I think that’s a wise word right now, but I think it’s hard, isn’t it, as Christians, to practice something called social distancing, right? I mean, we want to love people and be near them. But one way to love our neighbor, right now, is to not infect our neighbor or be infected by our neighbor. So I think it’s wise that we stay home. And hey, you can listen to podcasts maybe or get caught up on ones that you’ve missed. But here’s what I’m noticing. Families are being forced to spend time together during this crisis. We’re doing church at home, right, as our churches are live streaming their services? Or we’re doing meals at home as restaurants are closing. And I know our family, in the past few days, have worshipped and prayed more together than we probably had in the entire month prior to this whole crisis. So friends, I really think that we need to embrace this crisis as an opportunity to grow together as families. I mean, obviously Satan wants to push us apart and get us to really come down on each other. And you know how sometimes too close a quarters can be a problem. But I think what God wants us to do is grow together. And so I really encourage you. Do family devotions, gather for meals, draw  together closer as a family during this time. But it’s not only an opportunity, I think, for our families to come together, I think our communities can come together as well. I got this idea from our pastor. His family put a note in the mailboxes of their neighbors. And the note just said something simple like, “Hey, we know this is a stressful time, just wanted to let you know that our family has plenty of food. We also have a stash of toilet paper.” (If that’s true for you, you can say that.) If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask and also know that we’re praying for you. And hey, if there’s a way that we can pray for you, especially, please let us know.” So that’s an idea. I just think of something we can do to reach out to our neighbors and love them during this crisis. Also, you may have heard, local blood banks are saying that there’s a critical shortage of blood right now. Many blood drives have been canceled. So if you’re not in a high risk group, and you’re healthy, you may just want to consider giving blood. And lastly, let’s remember that God is sovereign, right? This pandemic is not a surprise to Him. And His Word says, in Philippians 4: 6 & 7 —“Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” So God’s got this. And no matter what happens, we can trust that He will work His purposes in all things. Also, I do want to ask that you pray for one of our sponsors of this podcast, Judson University. Like many colleges around the country, they’ve had to send students home and move classes online. Spring sports have been canceled and this is a huge transition for them. So please remember Judson students, faculty and staff in prayer and also your local schools and maybe colleges where your sons and daughters are going to school as well. They need our prayers. Also another one of our sponsors, the Illinois Family Institute, has been forced to reschedule its Education Forum that was set for April 25th. So stay tuned for more information on that in upcoming podcasts. And please pray for our friends at the IFI as well. I’m sure this is a trying time for them. 

But again, today, we’re going to be discussing narcissism—a huge issue in our church, one that I honestly wasn’t even aware of probably two years ago, but has come crashing to our awareness as more and more of these church scandals have broken in the news. And I’ve been a part of breaking some of those. And often, at the center, is a narcissist pastor. So I am so glad to have professor, author, clinical therapist, Chuck DeGroat with me. So Chuck, welcome, and thanks so much for making the time.

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, thank you for doing it, too.

JULIE ROYS:  Well, and how are you guys facing this crisis? I know you’re at a seminary. So probably classes online and probably a trying time for you, right?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, it’s a trying time for all of us. I mean, I’m grateful that we’re into distance learning already. And so we can transition our classes online. But I was also a pastor for 15 years and I’m trying to be available to pastors because I know a lot of my friends out there are just really anxious right now. Right? We’re all anxious. And so just trying to be present to them and to my students and to my family. And I love what you said at the opening about connecting as families. We’re experiencing that right now with my 18 and 17-year-old daughters and it’s so good.

JULIE ROYS:  Yeah, it is good. I know we did church at home for the first time in, boy, I don’t know how long on Sunday. Our pastor live-streamed a sermon. So we were able to listen to that. We had neighbors of ours, that we do a home group with and they came over. We washed our hands and we practiced not coming to close and that, but it was such a special worship time that we had together. I pulled out my guitar for the first time in a while and we just worshipped the Lord together. We prayed for each other. There was an amount of sharing that was just probably a little deeper, a little more vulnerable than usual. And afterwards, my 17-year-old daughter said to me, “Wow, that was just really neat. Kind of like, what the early church probably did.” I think it is an opportunity for us. It’s always an opportunity, any crisis, to be the hands and feet of Christ. So, yeah, it’s an interesting time to be alive and to be the church, so. 

