Christmastide is almost here and it’s a big deal at many churches. Out come the greens, candles, incense, brass quartets and more, all to produce a spectacular event that draws C&E Christians and appeals to regular members.
It’s also a field day for narcissistic clergy and their swarm of sycophants, enablers, and flying monkeys, many of whom will try to pull in the unsuspecting.
So, here’s a pocket guide to what we jokingly refer to as the Feast of St. Narcissus and how to avoid getting hurt.
While some report that the Canadian study that found one-third of pastors to be narcissists faulty, others say the ratio is about right. Those include Bob Perry, a retired Disciples of Christ minister and pastoral care expert, and numerous psychologists we have interviewed. Moreover, the ratio comports with our own experiences.
Nor is there much in-between. As one clergy spouse tells us, there are two kinds of clergy: Those who want you to serve them and those who want to serve you.
Those who want you to serve them are likely to be narcissists. And while they may make the experience temporarily enjoyable, things almost always end badly with a narcissist.
Why? Because once we are no longer useful to the narcissist, we are discarded like trash. Our only role is to support his ego. (We use “he” because the overwhelming majority of narcissists are men. But there are plenty of women who qualify.)
In the context of relationships, narcissists follow a predictable, three-phase pattern:
- Love-bombing, or turning on the charm, often via flattery, hugs, and other manipulative behavior.
- Devaluation, in which they criticize and push away the victim.
- Discard, in which they find a way to give us the heave-ho.
Thus, Christmastide, with its crowded churches and heightened pageantry, is a free-for-all for narcissistic clergy who seek to pull the unsuspecting into their orbits. And what better way to feed the ego of the narcissistic priest than the associations with Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the coming of love, and the glorious tale of the three wise men?
Spotting a narcissist
Ironically, once you know what to look for, narcissists are hidden in plain sight and easy to spot.
Why? Because they seemingly make good priests. They are glib, good talkers, and often very well put-together.
Other things to look for:
- Formulaic behavior. Narcissists fit in by emulating behaviors they see in others. If you watch closely, they will do what seems right for the moment, smiling, hugging, and otherwise putting on a good show. But watch their eyes — the narcissist will embrace you, even as his eyes show no positive emotion. Similarly, narcissists will even dress in a formulaic way. They may consistently wear their jacket unzipped one-third of the way down, always put their hands behind their back when photographed, or display seemingly open body language. These are hints, but if you watch, you’ll see that nothing is spontaneous with the narcissist. You’ll also see what happens when they enter uncharted waters. At an annual parish meeting, one narcissistic priest we know proudly (and falsely) said, “And we’ll have a new columbarium, so you can be happy about that.” The latter is a favorite phrase of his, but eyes rolled when he associated a columbarium with happiness.
- Obsession with appearance. Narcissists often are well-dressed, and always appropriate to the situation. They may be behind on the bills, but they will have the perfect outfit for an event and be perfectly groomed.
- Refusal to age. There’s nothing worse for narcissists than getting old, so look for wigs, hair transplants, dyed hair, plastic surgery, and more.
- Self-centered conversation. Chat with a narcissist, and initially you’ll get compliments. But the conversation inevitably returns to them. And they find little ways to brag, whether it’s about playing sports in school to the book they published.
- Aloofness. The narcissist may be charming in small doses, but they rarely engage on a deeper level. Why? Because they don’t know the “formula” for unscripted interaction, and they support their fragile ego by telling themselves they are better than others.
- Need for attention. This relates to aloofness. Narcissists need attention, and they make great efforts to hoover it in. But once you’ve told them how much you love them, they’ve heard what they need.
- Narcissistic rages. Narcissists hate criticism and never take responsibility for their actions. So criticize them or someone close to them, and they will try to control the situation by flying into a rage.
- Swaggering behavior. Narcissists often sound loud and hyper-confident, all to mask their inner insecurity.
- Children as projections of self. The children of narcissists are seen as extensions of the narcissist, especially sons. So if the son follows closely in the father’s footsteps, going to the same schools, playing the same sports, and more, be very wary.
- Dishonesty. Every narcissist out there has some made-up tale of the person he saved from suicide, or the lonely parishioner to whom he brought Christmas dinner, or other heroic tale. But listen closely and the tale become highly improbable. If he saved that person from suicide, why are they not a member of your church?
- Entitlement. Narcissists inevitably feel that they are special and often take leave to which they are not entitled, heading “out of town” whenever they feel like it, despite what their letter of agreement says.
- Manipulation. Narcissists often will try to control the situation to ensure they are surrounded by sycophants. Thus, they may improperly interfere with the selection of vestry candidates, or personally choose the executive committee. Similarly, narcissists often play games within the parish, turning people against each other and portraying themselves as the fount of kindness. So if you hear your priest describing other parishioners as “assholes” or making other disparaging remarks, time to high-tail it out of there. If nothing else, we can be pretty sure they say the same about us.
- False modesty. The narcissist is careful not to be seen hoovering in adulation, so they may say, “Well, that was 30 years ago.” But they love the attention, regardless.
