The growing dangers of clergy narcissism, and some humble solutions
By Steven J. Sandage* and David Briggs*
Is your pastor, imam or rabbi a narcissist?
Perhaps they feel intimidated or threatened by others, and are unable to listen effectively to congregation members or staff. The boss clerics may demand the final word on every decision, no matter their qualifications.
If so, your community is not alone.
A new wave of research on religious leadership is finding significant numbers of clergy show evidence of struggling with clinical signs of narcissism.
The troubling discoveries cross liberal and conservative boundaries, and can be found among evangelical, mainline Protestant and Catholic religious leaders, as well as among rabbis and imams.
In 2018, the Church of England decided to consider applying psychological tests to prospective clergy amid rising concerns of narcissism among pastoral leaders.
The issue is a critical one, according to developing scholarship.
An inflated self-image and domineering behavior at the top can lead to conflict or ennui and disconnect that saps the vitality of the congregation. At its worst, a heightened sense of grandiosity and being set apart can lead to abuse.
In the context of the current coronavirus epidemic, there have been several instances throughout the world where the deadly virus has spread after religious leaders ignored warnings about the dangers of holding large worship gatherings.
It is also taking a toll on the clergy themselves.
Recent studies have linked clergy narcissism with greater mental health problems, perfectionism, stress and a lack of empathy for oneself and others.
In one dramatic finding, the latest data from a study conducted by my research team at Boston University indicates that up to 30 percent of the religious leaders surveyed exhibited trauma symptoms at a post-traumatic stress disorder level.
Yet there is a powerful countervailing force, research is also finding. And it is based on a virtue embraced by most of the world’s major faiths:
The humility-religion paradox
“Wearing a collar that designates me as clergy challenges humility because people, even complete strangers, elevate me to a higher status and possibly defer to me in areas that are beyond my expertise.”
From a mainline Protestant minister in mid-40s.
There are professions—such as health care and the military—where leaders are less likely to be humble because they are expected to make life-or-death decisions that may not afford lots of time for discussion.
Consider the clergy, set apart as having a special divine connection, one that in many traditions is charged with being responsible for guiding their followers to eternal life.
Balancing the call to be a humble servant while being expected to have all the answers in matters from faith to what will be served at the congregational picnic is part of what many researchers refer to as “the humility-religion” paradox.
As one middle-aged evangelical pastor told researchers, “It’s hard to be humble when you have to promote yourself as an expert and authority.”
The pressure toward narcissism comes from many sources, including faith community members who place religious leaders on a pedestal.
It is an idea of having a special divine authority that is often reinforced by denomination officials from the seminary forward.
So it is no surprise that many clergy are crossing over the thin line between humility and narcissism.
Recently, teams of researchers conducting several studies of humility and narcissism among clergy are finding several concerns that they say demand attention. The teams included 17 researchers from nine faith traditions affiliated with the Danielson Institute and the School of Theology at Boston University.
Religious leaders are susceptible to both common forms of narcissism, researchers found..
The more prevalent is grandiose narcissism, which can involve filtering out both self-reflection on weaknesses and criticism from others, viewing themselves as enjoying a privileged position with God that makes them superior to others. This can apply to clergy who seek power and control in all aspects of congregational life with manipulative, domineering behavior.
The second is vulnerable narcissism, where individuals still seek status and praise, but also suffer from hypersensitivity, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
They may deny their own needs to meet unrealistic expectations, and feel shame and guilt when they cannot live up to perfectionist standards. The results can be self-destructive.
The narcissism problem begins in part in the seminaries, researchers said, where prospective clergy are ill-prepared for the idealization and effusive praise of many congregants and the unrealistic expectations foisted upon them.
But battling narcissism is also for many part of a lifetime journey.
Clergy can find the demands and privileges of the role can lead to narcissism over time. In turn, this raises concerns that can lead to burnout, to mental health struggles, and to significant relational conflicts that can become very problematic.
The kicker is each form of narcissism can make it more difficult for religious leaders to recognize or address the problem even as their own health and relationships with congregation members deteriorate.
People who have narcissistic traits and low humility often do not tend to ask for help, do not tend to want to acknowledge their vulnerabilities and don’t quickly recognize the limits of their competence.
“I recognize my hard work and effort creates the environment kids want to be there, but having humility is recognizing God at work before me, through me, around me, without me.”
From an evangelical Protestant youth leader in late 20s.
The virtue of humility has gotten a bad reputation in modern life as the province of weak-willed pushovers.
But the scientific consensus that has developed in the last decade defines the virtue as having a willingness to see oneself and one’s place in the world accurately, an ability to acknowledge personal mistakes and limitations and be aware of other’s strengths and contributions, a low self-focus and an openness to learn from others.
The multidimensional approach used by the Boston University team measured such characteristics as: a willingness to engage in accurate self-understanding; a receptive and teachable orientation toward the perspectives of others; low concern for social status combined with strong solidarity with the oppressed; the ability to manage self-conscious emotions, particularly pride and shame; and an appreciation of the value of things beyond the self.