Well, let’s talk about narcissism. And I think I’d mentioned before we went on this podcast, when we were just discussing, our number one, my number one podcast or radio show, has been on this topic of narcissism. And I think there’s just a hunger to know more about it. Because it has become a big issue in the church. And many have fallen prey or victim to narcissist pastors. But for the person listening, who is kind of new to this whole topic, what is narcissism, at least when it becomes sort of a pathological problem?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, well, so, and I think you just said something important on it when it becomes a pathological problem, right? Because we know that narcissism exists on a spectrum. Theodore Millon did some research on narcissism years ago. And I’ve been using an assessment, that he put together a while ago, for the last 10 or 12 years with pastors. And it places each of us who take this assessment on a spectrum, between narcissistic style, type and disorder. And when we get into disordered relating, we want to use the DSM-5’s definition of it. We talk about a kind of grandiosity. They need to be on stage. It’s all about them—a profound sense of arrogance, self-centeredness. We talk about a lack of empathy—pastors who just can’t be present to the pain of another. Maybe what I’m finding, and I know maybe you’re finding this, too. I’m finding that pastors are becoming more psychologically savvy. And so, I’m adding to this the caveat that pastors can be, what I call, faux-nerable, not vulnerable.  They can sort of make you think that they get what’s going on in you. But that second piece is really important—that it’s not a real sense of empathy. And then the DSM-5 talks about impairments of identity, or pyramids in identity and intimacy. And that just means that there’s volatility in their relationships and volatility at work. And this is what we see—this grandiosity, this lack of empathy and this volatility in all areas of their lives.

JULIE ROYS:  Well, and we are seeing it in the church more and more. And I know that’s, kind of, where you encountered it from sort of a personal standpoint. Tell me a little bit about how you experienced narcissism in the church and how it impacted you?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, well probably for a lot of people, I didn’t have words for it early on. And even going back to seminary in the mid 1990’s, I experienced this sort of culture where narcissists could thrive. But I didn’t know, I thought it was me. I thought I was the problem. And often times when we talk about narcissism and narcissistic abuse, we talk about gaslighting, and that sense that we’re going crazy—that there’s something wrong with me. But, yeah, I encountered this early on in seminary and in pastoral ministry and I don’t think I fully realized the trauma it caused in my own life and in my own body, even during therapy over those years–that experience of feeling bullied or feeling manipulated or just feeling crazy—that I encountered. And I don’t talk about specific details of my story. I try to keep that story relatively private because it was a long, long time ago. But I know that I woke up the night before last at 3 AM with some anxiety. And I traced it back 17 or 18 years ago to some pain I experienced in the church. And lots of folks, who are survivors of narcissistic abuse, will talk about a kind of on-going trauma that they experience in their bodies over the course of days and weeks and years—the fight/flight, freeze/fawn kind of dynamics of trauma. And it can be really painful and debilitating for folks.

JULIE ROYS:  Well, and you mentioned this term gaslighting. That is a term that again, two years ago I would have been like what’s gaslighting? I never heard of that before. I mean, this has become a part of our vernacular, at least if you’re in a survivor community at all or have access to survivor communities. This is just so common—this gaslighting. And you said, too, I thought I was crazy, like I hear that so much. But I’ve published things about, like most recently about James McDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel. People will write me and say thank you for publishing this. I thought I was crazy. This is so affirming and healing for me to hear. I’m not crazy. But talk about gaslighting and this trauma how—what is gaslighting? And how does that kind of make you feel crazy?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, right yeah. It’s a way that narcissists manipulate by communicating in some way, verbally or non-verbally, that you are the problem. I was talking to someone just the other day who was experiencing this, even in the context of this coronavirus pandemic that we’re in right now, where she didn’t feel like she was doing enough for this lead pastor who was expecting her to get supplies and get video technology ready for an online worship service. On and on and on it went. And she thought she was the problem because he was communicating to her that it wasn’t fast enough and efficient enough. And as I talked to her, I said, I said these words again, “You’re not crazy. You’re doing as much as you can.” And she said, “I am?” And I said, “You are? You absolutely are.” And I think that’s just that dynamic. It’s a form—it’s a subtle form of emotional abuse. And when we talk about emotional abuse, we talk about abuse without a physical scar, you know? It’s a wound to the soul. The problem is you. And I think, if I had one go for this book more than any other, I hope people pick it up and understand better what they’re dealing with so that they can recognize that maybe they’re just not crazy.

