Anglican Watch

Narcissists and mediation under Title IV: a recipe for disaster

Narcissists and Title IV

A prominent friend of Anglican Watch, who also is a well-known pastoral counselor, once told us that his best estimate is that 30 percent of clergy meet the clinical definition of having narcissistic personality disorder. As for bishops and other senior officials, his best estimate is 40-50 percent.

That’s scary stuff, particularly in the case of a Title IV proceeding, which is the canonical process for clergy discipline in the Episcopal Church. Bloated, time-consuming, and ineffective under the best of circumstances, Title IV can go south quickly when a reference panel refers a matter to conciliation and the respondent is a narcissist.

This post discusses narcissism, and why Title IV works so poorly when confronted with a narcissist.

What is a narcissist?

So, what is a narcissist? TV talk show hosts bandy the word about freely, often with little idea of what it actually means.

At its most basic, narcissism is a personality disorder marked by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, and an excessive need for admiration.

In many cases, narcissists are very focused on their physical appearance. Superficially charming, they are good at “getting inside people’s heads,” as one psychologist puts it. As a result, one way to spot a narcissist is to listen for comments like, “He knew exactly what I was thinking.”

In many ways, this is correct. Narcissists are often profoundly insecure under the flashy/noisy surface and lack a true sense of self. Thus, they frequently look for models they can adopt, including:

  • Academic.
  • Athlete.
  • Leader.
  • Priest.
  • Bishop.

By stepping into these roles, the narcissist, who often lacks a meaningful ethical reference point, suddenly gets admiration and attention and assumes the mantel of the qualities associated with these roles. 

Thus, the football player may push mightily behind the scenes to become team captain, while the priest may start angling to become a bishop early in their career.

Relatedly, narcissists often are very focused on their physical appearance, and often play to specific roles. These roles may include:

  • Hipster.
  • Prepster.
  • All-American.

And because it’s all about image, many are shape-shifters, changing from hipster to prepster to alt.priest overnight,

As part of this quest for admiration, or narcissistic supply, which is powerfully strong in narcissists, many extend these manipulative tendencies to their interactions with others.

This manipulation includes playing people against each other, gaslighting (like falsely saying, “I’ve called you dozens of times,”), creating controversy, and more. In fact, narcissists love chaos and in-fighting, as it allows them to play the good guy.

At the same time, because there’s no “there” there for narcissists, they typically appear aloof unless they want something. Or as one observer said to us, “Will the real Fr. Anderson please stand up?”

Relatedly, those who try to befriend the narcissist are in for a big disappointment, because unless they exude admiration for the narcissist, the narcissist can’t be bothered. 

The only exceptions are those with money and power or skills the narcissist needs; the narcissist may go to great lengths to be photographed next to the private jet, oversized yacht, or famous person.

Clergy roles are particularly well-suited for narcissists, where they have access to implicit trust, confidential information, and parishioners at life’s liminal moments of joy and sorrow. 

Thus, there is an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual investment that leads parishioners and vestries to discount criticism of their rector, regardless of the documentation.

Even better, the vestments and liturgy of the Episcopal Church provide a scripted, turnkey persona. 

And while narcissists may appear to be good, even great priests who are good at their jobs, they are inherently damaging to the church.

For example, while narcissists often are good at dishing out criticism, they are notoriously bad at dealing with even constructive criticism.

And being a family system, a parish brings with it a certain amount of criticism, even for the most loving priest.

In fact, one way narcissistic clergy deal with these situations is the famous narcissistic rage. Carefully contrived, the narcissist may scream and yell at the top of their lungs in an effort to shut down criticism — an appalling skill for members of beloved community to learn.

And regardless of the specific response, the narcissist views anyone poking holes in the narcissistic veil of illusion as an enemy, and it’s game on. 

Anyone who dares oppose the narcissistic priest is called mentally ill, a domestic terrorist, a drug user, you name it. They may even go as far as one priest we know, who falsely claimed that a parishioner was threatening him.

