Toxic People Part 4: Narcissists in Ministry

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 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 Narcisissm, 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 reinflate 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 be 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.

29 thoughts on “Toxic People Part 4: Narcissists in Ministry

  1. My Pastor isn’t famous, doesn’t have a radio show, isn’t hip, but he plays piano, prays, teaches, sings hymns and knows all our names. I am so blessed on sunday evenings when we meet to sing, study the Word and fellowship together. We also have two sunday services in the morning. Who is my Pastor? Oh, he’s not famous, he’s just a godly man who is kind, rightly divides the Word of God and leads his flock humbly and with a twinkle in his eye. I had to go through two or three churches to find him, but praise the Lord I did!!!!

  2. I was angry and sickened when I went to the local, big box christian bookstore the other day. Shelf after shelf of books mechanically cranked out by celebrity pastors and teachers, as well as by those who were obviously trying to be celebrities. Mindless reams of paper wasted on “how to live a fulfilled life”, “how to reach your full potential for God,” “how to find God in the midst of your career” Fad after fad. Some books were promoting being “cool, normal and relevant.” On the next shelf, there was a book promoting being weird, because “normal isn’t working.”

    I left feeling the utter shallowness and emptiness of evangelical Christianity. It is a marketing driven sham, with airbrushed celebrity men and women churning out drivel in the name of promoting godliness. What they were really promoting, knowingly or unknowingly, was themselves and their own egos.

    “New york times best selling author!” the covers screamed. “Popular author, speaker, and teacher!” “Pastor of Acme Church, one of the biggest churches in the midwest!”

    In all the shameless self-promotion, there was no spirit of Christ. It was all about building the brand. Dead, dry, empty. Sound and fury, signifying nothing but moral decay and celebrity idolatry. The glory has indeed departed–if it was even present in the first place.

  3. Speaking as a survivor of an abusive church experience, a very helpful book for those caught in similar circumstances is “Healing Spiritual Abuse” by Ken Blue.

  4. Ingrid,

    Another great post!

    Your post explains why people really searching for God in a church cannot find a good church. We have homechurched for almost two years now. When we first started, people would look a little concerned and express their concern that we weren’t in a building having service. We explained to them that when we found church that was not catering to the lost and was totally intent on ministering to the believer so as to equip them for good works, we would go. It is very hard to find an active body of believers (actually we have found it impossible in our area) that isn’t too law bound or too licentiousness bound.

    We quit wasting our time in visiting churches. We would visit the church website and read or listen to sermons to filter out our choices. What was most telling to us about whether we wanted to visit a church was reading the bios of the leadership. When listing their favorite past-time activities, it included drinking their favorite brew, reading the latest Twilight Series books, watching the latest movies and filth that is on television. I emailed one local pastor and asked him how he could justify not just watching, but posting on his blog, the tv programs that he considered good watching that supported homosexuality, violence, and sexual immorality. He didn’t respond. I questioned another pastor about his teaching on “The Shack.” He responded and said that a lawyer in his church had read it and thought that it was good. There was another pastor that justified watching any rated movie as long as he could get a message out of it. Recently, on a blog for a new pastor in town, he cites that he doesn’t mind not having a regular place to meet. He finds it “sexy.” I could go on and on. And the point is that it isn’t getting better.

    These pastors have all the “bells and whistles” and may look good, but they first and foremost lack a fear of the Lord our God and that is where wisdom begins.

    As far as the Christian store comments by Sam. He is dead on. I will not frequent them anymore. They are just as much an abomination of the word Christian as most of the churches of today are.

    In Him
    Jean

  5. Hi Ingrid, I see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree here at Hope… :) Well spoken on both your part and Sam’s. You are so right, when a pastor surrounds himself with yes-men, it gives the illusion of accountability when in fact the pastor has just written himself a carte blanche for nearly anything! There is always harm to the flock when this occurs. And just like in your last post about hypocrisy in the family (in Choose Your Legacy), this kind of behavior by church leadership causes many to spurn God. Very, very sad.

    If I may comment to something Jean Selden said:
    “We explained to them that when we found church that was not catering to the lost and was totally intent on ministering to the believer so as to equip them for good works, we would go. It is very hard to find an active body of believers (actually we have found it impossible in our area) that isn’t too law bound or too licentiousness bound.”

