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Fall 2009 · Vol. 38 No. 2 · pp. 246–253 

Ministry Compass

It’s All About Me, Jesus: The Narcissistic Worship Leader

Cory Seibel

Kenneth Moe, an executive presbyter in the Presbyterian Church USA, has suggested that the destructive influence of narcissistic leaders is one of the most serious challenges the church faces today. 1 Because of the way in which the position of worship leader is celebrated within contemporary evangelical culture and the ready-made “spotlight” that it provides, this role is especially ripe for attracting narcissists seeking to feed their personal interests. With this reality in mind, I would like to explore briefly the impact that narcissistic worship leaders are likely to have upon the church’s life.

Narcissistic worship leaders simply cannot be counted upon to deal with conflict in ways that contribute constructively to the building up of the body of Christ

THE ISSUE

Every individual can be placed on a continuum from possessing very few to very many narcissistic traits. However, “when these traits are inflexible, maladaptive, and persisting and cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress,” they may constitute Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). 2 The development of this disorder is rooted in damage to the individual’s self-image during his or her early formative years. The individual’s inward insecurity leads him or her to adopt a “false front,” an inflated self-image that may bear minimal resemblance to the actual person. 3 The maintenance of this image becomes the means by which the narcissist copes with his or her ego deprivation.

Individuals with NPD will tend to evidence five or more of the following traits:

  1. Have a grandiose sense of self-importance
  2. Are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
  3. Believe they are “special”
  4. Require excessive admiration
  5. Have a sense of entitlement
  6. Are interpersonally exploitative
  7. Lack empathy
  8. Are often envious of others or believe others are envious of them
  9. Show arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes 4

Narcissists often express great confidence in their own talents and abilities. In reality, the fragile state of the narcissist’s ego is deeply dependent upon constant reinforcement and approval from others. Narcissists will look continuously to secure “narcissistic supplies,” sources of feedback that reinforce their false image. 5 Such individuals have an extreme need to gain esteem through status, attention, or admiration. 6 Because of this need, narcissists often carefully protect the position or status through which narcissistic supply is achieved. Because of an inability to trust others, narcissists conclude that this can only be accomplished by the exercise of power and control.

Many narcissists are drawn to positions of leadership within the church because they perceive these positions as offering the prestige and power they desire. The congregation offers a readily accessible “applause machine.” 7 For individuals who have discovered that their musical abilities can elicit the praise they seek, the role of worship leader may be especially appealing.

POTENTIAL PITFALLS

Narcissistic worship leaders commonly possess charisma and confidence that can be quite attractive. However, these individuals also are prone to conduct themselves in a variety of ways that will undermine the true purposes inherent in the worship leader’s role. In this section, I would like to explore two categories in which this is likely to become evident.

The Objective of Authentic Worship

Worship leaders play an important part in facilitating the congregation’s encounter with God during the corporate gathering. Because the worship leader helps to shape the content and tone of this gathering, the leadership provided by such individuals has significant bearing on the integrity of the church’s worship. This being said, several tendencies common among narcissists have the potential to subvert authentic Christian worship.

First, authentic worship focuses upon the person, attributes, and work of God. However, narcissistic worship leaders see corporate worship as an opportunity to display their grandiosity, “a performance where the worshipping congregation ‘mirrors,’ i.e., admires and praises, the minister,” the real purpose of which is “ ‘worship’ of the minister.” 8 As Rima expresses it, “For a narcissist, everything in life and ministry revolves around him—he needs to always be at the center of attention.” 9 While narcissists might not openly display their sense of grandiosity in public and may be good at feigning humility, such individuals have very limited capacity for genuine humility. Thus, the narcissistic worship leader is ill-equipped to exemplify or to help foster a sincere focus upon God.

Second, authentic worship gatherings encourage participants to examine themselves and offer them the assurance of grace. Narcissists, however, tend to lack the capacity for introspection and thus commonly possess little self-awareness. 10 They can prosper for years without realizing that a false and impaired self lies hidden beneath the narcissistic glitter. 11 As a result, notes Sperry, “a lack of awareness of grace” constitutes a “basic spiritual deficit” common among narcissistic ministry leaders. 12 In turn, prayer that focuses upon self-examination and forgiveness “has little meaning for them.” Thus, the narcissistic worship leader may not understand the importance of providing opportunities within the service for introspection or for the assurance of God’s grace to be expressed.