JULIE ROYS:  And that’s so important. I mean sometimes that’s just step one, because you. And people in the church are usually somewhat introspective and willing to look at where they might be a fault, right? I mean, that’s how we come to Christ. We admit our fault. And so when somebody’s telling us that we’re doing something wrong, or that it’s our problem. Even if we’re like, “Wait a second, I’ve done an awful lot. Why is it always my problem?” It’s still, we’re susceptible I think to those messages. And so it is so important to be able to put our finger on this and to begin to—one, name it, and two, to begin to work at our own healing. I want to dive into that a little bit. So you’re at a church, and you’re seeing some things with your pastor, say. And you see some grandiosity there, perhaps, but at the same time, I mean that the church is growing. Good things are happening. And so how do you know when this is really something that needs to be addressed? And if you’re in it, how on earth do you address it?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, that’s a great question. The first thing has to do with your own care. I think sometimes we move too quickly to addressing something that we’re not completely clear about. So I always tell people to get some time with a trauma-informed therapist—a therapist who understands narcissism and abuse. And not all do. Not all therapists are helpful, or a spiritual director or mentor at least who gets what’s going on. And do the work first of identifying how you’re experiencing it. That’s really critical before you can ever sort of lean into helping a narcissistic system. You’ve got to make sure that you’re clear on what’s going on inside of you. And you’ve got to make sure that you’re clear that that’s your call. It might just be that you need to step away from that system, or to protect yourself or to be safe. And that’s fine. I have to tell people all the time, people who think that it’s their responsibility to fix the system, no, it’s okay to step away if that’s what you need. But what you’re wanting to pay attention to are some of the classic signs of narcissism that we see from pastors—that sense that they make all the decisions, their impatience with others, feelings of entitlement, a sense that there’s, well, in staff at least of being threatened or intimidated by the lead pastor. They need to be the best and brightest in the room. I spell out all the characteristics of pastors who are narcissistic. And when you experience that, it’s a matter of taking that really seriously, first and foremost, as I said, what’s the impact on you? And then doing the work of healing so that you can begin to lean in and perhaps talk to someone who has some power—an elder, a leader in the church—in a way that you can begin to express the pain that you’re experiencing and talk about what might be done next.

JULIE ROYS:  Okay, so you’re talking about somebody talking to somebody in power, an elder or someone like this. And yet, at the same time, I’m hearing you say this word “church system.” And that’s something that you talk about in the book—about this is just not, it’s just not a man that’s at the top. There’s often an entire system that sort of forms around him so that often, those elders who are supposed to be protecting the flock and protecting the mission, are protecting the pastor. And they’re not doing what they need to be doing. So talk a little bit about these systems and how they work to protect the pastor.

CHUCK DeGROAT:  That’s right. So oftentimes, as you say, they are loyal soldiers. And it, those who report what they are experiencing find that it’s a dead end—that they protect the narcissistic leader. And so one of the things that I talk about, and I’m really convinced by, is that narcissism doesn’t exist in isolation. It takes a village, you know? It takes a system and there are always people who enable narcissism within the system. And they’re often deeply embedded beliefs or mental models, I like to say, that enable narcissism in a system. And so it’s a setup for people to sort of follow the charismatic, grandiose leader. And they participated in it. And they’re complicit in it. Every once in a while—Imean, I’m working with the church right now where there are a couple of elders who get it and they’re working hard to protect the flock. But every once in a while, you do see signs of life out there, like the one I just mentioned. But oftentimes it’s unsafe, even as you mentioned, to talk to another elder or leader. They’ll sweep it under the rug, or they’ll make you feel crazy. And they’ll say, “Surely it can’t be him. He’s a great leader. God used him. God has blessed our church.”

JULIE ROYS:  And there are some systems, I mean, that are more conducive aren’t there to narcissism than others? And we’re hearing this a lot with mega churches and celebrity pastors. Because, obviously, to be up on a big stage and a big platform can be a big deal. But at the same time, we also have some who would rather be a big fish in a small pond. And you see narcissism there. There’s no place that’s probably immune from narcissistic leaders. But talk about where the systems that are most conducive to this and how, you know, how in these, if you’re in a church like this, yeah, how can you safeguard against it?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, so it’s a really good question. And I think you’re right about larger mega churches, perhaps being more conducive to narcissistic systems, in the sense that they are predicated on growth and success and efficiency and image management and things like that, right? At times, they’re sort of run like businesses. And I want to qualify that. And I want to say not all large churches are implicated in that but many are. They’re sort of like petri dishes of consumerism, right? They’re just modeling what sort of the corporate strategy might model out there. And so, yeah, this is where we see it. We see it implicated in structures within systems—structures that are very hierarchical or structures that give the lead pastor way too much power where there’s not accountability. Or where there are leaders within systems that are Yes-men or Yes-women. Even church plants often, because in church plants you usually have a charismatic lead pastor, and really a leadership team that that lead pastor recruited. And so the people that this person recruits are generally people who are on board, who agree, and, you know, with narcissism who probably adore that lead pastor. But you’re also right to mention smaller churches. And we see a kind of more vulnerable form of narcissism. It’s not as grandiose. But it’s more like, you know, “We’re the pure church. We’re the church of 50 people, but you know, we are—there’s no other church in town that preaches the gospel. We’re the only church that tells the truth for this long, right? We’re special, we’re chosen.” And that’s a subtle, vulnerable form of narcissism that we’ve got to be on the lookout for.