    Amen. Thank you, Jean! I don’t know why, but it seems that churches today do indeed, as you said, cater to the lost, rather than minister to the flock and equip them. That is backwards from what the Lord has decreed for His church. The church is made up of only believers, and the purpose of gathering is found in verses like Acts 2:42 and Eph 4:11-12. After we gather to worship and grow in grace, we go OUT to evangelize and reach the lost.

    Thanks again Ingrid, for your edifying work here at Hope. God bless you and yours!

  6. For the injured who walk away from spiritually abusive ministries, the greatest damage is not the initial wound from the group/leader. The worst injury is the habit in fundamentalism of defending and upholding perpetrators and disbelieving the victims. That is where the real destruction lies.

    Those whose mantra is “don’t touch God’s anointed” forget that the Bible is filled with examples of those who once had God’s anointing but ended up as train-wrecks. Those who operate in the flesh while draping themselves in spirituality are no longer functioning as God’s servants, but the divisive tools of Satan. Our lives are the only confession that matters.

  7. “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions”
    Dorothy Day

    “He will judge everyone according to what they have done.”
    Romans 2:6

    “…and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”
    Revelation 20:13

  8. Thank you for addressing this. Trying to stand firm against a narcissistic undertow in the church is especially difficult to deal with for those of us who became Christians out of difficult and toxic family situations. We look to the church to help us and instead we find another group we have to sort out.

    I became a Christian through a healthy (at the time) parachurch ministry with leaders who did truly follow Christ. I am glad I had that background to give me some foundation in loving Christian relationships when we later ran into toxic churches.

    Toxic church leaders can make you feel your world is upside down–you question yourself, your Christian walk and your understanding of a situation. When you believe there is a problem, you are quickly labeled as the problem and you get hit with blame, denial and authoritarianism rather than humility and kindness. Rather than being met with a humble and loving attitude, the push back can be so strong that you question your own judgment and assessment of a situation. We’ve seen pastors protected by a “moat” of members of their church board.

    The “no-talk” rule is absolutely paramount in these situations even as it is in toxic families. I am so glad you put that paragraph in bold. It’s part of the control and blame scenario.

    Toxic church leaders perpetuate and enforce the idea that something is wrong and very lacking in you as a Christian. Their withholding of love and compassion is also quite difficult to live through. These experiences are so very, very damaging and the struggle to regain trust in God has been quite difficult for me. I think part of it may be that the dissonance between the reality of the relationships experienced and the Bible’s teaching on the church is so sharp that it seems impossible to believe that the reality of who God is will match up with His Word–especially after you’ve had to try to work through a similar dissonance experienced within a family. The closer relationships were created by God to be–family, the body of Christ–the deeper the potential for damage because you have opened your heart. Now faced with continuing to trust my life and heart to God is hard.

    I’ve also read Ken Blue’s “Healing Spiritual Abuse” that Tim Cunningham mentioned above, and it is quite helpful.

  9. ((((Ingrid))))Sending up prayers for you and your family right now! Thank you for standing firmly for the truth!!

  10. Ingrid, I have so many thoughts to gather in response to your comment after mine that I’ll have to take time to put them together.

    I just want to say now that I have so much empathy and understanding for what you are going through. I am so very, very sorry. You are right that lack of love is a hallmark of a sick–and I would add sinful–ministry environment. I keep going back and thinking of Jesus’ command in John 13:34-35:

    “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

    I’m also so sorry to hear of the theft of your car–what a thing to happen on top of everything else. I don’t know why simple kindness can be so hard to come by at times amongst Christians. We are in an entirely different region of the country than you are, but I’ve noticed that non-Christians can straightforwardly offer compassion as they express care and are willing to identify with you by saying that life can be tough.

    Something is seriously wrong. Thank you for sharing with us. I hope I can offer some validation that will give you some comfort as I identify with you.

  11. I am so encouraged by this post all the personal stories. I relate to so many of them! It has been 4 years since I left my previous church, a church I had been in for 13 years. I served in children’s ministries, and was financial secretary/bookeeper during the final 5 years.

