The Pulpit Bully

It’s Narcissist Friday!   


President Teddy Roosevelt was amazed at how people listened to him when he became president. Simply because he was president, his words were important and his opinion mattered. He considered the presidency a “bully pulpit.” “Bully,” to Roosevelt, was a way of saying something was great or special or superior. He thought the presidential platform was a wonderful way to get people to listen to him.

As the meaning of “bully” changed to that of a person who exerted superiority over others, the meaning of bully pulpit changed in much the same way. Some people think that a pulpit or podium or position gives them or others a right to force their opinions on others. The person in the pulpit, or up front, feels superior and the crowd accepts his superiority. He is the expert; the rest are the uninformed. He is the professor; the rest are the students. He is the preacher; the rest are the congregants. The pulpit infers and confers the superior position.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that narcissists would find their way into pulpits and podiums in our culture. What better place for their image to be enhanced and honored than in front of a crowd? Politicians, preachers, community organizers—all are positions narcissists find useful.

And using the pulpit for manipulation and influence just comes with the opportunity. Not only does the person in the pulpit look and feel superior, but he understands Roosevelt’s assessment. This is a great way to force people to hear and honor your ideas. So the preacher/politician/narcissist uses the pulpit/podium to control.

I knew a pastor, many years ago, who brought every new couple into his office for counseling. He would learn their secrets and then use that information in the pulpit. He would say things like, “There’s someone here this morning whose marriage is on the rocks because of pornography.” He never pointed to the people or said their names, but he didn’t have to. Some folks left quietly, and the church attendance suffered. But many stayed because they were afraid of what he might say about them. He would use the information he gathered to humiliate them if they dared to disagree or stand against him.

I have known pastors who used the pulpit as their own political propaganda microphone. Not only did you know how they were going to vote on issues, you were made to feel unspiritual if you didn’t agree with them. Contrary to what some people think, using the pulpit to promote the preacher’s political opinion is not against the law unless that position is officially adopted by the church and endorses a candidate. But in some churches the preacher’s opinion is difficult to separate from the church’s official position.

I have known preachers who used the pulpit to rail against people who disagreed with them on some church issue. There was no opportunity for a challenge, no counterpoint. This unfair method of “discussion” is perfect for narcissists, because they don’t value the input of others and don’t want to hear the voices of those who disagree. Not only can the narcissist speak without objection, but he can make his opinion sound superior or more spiritual. After all, he’s the one in the pulpit.

I have known preachers who used the pulpit to scold wandering children, disobedient wives, and uncooperative husbands. They say they take advantage of the platform to “counsel” from the pulpit, but they are really just scolding and abusing their place. They alienate people who come to hear words of encouragement and love. They see themselves in the position of God’s prophets to challenge and judge.

I have known preachers who seemed to believe that their strong “moral” positions in the pulpit somehow covered their immoral activities elsewhere. They could lie, steal, cheat, fornicate, and abuse without feeling conflicted because the pulpit allowed them to sound and look better than they were. Nor did they worry about the normal consequences of their behavior because of their superior position. After all, everyone should be careful about making accusations toward the “anointed” one.

Yes, the pulpit, in many churches and many political organizations, confers an anointing on its resident. Others may try to challenge the position, but the one in the pulpit is clearly the one chosen. To challenge the chosen one takes both courage and power.

So the pulpit enables the bullies. Some were bullies before they found the pulpit. Others became bullies once they achieved the pulpit.

The preacher is called to teach what the Word says. To do anything else is to step beyond the role of the preacher to the role of spiritual bully. And, in a day when the people have easy access to the same Bible the preacher has, the people must be free to disagree or challenge the pastor’s interpretation. There is a place for higher learning or advanced study, but the preacher’s role is not to dictate or pontificate, but to reveal the simple truths that all can see in the Scriptures.

The role of the politician, at least in the US, is to represent the people, not tell them what to think. He/she should share information so that the people can be better educated, but not in a way that makes the politician seem superior. But the podium also creates bullies.