JULIE ROYS:  I was really interested when I was reading your book, when you said that a colleague of yours says that , if ministry is a magnet for narcissistic personality, who else would want to speak on behalf of God every single week. And then you said that in your own work, which includes 15 years of psychological testing among pastors, the vast majority of ministerial candidates, on the spectrum of cluster B DSM V personality disorders, feature narcissistic traits. Most prominently that these rates are even higher among church planters. So what you’re saying is, I’m seeing a lot of this in pastors and in our planters. I mean, that’s scary to hear.

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah. I mean, I had to reckon with this myself as someone who started out in ministry over 20 years ago now. There’s something about it, you know—the Master of Divinity. And now I tell my students about this, right? Master of Divinity, right? And what a strange thing, we get up on stage, when most people are afraid of public speaking, right? We get up on stage and we speak, “This is the word of the Lord.” You know? And there’s something about that, that where, as you said, I’ve been doing this testing for a long time. And I think we were talking about this before the show. Sadly, there’s far too little research on narcissism in the church. But my own work, over the last 10 or 15 years of doing these assessments, really shows pretty clearly that pastors, the large majority of pastors, test in this cluster B. Now cluster B is narcissism, but it’s also histrionic personality, and borderline personality and antisocial personality. And all of those are sort of like shades of narcissism, right? And so, we can see whether it’s grandiosity or emotionality or drama or need to be the center of attention or whatever form it shows up in. This is why I really try to nuance narcissism in this book. I want people to see it, not just as the caricature of the big, bold, charismatic leader, but I want us to see it in its more subtle forms, as well. And there are people who don’t need a church of 1,000 or 10,000. They’re perfectly happy with their church of 50. Feeling like we’re special. We get it. We’re pure. We’re the elect. And no one else is. And that’s narcissism, too.

JULIE ROYS:  Yeah. I hear that a lot when I interview sources at churches that have had issues like this—that there’s like this sense of purity, you know. It can be doctrinal purity, it can be, you know, just in the way that they practice. But yeah, we are the one and only church and that is, I think, a telltale sign. And you know, that’s pretty dangerous. I mean, to think that you have the corner on Christianity. I have been in so many different types of churches and denominations in my, you know, 40 plus years of being a believer and nobody has a monopoly on it. In fact, I find that there’s just a beauty in every expression throughout the church of who Jesus Christ is and how He wants us to express Himself to this world. And so, yeah, I find that really problematic when I hear that. And there’s something you said that I’d like to dive into a little bit. But you’re talking about like these—you didn’t, I don’t think, use the word faces of narcissism but you do in your book. You talk about these nine faces of narcissism. You actually tie it to the whole Enneagram of different personalities. I thought that was fascinating. So I don’t know if we can get through all nine but maybe give us a taste of a few of them.

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, well, you know, the Enneagram is really hot nowadays. People are reading all kinds of books on it. And I’ve found it over the years. I was first introduced to it over 20 years ago. So, I found it a helpful tool. It’s only a tool. It’s not the Bible, you know, but I do think that when most people talk about narcissism—and I asked them if they know something about this Enneagram—I ask them, “What’s a classic type of the narcissist?” They’ll talk about the three—who’s the achiever, the person who likes to be on stage, the person who likes to win and be successful. Or they’ll talk about the Enneagram Eight, who tends to be more powerful, and a charge, kind of command and control leader. I want to say what about the Five, the Enneagram Five, who tends to be more quiet and distant, but he’s intellectual? He knows better than you do. And I’ve done plenty of marriage counseling, over the years, where I’ve done counseling with a woman who’s pouring out her heart. And her husband, sitting there taking notes on a yellow pad, writing it all down, you know, he’s up in his head. He’s disconnected, not empathetic. Or what about the Enneagram Six, who I call the hyper vigilant narcissist, who always has to be in control? Who sort of always making sure that everyone knows the rules. You’re either in or out if you’re living according to her rules, you know. And so, what I want to say is that, in the narcissism conversation, let’s not get caught up on simply the definition of narcissism is grandiose. But there’s this more subtle form of vulnerable narcissism, that tends to be more passive aggressive, tends to be more subtle, tends to be more self-pitying, tends to, sort of, it’s almost like snake-like. Like it’s really sinister in its impact in that it draws people in and sort of uses them and spits them out. And that can be a really subtle form of narcissism that might not look like that grandiose, charismatic leader.

