Dr. Darrell Puls
It is impossible to describe the emotional and spiritual devastation caused by narcissistic rage laser-focused on destroying you. It happened to me as an Associate Pastor under a Senior Pastor I would later learn fit the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Covert). After 20 minutes of having my every foible and weakness machine-gunned at me and leaving me in a state of unresponsive shock, he wanted a hug before he walked out of my office! Shortly after I was cut off from every ministry I loved and found myself persona non-grata with the other pastors. I resigned in utter despair.
I eventually recovered through the grace-full help of Christian therapist and psychiatrist friends. I returned to my true calling of Peacemaker and my practice of intervening in faith-community conflicts. I had noted over the years that a large percentage of these conflicts were “different”—the pastor was not only involved, but was at the center as instigator and choreographer. Now knowing what to look for, I realized that most of these “different” conflicts had an NPD pastor at the center.
My colleague in Canada, Dr. Glenn Ball, had similar experiences. The question that haunted us was, how many are there? What percentage of active, ordained pastors meet the diagnostic criteria for NPD in its overt and covert forms? We determined to answer that question. We did, and we opened Pandora’s proverbial box.
Glenn obtained permission to test his entire Canadian denomination’s active and retired pastors. We embedded a validated NPD test instrument into a larger survey that also sought demographic information and piety practices. We speculated that there would be varying correlations between the strength and type of NPD with Bible study, prayer, sermon preparation, and other practices, as well as age and gender.
After 15 months we had a 30% completed response rate. We questioned our numbers, but were stunned after the numbers were validated: 31.2 % of the active ordained pastors in this national study scored in the diagnostic range for NPD, with 26% in the overt category and 5.2% covert/shy. Follow-up studies are in the beginning stages, but we are confident in our findings.
There were 384,000± Christian churches in the U.S. in 2012, 65% reported serious internal conflict in the last 5 years, and, if our percentages hold up, approximately 120,000 had malignant narcissist pastors. We do not know how many conflicts had malignant narcissist pastors at their center.
Jesus warned us about wolves dressed as shepherds coming into the Church to “kill and destroy” (John 10:10). They’re here! The enemy has successfully infiltrated the Christian churches of North America. Is your pastor one of them?
We have been inundated with heartbreaking stories of people singled out for destruction by narcissistic pastors. We have walked alongside them through the dismal places and will continue to help them find sunlight, health, and high ground. As I told one young woman at the AACC conference in Nashville, “I know that you are in the darkest, scariest swamp you ever imagined. Let me walk alongside you. I’ve been through that swamp, and I know the way out.” She burst into tears. At last, someone understood.
The damage these pastors do is incalculable. In one case, over the course of his career a toxic narcissist pastor recruited, groomed, and then attacked and drove out 21 associates. Only two are still in ministry in some form. In other situations, the congregation fractures and splinters until it can no longer function, and the pastor moves on to victimize yet another. The church building of one of these congregations is now a bed and breakfast.
Those who remain face a daunting task: heal their wounds, usually without any guidance or outside help, and try to move into the future. In many cases, they blame themselves and each other, and never recover. Others put on a brave face in the attempt to attract new members, but somehow the remaining toxicity seeps out and drives them away.
In many, the scars of narcissistic attacks never heal. The wounds are too deep and raw, and the pain is too strong to consider the healing reality of forgiveness, and they have no one to guide them. But they struggle on, clinging to the wreckage and praying for rescue.
One answer is our book, endorsed by Tim Clinton and several others, titled, Let Us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do About It (Cascade Books, 2017). It describes not just the study, but the lives and habits of NPD pastors, including clear advice to search team on how to identify and eliminate them early in the process.
Don’t hesitate to contact me. I will go anywhere to confront this insidious evil.
Dr. Darrell Puls has more than 40 years’ experience in analyzing and intervening in interpersonal and organizational conflicts as a mediator and arbitrator, and has specialized in church conflicts since 1998. He is an active researcher and writer, the founder of Peacebridge Ministries, and currently serves as Dean of Academic Affairs at Gather 4 Him Christian College in Kennewick, Washington.