It’s Narcissist Friday!
Ted Haggard, a name you might remember, is serving again as a pastor in Colorado Springs. Jim Bakker has a television show and ministry. Bill Gothard is back with a new ministry and new books. Mark Driscoll just announced the opening of his new church in Phoenix.
Each of these men were disgraced in their former ministries and brought shame on the name of the Lord. But, like so many others, they just waited a while and then went back to work. How and why does this happen?
For several years I served my branch of the church in disciplining pastors. That involved investigation of accusations, organizing groups to judge the truth of these accusations, and suggesting limitations or disqualification of future ministry. This was a challenging and unpleasant job. Part of what made it so difficult was the rapid way these men could and would return to ministry. Most denominations today have a “restoration” process that begins almost as soon as the accusations are proved true.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether the pastor cheated on his wife or stole funds from the church or was cruel to his staff and domineering in the church. The goal seemed to be getting these guys back into the pulpit. The assumption was that they would learn their lesson, repent, and we would all forgive them. Just like that.
Sometimes Romans 11:29 was brought to the table:
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Besides the fact that their interpretation of that verse is in error (it is a reference to God’s choice of Israel), the Bible itself shows that those who misuse their calling can be set aside. Narcissistic pastors who abuse their people and position should not be allowed back into ministry.
Of course, not all pastors are narcissists, nor are all who fail morally. But it has been my observation that those who were the most abusive of their people and their ministry were the ones who found a way to return. We might wonder why they would want to risk all the trouble again, and why the people or the system would encourage them.
Returning to ministry is rarely a financial decision. There are many jobs that would pay more. Some of these folks still had income from investments and books, and skills that would transfer to other work situations. No, the need is different. Rehabilitation of narcissists is very difficult, certainly not a process that can be adequately handled with a few counseling sessions. The addictions to attention, worship, and power are not overcome easily.
Returning to ministry validates the narcissist. Yes, he may have messed up, but it was the result of outside things. Too much church pressure, too much interference from others, too much temptation, too much work, too many expectations. Getting back to work allows the narcissist to prove that he is not a pervert, not a crook, not as bad as some have said.
Returning to ministry reopens the feeding grounds. Being alone, even with just family, is almost a death sentence for a narcissist. There must be a source of supply. The addiction that had been fed by the adoration of loyal minions cannot be replaced by selling insurance or working construction. Ministry provides so much more than other occupations for narcissists.
Returning to ministry proves the need of the people for what the narcissist offers. As long as there are followers, the narcissist is needed. A new book of lessons learned through the trials. New lessons that can be taught to the masses. The narcissist is so important that ending his ministry is a disservice to the church. He (or she, of course) is convinced that the people need him.
Okay, so we see why the narcissist would want to get back, but why would people allow it? Why would they want to associate themselves with a new ministry by one of these guys?
The leader’s return offers validation for those who stood by him. His charm and control carried their support through all the troubles, now they feel that his return to ministry is a way to prove to their critics that they were right all along. He was just a good man who slipped up, or was misunderstood. They know him better than his accusers.
The leader’s return validates the system that credentialed him in the beginning. How could the system have allowed such a person into ministry in the first place? What about all those leaders who stood with him in the pulpit, who appeared to approve of his ministry? They want this person to prove his real worth so they don’t look bad. The system that sent him into ministry wants him to show that he can handle things and do well.
The leader’s return offers a closer relationship with greatness. Just like there are always people wanting to connect with famous people who are in prison for murder or other gross crimes, there are those who will run to the pews when they hear that a famous person is in the pulpit, no matter what he has done. Maybe he will shake their hands after the service, or teach a Bible study they can attend in his living room. He will know their names, and they will be closer to him than they ever could have been before the trouble.
After a drug overdose, the only way to assure safety and avoid recurrence is abstinence. Small amounts of the drug will begin the addiction process again. The failure of a narcissistic pastor or leader is much like a drug overdose. The accumulation of power and adoration escalates and causes compromise and failure. To allow, or worse, to bring, the leader back to ministry may simply be the beginning of another addictive process. People will be used and abused until failure happens again.
But what if it doesn’t happen again? What if the new ministry is both successful and not abusive? Well, then maybe the pastor was not a narcissist, but just someone who got caught up in the opportunities ministry can give for self-service. Or maybe the narcissist has learned how to operate better within the system. Or maybe it just hasn’t happened yet.