    That church followed the Purpose Driven fad. I did not realize but the pastor seemed to be following one fad after another. “Prayer of Jabez”, “Wild at Heart”, then “Boundaries”, all manner of them.

    I don’t recall exactly the moment the Lord opened my eyes. Some of what was going on seemed like such good ideas! Reach out to the lost! Make church a place they will feel welcome so we can get them saved! Many people had already left the church, but it was always under cloak of silence. NO one spoke of why they left, the line was they thought it unbiblical to stir up the pot. Don’t want to cause the weak to stumble, right?

    The church was re-invented to cater to unbelievers. Not as bad as some of the “circus churches” but putting the unbelievers’ comforts above those of the rest of us.

    Even my best friend, mature and humble servant of the Lord, left after having many discussions with the pastor about what she was seeing. SHE was made out to be the stumbling sinner and she was blamed for the departure of many others.

    I began to notice little things, like the use of newer translations of the Bible (such as the gender-neutral New Century). Finally after witnessing a number of things that were unscriptural, I went to the pastor and expressed my thoughts. Surely this godly man would consider biblical cautions.

    No, I was simply “invited to leave”. All this man said was “nothing is going to change, this is where God is leading the church. You might be happier at thus-and-so church”. I was stunned. I also got the line that referred to my “weakness being prayed for”.

    Five years later, there is almost no one left at that church that I know. It is full of complete strangers.

    I am not sharing in depth or great detail, but I was deeply wounded. I walked around for years feeling like a failure at my faith, feeling like maybe I wasn’t a real Christian after all. I ran fast in another direction if I happened to encounter anyone from my former church. It still hurts.

    Thanks so much for talking about this. It is really good to know my family is not alone.

  12. Again, I am so grateful for all your postings on toxicity. I went through a “demonic church discipline” process about 12 or 13 years ago at a seeker friendly purpsoe driven church. It was the most abusive experience ever and I’ve been sexually molested, reviled, beaten physically, verbally bullied yet nothing compared to the spiritual violence. Nothing.

    Now, by God’s grace, He has led me to a Bible based church where believers are truly trying to live and love to the glory of God. But the past wounds are so deep and scarring that I am having some trouble in trusting. But the Lord truly is restoring the lost years that the locust have eaten.

    II Timothy 3:1 speaks of difficult or terrible times. In the Greek the phrase has the sense of violent times such as the violence of a demon possessed person….I think we are there. It’s tragic, yet prophesied that there would be massive apostasy among professing Christians. Marantha Jesus…

    Ingrid I continue to pray for you and your family. So many of us can relate but we must all “manfully” on. People’s eternal destinies are at stake. I long to be with the church at rest but until then we must stand. Satan has pulled out stops because his time is short. God’s grace will remain sufficient. You have ministered mightily to thousands, Ingrid. Don’t fear or lose heart, my precious sister! God is with you and for you. There is no better place!

    Isaiah 65: 16: “Because he who is blessed in the earth will be blessed by the God of TRUTH (emphasis mine); and he swears in the earth will swear by the God of TRUTH; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hidden from My sight.” Judgment will come to those who reject Jesus Christ and we will be blessed. There is a future promised reward for us. It’s hard to keep our eyes on Him in these violent and evil days. But He is worthy.

    Thanks for those who recommended the book “Healing Spiritual Abuse” I plan to read it.

  13. Wow! after reading these stories it makes me more thankful for my church family. I had surgery earlier this year and many from church brought food and sent cards and came for visits.
    When I was a young teen my family had to leave a church because of the leadership. It was a tough time for us. I had an attitude problem for many years because of what we had gone through there. I have to remember to keep my eyes on Jesus.

  14. Ingrid, I am in shock by the above comments (but I shouldn’t be!) All the comments, including yours, is what we have been through over the last eight years – and WE have been made out to be the ones with the issue! Marilyn, your comment hits home the most – about making unbelievers feel welcome – that, and heaps more I won’t go into detail, is what made us leave out last church – we have been visiting churches since, but ALL to some degree are going down the path of the comments mentioned here!

    It is incredibly frustrating! But God is not mocked – and I truly feel for those in leadership positions who will be held accountable for promoting “human felt needs” OVER the Word of GOD!

