Toxic People: Narcissists in Ministry

7 March 2013, 06:00

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Editor's note: This article was originally published on The Hope Blog in May 2011. It is being reprinted by permission from the author.

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The most read Hope Blog posts in the last four years have been the the series addressing toxic people and how to deal with those in your life who are unrepentant human destruction machines. These posts have received tens of thousands of hits over the last few years as those searching have come across the articles.

The earlier three posts addressed the issue of toxic friends and family, but this post will briefly cover the devastation created by such individuals in ministry leadership. The spiritual and emotional damage done by these narcissists cannot be overstated.

There is much writing on this subject available, and even a cursory glance at the sheer number of articles written on the subject is an indication of how serious the problem is. Toxic spiritual leaders destroy faith and lives, simply put. Even more tragically, they often do it with impunity, behind the scenes, where the victims are unseen.

Jack Watts specializes in writing on the subject of spiritual abuse by evangelical leaders. His recent post following the latest NRB [National Religious Broadcasters] convention is a crystal clear description of  how such purportedly humble and committed Christian leaders are allowed to run roughshod over those they employ. These paragraphs are starkly accurate.

“The concept of “self-deprecating narcissism” may seem like an oxymoron, but I can assure you, it is not. It does, however, require defining. As a caveat, let me acknowledge that not all of the stars of electric Christianity have this character flaw, but a substantial number do. There are a few exceptions — precious few.

Like others who have a narcissistic personality disorder, the lords of the electric church are self-centered but, unlike their secular counterparts, the leaders of the electric church are never outwardly boastful. People may be forgiving of narcissism in movie stars, beauty queens and exceptional athletes, but certainly not of Christian leaders. This is where they differ from the classic model of narcissism. Because Christ was humble, these leaders are expected to behave similarly. Outwardly, they do, especially by the message they convey to their followers. Their demeanor is always that of a humble servant, eager to follow God’s will. They have taken self-deprecating humility and made it an art form, cleverly masking their compulsive craving for attention, approbation and admiration.

Many who recognize their behavior for what it is believe these leaders are conning their followers, but that’s not accurate. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. A con knows what he or she is doing but chooses to do it anyway, despite the harm it causes. The electronic lords genuinely believe that what they are doing is right, which makes them far more dangerous. In their minds, they have a higher calling than others — a closer relationship with God — making whatever they do seem justifiable to them.

If someone gets in their way, especially someone employed by them, that person is perceived as thwarting God’s will and fully deserving of the retribution they receive from the narcissistic leader. Because these leaders genuinely believe themselves to be better than others, they insist that each of their employees fall in line, regardless of how outrageous or bizarre the superstar’s demands become.

To make matters worse, nearly all of the electronic lords are hypersensitive to criticism. For insulation from disapproval, the lords surround themselves with weak-willed sycophants who wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with them. Instead, these non-entities consistently validate perceptions and behavior that deviate substantially from biblical standards. Within ministries like these, which dominate the electric church, there are two sets of rules: those for the narcissist and those for everyone else.

Within these ministries, a tacit “no-talk” rule is maintained, which keeps the eccentricities of the leader a secret from the rest of the world. And this rule is aggressively enforced. Whenever an underling balks, that person is shamed, castigated and humiliated, while — at the same time — being told that their “bad attitude” is being prayed for. If that doesn’t shame the person into submission, the verbal abuse is intensified and the person is eventually terminated. Wounded, the discarded person often abandons his or her beliefs, while blaming God for what happened, saying, “God should have done something to stop it.”

Undeterred by hurting others in the process of building God’s Kingdom on Earth, which just happens to be their kingdom as well, these narcissists regularly take advantage of others, routinely abusing those they are “called to serve.” Reasoning that the ends justify the means, they use God’s name to wound others. Whenever someone gets in their way, they misuse God’s authority to enforce their will, which certainly takes His name in vain. Believing that they have a higher calling, the evangelical lords are certain that God condones their behavior and methods, which the sycophants who surround them eagerly affirm.

The emotional carnage of wrecked lives left behind by these narcissists has become so extensive that it threatens to outnumber those blessed by their ministry efforts. At the same time, few are willing to call them to task, exposing their behavior to the light, reasoning that such whistle blowing would harm God’s work.