Many clergy narcissists also deploy a play a game of reverse shuttle diplomacy. For example, they may tell their wife that the junior warden is violent and threatening. Then they go to the parish and say, “All I can say is my wife has only met him a few times, and even she is afraid of him.”

Of course, when the inevitable rumors start to spread, lo and behold–the wife’s fears are confirmed, as are those of the parish.

This bit about trying to undercut perceived enemies via lies and manipulation underscores another point: Not only are narcissists accomplished liars, but there is no limit to the lies they will tell. 

As mentioned before, a perennial favorite form of retaliation by narcissists is to claim that their perceived opponent has a mental illness. Still, they will just as quickly claim you’re a domestic terrorist, an embezzler, a conspiracy theorist, believe the earth’s flat, whatever.

In fact, much like Hitler and the big lie, narcissists often will go for the lie so outrageous that people think, “no one in their right mind would make that up, so it must be true.”

But like a layer of gilding on cheap wood, the narcissist goes to great lengths to whitewash their true selves. Inside, they are vile, vicious, and vindictive. On the outside, they are all joy, sunshine, smiles, and hugs.

But if you cross a narcissist, you will quickly see just how thin that tiny veneer of kindness is. 

Nor do you need to wind up on their bad side to see how ruthlessly self-centered narcissists are–they have no compunction against lying, stealing, adultery, or just about any other form of evil.

Title IV and the narcissist

Predictably enough, a Title IV clergy disciplinary case against a priest is equivalent to World War III. After all, the very heart and soul of their being is in jeopardy due to the possibility that their source of adoration, or narcissistic supply, will get cut off.

When a Title IV case first hits, the initial reaction of the narcissist is predictable. 

Their swarms of flying monkeys head out, looking to trash the enemy, spread rumors, discredit critics, and more.

As they do, the manipulative aspects of their personality kick into high gear. Behaviors include:

  • Outrageous lies.
  • DARVO (Deny and reverse victim and offender).
  • Generally playing the victim.
  • Retaliation, often via lies and innuendo.
  • Illegal conduct, including things like filing false police reports, issuing threats, committing perjury, and more.
  • Lying to their attorneys, bishops, and others on the belief that, since lying has worked in the past, it will work for them now.
  • They gaslight like crazy until they create an alternate universe surrounding them in which their behavior is not only okay but even laudable. After all, narcissists never admit they are wrong.

In such cases, judicatories must issue a pastoral directive prohibiting the respondent from contact with members of the parish, the diocese, and the media. While not a canonical requirement, doing so prevents lasting trauma to the parish, victims, and others. It also prevents the narcissist from saying or doing things that may get them in even bigger trouble.

In cases where the narcissistic respondent has resources, Title IV cases may stretch on for two years or more, as we saw in the Anderson case in Massachusetts. In these situations, unethical attorneys will file dilatory motions, create discovery disputes, and more, all in the hope of forcing the diocese to settle.

While this inevitably costs the affected diocese serious money, the scorched earth policy towards which most narcissists incline rarely works. 

Instead, the parish winds up paying the salary of both the suspended priest and supply clergy. Attendance and giving plummet, and the narcissist doesn’t care. (As one priest we know said, “Why should I give a f***?”)

As a result, the church pays the price, and it is difficult to recover from this trauma.

Moreover, the conflict caused by the narcissist tears at the very fabric of the parish, pitting parishioners against each other.

And, since the narcissist inevitably takes a no-holds-barred approach to Title IV, they preclude easy options, like negotiating with the bishop diocesan on terms of discipline.

The result is that the situation goes from bad to worse, eventually reaching the final stage of the Title IV process, which is a hearing panel. 

By this time, the parish typically is on life support, the diocese and the respondent have spent crazy money, and the bishop is so irritated that it’s virtually a given that the respondent will get defrocked. And with notice of hearing panel decisions going churchwide, it’s all but guaranteed that even secular employers will know all the gory details.

In such cases, the irony is that, as badly as Title IV is implemented in most dioceses, the complainant (who need not only be the person who filed the complaint, per Canon IV.2) often sees none of what the canons say is an immediate priority, which is a pastoral response (NOT the same as pastoral care, although the latter may be part of the response.)

