The term narcissist gets thrown around a lot and tends to be misused. To many, a narcissist is someone who thinks too highly of themselves, but there is more to it than that.
According to Melinda Smith and Lawrence Robinson of HelpGuide.Org, “Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pattern of self-centered, arrogant thinking and behavior, a lack of empathy and consideration for other people, and an excessive need for admiration.”
Smith and Robinson state: “Communal narcissists tend to view themselves as altruistic and claim to care deeply about fairness. They present themselves to others as supportive and selfless. However, their behavior is motivated by a desire for social power and a sense of superiority or entitlement. Because of this, their actions don’t always match their beliefs.”
Communal narcissists are attracted to the church where they find easy prey to get their needed narcissistic supply, such as power, praise and admiration. When they do not get narcissistic supply, they inflict emotional and spiritual injury on unsuspecting church members and staff.
Smith and Robinson describe covert narcissists as “extremely sensitive to criticism” and noting that they “suffer from low self-esteem.” As a result, “they can be defensive and passive aggressive.”
The covert narcissist acts undercover, making them difficult to spot. They are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, making you question your reality and leaving you wondering why you feel abused. This state of confusion makes it difficult to pinpoint what exactly is going on.
If it feels like abuse, it is abuse. The abuse cycle keeps you off guard.
First, the narcissist is nice to you and may do things for you to gain trust. Then, they may be distant and uncommunicative, but you sense their silent rage. Later, they release their anger over a perceived personal attack and the next minute they are calm, especially if you apologize or fall in line with what they want.
Then, the cycle of abuse starts all over again. However, once they know you are on to them, and you are no longer of use to them, they will discard you.
The narcissist’s behavior is a contradiction to how a Christian should behave. Eventually, the wolf will emerge from the sheep’s clothing. When this happens, church members or staff may forgive and let this pattern repeat itself again and again.
Attempting to provide negative feedback, no matter how tactful, will most likely result in an angry, hurtful response. Or you may experience passive aggressive behavior, not understanding what you did to warrant that response.
Covert narcissists have a good understanding of human psychology and are excellent manipulators. They cleverly use triangulation and blame-shifting tactics.
For example, I once told a ministry leader that I was hurt by his mistreatment of me. His response was cool, defensive and unempathetic. I said that his response lacked support and empathy and that an apology was in order. He cut communication and did not apologize.
He then proceeded to discuss this interaction with others (triangulation) and said that he was hurt by my expression of hurt (shifting blame), thus making me look bad and him appear as the victim. I removed my exposure to this unhealthy person by establishing and maintaining a “no contact” boundary with him.
The covert narcissist can go undetected for years, hurting a lot of people along the way. They disguise their true character and surround themselves with what psychologist’s call “flying monkeys.” They are “yes” people who will do whatever the covert narcissist wants without questioning their actions and decisions. It is their way, or no way.
Pastors and other leaders tend to have access to personal and confidential information that can be twisted and used to manipulate victims and others. It is advisable not to confront the narcissist alone. Any perceived personal attack will not be received well, and the wolf will likely appear baring its teeth.
If someone were to report a narcissistic leader, it may not accomplish anything, or it may not end well for the victim. For this reason, it is important for a church to have a formal process in place to handle complaints brought against a narcissistic leader.
As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers. Victims must be able to safely come forward and tell their stories to put an end to narcissistic abuse in the church. If not, abusers will continue to claim more victims, and more houses of faith will devolve into unhealthy situations for clergy and laity alike.
Author’s note: If you or someone you know is a victim of spiritual abuse, go to the denomination’s convention, presbytery, synod, etc. website to learn how to file a complaint.
A graphic designer, photographer and writer, she graduated from Meredith College with a BA in Psychology and Communication and resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.