Third, authentic worship invites participants to respond to God’s gracious activity with praise, thanksgiving, and surrender. However, because of their lack of awareness of grace, narcissists tend to be plagued by “an incapability for gratitude.” 13 Prayers of praise and thanksgiving are of little importance to the narcissist. In addition, narcissists’ desire to control their sources of narcissistic supply extends even to their relationship with God. As Oates suggests, “it does not occur to them to yield control of their world to God.” 14 Thus, it is difficult for narcissistic leaders to guide the congregation in an authentic response to God that includes praise, thanksgiving, and surrender.

In essence, while we might desire that corporate worship would help its participants be formed as authentic followers of Christ, the narcissistic worship leader has a limited capacity to help in facilitating this objective. Sperry suggests that, as time goes by, the leadership provided by narcissistic leaders will seem “less than genuine.” 15 In reality, the narcissist is more interested in the sparkle and glamour of well-orchestrated illusions than in real life. 16 This is most unfortunate. As Steinke asserts, charisma is a cheap substitute for charis (grace). 17 The narcissistic leader is more interested in using the congregation than in encouraging its members toward true life in Christ.

The Objective of Congregational Up-building

In Ephesians 4:7–16, Paul explains that leaders within the church are called to function in support of the “building up” of the body of Christ. Contrary to this, insists Maccoby, when narcissists function in positions of leadership, destructive outcomes are “inevitable.” 18 Thus, when narcissists are placed in the role of worship leader, they will tend to conduct themselves in a variety of ways that undermine the objective of up-building within their arena of influence.

First, worship leaders commonly work cooperatively with other members of the church’s leadership toward the achievement of a larger vision. However, narcissists do not see themselves as just members of the team. Their vision centers in the pursuit of a personal legacy of great achievement. Thus, narcissists are not interested in striving toward collective goals. They tend to see their vision as superior to that of others. They do not understand others’ desire for give-and-take, but rather expect everyone to bend to their will. When leadership-level decisions are made that are contrary to their interests, narcissists are likely to perceive this as an attack and to react unproductively. 19 In essence, cooperative work at a leadership level is not likely to go well.

Second, the development of healthy worship teams is crucial to contemporary worship ministry. However, an inability to trust others seriously distorts the narcissist’s ability to contribute to the formation of healthy worship teams. The narcissistic worship leader will demand the undivided devotion of team members. Their role is simply to “mirror” the narcissist’s grandiosity. 20 In essence, says Steinke, the team becomes a “circle of charm.” 21 Narcissists will not engage in discussion with team members and cannot tolerate dissenting opinions. 22 They value loyalty more than truth-speaking. Team members are expected to function as “yes-men.” 23 As a result, worship teams led by narcissists will tend toward “groupthink.” 24

The team’s health also is hindered by the narcissist’s preoccupation with self-promotion. Narcissists are indifferent toward the needs and well-being of team members. They will take advantage of their team to further their personal goals. Because narcissists need to be perfect in order to feel special, they often overwork their teams and pressure them with unrelenting demands for perfection. 25 This devalues team members’ sense of accomplishment. Narcissists often will transfer responsibility for failure to their team members. 26 Narcissists’ grand dreams cause them to institute sudden changes, offer few details, and demonstrate little ability for follow-through. 27 Over time, these patterns can be de-motivating to the members of their team, and can lead to a loss of creativity and enthusiasm.

Third, worship leaders should contribute to the building up of the body by encouraging others to develop their gifts, talents, and leadership capacity. However, the excessive investment that narcissists make in themselves prevents them from investing in others. 28 On the rare occasion when they mentor others, they are likely to focus on those devotees who are willing to become molded into the narcissist’s image, thereby reinforcing the narcissist’s sense of grandiosity. 29 Narcissists are plagued by envy and see the recognition of someone else’s accomplishments or abilities as a threat. 30 They view others as competitors and frequently assume that these competitors possess ulterior motives. Thus, narcissistic worship leaders are not likely to demonstrate a willingness to empower others if doing so poses a risk to their narcissistic supply.

Fourth, a commitment to evaluation and improvement plays an important role in the up-building of the church. However, despite their tendency to drive their teams toward perfection, narcissists often are so self-engrossed that they fail to engage in self-evaluation and self-criticism. 31 They are more concerned with their image than with results. What they desire is to be perfect enough to be beyond criticism. In pursuit of this, narcissists tend to become rigid, repetitive, and predictable. 32 They commonly lack personal creativity and choose to avoid unfamiliar situations. As a result, the potential for growth is lost. In addition, narcissists are resistant to feedback from others. Their low self-esteem causes them to be hyper-sensitive to criticism. They feel threatened when confronted with their shortcomings or weaknesses and thus tend to reject others’ criticisms. Others are likely to perceive them as closed-minded or un-teachable. Because of these factors, worship ministries led by narcissists often evidence little meaningful growth over time.