- Demonization of critics. The narcissist stops at nothing to avoid criticism. He’ll smile, hug you, try to charm bomb you and more. But persist, and you’ll be labeled “disruptive,” “toxic,” a “domestic terrorist,” a “stalker,” and more. Needless to say, the narcissistic priest also will lie about you, claiming you engaged in misconduct, threatened him, and more. And he’ll try to push you out, offering you a letter of transfer or outright telling you that you are unwelcome, even as he displays boyish innocence elsewhere.
- Gaslighting. Narcissists are master gaslighters, willing to revisit history at a moment’s notice. Nor are their lies necessarily small ones—they will lie to vestry members about HR issues, to their spouses about their compensation, and more.
- Projection. Narcissistic clergy love to project their flaws onto others. Watch for descriptions of others that paint them as sad individuals, starving for attention and similar attributes, all derived from their own insecurities.
- Dissonance. The late Danni Moss had a great phrase for this: They know the words, but not the song. The narcissistic priest doesn’t talk a good game—he talks a perfect game. But there’s always the odd sense that there is no substance there. And that’s spot on.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Narcissists have two, diametrically opposed personalities. One is the charming, engaging individual, the other vile, vicious, vindictive. The former is the act; the latter is the real person.
- Verbally facile. Narcissists are adept at anticipating what we want to hear and parroting it back. Or as more than one person has said, “It’s like he got inside my head.” Yup.
- Disconnect between perception and reality. In short, the narcissist sees no disconnect between his behavior and his claim to be a priest. Indeed, he likely views himself as a great priest and supervisor, while actually being dismal at both.
The fallout from a narcissistic priest is deep and lasting. Often, it goes for generations.
On an organizational level, parishes served by a narcissist often are just like the rector: Outwardly welcoming you with open arms, while stabbing you in the back right behind the scenes.
Such churches often are rife with unresolved conflict and have learned unhealthy ways of relating, including lying to get the upper hand in conflict. There’s typically an unwillingness to address concerns openly, and while the front door is open wide, the back door is open even wider. And you’ll find few real leaders—most are driven off by the narcissist, either through direct action or by manipulating the vestry; after all, narcissists hate anyone they perceive as threats. Or the leaders in the church simply don’t want to deal with the mess, so they head for a safer environment.
Can such churches be saved? Yes, but the road is long and arduous and fraught with opportunities for failure. Professional, outside assistance is almost always required. And once a narcissistic priest moves on, particularly if their stay has been long, the parish often declines precipitously. Why? Because the organizational construct, long focused on the narcissist, no longer has its central reference point.
On a personal level, narcissists often appear guileless and innocent to judicatories, so their behavior may be impossible to address.
Meanwhile, victims of narcissistic trauma often are deeply traumatized. They may leave organized religion, become atheists, experience PTSD, depression, and even become suicidal.
This trauma is multiplied when, as previously discussed, judicatories refuse to address the narcissist’s misconduct. Such conduct is rightly seen as betrayal. Nor is it often that these issues are or can be resolved.
Relatedly, the trauma rarely is confined to this directly injured by the narcissist. Not only are his family members often deeply troubled, but just as one unhappy customer may tell 12 others, so too do victims tell others. Not just about the narcissist, but the failure of the church to even try to be beloved community. And they need to do so, for we cannot be in right relationship without disclosure.
Avoiding the narcissistic trap
Narcissistic clergy spin a beautiful web. Like a mirage, it can lure us ever onward, towards destruction.
So, if you are new to church this Christmas, take your time.
- Don’t sign up for anything.
- Don’t get pulled into social activities.
- Don’t volunteer.
Instead, look and listen, preferably for at least a year.
- Is the priest consistently kind?
- Who is serving whom?
- How does the priest handle conflict? If he ignores it, run. Like. Hell.
- How does the priest talk about others?
- Does the church seem to be too good to be true? If so, it is.
- Are people friendly? Or are they faithful? The two are not the same.
- Are people kind to each other?
- How do people talk about each other?
- How do people talk to each other?
- What is the level of conflict in the parish? How is it handled?
- Is there an A list, a B list, and so on? If so, that is a bad sign.
- Who do people worship? In a church with a narcissist, the priest is worshipped. In a healthy parish, God is worshipped.
- What do the priest’s sermons cover? Does he find ways to consistently include himself, his athletic career, or his book?
- Are there some people in the parish who are unwelcome?
- Do parishioners talk about themselves as “servants of Christ,” even though they don’t care about the welfare of others?
- Do people gossip? In a parish with a narcissist, gossip is rife, ranging from who’s secretly gay to who had a penile implant. Seriously.
- Are boundaries respected?
- What is the office staff like? If there are bullies in the office, it is because the priest is okay with it.
- Is there transparency? That includes regular financials, open vestry meetings, and budgets that make sense. Not blended budgets by category, but ones with meaningful line items.
- Is there triumphalism? If you hear stuff about how special your parish is, that’s a red flag.
- Is there accountability? If the staff or volunteers get away with murder, be wary.
Above all, if you are an empath, be super careful.
There’s a natural tendency to want to give clergy the benefit of the doubt. And if you hear excuses being made, that is a major warning sign. Listen for “He’s just that way,” or “don’t take it personally iit will be someone else’s turn next.”
Remember, the damage narcissists do is lasting. A healthy parish will respect your desire to take your time before getting too engrossed. And there’s always the safety of online services.