Obviously, I disagree with that conclusion and have no problem exposing them. In my quarter century of working for Christian ministries, I have witnessed the shattering of many lives, which has led me to write about this subject extensively. It’s a role I will continue to pursue.”

(from Jack Watts, “Self-Deprecating Narcissists,” Emphasis added.)

What these leaders all have in common is a lack of proper biblical accountability. They are skilled at manipulating leadership structures to appear to have accountability while at the same time assuring they have a blank check to do what they want. Supporters of these kinds of ministries often have no idea of the shambolic state of the “boards” that stand back of such leaders. Supporters are also unaware that few of these men belong to a church where spiritual issues can be addressed in a biblical manner.

Only when these organizations begin to crumble from the cumulative destruction caused by their leaders does the donating public see what lay behind the facade.

Narcissistic leaders all share certain qualities that are crucial to understand.

Sandy Hotchkiss in her book, Why is It Always About You: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, lays out the traits of all narcissists this way. (Emphasis is mine)

Shamelessness – Shame is the feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame in healthy ways.

Magical thinking – Narcissists see themselves as perfect using distortion and illusion known as magical thinking. They also use projection to dump shame onto others.

Arrogance – A narcissist who is feeling deflated may re-inflate by diminishing, debasing, or degrading somebody else.

Envy – A narcissist may secure a sense of superiority in the face of another person’s ability by using contempt to minimize the other person.

Entitlement – Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger narcissistic rage.

Exploitation – can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for their feelings or interests. Often the other is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.

Bad Boundaries – narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and are expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist, there is no boundary between self and other.

The last point about bad boundaries explains the willingness of toxic spiritual leaders to invade privacy, and degrade and violate others in their quest for control. Because others are seen as an extension of themselves, it seems perfectly natural for them to listen in to private phone calls, read phone records, call friends of the “enemy” who has crossed them, demanding knowledge of private conversations, keep dossiers on those who have fallen out of favor and engage in an incremental plan for their destruction, all of which is cloaked in a spiritual rationale. A climate of fear dominating in such ministries prevents anyone from speaking out. Christian love disappears as the desire for self-preservation drives the behavior of terrified colleagues.

While in churches such narcissistic leaders face more scrutiny from congregations with which they must interact, such scrutiny is often missing in parachurch ministries. As long as a ministry function goes forward to the donating public, what happens to those behind the scenes can remain invisible to all but those closest to the situation.

The only way out of the control and spiritually abusive dynamics can be found when those affected are willing to walk (or run) away from it. As one author put it, narcissists, unfettered by conscience or any accountability structure in an organization, will take your dignity, your sanity, and your soul if you allow it. Those last four words need to be remembered by all of those facing pastors or ministry leaders who destroy quietly in the name of Christ. Spiritual abuse and control continue ultimately because of cowardice, which is a lack of faith.

Most are afraid to step out in faith and let the Lord direct them out of a spiritually unhealthy environment into the freedom the Lord intended us to have. Job security, false guilt or loyalty to a church family/ministry can become idols that prevent healthy change.

The power of destructive spiritual leaders is broken when Christians have the faith to say no. Boundaries matter. Truth matters. Victims matter. This is wrong, no matter who you think you are.

Yes. Victims matter very much in the eyes of a just God.

They should matter to us also.

 

Ingrid is a Christian wife, mother, and former talk radio host of 23 years. She loves to read many different kinds of books, enjoy classical and sacred music (among other kinds), antique shops, used bookstores, history, and time with her children and dear husband, Tom. While she was never on the inside of IBLP/ATI, she has years of first-hand experience with toxic people and ministries. The Hope Blog is her personal website where she shares her thoughts and reflections.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.

24 Comments

  1. Shelly March 7, 2013 Reply

    This is a much needed article and wake-up call. Thank you!!

  2. Emily March 7, 2013 Reply

    I know this is written about religious leaders, and I definitely saw the application to Mr. Gothard and many pastors of conservative churches, but many of these things apply to my mom as well. Fortunately she isn't in a position of real leadership in any church or organization, so the majority of her influence is on her 3 daughters. I'm thankful for groups like Recovering Grace and other blogs and books that have helped me wake up and realize the wrong habits and thought patterns that I was taught! I hope that someday my sisters have similar realizations so they can enjoy lives of love, freedom, and true GRACE.