  15. Ingrid:

    We are now living in a church environment that has lost its way. I cannot count the last time I ever heard of anyone being truly saved and being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. I know that you hear numbers in the 100s and 1000s from major Christian organizations, but how do they know if these people that professed Christ for a moment are on the road of sanctification.

    I hate being the bearer of bad news, but I believe that things are not going to get better for the church. I believe that God has abandoned America with all of their sexual sin and rejection of Him. The Church failed to live up to the standards that God laid down and bought the world’s way of living for the sake of greed and power. We should not be surprised that Christians cannot find a good church. I believe that the glory has departed the temple (church) and the work of the true remnant is just beginning. I believe that God’s mercy was overextended to us and in the last 10-15 years and He withdrew His hand on America. True believers will always be protected and God will always be our provider and our hope, but the people in the church today that are happy to sit under these false teachers are already experiencing a very hard ride. I pray that their hearts might be turned to righteousness and these self-proclaimed leaders be brought to their knees.

    These are very critical times for the church, but can also be viewed as a very awesome time. People need to consider it a blessing to have been shown that God isn’t part of the fellowship that they are in. Ever since we were moved from a ‘church environment,’ our faith has grown, our knowledge has increased, our understanding better and our relationship with God through Christ intensifying.

    I believe that He is preparing a remnant for harder times and He is looking for those who are able to stand through difficult times at the cost of even their own lives. I believe that He has a plan for separating us from churches in order to protect us. And as hard as it is to understand when we are going though it, you can count on the facts that God is God and praise Him for letting you be part of what He is doing in these last days.

    My family sits under John MacArthur’s teaching and have greatly benefitted from his ministry at gyt.org.

    I pray for all of those that are in the situations that we have been brought through. I can only guarantee that God is good in all His ways.

    In Him,
    Jean Selden

  16. Interesting observations from Jean Selden. I would have to agree. While you hear about these “100s and 1000s” who are supposedly coming to Christ, at the same time, the 4-wall church keeps getting more and more compromised because it is focused on catering to the lost, rather than feeding the sheep. These churches may be big but they are lacking any substance.

    I’ve been empathizing with many of the reader’s comments here. I have been feeling like I’m going a little crazy, because we’ve had to leave so many churches because of the awful things we’ve seen and experienced. I have to keep going back to Scripture and coming to a place like Hope Blog, to get comfort and reassurance.

  17. One more thought: Christ compared the church age to a harvest. When He first sent the disciples out, He said “the fields are white”, meaning the harvest has just begun. But, do not all harvests come to an end? By late autumn, all that is left in a field are the gleanings…

    May we be found faithful to keep laboring for our Lord.

  18. Thank you for this article. I have been praying earnestly after questioning my own sanity about our experience in a past church with a Pastor and his wife. We had not spoke to them for a few years after we had cut ties with them for our family’s health. She had tried to contact me a few weeks ago and I was not sure what God would want me to do. I thank you for clearing this up for me. Finding this article was an answer to prayer. Today I prayed for my answer and today I got it. I feel assured and confident in my decision continue to keep our family away from these people and I am thankful that God has inspired you to write a truth filled blog.

  19. Yes, I’ve been following it. My only comment is that I’m sick to the teeth of the corruption calling itself Christianity. I’m sick of prideful little popes strutting their time under the sun, controlling and manipulating others, destroying faith and lives. All the wasted time and effort from good hearted people, just wanting to find a good church. Sucked into a vortex of political games, public relations, spin and lies. Sick. of. it.

  20. Dr. Lopez, thank you for the excellent article on this important topic. I was helped tremendously by your article.

  21. Pingback: Ezekiel 31–36: Domineering Shepherds & Scattered Sheep |

  22. A very helpful post, Ingrid. Thanks for sharing this wisdom with folks like me who were once deluded by “humble” narcissists. I just read the re-post on the Recovering Grace website and re-posted it to my own blog. I wish I had known this info twenty years ago–but then again, I probably would have said “Amen!” and pointed my finger at leaders outside my own church. *sigh* Thank God for his Spirit’s power to open blinded eyes. Thanks for your ministry. Press on!

  23. Pingback: VCY America Founder, Vic Eliason, Sends Letter Threatening Legal Action to His Daughter, Ingrid Schlueter | Spiritual Sounding Board

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