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Self-Deprecating Narcissism among Christian Leaders

Posted: 04/ 2/11 08:00 PM ET

Having recently returned from the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, which I have attended on behalf of my clients for the past 30 years, there is an issue I feel compelled to address, one completely avoided by most Christians.

It has bothered me since the first time I entered the large atrium at the Washington Sheraton, where the convention used to be held in the 80s and early-90s. When I walked into the atrium in 1983 -- new to the industry -- I had no idea about what to expect, but I was shocked and ill prepared by what I witnessed, nonetheless. Within a few minutes of my entrance, the Jim & Tammie Faye Bakker Show commenced live from the atrium, complete with orchestra, singers and complementing cast. It was a performance worthy of a Las Vegas or New York production: polished, professional, well-choreographed and upbeat, as well as disingenuous, pretentious and slick.

At the center of attention, amid all of the acclaim, were Jim and Tammy Faye, both exquisitely dressed, well-manicured and perfectly coifed. My astonishment didn't end there, however. Not even close. As I stared in wild-eyed bewilderment, Jimmy Swaggert passed, wearing a camelhair topcoat draped over his shoulders, which looked like a cape, bestowing a regal quality upon him. In his wake trailed half-a-dozen young men and women, like Medieval serfs and waifs, each eager to do the bidding of their celebrity superstar. Pat Robertson came next, followed by Jerry Falwell and other celebrities, each attempting to outdo the others in ostentation. Not to be outdone, lesser luminaries of the "Electric Church" passed, shadowed by the ubiquitous entourage of comely young men and women, each attempting to outdo the other in an endless quest for self-importance.

As I witnessed this display of pretension in stunned silence, I couldn't help but wonder if the Lord walked in, would He be carrying a whip just like He did when He cast the moneychangers out of the Temple, nearly two millennia earlier. I wondered what Christ -- who was born of humble means, never pursued affluence and died ignominiously on a cross -- would think about what was occurring at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention.

After the scandals, which crippled the electric church a few years later, the convention calmed down substantially. But there remains a strong undercurrent of self-deprecating narcissism among the luminaries -- those who are considered to be the lords of evangelicalism, especially within their own fiefdoms. In the subsequent years, the faces have begun to change, but this egregious character quality has remained a constant among the superstars, past and present.

The concept of "self-deprecating narcissism" may seem like an oxymoron, but I can assure you, it is not. It does, however, require defining. As a caveat, let me acknowledge that not all of the stars of electric Christianity have this character flaw, but a substantial number do. There are a few exceptions -- precious few.

Like others who have a narcissistic personality disorder, the lords of the electric church are self-centered but, unlike their secular counterparts, the leaders of the electric church are never outwardly boastful. People may be forgiving of narcissism in movie stars, beauty queens and exceptional athletes, but certainly not of Christian leaders. This is where they differ from the classic model of narcissism. Because Christ was humble, these leaders are expected to behave similarly. Outwardly, they do, especially by the message they convey to their followers. Their demeanor is always that of a humble servant, eager to follow God's will. They have taken self-deprecating humility and made it an art form, cleverly masking their compulsive craving for attention, approbation and admiration.

Many who recognize their behavior for what it is believe these leaders are conning their followers, but that's not accurate. In fact, it's the exact opposite. A con knows what he or she is doing but chooses to do it anyway, despite the harm it causes. The electronic lords genuinely believe that what they are doing is right, which makes them far more dangerous. In their minds, they have a higher calling than others -- a closer relationship with God -- making whatever they do seen justifiable to them.

If someone gets in their way, especially someone employed by them, that person is perceived as thwarting God's will and fully deserving of the retribution they receive from the narcissistic leader. Because these leaders genuinely believe themselves to be better than others, they insist that each of their employees fall in line, regardless of how outrageous or bizarre the superstar's demands become.

To make matters worse, nearly all of the electronic lords are hypersensitive to criticism. For insulation from disapproval, the lords surround themselves with weak-willed sycophants who wouldn't dream of disagreeing with them. Instead, these well-paid non-entities consistently validate perceptions and behavior that deviate substantially from biblical standards. Within ministries like these, which dominate the electric church, there are two sets of rules: those for the narcissist and those for everyone else.

Within these ministries, a tacit "no-talk" rule is maintained, which keeps the eccentricities of the leader a secret from the rest of the world. And this rule is aggressively enforced. Whenever an underling balks, that person is shamed, castigated and humiliated, while -- at the same time -- being told that their "bad attitude" is being prayed for. If that doesn't shame the person into submission, the verbal abuse is intensified and the person is eventually terminated. Wounded, the discarded person often abandons his or her beliefs, while blaming God for what happened, saying, "God should have done something to stop it."

Undeterred by hurting others in the process of building God's Kingdom on Earth, which just happens to be their kingdom as well, these narcissists regularly take advantage of others, routinely abusing those they are "called to serve." Reasoning that the ends justify the means, they use God's name to wound others. Whenever someone gets in their way, they misuse God's authority to enforce their will, which certainly takes His name in vain. Believing that they have a higher calling, the evangelical lords are certain that God condones their behavior and methods, which the sycophants who surround them eagerly affirm.

The emotional carnage of wrecked lives left behind by these narcissists has become so extensive that it threatens to outnumber those blessed by their ministry efforts. At the same time, few are willing to call them to task, exposing their behavior to the light, reasoning that such whistle blowing would harm God's work.

Obviously, I disagree with that conclusion and have no problem exposing them. In my quarter century of working for Christian ministries, I have witnessed the shattering of many lives, which has led me to write about this subject extensively. It's a role I will continue to pursue.