When narcissism comes to church: healing your community from emotional and spiritual abuse.
IVP: Downer’s Grove, IL., 2020.
"Many pastors get fired, but Driscoll got fired for being an a**hole" So goes the tag line of the recent long form journalistic podcast investigating the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and its pastor Mark Driscoll. However, as emotive as this assertion is, it subtly misses the mark. While Driscoll may embody that trait, the more troubling problem was tied up in a personality trait that our culture slavishly fêtes: narcissism. Often we are too cavalier as we toss this term around and use it for informal diagnoses of all kinds. Nevertheless, narcissism—in its pathological and popular types—is profoundly damaging in personal and social relationships. Yet as the church elevates the humility espoused in Philippians 2 as a model for Christian discipleship it correspondingly seems to ignore the presence of narcissism within its bounds.
Chuck DeGroat's new book When Narcissism Comes to Church speaks into this difficult space. From a wealth of knowledge from twenty years of both practical and academic pastoral and counselling experience, he builds a solid and sobering picture of narcissism within the church, and how the church often fosters such traits within those who minister. It is this experience that also tempers the detached approach and sees narcissism as built upon power, desire, fear, and shame wrapped up in the 'compelling package' (19). Musing 'Could it be that the very men and women who are called to be shepherds of the flock struggle most with narcissism?' (19)
While many books have been written on the good, the bad, and the indifferent of narcissism, this work takes a different tack to many. After a helpful examining of the clinical basics of narcissism, DeGroat casts a wider net by highlighting other forms of narcissism than the traditional 'grandiose' incarnation. By including vulnerable narcissism a richer picture of overt and covert narcissism is built, helpfully leading to an extended discussion on the spectrum of narcissism and its interaction with other clusters of personality traits, addictions, and psychopathologies (39).
Building upon this psychological foundation DeGroat turns to the Enneagram as a heuristic framework to broadly encompass all of humanity and uses it to examine narcissistic traits as expressed through the 'nine faces.' While the Enneagram would not be this reviewer's first choice of scaffolding to explore aspects of narcissism, in this case the nine faces are used to good effect. Dividing up the Enneagram into its larger typologies of heart, head, and gut, DeGroat offers a rich series of personalised descriptions drawn from clinical experience, cultural observation, and theological reflection. These descriptions are incredibly helpful at not only describing narcissism but profoundly humanising those who suffer with narcissistic traits and/or pathology. It is this section that puts practical flesh on the theoretical bones of narcissism and being able to see what narcissism looks like in different personality types is likely to be the most helpful for the non-academic reader.
From these rich descriptions DeGroat then looks at how narcissism impacts directly on church leadership. Significant insight is found from the patterns of behaviour that often underlie narcissistic interactions within the pastorate enabled by sympathetic systems. Like the warnings on a map, these are the signs and signals that should ring alarm bells. Accompanying these external descriptions is a picture of the internal life of a narcissist that calls on pastors to examine their own heart, and for those who train ministry workers to carefully examine those who will watch over the flock. Adding to this focus on the structures of the church is another chapter examining the systems that enable narcissism and that narcissists build to support themselves.
Finally, the book is rounded out with discussions pertinent to the church broadly, examining how narcissism perpetrates and perpetuates abuse within the pews. However, DeGroat does not leave the reader in the pit of despair but addresses mechanisms for healing within the church as well as transformation for narcissists themselves. Overall, this volume is profoundly challenging, especially as it highlights the narcissistic tendencies beneath the surface of non-grandiose types of narcissists. The landscape isn't pretty. However, in this age of abuse scandals it is a picture that is sorely needed and should be required reading for all in ministry training and broadly within the church.
Nevertheless, it is ultimately a book of hope in transformation through the humility of the cross and possibilities of redemption that come from it. In this age of condemnation and damnatio memoriae DeGroat points the church back to the continual offering of grace to broken people of all types—yes, even narcissists.
DR. CHRIS PORTER, TRINITY COLLEGE, MELBOURNE