Study Claiming 31% of Pastors Have Clinical Narcissism Is Debunked By Expert Researchers

By Julie Roys
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UPDATE: An editor from Wipf and Stock contacted me Friday and said the publisher is taking Let Us Prey out of print. He said Darrell Puls is considering a complete rewrite of the book, which will not rely on the faulty study or make mention of it.

In their book, Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors, authors Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls write that “slightly less than one in three pastors across Canada is mentally ill with one of the . . . most destructive mental illnesses recognized by mental health experts.”

Puls and Ball are referring to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)—a mental disorder marked by an inflated sense of one’s own importance, an excessive need for attention, lack of empathy for others, and troubled relationships. And their claim about NPD’s prevalence among pastors is based on a study Ball did among pastors in a major Protestant denomination in Canada as part of his doctoral thesis.

In the book, the authors say that 31.2% of the pastors who participated in the study met the diagnostic requirements for NPD. This conclusion is shocking, especially given that pastors are charged with caring and protecting others.

In the book, the authors say that 31.2% of the pastors who participated in the study met the diagnostic requirements for NPD. This conclusion is shocking, especially given that pastors are charged with caring and protecting others.

Yet this week I learned that the instrument used in Ball’s study does not measure NPD at all. Also, contrary to Puls’ repeated claims last week, the scoring mechanism used in the study did not come from world-renowned researcher Hessel Zondag; Puls told me Sunday that the scoring mechanism was inserted by Ball.

And now, Hans Ettema, Zondag’s well-known research partner, has reviewed Ball’s study and concluded it’s “the result of an unsatisfactory research, incomprehension of clinical concepts, bad assessment and lack of statistical analysis, and too quick a telescopic condensation of the dimensional approach in psychology with the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) definition of the narcissistic personality disorder. It is clearly a misinterpretation of the concepts at stake.”

Problems with the Study

I first became aware that the study cited in Let Us Prey had problems a few days before Puls appeared on my radio show last Saturday. Both a listener and Wade Mullen, a researcher and director of the M.Div. program at Capital Seminary and Graduate School, emailed me with concerns. Primary among them was the fact that Zondag’s Netherlands Narcissism Scale (NNS), which Ball used as the test instrument for his study, was not designed to measure NPD.

In numerous articles, Zondag states that NNS is a “measure of subclinical narcissism.” Clinical narcissism is a personality disorder; subclinical narcissism is not. And according to Mullen, using NNS to measure NPD is like “measuring your weight with a thermometer. It is an instrument that is used to measure an entirely different set of variables.”

According to Mullen, using NNS to measure NPD is like “measuring your weight with a thermometer. It is an instrument that is used to measure an entirely different set of variables.”

Also, not all narcissism is bad. Ball and Puls write in their book that it takes “a certain amount of narcissistic self-image to step forward and lead in times of crisis . . . Even those with moderately destructive narcissistic tendencies can operate well when appropriate organizational policies, control systems, counselors, peer review teams, and both social and legal sanctions are clear and in place.”

My husband emailed Puls last week, asking for an explanation of how Ball had determined that NNS could be used to measure NPD. Puls responded that the version of the NNS that was used for the study was emailed to Ball by Zondag himself and contained “a clearly defined schemata for scoring NPD in its overt and covert forms.”

We asked Puls to send us the NNS that Zondag had sent Ball. Puls sent us a PDF document, clearly indicating that questions 1-11 are “marks of Covert NPD.” It also included a formula for determining “Overt NPD.”

Below is the scoring key that was in the document:

However, Puls added that “a short time ago,” another researcher had challenged him and Ball about using the NNS to measure NPD. So, Puls said he contacted Zondag. And Zondag not only did not provide validation, he told Puls that “the NNS was not designed to isolate or identify pathological/malignant narcissism.”

Given this disturbing discovery, Puls told us he had contacted Wipf and Stock, the publisher of Let Us Prey, and informed them that they needed to do a revised edition of the book “for the sake of academic integrity.”

 “(W)e need to soften our terms away from NPD,” Puls wrote, “but we strongly and confidently maintain that we have uncovered a thick vein of satanic subterfuge active in our churches.”

 “(W)e need to soften our terms away from NPD,” Puls wrote, “but we strongly and confidently maintain that we have uncovered a thick vein of satanic subterfuge active in our churches.”

