After Narcissism's Come to Church, Stories Can Heal
Interview with author Chuck DeGroat on his new book about toxic leadership.
Posted Feb 24, 2020
Positions of power, including those within the Christian church, often allow narcissistic leaders to go unchecked. Though change can feel slow, there are ways to acknowledge and deal with the pain that abusive leadership causes. One of those ways is sharing personal stories.
Chuck DeGroat is professor of pastoral care and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich. He is a longtime pastor, a licensed therapist, and the author of five books, including When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (IVP, March 17, 2020). He holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology and is an ordained minister of word and sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. He blogs at chuckdegroat.net.
JA: Why did you set out to write your book?
CD: When Narcissism Comes to Church is the hardest book I've written, in part, because it emerged from the pleas of pastors, parishioners, and clients who were impacted by narcissism and emotional or spiritual abuse. I resisted writing it at first because I knew it would be hard.
When I think about how narcissism impacts the church, I'm immediately aware of the debris field of pain—broken relationships, vocational confusion, trauma symptoms, betrayals of trust, to name a few. After consulting with a large church a number of years ago, after a narcissistic lead pastor wreaked untold havoc on his staff over many years, I was finally convinced it was time to write the book.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?
CD: Simply put, I hope someone who reads this book will say to themselves, "I'm not crazy." I hope it puts words to people's experiences of encountering a narcissist, and particularly one who holds some position of authority in the church.
Too often, the strategies of a narcissistic leader or spouse are designed to render the other impotent, incompetent, confused, and even crazy. I hope the descriptions I offer and the stories I tell validate the experiences of those who've been impacted by emotional/spiritual abuse, and that they see pathways of hope for themselves and for the church.
JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?
CD: I think it'd be easy to fall into cynicism or resignation when one encounters the toxic impact of narcissistic leadership or bears the trauma of emotional and/or spiritual abuse. There are times when I've been cynical. But I am also relentlessly hopeful.
I've seen male and female staff members and spouses heal as they've taken the impact of narcissistic abuse seriously. I've seen churches heal as they've made hard decisions for health and integrity. I think resilience begins with honesty.
When we numb ourselves to the pain we experience, we cannot heal. But when we take the pain seriously, we can go on a journey of healing and sustainable health. I hope to pave that pathway.
JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?
CD: Not long ago, an early reader of my book responded in tears when she conveyed how much clarity she gained about her husband's difficult situation as a staff member under a narcissistic leader. Before this, she'd sometimes blame her husband for not being stronger or standing up for himself. She was struck by how years of service under this man had destroyed his confidence and resulted in symptoms of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, paranoia, and more.
Her empathy for her husband grew. She re-read the book with him and told me he deeply wept at certain points; they needed to put down the book and grieve. I think the book gave her categories, but also stories that made it seem like I'd read her mail. Sadly, too many of these stories bear significant similarities, but sharing them helps people know they're not alone.
JA: What are you currently working on these days?
CD: I'm smack-dab in the middle of a book launch. So, along with my teaching at Western and speaking engagements, I'm immersed in the work of getting this resource to people who need it. Part of this involves answering emails that come in regularly from people who've never heard their experiences named in this way.
I thought one of my recent blogs on narcissism in the church might catch the attention of a couple hundred people, yet it's now up to 20,000 hits in a week. There's a deep resonance people experience around this unique form of spiritual and emotional abuse. Mostly, I'm working to stay centered.
As every therapist knows, we're limited. We can't fix everything and everyone. We get the privilege of walking a few steps with people. I'm walking a few steps and trying to stay upright myself.
JA: Anything else you would like to share?
CD: While I approach this work with seriousness and lament that the Christian church (which follows a humble, suffering servant) falls into patterns of grandiosity, abuse, and betrayal of its vocation, I haven't given up hope. I've seen stories of redemption, humility, and growth.
There is a kind of reckoning happening in these times, evidenced by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. There have been times in history when the church needed a necessary reckoning—times of reformation, even revolution. Maybe this is one of those times. But I'm convinced that our story is one that says darkness turns to light. I'm hopeful that as we honestly face our condition, we'll heal and grow.
Chuck DeGroat. When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).