‘Narcissism: Healing the Relational Infection in the Church’
Jim Wilder’s book ‘The Pandora Problem: Facing Narcissism in Leaders & Ourselves’, on narcissism has been on the shelf for a year, as I can’t get through it, even though the subject fascinates me due to the fact that my ex-husband has been, through court-ordered Psychiatric assessment, found to have Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
I find the book ‘The Other Half of Church‘ by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks more straightforward and deals with the same(ish) subject. An abridged version of chapter 7 from this book can be read (for free) with YouVersion’s reading plan ‘Narcissism: Healing the Relational Infection in the Church’.
In this six-day plan, Michel Hendricks and Jim Wilder diagnose the epidemic of narcissism within the church and offer a biblical path to a healthier community of kindness (affection), forgiveness, and transparency. (YouVersion)
I have briefly summarized the chapters on shame and narcissism, from the book “The Other Half of Church. The quotes in this blogpost are also from these chapters.
Shame is an intense emotion and you don’t want to remember the situations in which you felt ashamed. According to Jim Wilder, shame is connected in our brains to the formation of our character. Shame is necessary to form our character.
There are 2 types of shame: toxic shame and healthy shame.
Toxic shame communicates “you are bad” and does not come with help. This shame lets us know that we are stupid, ugly, or clumsy, for example, and we feel even worse.
With healthy shame, the relationship with the other person is important.
Healthy shame is a nonverbal spontaneous response to a face that is not happy to be with me. (Jim Wilder)
You see by the other person’s face that he or she is sad about what you are saying or doing. You feel this too. But the other person does not communicate the message ‘you are bad’. According to the authors, we can learn to be relational in shame. In a relationship, the other person can let you know in a loving way that he or she loves you, but that you are not acting like yourself. This is also called the “loving reminder”.
If the reminder is done correctly and I am humble and receptive, you have helped shape my character. I am now a little more like Jesus thanks to you. In God’s kingdom, shame is always combined with a strong dose of love. (Jim Wilder)
The restoration of relationships is important and that is what shapes our character. With toxic shame, this is missing. One of the examples from the book about the difference between toxic and healthy shame:
Toxic: who are you to criticize me?
Healthy: your criticism hurts me, but I want to be open to learning from it. Tell me more.
Narcissism and Shame
Narcissism, according to Jim Wilder, is at its core a shame disease. The “loving memory” (as in healthy shame) is seen as a threat in people with narcissism/narcissistic tendencies. A conversation then becomes an argument to be won. The motivation to win is especially strong when it comes to character or leadership.
Narcissists will not accept a healthy reminder if their character is flawed, but they are adept at using toxic shame against others. (Jim Wilder)
People with narcissism/narcissistic tendencies cannot deal with shame in a healthy way, they do not learn from shame in relation to others. As a result, they have a great need to be special. This is why many people with narcissism/narcissistic tendencies hold leadership positions in companies, but also in churches.
The narcissistic pastor
The authors explain that leadership often looks good and impressive on the outside, but the inner motivation is disconnected from relationships. Measurability and numbers are often important and if these are not good the leader makes up a story making the fault lie with someone else.
Service is more important than relationships!
On a stage, the great leader can appear to have a strong connection with the congregation while still maintaining a real relational distance.
Around the narcissistic leader, we often see a bubble of people who affirm him. People who see through the leader’s character and threaten to burst the bubble are quickly eliminated, using a difference of opinion about the vision as an excuse.
If someone gets in the way of the great cause, they are sacrificed on the altar of the leader’s vision.
Group or congregation
Jim Wilder makes the comparison to the treatment of his eye infection.
The church has both a culture and an infection. Even if there were a magical antibiotic, the infection would return permanently until the culture changes. The culture of a church is its relational soil, and the infection thrives in depleted soil.
A relationally poor congregation is susceptible to leaders with narcissistic/narcissistic tendencies. Sending such a leader away is not a solution, because people will seek such a similar successor. Changing the culture is the solution.
A congregation with loving relationships is better armed against narcissism and does not accept it. Jim Wilder explains that it is impossible to teach a narcissist new behaviors. A person changes by what he sees others do and what he imitates. A church with a strong relational foundation can show the leader with narcissistic/narcissistic tendencies how she herself handles shame and loving correction.