JULIE ROYS:  And oddly enough, this person who, you know, can take different expressions, but normally they come across as sometimes feeling superior or very confident. All of these things, that you’re saying in your book, betrays a profound shame and often secret addictions. And so, they’re covering over something, right?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah. I think that’s the thing that in my work over the years with narcissists, I’ve come to see like the behind the scenes story, right? And behind the scenes, when you’re dealing with someone who’s narcissistic, there is inevitably some sort experience of shame or insecurity if you can get there. And with narcissistic personality disorder, you rarely if ever get there. But when people are in the narcissistic spectrum, when you get down to it, it’s the bully who was bullied when he was young. And so, you know, there is always a story of shame. And what I like to talk about is it’s like at a very early age, they developed this self-protective wall within—sort of like they woke up at seven years old saying I’m going to develop a wall but sort of subconsciously this wall is put up and they begin living. They’re really hidden from everyone else because they’re scared to be vulnerable, right? And so, they live out of this self-protective strategy. They live from that sort of outward facing side of the wall. And that’s all you see. Sadly, what we don’t see and what they don’t allow us to see, is the vulnerable scared little boy or little girl within. And every now and then, when I’m doing this work, I’ll be working with someone who lets me, I often say, let’s be behind the stage, behind the curtain. And I will get to the story of this little boy, this little girl in a lot of pain. And they’ll say something like, “Chuck, I’m just so scared. If I show who I really am, I’ll be beat up, I’ll be rejected. I won’t be successful. I won’t be able to lead anymore. I can’t do that. I’ve got to show up as my stage self.” You know, and that’s, if they ever allow you to get there—and this is really, really rare—but if they ever allow you to get there, there’s a possibility that we can start doing some work. And we occasionally see people willing to do that, and who, over a long period of time begin to grow, but it takes a long time.

JULIE ROYS:  And I want to just mention that I am giving away five copies of Chuck’s book, When Narcissism Comes to Church. If you’d like to enter to receive one of these books, just go to That’s And also this month, I’m giving away When Narcissism Comes to Church. If you donate to this ministry, any donation of $25 or more to The Roy’s Report, will get a copy of Chuck’s book. And this is how we fund all of the journalistic work that I do and those that I’m able to bring alongside me, sometimes as freelancers, to do this. It’s all through donations. So if you’d like to support this work again, just go to and either slash giveaway if you want to enter the giveaway or there’s a Donate button if you want to donate to this work. Chuck, I love what you said about getting beneath the surface, which normally with a narcissist they never let you do. But you, you know, I’ve talked to an awful lot of people who say they’re incurable. There’s nothing you can do with a narcissist. And honestly, as a Christian, I hear that and I’m just like, how can I really bring that together with what I believe in Christ? If anyone is in Christ, he’s a new creation, the old is gone the new has come. So I mean, I have trouble saying that anyone is beyond the redemptive work of Christ. And you say, no, I’ve seen some success. So tell us about that.

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah, this will probably be the more controversial piece of this. But as a Christian, my conviction is that each and every one of us are image bearers. And so, when I sit with someone, even if that person doesn’t have faith in Christ, I’ve got to believe that this is a person made in the image of God. And there’s something about that—that we know the design, they’re made for relationship. They’re made for connection. They’re made to know and be known. They’ve got that deep hunger within but it’s covered by 1000 layers of pain and of self-protective strategies. Now, the reality is that with narcissistic personality disorder, we don’t see much change. And oftentimes what I say is that what I attempt to do is I simply attempt to sort of mitigate damage, you know. I’d like for them to step away from the church, step out of ministry. The problem there is that there’s not a capacity for self-reflection often. I don’t like this language of, “They’re just wicked. And they’ll never ever change.” Some of them step away from ministry. I know a guy who has narcissistic personality disorder that stepped away. It took a lot of work from a bunch of us, but he stepped away. He went into real estate. And I was like okay. He didn’t become a more kind and empathetic person in general, right? But I would say for people on this, the narcissistic spectrum, kind of lower down, narcissistic style or type like we talked about earlier, if there’s a capacity for self-reflection and if they can see how they impact people. In other words, if they can say, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize how I was hurting you, I didn’t realize.” And for that to be really honest, that’s where we can begin to see some change. But, this isn’t quick change. And these turnaround stories, that we hear about often, and I know you’ve been you’ve been a sort of a leader in exposing some of this stuff. But these stories of quick turnarounds that we hear about, I’m always very, very suspicious of. Because if you are narcissistic, even on the spectrum, you’ve got to step away for a significant period of time—be out of any sphere of influence, any form of leadership, and do some really, really hard work. And as in the case of someone I worked with about 15 years ago, it took about 10 years, and then he dipped his toe back in ministry again as an assistant pastor. But it took a long time and a lot of care and a high degree of accountability. And that’s just, you know, there aren’t very many narcissistic pastors willing to go through those trials to get there.

