It’s Narcissist Friday!
For most of us who consider ourselves Christians, the church represents a place of comfort and safety, a community of support. Yet, many of those who struggle against narcissism find the church to be far less supportive and comforting than they need. Time and again I get the comment that the church leaders wouldn’t listen or help, or even that they support the narcissist against the victim. I have heard some horror stories about how the church became part of the problem.
It is obvious that this shouldn’t happen. Of all the helping organizations, the church should be the strongest voice against narcissism. But it isn’t. Here are my thoughts as to why…
First, the church is full of compromise, particularly in areas where narcissism lurks. Let’s look at a few:
Money: Narcissists may not be big givers, but they usually want church leadership to think they are. They depend on the confidentiality expected in regard to giving. So most church leaders will look at the narcissist and expect him to be generous. Who wants to rock that boat? Church leaders know that the victim will have nothing.
Leadership: Often the leaders are impressed enough with the narcissist to place him in leadership. If they discover that to be a mistake, it will be too late. He will already have found ways to control them and maintain his power. If they don’t see their mistake, it may be that they look past his characteristics because of the same ones in themselves. I mean that many church leaders have narcissistic tendencies. That’s why they aspired to leadership in the church.
Image: For so many in the church, image is everything. Their local church must be superior. They have the one true message and they practice the one true way. To admit that there is trouble among the membership is hard. They don’t want to hear it and, if they must, they will try to quiet it as quickly as possible. This is often true in all kinds of abuse situations. Even in a day where public organizations and leaders are required by law to report certain abuse, church leaders still try to cover it up or handle it “in house.”
Legalism: I think many churches are unwilling to acknowledge narcissism because it is so close to the legalism they hold. It’s all about image and performance and measuring up to standards. Depersonalization is just the way things work. It is common for people to be rejected and abused in legalism and narcissism may be seen as one person attempting to do right while another holds him back. The leaders often don’t see any difference.
Unity: If a narcissist has a presence in the church, he probably has a following. If he is rejected, others will leave or take up his defense. Then the leaders will have a problem. Loss of unity might mean loss of people and loss of people might mean loss of money and loss of image. The victim is rejected because it might damage the unity.
Compromised churches certainly have reasons for ignoring the victims of narcissism. But there are other reasons churches fail to help.
Some have been so robbed of authority that any intervention into a marriage or family situation seems impossible. Who are the church leaders, even the pastors, to tell a husband or wife or parent what to do? Leadership in churches isn’t always compromised, sometimes it is just weak.
Some are poorly equipped to counsel, especially at the intense levels needed by a narcissistic relationship. Many pastors and church leaders haven’t even heard of narcissism; or what they have heard is just the popular portrayal of the person whose ego is too big. They have no idea what the victim is suffering and have no context in which to learn. Pastors have so many other problems that they can rarely give more than pat answers for common situations.
And some have bought into the idea that we can change others by changing ourselves, no matter who those others are or what they are doing. In other words, they blame the victim. If you were just more loving, more prayerful, more gracious. If you tried harder, he would change. Blaming the victim only makes things worse.
Well, I would guess that is as depressing for you to read as it is for me to write. What are we supposed to do then? We are Christians and we look to the church for support. Can’t they do something?
So I want to give some suggestions. I do believe that the victim of narcissism should find help in the church and support from the leaders. I just want you to be careful.
First, don’t use the word “narcissist” when you go for counsel. I can almost guarantee that it won’t have the effect on others that it has on you. Instead, tell the pastor or elder or whoever what is happening. Be gentle, but share your pain. Watch for sympathy or empathy. Do they listen? Do they ask questions to understand? Or do they preach at you and minimize your pain? Do they pray for you to change or for the Lord’s help in your situation?
You should feel the difference between these approaches. If it appears that they just want to straighten you out so that you will leave them alone, then leave them alone. They don’t want to help. If all they have for you are pat answers or blame, then find your help somewhere else.
And have a reasonable expectation of what you want from the church leaders. They can’t reach in and fix your narcissist. They probably won’t tell you what to do, even if they do listen and care. But they can pray with you and stand by you. They can listen and try to understand. They can study narcissism and help you find a counselor. They can even help you when the whole situation hits the fan.
I know pastors who have gone far out on a limb to help people in narcissistic relationships. I know churches that have helped with thousands of dollars of legal aid and counseling expense. I know church leaders who have stood strong alongside victims to protect and support. Some do listen and some do understand. Don’t give up.
It is worth trying. Go to your pastor and ask for his ear. Tell your story without embellishment and without a lot of blame. Tell what you feel. Then wait and see. If he chooses not to help, okay. Find your support somewhere else. God will deal with him.