Here’s why narcissistic pastors can get away with careers in ministry


For context, let’s start with a Gallup poll from last December and some academic analysis, as reported by The Christian Post:

The majority of Americans no longer rate pastors and religious leaders’ honesty and ethical standards highly. A Gallup poll released earlier this week reveals that for the first time since the question was introduced in 1977, trust in clergy has dropped below 50 percent.

Gallup attributed the decline of trust in religious leaders on scandals.

“If views of a certain profession have changed, it usually has been a function of scandal surrounding it. The Catholic priest abuse stories from the early 2000s helped lead to a sharp drop in Americans’ ratings of clergy, a decline from which the profession has yet to fully recover,” Art Swift, Gallup’s managing editor wrote.

John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College, said that the Evangelical world has seen its own scandals in the past few years which likely have also contributed to this cynicism.

“Within evangelism, part of the problem is all kinds of moral lapses among pastors. I think this Mark Driscoll plagiarism thing…the [Vision Forum] president who had an extra-marital affair. All of this kind of bad behavior by pastors causes people to mistrust these kinds of spiritual leaders,” Fea told The Christian Post.

Fea also noted that since the Great Awakening’s George Whitfield, Evangelicals have been driven by “powerful, almost celebrity-like leaders.” [emphasis added]

Consider Professor Fea’s phrase: “powerful, almost celebrity-like leaders.”

I’ve been researching alleged contemporary prophets — surely “celebrity-like” if there ever have been celebrities — and the accuracy of their prophecies. For clarity, I’m not evaluating the idea or concept or practice or Bible-based believablility of prophecy. I’m looking at specific individuals who say  specific things.

An early assessment, without naming names: “false prophets” is too grand of a term for these people. “Free-associating news junkies” might be more like it. Or maybe “narcissists with the ability to riff on a given theme” could sum up their natural giftings.

I’m not sure how the word “narcissists” will strike you. Essentially, narcissism is an unhealthy pre-occupation with self at the expense of everything and everyone else around. (Pastor Mark Driscoll is an easy example, but he’s just one tree in a big forest. I’ve spent a lot of time shouting about him because I would like others to avoid the bad experiences some people have had in Driscoll’s church.)

While you might think narcissism would work out as a license for one to do whatever he pleases, that’s not necessarily the case.

A narcissist could applaud himself for his upstanding morality. Self-affirming vanity and pride could grow from the way a community or a social group acknowledges the narcissist’s piety, purity, and holiness.

Many narcissists occupy pulpits because narcissism is not the kind of moral failing congregations will identify.

Alarms ring when a minister is caught in or suspected of adultery, pedophilia, embezzelment, or substance abuse.

But attitudes of moral superiority and religious confidence can be considered signs of God’s calling.

Congregations might believe a pastoral narcissist shows strong, uncompromising leadership skills; he never bullies. 

Who knows — maybe, because the Christian message can be offensive and controversial, the expectation of offense and controversy in the message blurs with an expectation of offense and controversy in the behavior.

For example, much has been made of Driscoll’s ability to attract young men to the church. Much also has been made of Driscoll’s ability to grow churches in a “secular” part of the U.S.

His defenders will not make much of the Gallup poll to which Driscoll has added yet more examples. Defenders of C.J. Mahaney will not make much of the poll either.

It’s the wicked nation, they’ll say, not that they know many people outside of their silly cliques.

But I would imagine, if there are any real Christians, if God is really there at all, plenty of quiet, wise, non-blogging, non-celebrity, non-self-congratulating-church-planting believers, both laypersons and pastors alike, can see what’s at stake, and maybe see problems before they blow up into catastrophe — and then contribute to the kind of delegitimization one really must insist upon in such circumstances.

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