This post is the fifth post in a series based on a conversation with Rich Plass on the Saturate Podcast. You can listen to the episode here. 

Jared Pickney: Rich, we know you’ve done a lot of work on narcissism and pastoral ministry. I’m interested from your perspective, how does church leadership attract and fuel narcissism? What are you seeing big picture-wise?

Rich Plass: Well, if you look at it big picture, what’s a narcissist interested in? Typically, we know a narcissist is interested in themselves, and we know that clergy typically score higher on narcissistic scales than the cultural mean, the average person in the culture. Narcissists are interested in power, position, and fame. They’re interested in being the center of attention. There’s this old adage, who’s a narcissist? The narcissist is the person who’s the corpse at every funeral and the bride at every wedding.

They are the center of attention. Pastoral ministry and even community group leadership can make you the center of attention, and narcissists are drawn to that, and they’re drawn to that position of power and control. They like to receive the praise, and if not praise, the attention that they receive when they stand up in front of other people, and the kind of social notoriety that persons will have when they’re in leadership positions as a pastor or community group leader in a church community, in a neighborhood, in a town/village/city.

Narcissists are attracted to those places where they can be recognized, affirmed, acknowledged, and where they can exercise control, and where they can exercise power, and they can receive the adulation of others. If they’re savvy, they can be very relationally manipulative to engender those sorts of responses of adulation and praise and thanksgiving. They’re kind of adored, and that fits the need of the narcissist, to have their egos inflated. It fills the need for a sense of grandiosity.

The challenge is that the typical narcissist is not very empathic. Because they are not very empathic, their relational manipulation usually exposes them. Now it may take a decade or so, but eventually, it will expose them. And when it exposes them, it usually is not pretty. Usually, it is the beginning of the end of that community because the narcissist, you see, has built a community around him or herself, and they’ve been overly dependent on that community.

And so, if the community ends up feeling manipulated and used, which they eventually will, then the narcissist in the exercise of their power, will tend to get angry and rage at various dimensions of the community, and that really signals the beginning of the end.

Jared Pickney: What’s something you’d want to say to the leaders who long to make disciples in a North American context?

Rich Plass: Really, really good question. I’m really convinced that the evangelical witness of the Church in the 21st century in the Western world will be a relational witness because there are going to be persons, many, many persons, who have no idea how to do relationships so that their lives feel, in some measure, fulfilled and they have a sense that they are thriving.

While the gospel shall ever be true, and the truth of the gospel shall ever frame and shape Orthodox Christianity, the truth of the matter is, our apologetic is not going to be the compelling expression of ideas as much as it’s going to be the quality of our relationships as the people of God.

That’s exactly what Jesus was getting after when He said, “You’ll know my disciples by their love for one another.” He did not say, “You will know my disciples by their theological acuity.” He didn’t say that. And so, He pushes us to this relational witness, if you will, as a community of faith.

I love reading theology. I love God’s Word. I want to grow in it. I want to immerse myself in it. I want to hear the voice of God on a regular basis. I want to submit myself to my pastor’s preaching of God’s Word. I want all of that for my soul and for my wife and for my family. I want all of that.

But I also have to have the realization I must really come to know myself so that I am an integrated and whole person, that I’m not dismissing parts of my life where I’ve been wounded and injured, where I’m not neglecting pieces of me and pretending I can ignore them, that I can dabble over here or dabble over there in untoward literature or material that I know isn’t helpful. But rather, God’s calling me into a way of being that’s fully integrated. I think holiness is a life not just of moral goodness, but it’s also a psychological integration where I’m not living from parts, but I’m living holistically, and all of me comes before the Lord.

I think for leaders to be that kind of disciple-makers, if you will, to be that kind of man or woman who leads out with the presence of Christ in their lives, it’s really dependent upon the health of who they are, both in terms of their spiritual lives but also in terms of their own relationship with themselves and the relationship with others. That they are growing in who they are and how they understand themselves, but also maturing in the depth of their relationships with their spouse, with their children, grandchildren, friends, and even parishioners to the extent that they’re capable of doing it in light of the limits that ministry places on us.

Jared Pickney: That’s fantastic. Are there some practical things that we can begin to do to try to cultivate those healthy relationships starting today?

Rich Plass: Yes, one of the things you absolutely must do is you must have somebody in your life who knows you other than your spouse. You must have somebody who you’re talking to about your journey and that you’re sharing your heart with. It’s a journey of being known and knowing. There’s this wonderful section in Anatomy of the Soul as Thompson begins his book where he says, “To be healthy is this journey of being known. We all long to be known.”

And that’s the nature of our relationship with God. We become known to God. God becomes known to us, and in that, we can become healthy people. And so, persons need a friend where they can be known to one another. It’s not just accountability, but it’s really a learning to do intimacy and connection with another human being by sharing our hearts. And I think too, the practice of these contemplative disciplines… If we’re going to be engaged in the world, we must practice what Jesus practiced, and that’s pulling apart from the world and centering ourselves in the Word of God in prayer, and we need to be able to tolerate and engage times of solitude and silence where we can be still and know that God is God.

Jared Pickney: That’s excellent. Very good. Rich, thanks for your time. We really appreciate you.

Rich Plass: You’re welcome. It’s my privilege. God bless you all.

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