Given that Puls seemed to be owning the problem with the study and correcting the claims made in the book, I went forward with the plan to have him on The Roys Report last Saturday. I figured the radio show would be an excellent opportunity for Puls to explain publicly the error and also how he was planning to correct it. Plus, I figured we could focus the program on Puls’ decades-worth of experience working with narcissists as part of his consulting business, as opposed to the study.

Yet after the show, Mullen alerted me to the fact that the NNS document that Puls had claimed had come from Zondag, was actually created by Puls in 2017, according to the document’s properties. So again, my husband reached out to Puls, this time requesting the original email from Zondag with the attached NNS. On Sunday, Puls responded with a very disturbing revelation.

He writes:

This morning I obtained an original of the Netherlands Narcissism Scale (in Dutch) and had it translated. The scoring mechanism does not mention NPD for the overt and covert categories. I confronted Glenn (Ball) about it and was [sic] finally forced him to answer yes or no, did he add the NPD designators? He did. He said that he assumed the overt and covert categories were NPD and added it as clarification. . . . I’ve asked our publisher to stop the revised edition until I can do a bigger rewrite. In truth, I never saw the NNS or the survey it was embedded in—I assumed (Ball’s) committee chair was doing that—until long after when I needed better understanding of it for the book. My job was to help him organize it into a doctoral dissertation, which I did but research design and execution were not mine to supervise. I assumed and . . . big mistake.

That mistake was highlighted in an email Zondag sent to Mullen and was then forwarded to me. In it, Zondag writes, “Puls states that the version of the Dutch Narcissism Scale (NNS), including scoring instruction, as attached in your email, is ‘…exactly as Zondag sent it’. I would like to clarify that I have never seen this document before and I am certainly not the author of it.”

Puls sent me an email this morning saying that in 2017, when collecting information for a possible book, Puls created the NNS document by copying and pasting information from an email from Ball. Puls said that’s why the document showed Puls as the author.

Mullen also reached out to Hans Ettema to get his input about the study cited in Let Us Prey. Ettema responded in an email that Mullen then forwarded to me. Ettema was very critical of the study and responded:

The use of our inventory in a study in another country and culture, another population, deserves not only a good translation, but a good comprehension of the matter and statistical underpinning ad [sic] hand. A new statistical analysis of the scales of the NNS in your new population is needed and some analysis of a concurrent frame is unavoidable. . . . What kind of validity (concurrent or predictive) is proposed is not indicated; The author seems not to have the faintest idea about any validation procedure.

Zondag says his issues with Puls’ and Ball’s reporting about narcissism extend beyond the study. For example, Mullen sent Zondag the following line that Puls had written in an email to Mullen: “Even Zondag’s papers have a percentage (about 20%) of pastors in Poland and the Netherlands that have what he terms ‘unhealthy narcissism.’”

To this, Zondag replied, “Regarding the mentioned research among Polish and Dutch participants, this was conducted among students and not among pastors. The term ‘unhealthy narcissism’ is not used in the article about this. Neither is a rate of 20 percent mentioned.”

I sent Ball an email asking for his comment, but he did not respond. I also called and left a message for Buch-Wagler at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary—the school that had conferred a doctorate on Ball—but no one responded.

However, today Puls forwarded an email from Ball to me. In it, Ball takes full responsibility for creating a faulty scoring mechanism and attributing it to Zondag. “I do not know to this day during the writing of my thesis how I interpreted Zondag’s work so incorrectly,” Ball writes. “It was not by sabotaging or wanting to improve upon Zondag’s work that I added NPD to the overt and covert scales—it was a mistake.”

“I do not know to this day during the writing of my thesis how I interpreted Zondag’s work so incorrectly,” Ball writes. “It was not by sabotaging or wanting to improve upon Zondag’s work that I added NPD to the overt and covert scales—it was a mistake.”

Conclusions & Remaining Questions

Ball’s study, on which Let Us Prey is based, is severely flawed. I appreciate that Ball is taking responsibility for what appears to be sloppy scholarship at best. But Puls can’t be absolved from his responsibility in this controversy either.

Puls repeatedly asserted last week in emails and on my show that the scoring mechanism used in the study came directly from Zondag. Puls says he just became aware that this assertion was false on Sunday and that his belief that Zondag had supplied the scoring mechanism was based on an assumption. That, in and of itself, is negligent.

I also find it odd that when questions were raised about whether or not the mechanism used in the study measured NPD, Puls contacted Zondag for clarification, but apparently, didn’t seek adequate clarification from his own co-author.

