Narcissistic spiritual leaders hold their followers captive. Masking their own inner fears, they are powered by overblown egos and become tyrants of domination and control. Possessing an unbearable lack of self-worth, they compensate by projecting an image of themselves as wonderfully intelligent and competent. Their coping mechanism is their style of social interaction. They isolate or destroy those who see through the façade and draw around them people who will believe their lie.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man who eventually died having fallen in love with his own reflection. Unable to cast his gaze away from his own beauty, he finally died and a flower named narcissus grew where he lay.
Today, Narcissism is a personality type exhibiting a number of traits. The term has recently become the go-to description in pop psychology. Everyone, it seems, is either married to, has a relationship with, or has a boss who is a ‘narcissist’. The internet hosts innumerable self-help advisers who capitalise on this trend.
While this can rob the term ‘narcissist’ of any significant meaning, it does highlight a social and practical problem. Those with pronounced narcissistic traits often end up in positions of power and control – in politics, business and the church. Ideally-placed to give free reign to their own brand of ego-mania, narcissistic church leaders must be called out.
While the ego problem remains central to us all, leaders who possess high narcissistic traits present a particular difficulty. High in manipulation and low in empathy, they bully their way through until they have unscrupulously gained full control. That journey is strewn with human wreckage in the wake of narcissistic drivenness disguised as strong leadership and moral virtue.
For the narcissist, everything is about public image. They craft their own publicity and create false narratives to bolster their popularity. They reinforce their projected image, often by performing ingratiating acts of public flattery, handing out bouquets and heaping self-serving accolades on those whom they wish to influence. Somehow, everything ends up being about them.
Alongside this, they breed fear by making examples of those who oppose them. A chilling effect follows and people become reluctant to criticise, consciously or unconsciously knowing their positions or jobs are on the line. A narcissist will rarely do their own dirty work. Instead, they manipulate behind the scenes and recruit others to act for them, sometimes without realising they are being used.
There is no greater pretension than the claim to represent God. When true, it’s a wonderful thing. But when the motive is self-promotion or domination of others, it’s most diabolical. The pressure that a so-called spiritual leader can exert on followers is almost unlimited. That’s why safeguarding must be in place. We must know how to identify, confront, and, if possible, correct those in the grip of narcissism.
If you suspect someone is behaving narcissistically, you should draw immediate attention to it. The problem is, those who fit the profile are the last to admit it, and are impervious to criticism. Those who have been drawn into the role of narcissistic enablers will also be unlikely to help you. You could invoke accountability structures, if they exist, or not already biased. Nevertheless, it is important to speak up and present evidential support for your concerns, not least for the sake of the victims. If everything else fails, you still have one final option to protect yourself – walk away!