JULIE ROYS:  Well, and just recently, James MacDonald returned to the pulpit and announced that he’s coming back. And it was just almost surreal listening to him talk about it. Because he said that the Lord allowed us to be separated from the church that we loved for a lifetime. “It’s a time of intense suffering for us.” I mean, I’m listening to him and it sounds like he’s been victimized by his church, not that he has taken advantage and victimized the people in his church. Which was, in reality, what happened. But this is what I hear from so many people, that talk about these narcissists, that they can hardly ever see how they hurt others– that they’re the victim, not the true victim. They’re unable to see it. And they’re not only unable to admit their sin and repent of it, often they literally can’t see it. Right?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah. They can’t see it. And they live in this, what I call “hero-victim-martyr complex”, you know, where they love to play the hero. But they can flip the script and very quickly become the victim and even barter, you know—of these people who are not gracious enough to realize the gifts that God, that he is and God and the fruit of the ministry and all these different kinds of things. And, you know, we were talking about gaslighting, but there are people I’m sure who heard James MacDonald, you know the story well, much better than I do, but they’re likely people who heard him and said, “Oh, I must have been, I wasn’t gracious enough to him. God really is using him.” I’m sure there are masses of people who said, “No, I was just really too hard on him. This has been a hard trial, and I’ve got to be more gracious. It was me not him.” And this is the really—I’m sure it was maddening for you to hear that. This is the maddening part of this.

JULIE ROYS:  Well, you still hear it. I mean, it’s on social media. It’s like, “Oh, we just need to forgive.” And you’re like, forgiveness involves repentance. And there is zero repentance. And, you know, I’m seeing the same thing. This I mean, unfortunately, it’s not you that unique. There’s other pastors. I just heard a podcast done by Mark Driscoll recently. And it was shocking to me. They’re talking about what happened at Mars Hill. And I’m like, this is a complete rewriting of history. He doesn’t mention at all the bullying and abusive behavior that he had in the plagiarism scandal, the deception and none of that. In fact, when they asked him, you know, about some things that had happened again, it sounded like he’s a victim. I mean, I’m listening to him talk about how his corner in the yard and you know, people come by and throw rocks at them and a helicopter goes above their house. And, and the interviewer’s asking, “Well, what happened? What was the cause of this?” And he said, and he actually said it was mostly theological. It was my stance on LGBT. And I’m like, what? What?

JULIE ROYS:  I mean I just—and to him, he said he was just preaching biblical and it’s about his biblical stances he took. I was stunned because if you know the history of Mars Hill, you know that he was actually removed by his elders because of just severe problems with, you know, the way he treated people. And it was about to be, and this is where I think this is so instructive, he was about to be given a plan by his elders, a restoration plan. And that’s when he bolted. And so that’s what I’m seeing happens when you’re saying they need to step away for 10 years or whatever. There needs to be a submission, doesn’t there, to get to the place where you hurt people, not just go someplace else?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah. And when we’re talking about narcissistic pastors, we’re often talking about an abuse of power. And that’s really important. Often times these pastors, when they’re painting themselves as a martyr—I know one prominent pastor who had affairs. He said, “You know, kind of, what’s the big deal? God forgives me. I had an affair. I’ve forgiven, let’s move on.” But the reality is, it’s an abuse of power. Those of us in leadership, those of us, particularly in pastoral leadership, are called to a kind of integrity and accountability that others aren’t called to. We’re all called to integrity and accountability, obviously, but as a leader of a flock, as a leader of a large flock, there’s obviously a higher call, right? And so, I think the sad thing about this, guys like Mark or James or others, is exactly what you said earlier. Like forgiveness is not a get out of jail free card. When we wound another or when we wound a flock, there’s reparative work that needs to be done over time. Just as if, you know, a couple, a married couple goes through a really hard season where there was some kind of betrayal. There’s often a kind of work that needs to be done to gain that trust. And to watch some of these folks go from one place to another, and sort of recreate their ministry, and then to point the finger and said, I got a bad rap. You know, I’m the victim here. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote this book. I want us to become really crystal clear about what we’re dealing with so that people can say, “Oh I’m not crazy. This is manipulative. This is gaslighting. I’m clear about it now. And we need to do something about it.”