Fortunately, the wave of new studies branching out to look at its application to religious leaders are finding numerous benefits that can moderate narcissistic tendencies.
In a study of 258 religious leaders, Boston University researchers found low concern for status such as the lack of need for special recognition and the willingness to admit when they do not know something was associated with greater positive mental health and lower levels of mental health problems.
Other measures of humility, such as the willingness to view oneself accurately, express appreciation for the strengths and contributions of others and openness, were also associated with greater well-being and lower levels of vulnerable and grandiose narcissism.
Humility among religious leaders can have other special benefits that improve the congregation’s health as well as their own. Research finds having an approachable, listening manner not only reduces conflict but can help clergy build welcoming diverse communities by learning from members of different ethnicities and sexual orientations.
So how can religious leaders move from narcissism to humility?
What can be done?
“As the lead pastor of a church of 90 people, I am looked to as the ‘one’ far more than I would care to be. I work to include others in decisions and get other people up front, so I am not looked to as much. I have no fear of leading, but I think I can have a tendency toward arrogance, so I try to put in things that can help humble me or at least help me think on it.”
From an Anabaptist Christian in early 40s.
In a study involving in-depth interviews with nearly 300 religious leaders, several recognized the need for humility, particularly at a time when polarization in the larger culture is evident in their congregations.
Some said they try to address the issue with practices from prayer and self-reflection about humility to sharing leadership and holding themselves accountable to others.
Clergy also seem to be more receptive to learning about humility as they sense in their own congregations and the larger culture “a time lots of people are having a hard time talking to one another.
But researchers say the new scientific findings on humility and narcissism are only slowly making their way to the pulpit and pew.
These studies suggest several practical implications. They include:
- Education: Prepare prospective clergy for the dangers that lie ahead with formal training, including conversations with more experienced clergy about their own experiences with excessive flattery and deference. Even in a time of tightening budgets, religious institutions need to make resources such as retreats and seminars to help clergy recognize signs of pathological narcissism and to encourage healthy humility. Effective practices can be as simple as not being the first one to speak at meetings or, even better, not going to every meeting.
- Healing: Provide greater mental health resources, and help religious leaders view self-compassion and self-care as signs of strength that will make them better leaders. Privacy safeguards should be assured so clergy will feel free to get the assistance they need, researchers noted.
- Collaboration: One of the great breeding grounds of narcissism is social isolation. Clergy peer groups and close friends can be critical to helping religious leaders accurately appraise their needs. Find people we can tell the truth, research shows, and they will tell us the truth.
An irony of the consequences of clergy perfectionism and authoritarianism is that it can often fall into idolatry.
Religious leaders who place themselves above others in their relation to the divine often become competitors with God in exercising dominion over “their flocks.”
In contrast, an effective path to healthy humility, research indicates, is in religious leaders developing a trusting, secure relationship with God, where they can admit their weaknesses, recognize the gifts of others and turn to their faith for peace in trying times.
In simpler terms, there are times when just “letting God be God” is the most effective approach.
* Steven J. Sandage is the Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology at Boston University and research director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Psychology.
*David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column on new developments in religion research for the Association of Religion Data Archives.
Association of Religion Data Archives: Search nearly 1,000 surveys and find citations for several hundred journal articles for comprehensive information on topics such as humility and related subjects such as gratitude, forgiveness, generosity and social trust.
ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, socio-economic and public opinion data for all nations with populations of more than 2 million.
Briggs, David. Saving grace: The leadership virtue that can help congregations work through conflict. Science is suggesting an effective pastoral response to working through conflict. Humility. Intellectual humility in particular.
Hill, Peter C., and Sandage, Steven J. The promising but challenging case of humility as a positive psychology virtue. The authors consider the unique case of moral and intellectual humility as a virtue.
Prime, Jeanine, and Salib, Elizabeth. The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders. This article reports on international research showing that humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.
Ruffing, Elizabeth, Paine, David, Devor, Nancy, and Sandage, Steven. Humility and Narcissism in Clergy: a Relational Spirituality Framework. Humility is a central virtue in Christian traditions, and it is typically expected of Christian clergy. The authors discuss two key aspects of mature relational spirituality that can help clergy to practice healthy forms of humility and to resist narcissism. Implications for religious communities are discussed.
Ruffing, Elizabeth, Devor, Nancy, and Sandage, Steven. Humility challenges and facilitating factors among religious leaders: A qualitative study. This study asked 273 diverse religious leaders to identify factors within their roles that challenged and facilitated humility for them. Thematic analysis of the responses revealed ways that religious leaders can cultivate humility within and despite complex pressures against it.
Eds: Worthington, Everett L., Davis, Don E. and Hook, Joshua N. Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research and Applications. This book brings together authors from psychology as well as other fields to address what we know and don’t know about humility.
Sandage, Steven, and Brown, Jeannine. Relational Integration of Psychology and Christian Theology: Theory, Research, and Practice Using an approach that is sensitive to theological diversity and to social context, this book puts forward a theological and therapeutic framework that values diversity, the repairing of ruptures and collaboration.