The Narcissistic Christian Leader

Narcissism should not be said in the same breath as Christian. The former is love of self; the latter is love of God in Jesus Christ.

But the sad reality is that narcissism can and often does creep into the lives of many Christian leaders. And narcissists are selfish and inconsiderate. They demand excessive attention. They feel entitled. And they often pursue power and prestige without regard for others.

The world of narcissistic Christian leaders is complicated by the fact that these leaders rarely recognize their problem. And the disorder may not be readily apparent to those who see them from a distance. They can appear, at least on the surface, to be brilliant and charismatic.

In fact some of those leaders may be reading this article thinking it’s about someone else. They have trouble recognizing their own malady. Let me be more personal. On too many occasions I have struggled with prideful and narcissistic behavior myself. And it took a confrontation from a friend or confidant to open my eyes.

Any person in leadership, even Christian leadership, can be tempted to love self and move into narcissism. So what can we who are Christian leaders do to avoid this trap? What can we do proactively? Allow me to offer five suggestions.

  1. Pray that God will open our eyes. A person of prayer is already demonstrating humility. He or she is admitting a dependency on God instead of self. Let those prayers include a request for God to remove the scales from our eyes, to let us see ourselves as we really are.
  2. Get a trusted advisor. Leaders need someone who can speak truth into their lives. Unfortunately, many leaders surround themselves with sycophants who only tell them what they want to hear.
  3. Get the true picture from those who serve under us. Narcissistic leaders might fool those who don’t see us up close.  But a true, clear, and often painful picture may be available from those who are and were closest to us. They really know us. But they may not have the fortitude to speak truth into our lives. It can be very helpful for a trusted advisor or coach to interview these current and former co-workers with a promise of anonymity.
  4. Repent. Narcissism is a sin. Once we have an awareness of this sin, we must confess it to God.
  5. Seek to restore relationships. A few years ago a trusted friend confronted me with my narcissistic behavior. He let me know that I was hurting others and harming my leadership. I never knew who shared with him about my sin. But I thought it was critical to let my leadership team know of my awareness, my apologies, and my desire to change in God’s power. The entire process was very painful for me, but very necessary for me personally and for my leadership.

Christians who are leaders can be prone to think we have achieved our leadership status because of our intellect and keen skills.  And that type of thinking is the first step toward narcissism. The godly Christian leader will realize that he or she is a recipient and conduit of grace, not a dispenser of wisdom and strategic insights.

And when we have that awareness, there is no way we can see ourselves as anything but a sinner who needs the grace and strength of our Lord every day and every minute.


      • B says

        Thom Rainer; Great article. Maybe you did need to be confronted about
        certain ways you were acting that made others feel you had a narcissistic
        attitude. All of us need constructive criticism at times. However, I
        believe a TRUE narcissist would not only not admit they were, they
        would think everyone else had the problem. I sat under the teaching
        of a bible study leader with a very charismatic personality that can’t
        understand why his church does not grow beyond a certain point.
        Although many factors could apply here, I have heard him say some things
        in his sermons that struck me as extremely narcissistic. His wife is the
        most beautiful, the best cook in the world, his kids and grandkids the best
        of the best, even that he thinks he (himself) is “pretty good looking”. He said
        that not just once or twice but frequently. I didn’t go to hear about
        him and his, I went to learn about Jesus. I too love and am proud of my
        husband, kids, grandkids, etc…but not everyone wants to hear that all the time.

  1. says

    Ouch. This has been on my mind so much over the past several months. I want to see the pulpit filled with a man who fears God, not a bloviating gasbag… which is my alter ego.

      • says

        I have found what Alistair Begg said to be quite true; every pastor needs a wife who is not his fan. My wife has a wonderful ability to ground me when I get too puffed up.

        • Mark Dance says

          I agree with you too Todd, though our wives can keep us grounded and be supportive at the same time since they are not mutually exclusive roles. My wife refers to herself as “my #1 fan,” but she is also my biggest ego-deflator. God bless pastor’s wives!