Why are there more narcissists among the preachers and politicians?

Because pulpit bullies enjoy the bully pulpit.


Filed under Narcissism

22 responses to “The Pulpit Bully

  1. anne graziano


    Is it o.k. to “re-share” your articles on a Google + page?

    Your articles hit home for a lot of people…thank you!

  2. Kitkat

    Yet another great article on a subject we desperately need to understand.

  3. Annette

    Keen observations. And yes, narcissists like to listen only to the sound of their own voice.

    They systematically seek out positions of influence. Such positions provide them not only with the adulation every narcissist craves but also with cover for their evil ways. When you are in a position of influence, it is much easier to fleece the unsuspecting people who look up to you and trust you.

  4. Anthea

    Even the position of “Head of Household” in a patriarchal family is enough to allow a bully to force their opinions on others. I accepted my husband’s opinions as superior for decades, because he insisted they were right, and I would be sorry otherwise.

  5. Celeste

    An all too common reason for choosing the pastorate is “liking to preach”. With that qualification, too often, comes the phrase, “I believe God is calling me to ministry”. Ugh! In truth, the call of Jesus is all the time to all people. It is not a one time ticket to move into the pulpit.

  6. Penny

    To reference a previous posting, a church (or a Bible study or a fellowship) with a bully in the pulpit is not a “safe” place.
    They are wolves in wool.
    Avoid them.

  7. abidinginHim

    Thank you for this post. This is exactly the kind of ministry we were under for over 7 years. Towards the end of our time there, I unsuspectingly got pulled into a “biblical counseling/friend” relationship where the same bullying continued in our meetings for over 2 more years. Somehow she had info on me and my family which she used to verbally, psychologically, & spiritually bully me in our meetings. The depths of confusion all of that created for me was overwhelming. God is good, however, and He led me out of it all, and continues to heal me.
    Praise God.

  8. Excellent article, David. Thank you. By the way, I wrote my latest post before I read this post! Be blessed.

  9. Mark

    This is very timely. I left an abusive church, and have been growing in one that is quite the opposite. The sermon this Sunday was on humility. My abusive church taught humility all the time, which was that each individual member should have no self-esteem, because we’re completely sinful. However, at the same time, we needed to give our leaders 100% obedience because somehow the “process” they went through to become eligible for eldership or pastorship guaranteed that they were men who should be obeyed and esteemed (notice the hypocrisy here).

    But, this pastor said that humility and self-esteem, while related, are not the same. We (himself included) need to understand our self-esteem in Christ (he said, we’re “AWESOME”) and our self-esteem apart from Christ (we “SUCK”), but he did not differentiate between the members and leaders. We all need to have Spirit-guided sober judgment of ourselves. Quite a different approach than I’ve heard where pastors latch on to the “YOU” pronoun when they talk about how self-esteem is sinful.

    • Mark, I suspect that one of the litmus tests for pulpit bullies would have something to do with the “you” pronoun. In writing, it is a very powerful tool to use. It clearly makes a distinction between the writer/speaker and the audience. It also puts the writer/speaker in a superior position and makes his/her words prescriptive. Consequently, it should be rarely used from the pulpit. Thanks for pointing this out!

  10. hazelnut

    Oh boy! does your article ring true Pastor Dave …much experience and overwhelming confusion and pain under my belt with those that use the pulpit, elder-ship and head of the family to oppress and overpower those that only want to do what is right in God’s eyes. …looking through my own eyes and trusted supporters now with God’s guidance …healing.

  11. Rachel

    “He never pointed to the people or said their names, but he didn’t have to. Some folks left quietly, and the church attendance suffered. But many stayed because they were afraid of what he might say about them. He would use the information he gathered to humiliate them if they dared to disagree or stand against him.”