  3. Emily March 7, 2013 Reply

    Doesn't Mr. Gothard have a history of firing his entire board when they made a decision he didn't like? Anyone else able to confirm this?

    From the article above: "What these leaders all have in common is a lack of proper biblical accountability. They are skilled at manipulating leadership structures to appear to have accountability while at the same time assuring they have a blank check to do what they want. Supporters of these kinds of ministries often have no idea of the shambolic state of the “boards” that stand back of such leaders. Supporters are also unaware that few of these men belong to a church where spiritual issues can be addressed in a biblical manner."

    • Wes March 7, 2013 Reply

      I'm not sure about recent years Emily regarding the board. But firing staff is a common practice by Mr. Gothard.

      “The board of directors called a meeting Saturday, July 5 {1980}. The meeting began at 10:00am and lasting until 1:00am Sunday morning. Bill was confronted on violating the requirements for a minister of the Gospel in 12 points. As each point was raised he first declared his innocence. But each time as witnesses were brought forth, he was forced to confess to the charge. The next afternoon (Sunday) at the staff meeting Van Geldren recommended that Bill resign immediately. Bill agreed, tendered his resignation the same day, and the board accepted. Later the same day the resignation was announced to an all-staff meeting.” - A Matter of Basic Principles pg. 60

      {Tuesday} Dr. Charles Stanley, Dr. Jack Taylor, Rev. Miles Seaborne, Rev. Gordon Dorian, and Jim Simmons arrived and had a 9:30pm meeting with the staff where they were berated then for rebellion because they had forced Bill’s resignation. Over the next week, 31 staff members were fired, dismissed, or resigned. (The total grew to 50 out of a staff of 76 by December.) - A Matter of Basic Principles pg. 60-61

      “Sadly after one week as {newly} president and chairman John MacLario {he had been elected that Tuesday as the new chairman of the IBLP board} himself resigned for reasons that remain unclear. Bill took advantage of the leadership vacuum to simply resume his position, as though he were returning from a brief vacation. How and why the board allowed this to happen is also unclear. After Gothard resumed leadership in the organization, things quickly got back to “business as usual.” - A Matter of Basic Principles pg. 61

    • Eliza March 7, 2013 Reply

      Emily, that is correct. I remember several times recently where almost the entire board left and was replaced.

    • Jay Rowland March 8, 2013 Reply

      Apparently Gothard hasn't concerned himself with a fully functioning Board for some time. After last year's sexual abuse series on RG, the number or Board members and Advisors decreased by several. As I write this, the IBLP website shows only two other Board members besides Gothard.

      I wonder if he decided early on not to be accountable, based on his experience related on page 42 of "A Matter of Basic Principles." Fellow youth workers detected "spiritual pride" in him...he confessed such to one person, and that person "dealt harshly with him" and advised him to confess his sin to others, including his boss at the missionary society. Gothard's boss fired him.

      Today... Spiritual pride? Check. Lack of accountability? Check. Teaching others to confess their sins so they can be dealt with harshly? Check.

      That last one's amazing. You'd think he'd want to treat others better than he himself was treated. Twisted.

  4. MatthewS March 7, 2013 Reply

    A question I have about Bill Gothard is this: To whom is Gothard accountable?

    • Wes March 7, 2013 Reply

      E. Hovey of LaGrange Bible Church, who was the pastor of the church that ordained BG, said "Bill Gothard has never been under the authority of the local church either as a member or as a Christian leader." (Waide, Bill Gothard's Sex Scandal's... page 60)

  5. KW March 7, 2013 Reply

    This was excellent. I've been near this sort of abuse of spiritual 'power' twice - while working for IBLP, and in ministry with my husband. The narcissistic woman he has battled for 25 years is teaching me to understand on a small scale all that is wrong in the IBLP ministry on a grand scale. It helps so much to see the marks of narcissistic leadership in print. I have witnessed first hand how a leader like this wounds seeking souls irreparably and turns them away from Christ. These leaders are cancerous.

  6. BeverlyB March 7, 2013 Reply

    "The last point about bad boundaries explains the willingness of toxic spiritual leaders to invade privacy, and degrade and violate others in their quest for control. Because others are seen as an extension of themselves, it seems perfectly natural for them to listen in to private phone calls, read phone records, call friends of the “enemy” who has crossed them, demanding knowledge of private conversations, keep dossiers on those who have fallen out of favor and engage in an incremental plan for their destruction, all of which is cloaked in a spiritual rationale. A climate of fear dominating in such ministries prevents anyone from speaking out. Christian love disappears as the desire for self-preservation drives the behavior of terrified colleagues."