JULIE ROYS:  Well, lastly, I would like to talk about how a church heals. Because what we’re seeing and actually I talked to somebody just this week, who said, “You know, we’re seeing what some people have predicted that with these mega churches, they only last as long as their pastor and then they’re done.” And so, you have this huge building, this huge system all built up around really a cult of personality and then the guy turns out to be a narcissist.  And you know, damages his church. And he ends up imploding. And now the church is left with this huge hole. And a system that is created around the celebrity pastor. And what do they do at this point? I know there’s an awful lot of people who say, “Well, they should just fold and you know, start independent churches out of it.” And yeah, that is what happened at Mars Hill, in large. But is there a model or is there a way that churches can heal after having a narcissist pastor leave?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Yeah. That’s such a good question. And I think it depends. It depends on how honest they’re willing to be about their own participation and complicity in it. I was working with a very large church a while ago. And I try to make sure when I do this work that I cloud up the details. I get too many emails from people saying you were talking about me. And so I always mix details with my stories, okay? So that people don’t have to send me those emails. But I was working with a large church where the lead pastor was asked to resign after some work of naming the narcissism. And the leadership of the church, at that point, kind of said, well, that’s the problem. Now the problem is gone, and we’ll be okay. So they kind of put a band-aid on it, and they had a couple of congregational meetings and they appointed another leader. And I said, “You guys, there’s so much more work to do. And if you’re willing, let’s engage that work.” But unfortunately, they weren’t willing. The hard part is now they’ve got to get honest about how they participated in the problem. And that honesty—it’s really, really difficult when you’re still licking your own wounds, when you’ve been hurt, you know. I talk about this as below the waterline work. I mean, we put band- aids on big problems above the waterline but when we go below the waterline, we have to start naming things like deeper patterns that existed over time. We need to start talking about how our structures and our systems and our church polity and procedures play a role in this kind of thing, enabling narcissists. We’ve got to talk about mental models. In other words, implicit beliefs about who ought to be up there. As an example of this is at Willow Creek right now. And I think I could say this. They came out with a job description that looks a lot like their previously pastor job description. Which tells me that they’re not doing the hard work of asking, “What about our structures? What about our systems?” What about our implicit beliefs about who a lead pastor is?” One of those needs to change. And that’s really the hard work that takes a lot of time. That, speaking as a consultant, many, many churches don’t want to do that work because it’s just too costly.

JULIE ROYS:  And it’s so hard. You’ve been operating on one paradigm, and you bought into that paradigm and that’s why you’re there. And then when you find out it’s broken, to go back, which is really I think is what needs to happen, is to go back to the drawing board and saying, we need to redo. God, what are you calling us to do and to be? And how did we participate in this? How are we complicit with it? And really have a season of repentance and of healing and of it bringing in outside people. That’s the other thing. It’s like bringing in some people with some objectivity because I don’t think if you’re in the midst of it, you can see it. Can you?

CHUCK DeGROAT:  No you can’t. And that’s the hard thing. Is it’s sort of like you’re in that pot of boiling water. And at some point, you realize this is the scalding me, you know. This is hot. And so, yeah, you actually can’t see it until it starts to burn you. And this is where it does take wise outside investigators, who are trained in understanding these kinds of organizational dynamics, to do the work of truth-telling. And the work that you do often Julie of naming realities that people simply don’t want to name. And that’s hard. It’s painful. But we’ve got to do that work.

JULIE ROYS:  Yeah. I remember when I was first embarking on some of this work, I actually thought the institution I was blowing the whistle on would embrace it, and the leaders would embrace it. And they’d want me to continue investigating what’s going on and really get to the bottom of it. I naively thought that’s what we would do. Because that’s what needed to be done. And unfortunately, it was more about image protection. And then soon I was booted out of that system because I was destroying the image, you know. So I became the problem. But man, it just is something where we needed a great deal of humility, I think, in our churches and in our systems. And we need to be willing to fail, too. That’s the other thing. I see this fear of failure where we’re so afraid of losing what we have that we don’t even ask, “Does God even want it to continue?” And can we just put this on the altar and bring it to the Lord and say, “You know, either heal us and make us healthy, or we don’t want to go forward? Either I go forward or I don’t go forward in it?” It just has become a real problem, not just in institutions, but I think throughout evangelicalism. So thank you, Chuck. I thank you for this book. Thank you for the work that you’re doing. And we just pray that God continues to bless it and increase your ability to help others. So thanks.

CHUCK DeGROAT:  Well, we’re all in this together, right? So grateful for your work and it encourages me that there are a number of us who are working at this from different angles. And so keep it up, Julie. Thank you.

JULIE ROYS:  Thank you, Chuck. And 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 Hope you have a great day and God bless.

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13 thoughts on “The Problem of Narcissist Pastors”

  1. How does hierarchy play into this? It seems like social groups and even businesses that more narcissistic styles become rewarded.

    1. Real Jean -Jacques

      It’s takes a humble spirit to understand God work on earth,I realized people philosophy kept them away from God and salvation this is very unfortunate..

