Gaslighting for God, Part 4
How Narcissistic is the Church?
Credit: nakedpastor.com. Used with permission.
As Michael Camp of the Spiritual Brewpub Podcast aptly observes,”Because of the way evangelicalism is structured—authoritative, charismatic leaders are held up, church authority, heresy hunting for anything ‘non-biblical,’ and a general non-intellectual approach to theology—it naturally attracts narcissists to become leaders. They find they can easily impress and control their flocks by using various religious threats, warnings, and manipulations, and thus feed their pathology.”
The church is one of the safest havens for narcissists on the planet because unfortunately, on the whole, people are addicted to charisma, strength, power, and sure-ness, and narcissists are awesome at delivering that. I hate to say it, but it feels true–people love being sheep and keep mistaking wolves for shepherds.
As reported in Psychology Today, while many consider narcissism to be on the rise (see The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell) and this is often blamed on the millennial generation, the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder remains pretty stable at around “0 to 6.2 percent in community studies,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 2015
Most Christian leaders whose behaviors resemble the characteristics I referenced in Gaslighting for God, Part 2 tend not to fit the clinical criteria for this diagnosis. Simply put, this term only applies when the person's narcissistic traits reach a point to where their life becomes significantly impaired. Spiritual narcissists tend to possess enough charm and charisma that they are often exalted as visionary thought leaders and other exemplary terms by those who only focus on their glowing press releases and bank accounts. In other words, the very traits that render certain Christian leaders unable to form real human connections and display any signs of genuine empathy and compassion can catapult them into the media spotlight and lauded as the "next big thing" destined to "save" Christianity. (I kinda thought that was Jesus' job but I digress.)
People who exhibit many of these tendencies often find themselves on center stage in either in the pulpit or on the Christian conference stage, where much of this behavior is encouraged and rewarded. Imbued with the spirit of self-righteousness, these charismatic author/pastor/speakers utilize tactics such as "love bombing" that is in fact a form of"trauma bonding," a hormonal attachment caused by repeated abuse sprinkled in with just enough outpouring of "love" gestures to convince echos, empaths, and other like minded souls to continue following them.
In addition to displaying narcissistic traits, these faith based leaders layer on the added layer of God-talk and Christian-ese. Their charismatic persona and message convinces their followers they are members in a special tribe of "chosen" people, whereby spiritual blessings will only come to them if they buy into their message. Here the term buy is used both metaphorically and literally. For one to be accepted as a member of their theological tribe, one has to both buy into the message, as well as buy their products. It's that whole pay to pray while they prey cycle.
These ungodly gurus misuse religious texts, ecclesiastical titles and other signifiers of their particular brand of faith to justify their behaviors. Even though they may mouth the appropriate words needed to sound sincere and spiritual, they do not live out those principles as evidenced by the recent rise of the #churchtoo movement, which grew out of the grassroots #metoo movement and focuses on abuses by Christian leaders. These stories pointed to the preponderance of toxic behaviors that could be found in Christian leaders ranging from the most progressive pastors to their fundamentalist brethren.
Don't think I don't see you mainliners mainliners, progressive Jesus followers, and a/theistic pseudo academics sitting off in the corner like some smug teenager watching their evangelical enemies get called on the Christian carpet. You might want to re-examine that whole examining the log in your eye before calling out your neighbor’s speck dealie. (See Matt. 7:3-5)
True, denominational systems can serve as a check and balance against unbiblical behavior. But all too often, this hierarchical structure produces ample opportunities for bishop butt kissing and other moves that point to celebrations of power not prophecy.
Add to this un-missional mix the ungodly guru dynamics present in more secular spiritual settings such as such as Shambala Buddhism, Bikram yoga, tantra, and NXIVM. Soon it becomes crystal clear that when given the media spotlight, any spiritual guru can demonstrate narcissistic traits, and even signs of sociopathy including going gonzo on those who call out abuses in their midst.
Now, I'm not addressing the need to recognize and avoid the troubles caused by unethical and unbiblical behavior in general. Plenty of books have been penned about the damage wrought by toxic and abusive church and other spiritual groups. Rather, I am examining those placed in positions of power within Christian and other spiritual settings who lack the ability to express empathy or compassion towards others, as well as the planet as a whole. How did they rise to be seen as spiritual authorities while others I've met who actually walk the walk toil away in oblivion?
In his book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse, author and licensed therapist Chuck DeGroat describes how churches are particularly susceptible to phenomenon called "collective narcissism." He defines this as "a phenomenon which the charismatic leader/follower relationship is understood as a given."
This collective narcissism can evidenced most plainly by the fury their followers hurl at those who dare question the teachings of their favorite spiritual guru. Challenge the spiritual status quo and you're now considered to be unsaved and damned to hell (or h-e-double toothpicks if they are Southern Baptist). Simply put, these followers, who are often drawn to these charismatic leaders in a quest to heal them from their abusive and traumatic wounds have now turned from being abused victim seeking salvation to abusing those deemed the enemy by their spiritual leader.
Throughout his book, DeGroat points to how "in recent years we've witnessed too many instances of charismatic Christian leaders gaining a massive following, both within the church and on social media, only to be exposed as manipulative, abusive, and dictatorial." Typically, followers, who by now were been conditioned to respond like Echo to the Narcissus-like behaviors of their now fallen leader either leave the church all together or find themselves in another church setting with a similar Narcissus/echo dynamic.
Thus the spin cycle continues. Rinse, recycle, repeat.
So, my question is "Just how crazy then is the church?" Any academic wants to check her theory by looking at the facts. Unfortunately, the statistical evidence is thin in this regard. According to anecdotal surveys, clergy are among the top professions that attract those with these tendencies. A 2015 survey presented to the American Association of Christian Counselors revealed that pastors with NPD are to be found in all areas of the country at rates 400%–500% higher than are found in the general population, which as I've noted earlier is about 1% to 6% of the total population.
A cursory review of the latest "Christian" bestselling books, podcasts, and other forms of media point to a robust audience very much eager to pay for products produced by these spiritual narcissists, as if to ensure some resonance of the myth of Narcissus and Echo throughout the institutional Christian church. As long as the Christian media industry and its counterpart the institutional church continue to benefit from the money and publicity generated by these self-appointed spiritual gurus, this dynamic will continue.
Lest we fall into a pit of despair a la The Princess Bride, I see signs of hope on the horizon. In addition to DeGroat's work, the presence of online sites penned by those connected to the Christian community and critical of it like Steve Arterburn, Kathy Escobar, Brad Sargent (aka Futurist Guy), Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, Naked Pastor, Warren Throckmorton, and Wenatchee the Hatchet all point to signs of a shift towards addressing this pattern of narcissistic abuses impacting the US Church, and by default, the United States as a whole.
Armed with this growing awareness of narcissistic energies, we can learn when to walk away from those setting that may present as a healing oasis but are in fact Christian-led cesspools. Once we leave behind that spiritual stench, we can then seek out actual living water that can truly transform us and connect us together in our shared humanity.
But first we needed to identify the different types of spiritual narcissists that can infuse and impact our souls. That's next week's lesson.
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