    At my current church the pastor does this! It makes me livid every time he does it! One Sunday he said, “I can say this because these people no longer go here”. He never said their names. But, he did use their secrets as an example in his sermon. I found that be an act of manipulation. And, it told me to NEVER EVER tell him ANYTHING about myself.

    Should I leave the church? I really really want to. But my parents won’t let me. I’m not a minor. I’m an adult however this is considered to be the “family church”. My Mother wants us all to go to church as a family. It means so much to her. But, I really dislike the pastor’s bullying.

    • New Creature

      Rachel, I am a little concerned that you are “not a minor” and yet your “parents won’t let you leave the church.” I don’t know your situation. Perhaps you are still very young and living at home and it would make sense that your parents still have a lot of influence. But if you are of majority, healthy parents would support you in making more and more independent decisions for yourself. I feel mature parents would support you in finding a church that can better serve you and where you can better serve (It’s difficult to serve well where you have to keep your guard up all the time.) I wonder if it would be possible to find a church that is more suitable for you but then come back to visit the family church on special occasions. Just a thought.

      Regarding “protecting your family,” I think you have warned them already. Sometimes people are just not ready to hear/accept the truth. Maybe they will have to get burned before they understand. You have fulfilled your responsibility by pointing it out. It is not your responsibility to make them buy into it or even to protect them. If they are adults, once warned, the responsibility is theirs.

    • abidinginHim

      Rachel- I agree with New Creature. I have adult children, and did enjoy having them attend the same church with us for a time. Unfortunately, the pastor actually used their involvement in his small group to find out more information about our family, which he used to judge and hurt us further. When we finally left after it became clear to us what was going on, our entire family left. It was very a very difficult time, but we encouraged our children to make their own choice about leaving, while at the same time, making it very clear why we were leaving. We were open and vocal about what had been happening. All of my children have searched and visited different churches. Some are married and some are single. I respect their right to seek the Lord and find a place where they desire to worship. For some of us, we’ve needed to step away from organized church, so that we can get grounded again in our relationship with the Lord, and that’s OK too. Unfortunately, it isn’t an easy task to find a church where the preacher is satisfied with simply preaching the Word, rather than using his position to play the Holy Spirit or whatever else it is he’s trying to accomplish.

    • Hi Rachel! I can only imagine how hard this is for you. Here’s a wild idea. Is there another church you could attend in addition to the church your mother goes to? Could you go to both on a Sunday, or go to the other on a Saturday night? That might do some things to help you. First, it would be your church. You would attend your mother’s church, but also have your church. You begin to build an identity separate from hers. Second, it might give you the spiritual nurture and encouragement you need to be strong in the other church. You don’t have to listen or agree or even expect spiritual support from your mother’s church. You attend there simply out of duty and loyalty to your mother. Third, your family may never have felt able to attend another church. You might break through a wall that keeps them in bondage. Perhaps you could even, one day, invite your family to attend your church. You might pay a price, but you are still doing what your mom wants and it will be hard for her to argue with that.

      I understand the pressures family can have in our lives. I agree with others here that the best thing would be for you to break away and do your own thing, but that can happen more gradually than you might think. Just an idea…

  12. Mark

    Rachel, keep in mind that the elders talk to the pastor, and people talk to the elders and pastor. So, really what I think you’re saying is that you really can’t tell anyone in the church what you’re struggling with because it’ll probably end up getting to the pastor.

    That was my old church. Everyone wore a mask. It was okay to struggle with not reading the Bible enough, or not praying enough, or maybe being angry with the person who just wasted an hour of your time at the DMV, but everything was fake. We heard sermons about how bold we should be about our unique doctrine, but not so much how to be gracious and loving. Actually, love meant beating someone over the head with our unique doctrine because they were probably going to Hell if they didn’t believe it.

    I finally came to the conclusion that I had far better things to do with my Sundays than put on the mask and listen to ear tickling and hear about the non-struggles everyone else had while talking about my non-struggles. But… there are REAL churches out there and they are so different.

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