The Trial of Transformation: A Review of When Narcissism Comes to Church

May 7, 2020
1 Comment
Title: When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse
Chuck DeGroat
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Publishing Date: March 17, 2020
Pages: 200 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0830841592

We see the narcissist on our screen. As he works the room to create and curate the image he wants to project, he recklessly moves from shameless self-promotion to an adamant denial of any personal responsibility for wrong that has been done. A narcissistic person displays an over-the-top sense of entitlement and arrogance which seeks to manipulate or humiliate anyone who might call her actions into question.

This person isn’t a world leader or celebrity. This might be the person you call your pastor.

In his newly released book, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse, Chuck DeGroat shares his insight on the damage that narcissistic pastors and leaders inflict on their family, staff, and congregations. With over twenty years of experience as a pastor and therapist, DeGroat leads us through stories, clinical definitions, as well as thoughtful theological reflection to help us understand what narcissism is and how devasting it can be.

Narcissists are easy to find today in our always plugged in, always on, social media driven culture. However, what is most unsettling is that the narcissist who is currently doing the most damage in our lives might also be the one who looks back at us in the mirror.

DeGroat clearly explains what narcissism is. Starting with the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) of the American Psychiatric Association, DeGroat cogently explains the spectrum of narcissism. From this definition, DeGroat unpacks how narcissism is displayed in individuals. He also shares how interaction with narcissistic leaders impacts and affects those who have to work with them. DeGroat also shows that entire systems, like churches, sometimes operate in unhealthy ways.

The most interesting and unique work that DeGroat does in his book is to use the Enneagram to explain how narcissism plays out in the different nine different personality types. There are obvious examples—one is the person who seems to always have to be in front of the crowd and thrives on praise. If she is ever questioned, then she retaliates with rage and humiliation. However, narcissism can also show itself in envy, perceived intellectual superiority, passive aggressive behavior, or the inability or unwillingness to identify or empathize with someone’s pain—including their own. These are a few of the examples that are listed.

Another strength of DeGroat’s book are the stories he tells from his own experience in ministry. He does not name names or call out specific individuals, but his stories read like a post-mortem autopsy report, dissecting the failures of “celebrity” pastors who self-destructed or small town clergy who were run out of town by their leadership board or council.

De Groat doesn’t spare himself in this process. He identifies his own struggles with narcissistic behavior. His book is a reminder to be honest in our own self-evaluation. The reader is encouraged to have people who are able to speak the necessary words of truth, but offer them with grace.

At the heart of narcissistic behavior is a tangled root of fear, shame, and guilt. When a person is unwilling or unable to access these core emotions and deal with them constructively, the temptation is to camouflage or bury them with a persona that he chooses to project. One is reminded of the adage, “Hurting people hurt people.” Tragically, this hurt creates additional victims, pain is multiplied, and scores of people are potentially affected.

So, can there be transformation for those who display narcissistic behavior? At the end of the book, DeGroat cautiously offers hope. He doesn’t offer easy answers or cheap grace. He doesn’t easily dismiss the emotional carnage that has been done. What DeGroat does do is affirm that every person is an image bearer of God. No one is outside of the grace and forgiveness that is offered in Jesus Christ. He affirms the 2 Corinthians 5:17 proclamation that, “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (NIV).

There is hard and painful work to be done. Layers of defensiveness and instincts of self-preservation have to be peeled away. Hours of emotional mining need to be spent with a professional therapist to gradually uncover what has been so carefully hidden away. DeGroat warns that the work is often excruciatingly slow, and setbacks are to be expected.

He admits that some may not be able to do it. But, with hope, he affirms that transformation is possible. It is part of the gospel hope of Christianity.

As he closes his book, DeGroat references one of his earlier books, Leaving Egypt, reminding us that we are all on a type of Exodus journey, leaving slavery and finding freedom in God. He reflects, “Those hijacked by narcissistic false selves are living in slavery, and in turn they enslave others” (163). Yet, there is freedom. The journey might be hard, but there is hope.

Pick up and read When Narcissism Comes to Church. In its pages there are stories that will cause the reader to exclaim, “I’m not crazy!” because they sound so similar to their own interactions with those who display narcissistic tendencies. It also provides the opportunity for healthy self-inventory. Everyone has a part of themselves that they would like to remain hidden, a fear left undiscovered. Narcissism should not be the defense mechanism. This book reveals the warning signs.

Churches and their leaders are not exempt from the damage of narcissism, but the Savior that these churches and leaders proclaim provides us with the hope of transformation and change.

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  1. Sounds like a helpful approach, especially since the “narcissist” is recognized as an injured person, not an alien species. I’ve seen other Christian psych advice literature that is much less gracious and quick to label and scapegoat “selfish” people as “narcissists,” but it is so much more than that.

    The idea that some people are so especially disordered and diseased they deserve this kind of naming should give us pause if we think there’s anything to a concept like original sin or total depravity. These are not psychotics, and the category of “narcissism” (plus the common stereotype) is so murky and problematic it was almost removed from the last revision of the DSM.

    I’ve read other psychologists call “narcissism” a “love deficit,” which allows us to humanize, empathize with, and maybe love this hurt person rather than call them a name and engage them in conflict.

    We might also consider how we are nearly all narcissists in a narcissistic culture that has long confused love with power and status — you will only be love-worthy if you have (or are) what others want. Many sociologists and psychologists believe narcissism is the norm in American market culture focused on media, money, and image — selling yourself and consuming more for yourself. Perhaps “narcissism” is something we all are “infected” with and at points on the spectrum it becomes extreme, even pathological to the people around us if they notice and dislike what they’re experiencing. If.

    Where shame, blame, and rivalrous competition are normal features of one’s family, social, and/or work life, a love-deficit — a deep and unmet need for unconditional love is guaranteed. If it is lacking, one way to cope is to find a kind of acceptance inside the fold of other agreeable narcissists whose doctrines project blame on others outside, external forces of evil that allow us to split the world into black and white. This can be a powerful bond, a deep and intimate sense of shared culture and inclusion for those who are inside the fold of a moral and holy narcissism.