False Teachers, Fallen Preachers and Narcissism in the Church

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”
Matthew 7:15-16 ESV

When I was a little girl, I would get up early and sit on the floor in front of the TV watching D. James Kennedy, the pastor Of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida. He had a calm voice and presence about him that caused me to respect and look up to him.  My Mom, on the other hand,  watched Jimmy Swaggert and Oral Roberts, sending them a little money when she could,  at least until Mr. Swaggert got caught with a prostitute.

For whatever reason for most of my life, I’ve been following different pastor personalities,  especially the bad ones – even though I spent very little of my time growing up in an actual church.  I was fascinated by the stories of men like Jim Jones who had a following of believers who were so mesmerized by him they followed him even to death. I wanted to understand what it was about them that caused others to lose their ability to reason clearly with them.

And now here I am, 43 years old and a victim of spiritual abuse.  Suffice to say, I never gained an understanding enough as to why people follow manipulative spiritual leaders into the ditch, since I wound up in the same predicament. Paul cried as he warned the church about wolves that would come in and tear apart the church. Obviously, he’d seen the bloody carcasses left behind and wanted to do everything he could to prevent it from happening again.  But even with Paul’s warnings so many of us still fall victim to them. Why?

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

2 Timothy 3:1-7 ESV

I don’t have the answers.  I wish I did.  I’d like to spare anyone else from going through what I did, so I’ve told my story over and over again in this blog,  not only seeking to help myself understand why I blindly followed my abusive pastor,  but to help others understand as well.

The position of pastor is an open invitation for personalities who get their needs met by being needed by others.  Recent studies the American Association of Christian Counselors reveal the likelihood of being narcissist pastor is 300 to 500% more likely in pastors than for the average person.  These are alarming statistics!

As I said in my last blog on codependency,  we often look at people who try to meet others needs as  good people, especially if they are a pastor, until we recognize that the person giving the care is out to benefit themselves rather than the other person.  It’s often very difficult to determine if someone really is motivated by love or selfishness.  Most of the time it takes circumstances to reveal what’s motivating someone. Even the best and brightest of us can be fooled.

Being led astray, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with one’s intelligence.

Being led astray, has everything to do with our needs and how we get them met.

As a member of the church who fell victim to an abusive pastor,  I took my membership vows seriously.  One of the vows I took was to submit to leadership.  When I was in need of spiritual advice,(and isn’t it all spiritual since scripture gives us advice on how to deal with most everything? At least that was my logic)I went to my pastor.  I believed with all of my heart that I was being wise and doing exactly what I should in asking him for advice.  Even before I knew him, because of his role, I just assumed his advice would be good, because he was the pastor. When he listened to me and indicated he cared about me it made me feel so good. I needed a strong male role model in my life, and he seemed to fit the bill perfectly. At least until I wound up in the ditch with him.

Maybe it’s impossible for me to understand all the reasons why I followed him so blindly, but I think one of the main reasons was he gave me relief from my pain and the void in my life for a father. And he became like a drug to me.  I wonder sometimes if he’d have offered me poisoned Kool-aid if I’d have turned it up and down the hatch it would have gone. I don’t know, but I do know that we as members and leaders in the church must be aware of our needs and pain and how we are finding relief, because both the narcissist and his victim are suffering from the same faulty pattern of getting our needs met in the wrong way.

Paul teaches us in Romans chapter 8 that the hope God offers isn’t seen with our human eyes, but rather unseen by human eyes and recognized only with eyes of faith.  That’s why I’ve called this blog Our Unseen Hope, so that we will remember to look past a mere man for our hope. We must only look to God to meet our needs.

Maybe we should consider rewriting our church membership vows.  Maybe we should rethink the role of pastors in the church. Maybe there needs to be more counselors in the church. Maybe there needs to be more education and continuing education for pastors. Personally, I believe we need all these things, but I’m no theologian. I don’t even have a college degree, but what I do know is recent studies reveal a very high number of pastors that are narcissists, and that there’s hardly a week that goes by that I don’t see another headline where another pastor has fallen.  I think it is likely that there is a connection.