    Wow, this is absolutely what happened within the Training Centers and at Headquarters. I personally experienced the oppression, and know many others who also did. I know that people are quick to point blame at anyone in Training Center/HQ leadership other than Mr. Gothard, but the fact remains: Because this was across the board in every single training center, there had to have been an atmosphere of fear coming down from the top that drove these leaders to all act in the exact same way--spying, being distrustful of other leadership and those under them, interrogating students over the most minor details, etc (many of the stories are documented here: http://www.recoveringgrace.org/category/tctales/). In any ministry, it's common to have one or even two people who might take things to the extreme--but to have this as the pervading atmosphere in each Training Center speaks to fear coming from further up the ladder. I know I personally witnessed one Training Center director intentionally NOT confront Mr. Gothard on something he said that was clearly unbiblical. I asked him about it later, and he just shrugged his shoulders. This man was older and wise, and he had a strong enough personality to confront, yet he was afraid of Mr. Gothard and of confronting him on something that was wrong. That spoke volumes to me of the level of fear and control that Mr. Gothard had over his leaders, all while keeping a veneer of humility.

    • MatthewS March 7, 2013 Reply

      wow, good thoughts, Bev.

      It reminds me of a chat that a friend gave me when I got an invite to go to either HQ or Northwoods for a week, I forget which. He had been at HQ for some time and really enjoyed it, so he was not speaking against it, just giving me a heads-up. He said something like, "the walls have eyes. If you feel like you are being watched, it's because you are. The minute you step foot on their property, they watch *everything* evaluating to see if you are one who will stay on or not." It did turn out in many ways to be a culture of fear, where every choice is second-guessed and you are always being (figuratively, not literally) spied upon with telescopes and microscopes. That sense of paranoia has never quite left me, actually. I still feel it somewhat, especially when I'm at work, to this day.

      • Emily March 8, 2013 Reply

        YES - this!!!!! To this day, I feel nervous and afraid around ANY "authority."

  7. Will Hunsucker March 7, 2013 Reply

    "...narcissistic leaders... are hypersensitive to criticism.

    ...If someone gets in their way, especially someone employed by them, that person is perceived as thwarting God’s will and fully deserving of the retribution they receive from the narcissistic leader.

    ...Whenever an underling balks, that person is shamed, castigated and humiliated, while — at the same time — being told that their “bad attitude” is being prayed for. If that doesn’t shame the person into submission, the verbal abuse is intensified and the person is eventually terminated."


    Well, well, well. Who would have thought that they could describe Mr. George Mattix so well?
    (Gothard's 'Director of International Ministries for ATI.)

    Had I known at 20 what I am only learning now at 36, I would have steered well clear of any personal interactions with the man.

  8. Beth March 7, 2013 Reply

    The specific powers Gothard holds and has regularly exercised within IBLP and its subsidiaries are particularly telling.

    Consider the role of the Training Center director: in what other social situation is the same person one's employer, landlord, spiritual accountability figure (functionally one's pastor and default theologian), and educational superintendent? The only similar situations that come to mind are children in boarding school or active duty military personnel, the former of whom are minors in custodial care of the school, and the latter of whom are not in a situation where claims of spiritual authority are in play. TC directors hold all these forms of authority over the families, single adults, and minors in their training centers, and Gothard holds all the same and greater powers over these directors. The ones who actively disagree with him must choose between leaving and being forced out, but they're not just leaving their livelihoods, they're leaving their residences, any minor children's educational program, and the community that has been their primary spiritual fellowship and social identity for years, the work into which they have poured much of their lives.

    There is no "due process" or objective system of evaluation such as a business or church might have, only the ultimate authority of Gothard's personal preference on that particular day of the week.

    A non-resident ATI parent or older IBLP employee can leave the employment, spiritual structure, and educational program of IBLP and return to a former adult identity, or forge a new identity as they did when they chose the IBLP life as adults, but adults who were raised in IBLP and have known no other life have a challenge more on the scale of moving overseas or changing religions; it's possible and many people do so, but it's a towering life challenge.

