The Narcissistic Pastor

(Photo Credit: Alex Eben Meyer)
(Photo Credit: Alex Eben Meyer)

Let’s be honest. When Christian communities bequeath massive amounts of responsibility to their pastors and effectively cut off all chances at healthy/accountable relationships, pastoral ministry tends to attract the narcissists like sharks to blood and moths to flame.

Pulpits make fantastic narcissism incubators.

Narcissism roughly means “self-aggrandizement” and refers to the Greek myth about Narcissus – the boy who heard that he was beautiful so often it caused him to fall in love with his own reflection.  He never again turned away from gazing into a pool of water.

It’s so tough, being beautiful.

Most people have fairly normal bouts of pride, but narcissism involves an abnormally delusional perception of self importance.  Humans exhibit narcissistic behavior now and again, particularly in our youth, but we tend to grow out of it.

Narcissists do not.  Everything in the world continues to revolve around the “me,” even into adulthood.

So what does the narcissistic pastor look like? 

I’m a humble person, so I’ll merely recount the characteristics of narcissism as identified by Sam Vaknin (himself diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder). His thoughts are in bold.

Like I said I’m too humble to know any of this firsthand. Having worked, lived, confided for, and studied with many pastors, however, I know that it touches our profession intimately. Comments following the boldface reflect my actual experiences working in the church.

1. Feels grandiosity and self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements & talents to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

Obscures the truth about their seminary credentials and consistently makes a point of highlighting personal stories that cast themselves in a positive light while preaching.  This might include bragging about tithing more than most, mentioning various degrees, marathons, impressive gifts, and family accomplishments– all in the course of one sermon.

2. Obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequaled brilliance, bodily beauty, sexual performance, or all-conquering love/passion.

Speaks often about their visions of growing their ministry/church to the point where the giant church building will need an even bigger satellite to transmit their teachings across the globe.  At the same time, they don’t feel the need to prepare well before teaching, because they’re smarter and more theological educated than most of their congregation.


3. Firmly convinced that they are unique and, being special, can only be understood by, and should only associate with, other special, unique, or high-status people and institutions.

Ecumenical functions are extremely important when they bring more attention to these pastors, or perhaps affiliate them with people they respect, but become utterly unimportant (or even destructive) when they feel that they, or their church, are better than the churches/pastors meeting together.

4. Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention & affirmation – or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious.

They get upset when someone joins their ministry and benefits from their groundwork, but forgets to give them credit at any and every moment. They use fear tactics, explosive episodes of rage, and manipulation to control the dissenting members and employees of their churches, while overemphasizing their relationships with those perennially supportive (and outspoken about it). Much of this happens behind the scenes.


5. Feels entitled. Expects unreasonable, special, favorable, and priority treatment. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her expectations.

There aren’t many people on the church board to tell them “no” or hold them accountable.  They make certain that they’re above accounting for any of the time/money that they spend from the church budget (if there even is an official budget), feeling entitled to spend these however they wish, even unethically.

6. “Interpersonally exploitative”, using others to achieve his or her own ends.

Relationships between them and memebers are manipulative and many people in the congregation owe them a favor.  It isn’t uncommon to hear them speak about people as objects either “for” or “against” them.

7. Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with or acknowledge the feelings and needs of others.

There are more important things that they need to attend to than the feelings of the annoying old ladies who keep trying to take up their office hours.  Ministry has made them pragmatic;  they love people, but they also know how to develop a thick skin toward criticism and the problems of others.  Most requests and needs seem unreasonable to them.

8. Constantly envious of others and believes that they feel the same about him or her.

Any successes in the ministries of those around them, which cannot be attributed to them in some way, are threatening and seen as competition.  They assume that others are after their authority/ministry/position. When a member volunteers to play music, teach, etc., they think the member must believe that they can do better than them.

9. Arrogant, haughty behaviors coupled with rage when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted.

They keep their seething anger in check around most, but reserve it for the few who dare suggest they’re in need of some help.

Beside these nine patterns, the narcissism of a pastor manifests in other ways like unnecessary risk taking, problems in sustaining satisfying relationships with coworkers, and a complete lack of boundaries.

The effect this leadership has upon churches is truly sad.  It tends to form congregations (and families) which operate on the principle that what you do and what you look like are much more important than who you are.  Half of the church will be frustrated by the manipulation and self-infatuation of the pastor while the other half is completely unaware of it – sometimes leading to animosity between members or even a church split.


How do we deal with narcissism in the pulpit?

If you find that you identify with these characteristics:

  • Please seek help.  There is nothing better that you can do for yourself, as someone who may struggle with NPD, or for your family than talking with friends in the ministry and calling up a counselor or psychologist.

