Pastoral Narcissism The shadow of ambition
It was a silly thing to do, but I couldn't stop myself. During a "get to know you" conversation with a few acquaintances and a man from the church I serve, we were talking about interests, passions, and areas of ministry. I tried to keep the focus on others at the table. But then it happened.
The man from my church made a statement that I interpreted as making light of me. The fuse was lit, and within a few moments I managed to work into the conversation the areas where I was leading and the wide impact of those projects. I subtly reminded everyone what our church had accomplished in the city. I even managed to throw in some attendance figures for good measure. I pushed everyone else out of the conversation's spotlight.
When it was over, I felt like I had binged on junk food. Self-loathing set in: I hate it when I do this, and I hate it even more when I do it as a servant of Christ. Why do I keep falling into this temptation?
I've been through this cycle enough to know that when I feel my capacity or identity as a leader isn't sufficiently honoured (and when, really, does anyone ever feel that?), I slip into the sin of self-promotion. But how do I stop?
T.S. Eliot wrote, "Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them ... or they do not see it, or they justify it ... because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."
Although our mission in Christ is to do good in this world, we will actually do harm if our deeper mission is to feel important and "think well of ourselves." Eliot's words forced me to ask, how much harm do I do to my family, my friends, the people I am supposed to lead, all because I want to think well of myself?
Recently I came home to find my wife researching narcissism on the computer. We have been in counselling for a few years and during a session where we discussed my relentless ambition, the phrase "narcissistic leanings" came up. My wife was researching the concept to see if it fit me and what the implications might be for our marriage.
At first she was embarrassed that I caught her, but I was interested as well, so we read the characteristics of narcissism together on the screen.
My immediate thought was, this isn't a problem for me. Narcissism is the adulation of the self, the diminishment of others, and often expressed as reckless ambition. Nothing could be more inconsistent with the character of Christ the self-sacrificing servant who sought only to do the will of his Father. How can I be a pastor, a servant of Christ, and struggle with this?
But as we read the definitions online, without saying a word we both knew we were reading an accurate description of me. I am a believer and yet I remain a sinner. I am a pastor and I'm often a self-promoter. I endeavour to serve Jesus and I also have narcissistic tendencies.
What I've come to see since that day, is that I am not alone. Many other church leaders share this struggle to one degree or another. We may not all be full-blown clinical narcissists, but we share that bent toward insecurity and selfishness. Most gatherings of pastors will usually include subtle or overt self-promotion. I'm not the only one who has used attendance numbers or new initiatives or "my vision" as a badge of self-importance.
Although I'm now aware of my tendency and what triggers it, I don't pretend to have it solved. This is simply my effort to be honest about our struggle with ambition and self-promotion as pastors, and how we can address it.
There is a long and celebrated history of church leaders who struggled with narcissistic tendencies — starting with the original disciples. After following Jesus for some time and recognising His power, these (probably younger) men debated with each other "Who is the greatest?" They jockeyed for power. Who would be closest to Jesus? Who would get positions of honour?
I remember when those kinds of questions were mine. As a young man, I knew Jesus loved me and that I wanted to serve him. My mentor, Bryan, shared with me a quote from D. L. Moody's biography: "The world has yet to see what God can do with one man that is totally committed to him." Apparently when Moody heard this from a preacher, he decided he would be that man. The quote had the same effect on me. It awakened an ambition in me to do great things for God.
Having great ambitions is a good and necessary thing. The problem was how I defined greatness. I was measuring significance as the world does, rather than by the standards of God's kingdom. When Jesus heard His disciples arguing about greatness, He reminded them of the counter-intuitive nature of His kingdom. "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and a servant of all" (Mark 9:35).
Jesus does not say to stop pursuing greatness. Instead he redefines it: The last will be first. The humble exalted. The small will be big. Those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel will gain it.
Yet it is hard to find that perspective today, even within the church. Self-promotion and worldly definitions of significance seem not only to be tolerated among pastors but even expected and encouraged. How many people are following me on Twitter? How's the traffic on my blog? How many Facebook "friends" can I count? How's our church's "brand" value?
The opportunities for self-promotion are proliferating.
But there is an antidote to these temptations. I've come to recognise the good and healthy tension between my personal calling and ambitions and my community. To understand our personal ambitions, we must be dear about both our sense of calling and our commitment to a community. It is the tension between these two that I lose or win the battle with the sin of self-promotion and narcissism.
Rooting my calling and ambitions in my community helps keep me from slipping into a self-centred focus. Without the community, it becomes all about me, my ministry, my dreams, my achievements. Community is used by God as a guard against this tendency to self-promote.
First, in community, we learn to "tell on myself" in a consistent way to the right people. Just as with other kinds of sin, confessing our struggle with self-promotion opens the way for help and healing. Community keeps us accountable.
Writing this article has served that purpose for me. I debated with Leadership's editors whether or not to put my name on this article. I worried it would be seen as yet another form of self-promotion and therefore distract from the message. We decided to include my name as a way of "telling on myself" and openly confessing. This brings a better accountability. Hiding our sin only gives it more power and control over us.
Second, keeping our calling anchored to a community also reminds us of the imago Dei in others. God has blessed and gifted others in significant ways for the benefit of the whole church and his mission. When we pursue only our own ambitions, we lose sight of this and add fuel to our narcissistic tendencies.
Inherent in God's design for people is that we do life together. We see this dynamic in marriage, in family, and in our local congregations.
Third, rooting ourselves in community prevents us from the relentless pursuit of personal platforms. I was recently part of a conversation where a number of Christian leaders were talking about their "personal brands". A brand is the (emotional) experience someone has when they hear your name, see your image, or think of your ministry. As the language of branding seeps into the church, more pastors are thinking about how they are perceived. It puts the emphasis on individual leaders rather than communities of believers. It elevates image and impressions above the always messier reality.
The drive to build my personal brand tempts me to seek platforms to use my gifts rather than serve my community, perhaps in ways that will never be recognised. I try to counter this temptation with a circle of friends and mentors who have access to my schedule. By opening my calendar to others, I am forced to consult with them before committing to another event, meeting, or trip. They help me to keep merely personal ambitions from ruling.
Without the help of my community, I would not have the tools or strength to resist another opportunity for me to "do something great of God".
While rooting my calling and ambition in my community has helped curb temptations of self-promotion, it is not a silver bullet. This is because pleasing our community can slip into another kind of narcissism — people-pleasing.
Sometimes being a faithful leader means doing things and making decisions that will make us unpopular in that community. When we avoid these harder parts of our calling in order to please the congregation, we may still be serving our narcissism and need for approval. It is another way of "thinking well of ourselves".
So there is a tension between being committed to our community (which keeps our calling within healthy boundaries) and being committed to God's calling upon me (which keeps our community from having too much power over our leadership).
So now I recognise the twin temptations: pleasing people and pursuing personal platforms. Both extremes are disastrous.
So I confess: I am a pastor and a narcissist. There, it feels good to get it out. I'm still struggling, and I know others are as well. But together we can flee these temptations and pursue humility and faithfulness. I pray that a generation of "recovering self-promoters" can resist our narcissism and help our churches do the same.