          • says

            Right on. I would not be able to be in ministry without the wife I have. She is completely on board with me and a partner in what I do. The most important service she offers is to deflate my fat head every now and again.

      • Michael Rogers says

        Thank you for this post. I need something on the signs of a narcissist, too! Sooner rather than later, if the Lord wills.

  2. George Williams says

    You CANNOT be a relational leader and be narcissistic! Having worked with thousands of Christian leaders in my career, it would be invaluable for LifeWay Research to do a study on this topic…not names, just numbers and effectiveness (or lack thereof). Having related to these leaders cross-denom, I could name MANY who feel that their Narcissism is necessary to their success. But, I could also name some to whom success has put them at the top of their peers, with ZERO narcissism! It is very interesting how this varies according to their tribe! Interestingly, most are narcissistic because of an intense inferiority complex.

  3. Mark Dance says

    The internal battle against self-promotion began with Satan, and his campaign of terror is not over yet.

    “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God…Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for (preachers) anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:5-8).

  4. Jake says

    I enjoyed your article! However, as you know there are levels to narcissism. While it is true “ordinary, healthy” people can lapse into a form of narcissism. Narcissism is a medical (psychological) condition and almost impossible to lovingly, confront one with their condition. When you do, if it often turns out very, very bad… regardless of your personal history with them and your approach.

    Unfortunately, I have been around several in ministry that suffer from classic narcissism. It rarely ever turned out well when confronting them with their problem? A classic narcissist in leadership position does not believe they can fail, fall or sin and when something is pointed out… it is always someone else s fault. Perhaps you could add something about the clinical nature?

    • Linda says

      Jake you are spot on in your comments. Speaking from experience it is almost impossible to confront a true (extreme) narcissist. They are always looking for the next fight and see themselves as always being right and everyone else is wrong. Confronting them never goes well. It is very sad to be the victim of this type of leadership. Not sure if this is sin, a medical condition or a combination of the two? I appreciate Mr. Rainer’s balance in the articles of his website; the trials of leadership as well as the sin involved.

    • Mark Dance says

      You are correct Jake – good discernment. I spoke to a licensed therapist about this today who verified your assessment. Classic/clinical Narcissim is a mental health issue that deserves clinical attention.

      The term “Narcissist” is often used to describe a general self-centered disposition, which I think we all agree is not acceptable in the ministry. I believe that is what Dr Rainer is referring to in this post.

  5. Mark Lindsay says

    Great point, Dr. Rainer.

    Much is being written today about the “heroic” leader. Our culture is so taken by this notion, yet it seems to empower the leadership you describe. In many cases, it is narcissism that drives the heroic leader – the rush of being “the man” who all look to for the answer to whatever question puzzles us. Yet, it seems that this runs counter to the Biblical example of the servant-leader.

    Thank you for this insightful blog!

    Mark Lindsay

  6. says

    Lean into Christ. Find your need for love, affirmation, forgiveness and security in Him.

    We may not all be professionals, but we are all idolators. We are prone to looking to the church or members therein to satisfy what only Christ can satisfy. We begin to use people and our ministry position to satisfy the idol (self) that is never satiated.

    God, save us from success and affirmation! In those of us who are weak they lead to craving for our drug of choice – praise of men.

  7. Jim says

    A great post at a perfect time – Holy Week. Narcissism in my life has been painfully exposed by family, friends, and co-workers who love me. The sense of shame and guilt is powerful. I find peace and hope in the gospel, in the love of God, whose grace and mercy in Jesus cannot be undone, overcoming the guilt and shame of my sin.

  8. Rick Duncan says

    Thank you for this helpful article. I must be aware of these tendencies and temptations in myself.

    I would be interested in your thoughts (maybe future posts?) on a couple of issues that are related.

    One, how does a leader not hire a narcissistic team member in the first place? Often the narcissistic leader shines in an interview. So, how does one recognize a narcissistic individual and not bring that person onto the team?

