When I recently read The #MeToo Reckoning, I posted that it’s not the only reckoning the church is facing. Having just finished When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse by Chuck DeGroat, this is what I was thinking about, but I didn’t have the words to describe it.
Myself, I’ve served and resigned from two full-time church positions. I’ve had many conversations with fired church staff, and the statistics of ministry employment do not paint a pretty picture. I was also part of a massive layoff from a well-known church whose narcissistic leader’s sins had come to light and severely decreased the church’s giving. The narcissistic leader was gone, but the narcissistic culture was still present.
Narcissism is the other reckoning. A pastor or system that is guilty of narcissism is less likely to go to court or prison, but narcissism and spiritual and emotional abuse are rampant in the church and are causing damage to the pastorate, Christian witness, and the faith of congregants. This is a reality named in Chuck DeGroat’s book. DeGroat is an experienced seminary professor, pastor and counselor who is also experienced in psychology, and he brings biblical stories, psychology studies and church practice together in his writing.
Now, in this book, Chuck DeGroat does something very important up front: defining narcissism. The popular connotation has it all wrong. It’s not arrogance and vanity. Narcissism is unhealthy love of a false self, and necessary reliance on that false self-image. It’s not a struggle that’s limited to the visibly gifted and accomplished, but for all of us. The rightful definition of narcissism and its ubiquity keeps one from using this book solely to point fingers.
DeGroat uses the third chapter and the appendix to explain narcissism’s common manifestations through each number of the Enneagram. Chapters four and five discuss the narcissistic pastor (even though a comparable number of true stories in the book involve a narcissistic non-pastor). Chapters six and seven discuss narcissistic systems and narcissism's effects on individuals and communities. Chapters eight and nine talk about healing for the victims and transformation for the narcissist, respectively. The books concludes with an anecdotal epilogue.
One thing surprised me about this book. As aforementioned, the definition of narcissism is much more inclusive than commonly perceived. Therefore, if narcissism was a virus, then the bride of Christ in America is far more infected and dangerously ill than we estimate.
DeGroat's book is full of true stories of people he's counseled and worked with, and churches he's visited and advised, due to his long tenure of experience and service as a pastor and counselor. From these dozens of heartbreaking stories, only one or two had somewhat of a happy ending. These stories would strike a cord with any pastor who has met a narcissistic leader or system. So much bullying. So many abandoned or abused sheep. So many good shepherds thrown under the proverbial bus. So much injustice.
But at the same time, I couldn't just read this book and point fingers, like many can be tempted to do. DeGroat's book regularly reiterates that narcissism is something that can be found in anyone. Such self-deception and other deviations from biblical love and the fruit of the Spirit are sin, and they're in everyone's nature.
It's not advisable to hand this book to someone, especially a pastor, out of context and say, "You should read this."But pastors, ministry leaders and congregants should read this book. Arguably, the most important books to read are the ones that tell uncomfortable truths. And the truth is that narcissism is a disease in the American Church. It's largely undiagnosed or denied, because narcissistic leaders are seen as "gifted" or "strong," and any church wants to protect its image and reputation. The #MeToo reckoning has come and is here to stay. I fear, however, the potential damage from a narcissism reckoning.