Toxic People: Narcissists in Ministry

7 March 2013, 06:00



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


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.


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