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When Narcissism Comes to Church

"'(S)imple identification of an experience does not amount to healing.' Those of us who engage in clinical work to treat people presenting with symptoms of narcissism know that change is hard and takes time, and DeGroat cautions that healing and transformation is difficult work."

Chuck DeGroat
InterVarsity Press, 200 pages | Published in paperback August 30, 2022

We bring our whole selves to church — our skills, strengths, vulnerability, faith, compassion, and other qualities we and others consider positive. But we also bring those behaviors and personality characteristics that negatively affect us, family members, friends, and neighbors in the pew; particularly when present in leaders or clergy, these qualities often impact our congregations.

Chuck DeGroat contends that coming to understand narcissism “has been the most important revelation for my own work with pastors, ministry leaders, spouses, and organizations.” In When Narcissism Comes to Church, he draws on his years as a professor, consultant, licensed therapist and spiritual director to address the problem.

DeGroat’s introduction to narcissism is accessible to those without a clinical background, as well as grounded in his deep faith and understanding of Scripture. He writes for a wide audience yet offers numerous professional and technical resources for those who want to go deeper. As a psychologist and church member, I found his book to be well-researched, artfully crafted and clinically sound. He also cautions us to resist concluding that we see narcissism in everyone we encounter, reminding me of first-year graduate students in my classes who diagnose family and friends with every clinical issue described in the psychopathology text!

In concise chapters, DeGroat walks readers through the process of recognizing narcissism in pastors, lay leaders, and families, as well as in congregations. He illustrates with stories that follow some of his clients through journeys to healthier lives. After some stories, I found myself discouraged; fortunately, DeGroat responds with strategies for action in chapters such as “Healing Ourselves, Healing the Church,” and “Transformation for Narcissists Is Possible.”

There are many strengths in DeGroat’s book, including his ability to explain complex psychological issues and his recognition that “simple identification of an experience does not amount to healing.” Those of us who engage in clinical work to treat people presenting with symptoms of narcissism know that change is hard and takes time, and DeGroat cautions that healing and transformation is difficult work. I appreciate that he shared vignettes with positive outcomes as well as stories of those who were not ready to confront this difficult issue. I was also particularly moved by his disclosure of his own self-exploration and willingness to name some themes in his own life that resonate with his topic.

A favorite hymn in our congregation is “Gather Us In.” Marty Haugen’s lyrics acknowledge that in striving to be “light to the whole human race,” we also seek to gather in “the rich and the haughty … the proud and the strong”; we ask for hearts “so meek and so lowly” and for “the courage to enter the song.” If we are successful in gathering in a full range of humanity, churches will inevitably include those whose personalities and behaviors might be called narcissism. DeGroat offers a compelling vision of “(W)hat does a healthy system look like?” and gives us the tools to identify narcissism and move toward healing, greater health and being better prepared to live out our calling as congregations.

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