So I’ve been dragged back into blogging for a little, but some of these thoughts have been percolating for some time now. Yesterday while I was writing about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as it relates to the Tony Jones situation with his divorce and the Emergent Village leadership at the time, Kathy Escobar was writing a thing or two about narcissism (+ church). Kathy is someone whose blog I used to really enjoy back when I was regularly reading emerging/missional blogs, and I’m so glad to see she’s still blogging — especially given the insight she’s shared about NPD.
Kathy’s post is written in the context of the disclosure of Tony Jones’ NPD diagnosis, but is not specifically about him. That’s also the direction I want to take with these thoughts as well. Some of these considerations have a direct bearing on that situation, but I’m thinking more generally about NPD and similar psychopathic behaviours. Of the careers where narcissists or psychopaths gravitate toward, clergy is #8 on the list for psychopaths, according to Kevin Dutton in his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Perhaps the main reason is the thirst for power that comes with these disorders. I’ve thought about the inherent power imbalance in pastor/parishioner relationships before, and some ways to guard against its abuse.
I remember speaking to a group of leaders some years ago from John 3:23-30. Recall that some of John the Baptist’s disciples came to him with some degree of alarm because people were going to Jesus for baptism instead of coming to them. John replies,
It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.
I explained to the group that John knew his place as the best man at the wedding, not the groom. He had a part to play in getting things ready for the wedding, helping prepare for the presentation of the bride to the groom, knowing the bride is there for the groom, not for the best man, who is the helper. (At least it went something like that.) I cautioned them, saying that whatever they do to help the bride get ready, it’s ultimately for the benefit of the bride and the groom. “If you put your hands on the bride for what you can get from her for yourself,” I told them, “you will abuse her.” At the time, I hadn’t seen enough of the extremes to know just how true these words were; I was still assuming the best of most aspiring Christian leaders.
The thing is, the caution I made and the example that John the Baptist modeled is impossible for the narcissist. The narcissist cannot allow anyone else to increase, because for him it’s a zero-sum where anyone else’s success shoves him out of the spotlight. Anyone else’s success is competition, and the narcissist has to win at competition — no matter the cost. In fact, the narcissist and the psychopath will take a scorched earth approach when they’re in a situation where they can’t win. If they’re not going to yield a benefit, then no-one will. This makes them dangerous — not always in an evil Monty Burns way, but sometimes also in the drowning swimmer way, where desperate lashing out can take anyone or anything down with them. At that point, whether or not it was willful becomes largely irrelevant in the face of the damage caused.
Over coffee with my wife last week, I wondered whether those who aspire to pastoral ministry should be required to undergo a psychological evaluation either in seminary or as a condition of ordination. You can supply your own clever quip about anyone wanting to be a pastor ought to have their head examined, but there’s a degree of seriousness here that we shouldn’t miss. In floating the concept elsewhere, I learned that Fuller Seminary had (during the 2000s in some programs at least) students complete the MMPI and 16PF assessments. Of these, the 16PF is vocationally-oriented, and the MMPI is not adequate on its own to properly diagnose disorders like NPD or psychopathy. It very well may, however, provide enough of an indicator that closer attention is necessary with certain individuals. In Fuller’s case, as presumably would be the case at any seminary who took such a step, the issue is what is done with the results. Knowing what they are during academic training in no way alerts or prevents prospective employers (i.e., church congregations or ministries) from hiring the individual, nor does it preclude them from leaning on their charisma to plant a megachurch (or of any size, really) of their own, a place where they can be the seemingly-benevolent dictator. This leaves screening tests at the seminary entry-point would serve as a means of dissuading would-be clergy for training for a position for which they are unsuited. Indeed, if a diagnosable condition of this sort is found, it may help the would-be student find a suitable therapist to help manage his condition before his personal life implodes as a result of it — an implosion being otherwise an inevitability.
While these tests are helpful at the seminary level to guide students in their career training, to be at all effective in a protective manner, such tests would need to be required as a condition of ordination. I’m not certain that many denominations would want to take this step based on perception, but it seems like it would be a good means of communicating that the organization takes it seriously enough to guard heavily against it. If the motivation can’t be as noble as protecting a flock, it may help to view it as a measure of protection against lawsuits. (“You ordained this person? And with the damage s/he did? What steps did you take to ensure they weren’t the sort of person they turned out to be?”)