This week it was someone I still looked up to even after it was revealed a few months ago that he had an affair.  Tullian Tchividjian preached the most convicting and powerful Gospel messages I’d ever heard. He was a very talented and charismatic teacher who was easy to listen to and learn from.  Listening to him, played a key role in helping me determine how destructive the relationship with my former pastor was.  After hearing Tullian preach on the Ten Commandments, I was convinced that I wasn’t loving my neighbor or myself keeping the secrets that I was.  I embraced the Gospel that set me free from my shame and encouraged me to live in the light.  I am baffled that the same preacher who God used to convict me of my own sin, was caught up in the same sin himself.   How crazy it is that Tullian who received the nurturing that I longed for  has still been keeping secrets from those around him who gave him a job and a safe place to heal?  I’ve ranted and raved that the healing  environment our family needed wasn’t provided for us by our previous church.  Instead, I lost my job and my leaders told the whole congregation about my confession.   And since that time I’ve been in a very lonely place.  I have pretty much been out of the church.  And God has been the One who has gotten me through along with a few other Christians who have listened to me, prayed with me, and helped me not to crumble under the weight of my terrible load.  Healing has been a very long process.

I was so thankful when I heard that Willow Creek was providing a nurturing environment for Tullian to heal after he resigned from his position as pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.  I was greatly encouraged that the church was trying to be a safe place for repentant sinners to be restored.  I believed that if the church would provide pastors with an environment where they could admit their sins and get help, perhaps there would be fewer victims of clergy abuse.  I believe that God is a God of Second chances…but for whatever reason Tullian chose to continue to keep secrets even from those trying to help him, and now he has been fired from Willow Creek.

My heart aches for the leaders and friends of Tullian who helped him at Willow Creek.  They are experiencing the same betrayal that my husband and I have known.  My heart aches for all those in the church that he pastored and who have been left wondering who they can trust.  There have been implications of clergy abuse made, and if this is the case I especially pray for any victim and their family. I can assure you they are going through hell.  But I also pray for Tullian.

Tullian, by his own confession, has admitted to being narcissistic. That was one of the things I always appreciated about him was his honesty.  But the truth is too much of this is going on in the church, and I wonder if we don’t need to be looking deeper than the behaviors of the fallen pastors and into the system that they are a part of. Is there a way to do it differently to prevent this kind of thing from happening as much?  What can members and leaders do to make the church a safer place?

The pastor I confessed to a couple of years ago wrote me a letter last week telling me that he still thought about our family and loved and prayed for us.  This pastor admitted that he wished he’d handled things differently after I told him about the spiritual abuse involving my previous pastor who was still attending the church. He and other leaders had strong armed me into writing an apology to the church, but then edited the parts of my letter that explained the spiritual abuse without my knowledge. I emailed him a response to his letter and challenged him to ask himself the question how could he have handled things differently.

He hasn’t sent me an answer yet, and I don’t know if I will even get one. But whether I do or don’t, I hope that he will at least think about it, because I believe the issue is one that needs to be further looked into.

My husband and I are both adult children of alcoholics.  We  have both suffered greatly as a result of our parent’s abuse.  We are now suffering as a result of our pastor’s abuse.  In our pain we have desperately searched for answers and understanding about why it happened. One thing we have recognized about abuse is there is always a system behind it that enables.  We cannot keep others from sinning, but we can figure out ways to help them in healthy ways when they do.

My husband was an instructor for over 20 years in a prison.  He worked with vulnerable men every day to learn a skill, so that one day they could go back into society and have honest work to do.  I enjoyed hearing his stories of how these inmates were released and found jobs.  But the stories I was encouraged by even more, were the ones where he used the talents of the inmates in his program to help him do his job of running a successful program.  My husband and these inmates worked together as a team.   And when my husband was going through difficult time, these inmates were an encouragement to him. In all his years of working there, I never heard him say anything that led me to believe that he needed the approval of these men to keep his ego fed.  Rather, I heard him say how much he appreciated them and wanted to see them do well.

Narcissism struggles to thrive in an environment where people work together humbly a team.

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV

Far too often in churches we place the pastor in a position to tell us what we need to hear, fix all of our problems without taking an active part in the ministry of the church. As the pastor tries to be all these things maybe it’s easy to assume the role of God and become narcissistic.  I think most of us as humans falter under the pressure that power gives,because we all have a sin nature that is very narcissistic.  In many cases we are not working as the body we are called to be. The AA model has proven to be an effective model for healing, but it hasn’t quite made it into most churches. We still struggle to be honest with one another. We hide behind our Sunday masks. We live in the denial that the American dream will give us what we need and a new president will make everything better. It’s been going on since the church started, and I suspect it will be going on until Jesus returns, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t take responsibility for our role and ask ourselves how we could do it better.  I fear that all too often we have become apathetic and accepting that that’s just the way things are and  stop trying to change them, but we can’t afford to do this because too many  are getting hurt and leaving the church.  And I still believe the church is the place where God wants us to worship, heal, and learn to love together.

But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” 

John 17:13-26



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