    The Basic Seminar reportedly has 2-3 million alumni, but a seminar attendee can easily choose to leave the Basic at the end of the week accompanied only by books and memories. A non-resident ATI parent, however, has committed the family's entire mode of life and their children's education and spiritual formation to a version of Christianity filtered through Bill Gothard's very personal grid of principles, lists, action steps, and whimsical "rhemas." A resident ATI parent has committed the family's financial and residential security to Bill's shifting impulses and mercies as well. A resident adult ATI student/employee/volunteer has committed all the foregoing, plus in most cases knows that fellowship with their family of origin is conditional upon continued conformity to some combination of Bill's teachings (never all of Bill's teachings, since some are internally contradictory). These are hard things to lose or leave, and Gothard wields and uses the authority to take any of them away at his own discretion.

    Gothard creates a system wherein his personal judgment and decisions have as much power as he can arrange for over as many people as he can figure out how to attract. He uses the full range of his possible authority, and he banishes any who question it (especially any on his board of directors).

    • MatthewS March 7, 2013 Reply

      That is a lot of power to wield. I know it doesn't seem so to those who do it, but to those on the outside, it sure looks like 'lording it over' people.

  9. Chris Symonds March 8, 2013 Reply

    I was part of Para Church Organization for about three years worst mistake of my life!! However the Lord taught me many good things about Him and myself.

    Romans 8:28-30

  10. Stephen A. Smith March 14, 2013 Reply

    Wow. I realized that my former pastor was a narcissist, but I had a hard time explaining his apparent humility (which came and went). This article really helps me! I am linking back to it. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. Pingback : Self-Deprecating Narcissists: Why Some Christian Narcissists Appear Humble | Liberty for Captives

  12. Constance Smith December 2, 2013 Reply

    Wow. What an incredibly powerful article. Thank you for sharing this.

  13. Emily B. February 27, 2014 Reply

    What is "electric Christianity?"

  14. Alexis June 1, 2014 Reply

    Thank you. I think my mother (who is an evangelical preacher with a large following that will never question her) is a narcissist. I know I cannot change her, I just want to read stories of people that survived a narcissistic, evangelical, pastor-mom. I feel extremely alone, the only one that always defended me and dared to defend the truth instead of excepting her lies that exonerated my mom's abuse, died in 2010 (my grandmother). So, I just believe I need to not feel like no one is going through this. Does anyone have any suggestion.

    • Beverly June 1, 2014 Reply

      Hi Alexis, thank you for sharing. While this was not my personal experience, I'm sure others on here will agree with me that you are most definitely not alone. There are a couple of great books that I highly recommend on the subject.

      The first is called, "Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers": http://www.amazon.com/Will-Ever-Good-Enough-Narcissistic-ebook/dp/B001AO0GD6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1401629384&sr=8-1&keywords=narcissistic+mothers.

      Another book that's been amazing for many students coming out of ATI (but encompasses more issues than Narcissism) is this one: "Mothers Who Can't Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters": http://www.amazon.com/Mothers-Who-Cant-Love-Daughters-ebook/dp/B00BATILFG/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1401629384&sr=8-4&keywords=narcissistic+mothers.

      I know that Narcissism is everywhere, but it seems that fundamentalism (and religious environments in general) are easier for parents with narcissistic tendencies to hide behind. Add the "umbrella of protection" diagram that Bill Gothard taught, and suddenly narcissistic parents had biblical mandate to hold unquestioned power over their children's heads. But according to Jesus, the greatest among you must be servants of all. Somehow that verse is dismissed as not applying to parents, too. But as a parent now myself, I can assure you that is one of the hardest challenges of good parenting... putting my children's needs above my own.

      No parent is perfect, but it's NOT an invalid thing, Alexis, to recognize bad parenting in your own life, and recognize how your mother treated you and made you feel. It feels like a betrayal at first, but it's the first step towards your own healing. You can't change your mother, but you can acknowledge and accept how she made you feel, and work towards your own healing.

  15. Joy September 25, 2014 Reply

    Just came across this article as I'm in the process of walking away from a narcissistic church leader....thank you for writing. There were many idols I had to lay down in order to walk into freedom, but God systematically and patiently led me through each step. The verse in Isaiah 43 "You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God' now comforts me. That wasn't possible when I was being lead by a gifted, charismatic and I think narcissistic pastor. Thank you for helping me a little as I recover from the last 7 years.

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