Fifth, conflict inevitably occurs as a by-product of change and growth within the church. Thus, it is essential that worship leaders be able to respond constructively to conflicted situations. Narcissists, however, are intolerant of disagreement. They have a stunted ability to understand another person’s perspective. 33 They do not listen well when they feel attacked and often grossly misinterpret others. They will react explosively if their “false front” is questioned or if their sense of control and grandiosity is threatened. Narcissists are prone to identify scapegoats, to project their own shortcomings and negative emotions onto others, or to demonize those who challenge them. Often, they will respond to confrontation by deceiving, covering things up, distorting facts, or simply rewriting history. Thus, narcissistic worship leaders simply cannot be counted upon to deal with conflict in ways that contribute constructively to the building up of the body of Christ.

RESPONDING REDEMPTIVELY

Congregations often are prone to take the easy path by quickly forgiving a narcissist’s destructive behavior. 34 Of course, it is crucial to remember that the narcissist’s dysfunction is born out of deep brokenness. Thus, it is important and appropriate to demonstrate grace.

This being said, by overlooking destructive behavior, the congregation merely permits the narcissist to continue in his or her self-serving ways. 35 The narcissist’s needs cannot be permitted to undermine the church’s calling to worship authentically and to be built up into “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Thus, the narcissist must be held accountable. 36 The church’s leaders will need to adopt a no-nonsense attitude, define boundaries and lines of authority, see to it that power is shared, and assure that others are being protected. 37 Some narcissists will simply refuse to cooperate. However, the church might actually help others to become more authentic worshippers themselves and to grow in the likeness of Christ.

NOTES

  1. Kenneth A. Moe, “Report to the Presbytery of Grand Canyon” (September 20, 2002), 1; available from http://www.pbygrandcanyon.org/pdfs/exec_pres_report/epr_sept02.pdf; internet.
  2. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2000), 717.
  3. Theodore Millon, “DSM Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Historical Reflections and Future Directions,” in Disorders of Narcissism: Diagnostic, Clinical, and Empirical Implications, ed. Elsa F. Ronningstam (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1998), 78; Peter L. Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006), 165.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Aaron T. Beck and Arthur Freeman et al., Cognitive Therapy of Personality Disorders (New York: Guildford, 1990), 361–62; Curtis Birky, “Preparation for Church Conflict,” in Reformed Review 58, no. 2 (2004/2005): 99; Steinke, 165.
  6. Len Sperry, Ministry and Community: Recognizing, Healing, and Preventing Ministry Impairment (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 14; Ben Brown, “Narcissistic Leaders: Effectiveness and the Role of Followers,” Otago Management Graduate Review 3 (2005): 72.
  7. Doris Nauer, Rein Nauta, Henk Witte, Religious Leadership and Christian Identity (Hamburg-Münster: LIT Verlag, 2005), 202.
  8. Sperry, 18.
  9. Samuel D. Rima, “The Insecure Pastor,” in Enrichment Journal (Fall 2007); available from http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200704/200704_044_Insecure.cfm; internet.
  10. Birky, 99.
  11. Steinke, 169.
  12. Sperry, 18.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Wayne E. Oates, Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior (Louisville: Westminster, 1978), 45.
  15. Sperry, 14.
  16. Samuel Vaknin, Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited (Skopje, Macedonia: Narcissus), 398.
  17. Steinke, 171.
  18. Michael Maccoby, “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” in Contemporary Issues in Leadership, ed. William E. Rosenbach and Robert Lewis Taylor (Cambridge, MA: Westview, 2001), 281.
  19. Brown, 75–80.
  20. Steinke, 165.
  21. Ibid., 168.
  22. Maccoby, 288.
  23. Steinke, 168.
  24. Ibid., 169.
  25. Ibid., 170.
  26. Vaknin, 430.
  27. Oates, 45, 46.
  28. Steinke, 166.
  29. Maccoby, 289.
  30. DSM, 714, 715; Beck and Freeman et al., 241; Gary I. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 99.
  31. Steinke, 167; Oates, 45.
  32. Vaknin, 449.
  33. Birky, 99.
  34. Steinke, 170.
  35. Moe, 3.
  36. Steinke, 175.
  37. Vaknin, 528; Sperry, 21–22.
Cory Seibel serves as Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and Worship Pastor at Bethany Mennonite Brethren Church in Fresno, CA.

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