Those readers who have been following this blog for a long time, will know that there is one particular word which I come back to over and over again. The word, a somewhat technical one, sums up for me much of the issue about bad religious leadership. The word is narcissism and its adjective narcissistic. It is possible to become very technical in describing exactly what the word means within the psychoanalytical literature. Freud use the word but others have refined its use in a somewhat different direction. For the sake of this post I will define narcissism as the self inflation that an individual obtains by being at the centre of adoration and admiration. It is a word associated with show business and anybody who takes centre stage within an organisation, including the church. One particular author in Australia, Len Oakes, wrote a fascinating thesis on the way that charismatic leadership in the church and narcissism have a great deal in common. He was able to identify narcissistic behaviour in the leadership of some charismatic churches in his own country.
The other day I came across a Twitter statement on the topic of narcissism. The writer, one Boz Tchividjian, shared this thought. ‘Narcissistic leaders feed off those who crave their attention and affirmation only to spit them out when the feasting is finished.’ I thought that this use of a feeding metaphor was very powerful. Like many metaphors it draws on an experience common to all. In this particular case it is a metaphor which transcends all cultures. Boz has also captured the way that the narcissistic relationship works in two directions. In return for the satiation of his appetite for being placed at the centre of people’s adoration, the leader is offering to his followers attention and affirmation. It is a relationship that is for a time mutually affirming. We have all seen this dynamic at work, particularly in the world of many Christian charismatic superstars who preach to vast audiences. The famous preacher is one who like celebrities in other cultures has a kind of magic which the followers believe will somehow rub off onto them when they get close to the object of their adoration. People behave like this around royalty, rock stars and other kinds of celebrity. The smallest act of attention by the leader or adored person is treasured and remembered for ever. We can try to convince ourselves that the idol or revered leader who may look in our direction has been concerned about us personally, even if only for a fraction of a second. What we fail to realise is that it is the combined adoration by hundreds or even thousands of fans that gives to the superstar his narcissistic gratification. The contribution of any particular individual in this process is of little or no importance. It is the crowd as a whole which gives him what he wants.
Narcissistic behaviour on the part of popstars, certain church leaders or other celebrities, has also a still darker side. In recent years we have become familiar with the phenomenon of groupie sex between impressionable women and their adored stars. The dynamic of this kind of exploitative relationship is not hard to understand. The magic of being in the presence of the one who has been adored from a distance allows the young impressionable woman to surrender to anything that is suggested by the adored quasi-divine celebrity. Such relationships are a clear example of a gross imbalance of power and by definition they are abusive and exploitative. The celebrity may feel that he has an entitlement to such ‘perks’, but this is part of the narcissistic trait which has begun to become ingrained because of this constant exposure to fame and adulation. What I want is what I get. The popstar, the celebrity or the charismatic leader is well on the way to becoming like a pampered child who cannot deal with anybody opposing his wishes. Such behaviour can also be the prelude to various forms of addiction, drugs and alcohol or pornography. Instant relationships which focus on sexual gratification and which bypass the need for courtesy, consideration and respect, may provide something in the short term. In the long term the narcissistic exploitative individual has become a victim of his own addictions and life will probably end up full of tragedy and despair.
Narcissistic behaviour in the church will not usually have the more spectacular examples of the extremes that we sometimes see in pop culture. Nevertheless, to return to our metaphor, some church leaders are guilty of feeding off their parishioners in a variety of similar ways to that of celebrities. A need to be at the centre of attention is not by itself immoral but it will be bad for both the leader and the led if a narcissistic culture exists within a particular congregation. To put it simply and bluntly it is bad for a church leader to exploit his flock by using them as cheer leaders and ‘worshippers’, just as it is bad for members of the congregation to hold up their leader in an exaggerated form of veneration. The purpose of belonging to a church, the worship of God and discovering his will for your life, is hardly going to be enhanced by this kind of dynamic.
What is the solution to this kind of unhealthy dynamic when it occurs in the church? The first thing is for us to be aware when it is happening. At present the kind of energy exercised by a charismatic leader is applauded and regarded as being an example of church life and growth. Nobody wants to challenge ‘success’ when there are signs of vigorous activity in the church. Full churches and the presence of young people are held to be signs of life blessing on a ministry. The suggestion, as we make on this blog, that all may not be well in this kind of culture is never going to be a popular one. The church sees these ministries as attracting both young people and copious amounts of money. Both of these are in short supply in many parts of the church. At present there is no solution to the problems of narcissistic behaviour in the church, simply because only a very few people have woken up to its existence and its potential to cause havoc in the lives of individuals. Has anyone else observed the dynamic of ‘feeding’ on the part of leaders and subsequent ‘spitting out? I certainly have and this metaphor brings fully alive a real problem in our churches which we need to address and talk about.