Although the underlying disorder is involuntary and incurable, the actions of the individual are always a choice.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy form what is called the Dark Triad of personality disorders, and share the characteristic behaviour of being callous and manipulative. Both of those behaviours are broad terms, and one can easily fill a slate of specific behaviours that would be indicative of either. The lack of empathy or even concern for others common with these disorders ought to be a huge red flag for anyone in ministry, and I would suggest that people diagnosed with these conditions are unfit for christian ministry, ever. There may be a number of support roles which would not be an issue, however it seems difficult to imagine these personality types being content in any of those roles, as they would inherently not be positions of power or influence. These conditions are not treatable with medication of any kind, though medication may be prescribed for other attendant mood disorders such as anxiety or depression. Rather, psychotherapy is generally relied upon for treatment (see ). A perhaps oversimplified translation of that would be talk therapy — by working matters out with a qualified therapist, it is hoped that the patient will be able to manage his/her behavior. This is not, however, a cure — it is only a means of attempting to manage the disorder by actively choosing socially acceptable behaviours over against ones which may feel more natural, compelling, or rewarding to the patient. Because pathological lying and manipulation are common to these disorders, I would suggest that the therapist would need to be not merely “qualified”, but also be experienced with these types of disorder, particularly in more severe cases.
It is important to note that although the underlying disorder is involuntary and incurable, the actions of the individual are always a choice. This may mean a difficult road with a great deal of therapy in order to maintain their intersocial equilibrium, however, it is what is called for — and another reason why the demands of ministry would in my view be too high to properly attend to this personal issue. There are many ailments or obstacles that can prevent people from engaging in ministerial vocations, be they physical, spiritual, psychological, or situational. While none of these may be the fault of the individual, they remain valid hindrances to ministry as a full-time vocation. While the writers of the new testament did not have the DSM-V or the ICD-10, I’m confident they would support my position here. What they did have was observations as to character, and they were fairly explicit on those points. It shouldn’t need to be stated that none of the behaviours associated with these disorders reflect what is generally considered to be good character. I’m pressing the point to say that these disorders are like a Class 1 carcinogen — there is no safe level of exposure, and if allowed into leadership they will infect and harm the body.
I would suggest that people diagnosed with these conditions are unfit for christian ministry, ever.
The ramifications of putting one of these disorders into positions of power is the spoiling of the barrel, a metaphor I take from Philip Zimbardo of Stanford Prison Experiment fame. Zimbardo asserts that the conditions at Abu-Ghraib weren’t the result of bad apples, but of good apples in a bad barrel. In the matter at hand, I’m saying that how the NPD/Psychopath/Machiavellian leader behaves is what they will reproduce. They will necessarily create a bad barrel, produce leaders who are spiritually abusive, and will most certainly abuse those under their care. In other words, not only will they spiritually (or mentally) abuse people, but they will also teach other leaders to do the same. Other leaders, in the wider metaphor, being the “good apples” doing bad things in a bad barrel. Without meaning to imply that its leaders were suffering any of these maladies, this is what happened in the Shepherding Movement. Some people constructed a bad barrel and put good people into it, only to see the good people do bad things.
How prevalent is this in the church today? Few studies have been done, however, there has been work published in May 2014 as a dissertation for Trinity Theological Seminary, Clergy and Narcissism in the Presbyterian Church in Canada by Rev. Dr. R. Glenn Ball. For his research, he conducted a survey of 420 Presbyterian churches across Canada. An overview of his findings was published in the Presbyterian Record as “Does a Church Setting Attract and Foster Narcissistic Behaviour? What I learned studying Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” In this article, he gives an overview of NPD behaviour, and says,
This is not good news. These are the people who leave congregations decimated. As one respondent noted, “anyone with high scores in these areas should not be in ministry.” Yet 25 per cent of our clergy cross that boundary into the egocentric realm of NPD as opposed to five per cent of the general population.
If you’re not alarmed, you weren’t reading closely enough… his research indicates that the occurrence of NPD is five times higher for clergy than for the general population. That’s one in four clergy members, with slightly higher occurrences in younger clergy members, in those who have been in the ministry for shorter periods of time, and who lead larger congregations. Just last year, author and FBI veteran Joe Navarro in responding to the statistic at the beginning of this article, wrote a piece for Psychology Today, “Why Predators Are Attracted to Careers in the Clergy,” in which he stated:
There is, it should be noted, no religion or sect that screens for psychopathy as defined by Robert Hare (link is external) that I am awware [sic] of. All you need is to be ordained, or you declare yourself a religious leader and the way is clear for the predator. And so while some organizations, such as in law enforcement, screen for pathologies by using psychometric tools, very few religious organization do so. Which is why the predator would benefit from joining or leading such an organization. Across the planet, there is almost no scrutiny or due diligence that is or will be conducted. To connive, or to “con,” the predator merely needs his victim to have faith and trust in the predator something that is often easily achieved with the vestments of a legitimate religious organization.
So what do you think? Is my suggestion that a clean psychological evaluation be required pre-ordination too harsh? How do you deal with a narcissist or psychopath in ministry? What ministry roles could/couldn’t you envision as being “safe” where they wouldn’t have a tendency to harm others emotionally or spiritually?