  2. Great and powerful truth telling. I was silenced, expelled, and sued by my former pastor, Steve Wingfield, for reporting sexual abuse allegations to him. He is the classic example of a narcissistic pastor described in the podcast. I wrote a book about the impact of this narcissistic pastor, “The Irony of Teaching Truth” He is still pastoring First Christian Church of Florissant, a suburb of St. Louis.

    1. Narcissistic pastors AND girly men pastors. I’m so disgusted by the present state of the modern American church. Men like me quit going because we’re sick and tired the nonsense. And I know we long for real godly pastors.

  3. Thank you, Julie, for this thought-provoking discussion. I have witnessed at least one pastor (from the pulpit) state that his church is the only one preaching the Gospel in his town and area. Of course, it was nonsense, but none of the elders challenged this falsehood.

    It seems that the very nature of elder boards (or other forms of church leadership) ends up supporting errent pastors to the detriment of the church. In the process, any members who question nonsense from the pastor are ostracized, and those members are often wise to simply leave.

  4. I heard the term ‘gaslighting described but not defined. And what is the derivation of the word/concept? This can be a real issue OR just more psychobabble.

    1. Larry, the word “gaslighting” hearkens back to a movie called “Gaslight”, where the female lead notices that the gas light in her home is flickering when, unbeknownst to her, her homicidal husband is searching for the wealth of the person he’s murdered in the attic. She picks up on the fluctuation of the gas pressure by it flickering.

      To “gaslight”, then, is to use rhetorical techniques to attempt to persuade someone of something that both participants know is false.

  5. I am very heartened to hear Pastor (and Dr. ) DeGroat saying that narcissists can be rehabilitated. So often, it seems that we interpret the difficulty of bring a narcissist to repentance as if it meant it’s impossible. Let’s remember God can rehabilitate anyone. Not that every narcissist ought to be restored to ministry, and definitely not that it ought to happen quickly; just that it can happen, and that ought to be our goal.

    1. He’s only referring to a certain type, the NPDs. He’s not saying that anyone on the spectrum is beyond hope. The goal of his ministry is to help those who can be helped. I don’t know if it’s possible, aside from an outright miracle, for an NPD to be healed. By definition they have neither a conscience nor empathy. Others mean nothing to them. Some (such as pastor Ed, whom I served under as an elder) take delight in the suffering and humiliation of others. They only fake empathy and see our normal human feelings as a weakness to be exploited. That is the type of person Mr. DeGroat is referring to. The Bible appears to refer to the same group as having “seared consciences.”

  6. misterjesperson

    Thanks for highlighting this very important topic. The fact that people on this spectrum are everywhere throughout so many denominations is a real wake up call. I think that the weakness in the sheep who go looking for a local church lead by a narcissist is simple idolatry of man. Instead of investing in their own personal relationship with God’s Holy Spirit, they want an intermediate to do it for them. That just opens them up for abuse as anyone who willfully jumps into that position is doing a great evil before God. There is no substitute for you taking responsibility to read the Bible, pray and look to the Holy Spirit as The Teacher. Jesus is the head of The Church and your head to. You need to follow Him especially when your local pastor is leading you in the wrong direction off a cliff. Do not be a lemming. When you take personal responsibility, you see how fallen you are and all of these so called “men of God.” The pastors that I have gotten to know are all worse in their personal spiritual life before God then the typical sheep. Talk about the blind leading the blind…

  7. Thanks for this enlightening program. A few years ago we moved to another state. We attended a small, local church for about a year but it didn’t take long to figure something was off. I never heard anything ungodly taught or statements like they were the only “true” church. The people seemed sincere. But there was a detectable tension between the members and the pastor. When he called to welcome us to the church he didn’t ask questions but practically read his resume and told me he was paid well to be there. He behaved like a control freak with OCD about some things, barely involved in others. He occasionally was friendly but often stand-offish. He came alone. I never saw his family, although he mentioned them in sermons. An unfriendly, middle-aged Barbie-looking woman was always near by like his pit bull. He was rankled when no one was excited about one of his programs and made angry outbursts from the pulpit. He publicly shamed the group that was not on board. He called one man out by name in another situation. He was pushy about the financial commitment banquet. He expected us to join the church immediately (which we never did). Some of his prayers had an angry vibe directed at specific people. He made a production of putting his tithes in the plate in front of everyone. When he was out one Sunday he had his assistant display a picture of him cleaning a toilet to show how “humble” he was. We stuck around as long as we did because despite all that, they actually had a good youth program. But eventually the situation was a big, revolving, door that wasn’t helping anyone in our family grow. I eventually learned he was a former, fallen, up-and-coming, mega church pastor. We didn’t feel obligated to stay. We didn’t leave angry, we just left with peace and no regrets.

    1. You probably made a wise choice. Major red flags there. A full blown narcissist is the opposite of Jesus. Best to run as fast as you can.

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