All these factors call into question not just the credibility of the study in Let Us Prey, but also the credibility of Puls and Ball. I have reached out to the editor at Wipf and Stock, who is overseeing the revision of Let Us Prey, to ask what the publisher plans to do, but have not yet heard back.

The controversy also raises questions about Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. How could a study this flawed have missed the notice of Ingrid Buch-Wagler and other faculty involved? According to seminaryadvisor.com, Trinity is not accredited, has a 100% acceptance rate, and employs some faculty with questionable credentials. (A research assistant of mine contacted Trinity about these assertions. When and if Trinity responds, I will add it to this article.)

This entire controversy makes me sad, not just because it reveals poor scholarship among Christians. What especially makes me sad is that I believe malignant narcissism among pastors is a real issue. I’ve witnessed behavior in pastors that certainly seems similar to the definitions I’ve read of NPD. And, I’ve heard from numerous listeners and readers who say they’ve witnessed narcissistic behavior in their pastors too.  

This leads me to believe that clinical narcissism among pastors is a topic that deserves more attention. But now that this study is largely discredited, it may be easier to dismiss the entire subject.

I am glad, though, that others, like Wade Mullen, are researching this issue. And I hope that soon, better and more rigorous studies will reveal how prevalent narcissism among pastors truly is, and pastors with this condition can be kept from causing harm.

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5 thoughts on “Study Claiming 31% of Pastors Have Clinical Narcissism Is Debunked By Expert Researchers”

  1. thanks Julie. appreciate your hard work of digging and exposing what is going on in the Church… I too see significant indications of narcissistic tendencies in church leadership, and that this has been a focus for several books in the last few years, including one coming out next year, besides numerous anecdotal stories of abuses of power by master manipulators that have been shared… says narcissism in the church warrants significant attention,… but we want credible support for any narcissism that is happening… the faulty research/findings of this research does not negate any and all narcissisim in the pulpit… I know when I shared the Puls/Ball NPD % w a pastor a few years ago, he immediately dismissed it… so sadly, now it can be used to discredit anyone who has shared it in the past… what I have found is, very, very few leaders in the Church want to talk about it or acknowledge narcissism in any way… that is enough of an indication that it is a real problem… how much, we still have yet to know to what extent… I think Scripture refers to a form of narcissism in 2 Timothy 3:1-5.

    bless your heart! stay strong in the Lord and in His mighty power…

  2. Thanks for digging this up. I originally heard of this book on Warren Throckmorton’s blog. I agree that NPD and also psychopaths are real issues in churches. They exist and even Jesus warned about them as “wolves who will not spare the flock.” As Jesus said, we know them by their fruits. There is abundant evidence that James MacDonald is not only NPD but also a psychopath. What he did with the knife and a picture of a former employee, and the employees picture with scores written above their heads he shot at and especially the attempts to find a hitman to bump off a pair of his enemies is clear evidence of that.
    I also follow the Wartburg Watch and many of their stories about the cover-ups of child molestations also point to this. Many of these stories actually go beyond just an NPD person to someone who operates either as a psychopath from birth or as a sociopath screwed up by a rough childhood. Getting hard percentages on these are difficult as none of these kinds of leaders want anyone to know who they really are. We may never have that, but we do have the evidence good people like Julie digs up and the lawsuits, most of which get settled out of court with a gag order as part of the settlement. This is enough to show a real problem. So while we may never know if it is 10% or 50% we do know beyond any doubt that it does exist because Jesus plainly said these wolves would come. Narcissism is how wolves have always operated, from the temple priests God condemned with His prophets right up to the tv celebrities that we have today.

  3. The real problem is that people in the pews are irresistibly drawn to these kinds of preachers and pastors. And it’s nothing new. Read 2 Corinthians chapters 10 and 11. Paul was unimpressive in speech and appearance in the Corinthians’ sight and they shunned him, but they welcomed with open arms those brimming with confidence who would abuse them.

    Say to say but after some two thousand years things aren’t going to change. All too often churches are like naive young women drawn to the wrong kind of men.

  4. Psychology is experiencing a replication crisis in which even well-run and peer-reviewed studies do not yield repeated results. Publishers are not being honest when they allow a book to be based on one study of any psychological phenomenon or trend. I know personally of a PhD thesis where the author distorted his data. The pressure to find “something” is immense. No PhD thesis study should ever stand alone as the basis for a sweeping conclusion. At best they should be a springboard for further investigation.

    I do not deny the existence of narcissists or psychopaths in any occupation – but a baseless claim that any human group contains “31%” NPD is a slander to all people in that group.

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