Book Review: “When Narcissism Comes to Church.”

Over the summer I’ve read 11 books. Some are better than others. Some more impactful than others. Some I read more quickly. But this is one I read with a keen interest more so than any of the other ones because it’s a subject that I think is so very important and just isn’t touched on at all.

There are tons of books about growth in churches and books about change and transformation in church (some of my favorite topics, but this may be the only book on narcissism). Church DeGroat, the author of this book as done a fabulous job of touching on a topic that every leader of a church should read for the sake of the church.

If I shared every spot I underlined in this book, this post would go on for pages and pages and pages. So instead, I’m going to highlight what I’m deeming to be the very most important parts. And I want to encourage you to get this book and read it. Because it’s just that important.

Here’s the core thesis of DeGroat’s book as summed up on page 4, “Western culture is a narcissistic culture…The same vacuousness we see beneath an individual’s narcissistic grandiosity can be found at a collective level in American culture, evidenced most recently in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. While we tell ourselves stories of American exceptionalism, we hide what’s beneath – fragmentation, systemic racism, ethnocentrism, misogyny, addiction, shame, and so much more. We’ve got a problem – all of us. It’s an us problem, not a them problem.”

DeGroat goes deep into what narcissism is really about – shame and control. Whether we are talking narcissistic pastors who overcompensate for their lack of self worth and shame by making themself more than what they are through grandiosity, or by creating environments of anxiety, or narcissistic systems propping those in authority and with persona, the church is sick with narcissism and has been for a long time. And it is shooting itself in the foot by not dealing with this challenge. And it has and it continues to hurt far too many people along the way.

“Churches are particularly susceptible to a phenomenon called ‘collective narcissism,’ in which the charismatic leader/follower relationship is understood as a given. Jerrold Post argues that a mutually reinforcing relationship exists between leader and follower. The leader relies on the adoration and respect of his follower; the follower is attracted to the omnipotence and charisma of the leader. The leader uses polarizing rhetoric that identifies an outside enemy, bringing together leader and followers on a grandiose mission. The followers feed off the leader’s certainty in order to fill their own empty senses of self. Interestingly, in this mutually reinforcing relationship, both are prone to a form of narcissism.” (pg. 23).

Why is this attractive – DeGroat says that people want to be part of something special and that the system often compares itself to others and finds others wanting.

DeGroat spends an entire chapter on what narcissism is actually about – a lack of self-love. Or as he calls it immobilization, an inability to move off a false sense of who a person really is. A false self is creates to protect oneself and the person can’t move on from this false self – the hurt of dealing with the real is too much. Wow. No wonder you’ll see grandiosity and attention seeking, impairments to empathy and intimacy, being out of touch with identity all associated with narcissism.

After this DeGroat goes on to talk about the spectrum of narcissism – there is a healthy narcissism and an unhealthy narcissism – You’ll need to read about this.

At this point, DeGroat starts to move into practical application. He used the Enneagram and talks about the faces of narcissism, or what narcissism can look like in different settings based on the type of narcissism that you might be dealing with (shame, anxiety, or anger). At the end of this chapter I wrote the following commentary:

In all of these there are themes – chaos vs. control. The narcissist will cause chaos so they can feel in control of it. But really it is a projection of what is going on inside of them and their lack of control.

Chapter four and five are about narcissistic pastors. DeGroat loads these chapters full of stories that left my jaw dropped more times than I thought possible. And at the same time, I was not surprised. I have come across many wonderful pastors in my life. Many pastors who are devoted people of God. And I have come across others who are narcissistic to the core. They are destructive. They trigger people. They are controlling. They seem intent on taking ministries with them to the grave, rather than letting go of control. While their outward presentation is one of love, there is really no love at all – it is about control. They embody narcissism as DeGroat has defined it. This isn’t just sad, it’s harmful. And it’s counter productive for the church and the Kingdom of God. The Church has to do a better God of weeding out these individuals for the sake of protecting the flocks and the communities in which the churches are doing ministry. Waiting out these narcissists is no longer an option.

DeGroat shifts to what to do. Here’s the key – “…change can only occur from the inside out, as those invested in the change process experience transformation themselves.” (Pg. 106) Change can’t be imposed from outside. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’re talking about churches after all. But it’s not easy – it never is. “Grandiose systems often resist change, however. They resist because grandiosity works. Integrity gives way to pragmatism; honesty gives way to illusion. The status quo is much easier than the work of becoming self-aware, evaluating, naming reality, letting go, grieving losses, and embracing new pathways.” (Pg. 107)

So what does a healthy church system look like?

DeGroat identifies the following things:

1 – “healthy systems value and build up everyone in the system, maximizing the benefits for all without exploitation.” (Pg. 111)

2 – “While success in its healthiest sense is valued, it is not accomplished by grandiosity and exhibitionism.” (pg. 111).

3 – “The leadership’s health much be assessed.” (Pg. 113)

4 – “A system inclined to health demonstrates a relentless curiosity, particularly in its solicitation of other perspectives.” (Pg. 113)

Finally DeGroat talks about healing – healing from being a victim of narcissism, and healing that is possible when someone is the narcissist. I hope that’s the case. There is certainly plenty of healing that needs to happen.

Overall, this is a book that needs to be widely read in our churches and talked about – not just in passing, but in serious conversations. I appreciate DeGroat’s efforts in this topic and hope it has a major impact on our churches.

DeGroat, Church, When Narcissism Comes to Church. 2020. Intervarsity Press.

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