Thus, the church’s already dismally inadequate Title IV process often fails in its most basic mission, which is to promote healing, justice, and care for all concerned. 

Or, as in the Whayne Hougland adultery case, the only healing and care goes to the perpetrator. The Michigan dioceses were ignored, while Houghland got a golden parachute from the Episco-bros.


Of course, underneath all of this is a painful reality: Like locks, which serve to keep honest people out, Title IV is best at addressing minor issues involving good priests.

Conversely, when a narcissist or other truly bad actor is involved, the best thing to do is to make it clear from the get-go that the diocese won’t be backing down. As a result, the respondent soon realizes he can cut his losses and be defrocked or spend a ton of money and then get defrocked. 

Of course, a better approach would be to suspend a priest without pay or set a firm deadline for the matter to be resolved. But the church is very reluctant to do the former, if for no other reason than a desire not to hurt the priest’s family. And much though we’d like a shorter process, the canons as currently written don’t permit a hard-and-fast deadline.

In other words, in cases of a known or suspected narcissist, the diocese needs to move as quickly as possible to contain the damage, keep control of the situation, and respond with swift sanctions to misconduct by legal counsel.

And it’s vital for all involved to remember that the standard of proof before a hearing panel is not “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as in a criminal case, but instead “clear and convincing evidence.” Canon IV.19.16.

Thus, even when confronted with the complex cases that come up when the respondent is a narcissist, the church should remember that it holds all the cards and that a secular court cannot review outcomes in Title IV cases. 

Mediation — the Maginot Line of Title IV

At first blush, mediation as a Title IV outcome would seem an attractive option for several reasons. These reasons include:

  • It’s relatively fast.
  • It’s private.
  • It’s less costly.
  • It may be less traumatic for victims,
  • It aligns with a Christian model of forgiveness.

And, if you are a judicatory, you would appear to hold all the cards.

But for many of the reasons discussed above, mediation/conciliation is doomed to failure when a narcissist is a respondent in a Title IV case.


Because, like the Maginot Line, where the formidable guns pointed only one way, mediation, aka conciliation, only works with rational actors. Persons with personality disorders, including narcissism, need not apply.

The problem is that words have no intrinsic meaning to a narcissist. Instead, words are pawns in a game of chess in which the narcissist is determined to win.

Thus, things like apologies and agreements to reform look good on paper and even in person. 

In fact, given that most narcissists are good at superficial charm, you may get seemingly abject apologies, like, “I am so, so sorry.”

But with the narcissist, these are just words, nothing more, and a mere step towards getting what they want.

Thus, even as the narcissist talks about changing his ways, the wheels are turning in the back of his mind, thinking of ways to get even.

Moreover, forget things like anti-disparagement agreements. 

With a narcissist, behavioral agreements mean nothing, as the narcissist’s primary modus operandi is via their swarms of sycophants, flying monkeys, and enablers. 

So, the narcissist may agree not to trash the victim publicly, but you can predict with certainty that they are hard at work behind the scenes, trashing the victim privately.

Not only that, but narcissists are masters of the weasel word. So they may quit referring to the victim as “mentally ill” or “unbalanced,” even as they shift to talking about the victim as “dysfunctional.”

Even worse, as we saw in the Anderson case at the Church of the Advent, Boston, mediation typically results in a written accord, which means that, per the canons, any issues contained in the original complaint are precluded from further Title IV cases, at least as to the original complainant. 

Thus, when a few months later, the complainant discovers that the respondent is back to his usual bag of tricks, the diocese may well struggle to address these allegedly already-resolved issues.

Then there is the issue of trauma. The best way to deal with most narcissists is to go no-contact, so mediation involves a breakdown of this dynamic.

Even worse, narcissists view any offer to negotiate as a sign of weakness, so when a diocese suggests conciliation, the narcissist doesn’t view the situation through a Christian lens. 