If you are working for a narcissistic pastor, try the following:

  • Tone down praise and support so that you’re not expected to give it out
  • Don’t share too much of your own expertise unless you must
  • Write down conversations with dates and times
  • Keep track of your work daily
  • Find an outside person you can talk to that will give you healthy perspective
  • Keep your options open and find another position before being fired (or developing an emotional disorder)

If you attend a church with a narcissistic pastor there are a few things you might consider:

  • Make sure that you’re not simply criticizing leadership when your frustration is really with something else
  • Become part of a healthy check-and-balance to the pastor’s influence by creating boundaries and limitations
  • Don’t expect them to change readily
  • Find another church

Wherever you’re at, dream with us about creating and supporting healthier forms of church leadership.

And join us in “asking the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field…

Especially workers that know whose field it is.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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  • Eric Johnson

    Great article! I feel like normally people sit there idol when their pastor is grandstanding continuously. If they do half the things mentioned here In a holier than thou mentality, something must be done. How can you spread gods word and not be humble?

  • AL

    I see that you know the pastor at the church I left….

  • Dada

    What is missing here is how to deal with a narcissistic pastor who is in your employ. The pastor reports to a board of elders or deacons and there is a divide created when some of that board is swept up in the narcissism and the others recognize it and call the pastor to account. What ensues is slander from the pastor and those some board members splitting the board and often splitting the church.

  • Daniel

    Well written, and far from limited to Christian Pastors. I am a Rabbi and I work under a Rabbi who fits at least half, if not more, of these criteria. I am going to take these suggestions to heart. Thank you.

    • I suppose you’re right. I’m less familiar with personality disorders and their effect upon leadership in other religious traditions, but I’m curious to see how it plays out in the life of the group (and if they have better resources for addressing the issue). I can speak for my own tradition and say that many Christian churches set themselves up for this sort of thing.

  • Susan

    We had a minister like this in our organization (a mission organization rather than a church per se). He almost destroyed the organization, and split supporters in such a way that a smaller portion thought he was Jesus incarnate (he often implied that what he was doing was Jesus-like) and a larger group that almost came to feel he was the Devil incarnate. (Apparently this splltting of groups is typical of narcissistic leaders – people end up either worshiping them or loathing them.) He only left because he was paid $90,000 to leave; he threatened to sue if we didn’t pay him and we were too traumatized not to (plus we had mission work to do, rather than fight in court!). We are still recovering 3 years later. He also ended up leaving the denomination, apparently feeling we weren’t Christian enough, because we didn’t follow him.

    • Threatening lawsuits as a way of silencing previous church boards/ministries/etc. or getting them to “comply” is an all too common (and horrible) tactic. I’m sorry you had to experience that – it’s the ultimate refusal to bear any sort of accountability and is very far from Jesus-like.

  • The fact that you repeatedly insist that you are “too humble” is a red flag. The truly humble do not see themselves as humble. The moment you think of yourself as humble, you aren’t.

    • Allen O’Brien

      It was intended to be tongue-in-cheek 😉

      • Oh, okay….gosh. Our dear church is currently under the reign of an NPD pastor and we repeatedly hear him refer to his own “humility.”

        It’s a misery.

      • That is awful. Hopefully things improved?

  • Julia Hubbel

    This is a classic case of “physician, heal thyself.” In innumerable places in the Bible, in any religious book are plenty of warnings against such egotistical, self serving, even evil behaviors. When personalities become so deluded- it speaks a great deal about a congregation that they are so blind, or not familiar enough with their own Bibles (or other doctrine) that they cannot see the behavior right in front of them.

    First thing I want to see: what is that leader driving or being driven in? What kind of clothing does s/he have to be seen in? What kind of (ten million dollar , Joel O’Steen) mansion do they live in?

    Then I see the pope getting driven around in that tiny Ford. Living in a simple apartment and eschewing so much of the grandeur his predecessors were only TOO happy to enjoy.

    If you are it you walk it. If you believe it, you act it. If you are passionately of your faith you don’t need adulation. You are deeply humbled by your nothingness if the face of what you perceive to be the Almighty. And you set the example.

    I am neither Christian nor Catholic. I am however inspired by people of great faith, who demonstrate by their EXAMPLE what it means to have faith and act in concert with it. Sermon on the Mount pretty much lays it out in clear language. The narcissists who led the churches in my home town set me running for the hills. I find God in everything- and am reminded of His presence by truly good people who have no need to suck the life out of others- especially in places of worship- where I feel it is even a more heinous crime than in big business.

  • Anonymous

    Jehovah’s Witnesses to a T

  • Thanks for this, Allen. Too true 🙁