    Two, how do you deal with narcissistic person on the team once that person’s dysfunction has been discovered? Often, a narcissistic leader gathers a very, very loyal following. The people who are not close can be huge fans who do not see the devastation left in the narcissistic leaders wake. So, how does one protect a ministry while removing a narcissistic leader?

    Both these questions arise from past painful experiences with narcissistic leaders.

    My guess is that you have experienced these scenarios over the course of your fruitful ministry.

    Thanks for all you do for the body of Christ.

  9. Reiner Kirsten says

    Wonderful article with words of wisdom so often neglected; a servant heart wonders about it
    Remark: Not commenting any comment is appreciated

  10. Rocky says

    I too struggle with the problem. The general narrsacistic attitude stems from the fall. Dethroning GOD placing self on the throne. It’s easy to start craving those pats on the back. “Good message”, “great job,” ect….. Which although it makes us feel good is like throwing gas on the fire. GOD has recently placed me in an environment where I don’t get a lot of that and to be honest, her comes my narrcacism again, I miss it. So I believe I’m exactly in an environment that will help me keep that in check. Praise GOD for that …..thank you Dr. Rainer for a timely reminder

  11. Ruth says

    Timely post. If possible, would you follow up with the signs of narcissistic personality traits? This may help all of us become better servants of God with understanding how quickly one may become a self centered narcissus if they are not careful. The constant need for the ego to be stroked is usually the fuel to the fire.

  12. Joel says

    Thank you for this excellent article; unfortunately it only scratches the surface of the problem. Narcissism is toxic yet, like you mentioned, is often cloaked in the charisma of the individual. I’d love to see a follow-up on the article with more specifics on pinpointing the signs of a narcissist.

  13. Amber says

    Great article! Just a few thoughts. The word “repent” is misused frequently in Christian culture. The greek translation metanoeó actually means to “change one’s mind.” This is so much more than just confessing sin, because it actually shows an action that goes along with it. Secondly, I would add one point. It is important to get a true grasp of who Christ is and who we are in comparison. A great deal of our pride issues come from a misunderstanding of who we are apart from Christ. His atonement is our only saving grace, and without it, we are a hopeless group of individuals. Thanks for the read. I’m glad to see this topic highlighted!

  14. Wondering says

    I have a question. What if your pastor is self- and family-absorbed, obsessing about
    physical appearance, to the point of insulting overweight or less than beautiful
    people in his congregation from the pulpit. I am not kidding!! I’m not a regular member
    of his church, but have visited every once in a while. He is a dynamic pastor as far
    as his preaching goes. He has a grasp of the message of grace. I benefit from his sermons,
    but hate having to sit through half an hour of his boasting about how beautiful his wife
    is, or how good she can cook, over and over again……… His family is the best at everything;
    as far as he’s concerned. No one else can think their own wife/husband is good at some-
    thing because he’ll go out of his way to disprove what you are saying.
    He brags about his own good looks (a matter of opinion)….and makes us sit through endless
    compliments to his spouse while everyone in the room is uncomfortable. Some of that is
    great; a man should love and compliment his wife, but he takes it to the extremes. Don’t
    talk as if all pastors wives will “set their husband straight”. She thoroughly enjoys his bragging
    on her and giggles while he is saying it. She seems to encourage it and thinks it’s great. They
    together seem to be one of the most self absorbed, narcissistic people I’ve ever seen. Others
    must notice too. For all of his great preaching, many come once in a while and never come
    back. Even others that have stuck with them for years are coming less and less. No one wants
    to address it because it feels like disrespect towards the pastor. But he obviously is not aware
    of his extreme personality limits and it is affecting his church and his congregation. I honestly
    think that if someone would approach him respectfully to point this out to him, not only would
    he close his eyes to the truth, he would probably come against that person. I’ve decided to never
    go back, unless God told me to. I’m praying about it now. I can’t stand the attitude many pastors
    have now and I wonder what God thinks about what’s going on with many preachers nowadays.

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