Instead, the narcissist looks at the victim like a hungry wolf eying a lone sheep — something quick and tasty. So not only is conciliation unlikely to work, but in most cases, it unintentionally results in egging the narcissist on. In short, the narcissist doesn’t view conciliation as a welcome opportunity–just another reason to hate the complainant and find ways to even the score.

So how can a judicatory resolve this situation? The answer is simple — don’t even consider conciliation if the complainant tells you they are dealing with a narcissist. And cast a wary eye for hints that the respondent is a narcissist. These hints may include exceptional verbal acuity, the ability to project a guileless persona, seemingly deep remorse, and other indicia that, in the words of the late Dani Moss, “they know the words but not the song.”

Similarly, judicatories and reference panels should be prepared to quickly pull the plug if they see signs of narcissism by the respondent during conciliation. Social workers and others with specialized training may be able to assist judicatories in identifying narcissistic tendencies among respondents.

Another way judicatories can size up the issues at hand: In our experience, narcissists who have had previous Title IV cases have invariably lied during them, violated mandated confidentiality, and otherwise tipped their hands. 

So, looking carefully at records of earlier proceedings and comparing them with current testimony and statements may provide a valuable heads-up as to whether the respondent is a narcissist or other bad actor, or a good priest who needs additional guidance.

In closing, Title IV is never easy. But when a narcissist is the respondent, there are many additional wrinkles, all with the potential to cause lasting harm to the church community.


  1. As you have covered in the past, the Title IV process is a huge farce. The only time it seems to “work” is when the process is used to conspire removing a cleric who is making things uncomfortable for the power establishment. The pastoral response required by the canon is completely ignored. It is a procedure that seems to only consider the well-being and benefit of the respondent.

    It is abhorrent that Curry says or does nothing to correct this to ensure a truly pastoral response be given to the petitioner. But it is the Episcopal Church, after all. They are exceptionally proficient at talking about being just, while using every sleazy tactic to avoid implementing justice.

    1. Yes, and the worst of the worst when it comes to bishops include George Sumner of Dallas, Alan Gates of Massachusetts (who even ignores child rape), Shannon Johnston (retired), Susan Goff (retired), Todd Ousley (regrettably not retired), Brenda Curry and, not surprisingly, Chilton Knudsen, who is chair of the Bishops Disciplinary Committee.

      The latter has said in writing that allegations of criminal conduct by a priest do not constitute conduct of “weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” In other words, she has expressly said that criminal behavior is okay for clergy, despite the express language of Title IV.

      And there is the small matter of the Chicago abuse litigation. Knudsen claims she “vividly” recalls notifying the police; she just can’t remember with whom she spoke. Hmm.

      And when she never heard back, by her own admission she dropped the matter.

      Knudsen also claims the Chicago victim did not want to come forward, but it is axiomatic that you must report child abuse regardless of whether the victim wishes to report. The fact Knudsen claims not to know this is shocking and appalling, but not surprising. And recent conversations make it clear that she lacks even rudimentary knowledge of Title IV.

      The Episcopal Church is morally bankrupt.

  2. The Anglican church as a whole – and its many parish churches – are not short of confused, troubled and malicious people. Indeed, it is sometimes the case that the smaller the congregation the greater the opportunity for malice and falsehood. One reason for this is a certain Christian desire to believe those who make allegations – the ‘no smoke without fire’ view of things. Add in spasmodic tendencies to discretion and secrecy you have a perfect formula for false accusations, grotesque misrepresentations, victim blaming and so on.

    The fearless and self-righteous grabbing for the ‘high moral ground’ is characteristic of an institution whose self-regard waxes as its significance and moral authority collapses. At a parish level it is critical that the ‘nasties’ are identified and marginalised (or even expelled) but it takes strong priestly leadership to achieve this and can lead to injustices which may be regrettable but may be better than the alternative. When it comes to dealing with allegations of misconduct, they need to be approached with intelligence and judicious, open minds.

    Perhaps the fulminations on this site against ‘corruption’ may ignore the mundane that what appears to be corrupt can just as easily be attributable to stupidity.

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