“I love you more than your mask” (Rich Mullins).

When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse
Author: Chuck DeGroat
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Pages: 192

In the foreword to When Narcissism Comes to Church Richard Mouw writes, “I was struck by how often news reports and casual conversations include the word narcissistic” (1). I have even used the term without knowing much about it, which is why I wanted to read this book. Author Chuck DeGroat offers much-needed wisdom, drawn from a background of pastoring, therapy and theology. Scholarly yet applicable to everyday life, it is a valuable resource for the church and the academic world.

Rather than taking an us versus them mentality, DeGroat writes, “My hope is that this book will invite each of us to ask how we participate in narcissistic systems while providing clear resources for those traumatized by narcissistic relationships, particularly in the church” (4). This approach reminds me of the quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

This book helped me realize how complex this issue can be. Learning that this behavior falls on a scale that ranges from normal to toxic confirms that labels are tossed around too freely.

The author advocates leaving the labeling to the experts. That’s not to say the average person cannot recognize traits that may be part of a diagnosis. The author, however, encourages self-examination, while not mitigating the real damage done by others. It’s this combination of analysis and a balanced perspective that makes this more than a self-help book.

Initially, I may have been disappointed because it can get technical. It’s more academic than self-help, but it strikes a reasonable balance between the two. The clinical influence makes the book more valuable because it can serve as a diagnostic tool. The church needs this kind of resource to point people in the right directions. It makes it clear that those who have been wounded need therapy, not a self-help book. As I have read and heard here and elsewhere, it’s wise not to try and go it alone.

This goes a long way towards defining and outlining treatment approaches. In the beginning, the author cites Christopher Lasch’s definition of narcissism: the “longing to be freed from longing” (4). It’s a desire to be free from the constraint of human limitations. This longing to be superhuman wreaks havoc on relationships.

It is a passion that makes the narcissist less than human. “The masks meant to protect ourselves and ease the ache of longing become the only faces we know” (4).

What surprised me is the author’s contention that shame is an underlying factor. Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) lose touch with their true feelings in the attempt to hide their shame and pain.

Since shame is no longer well understood in our culture, it might help to think of it in terms of feelings of inadequacy, continually falling short. Thinking that we don’t measure up. This enables me to understand it better and see why it would lead to putting on false fronts. The person is ashamed and seeks to hide their true selves, wishing to be what they project.

Just as you find individuals like this in the realms of government, business, education and all spheres of life, the church is not immune. Those of us within can bear witness to what Christian psychologist Diane Langberg says of the narcissist, “He has many gifts but the gift of humility” (15). Sadly, humility probably gets overlooked when hiring leaders. Henri Nouwen writes, “The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led” (18).

I think of the promotion that I received for The Pastor of Kilsyth, a short biography of W. H. Burns. “In our celebrity-driven age (from which the evangelical church is far from exempt), this is exactly the kind of life we need to study. We need to be reminded of the beauty, dignity and ultimately the glory of humble, obscure Christian service” (Matthew 10:42). This is the antithesis of many but not all narcissists. For as the author explores in this book, it comes in many forms.

DeGroat sees hiddenness as a factor in why this trait is found in the church. Church leaders can struggle with secrecy as much as anyone and in some cases there is no real accountability. Plus, increasingly churches look for charismatic individuals that can do what a CEO does for a business. With such demands is it any wonder that we find narcissists among us?

Understanding narcissism is the subject of chapter two. The author takes a different look at the myth of Narcissus, traditionally seen as a tale of excessive love. In this interpretation, “it’s a story of being stuck, immobilized, fixed in a death dance”(28). Healthy self-love would have enabled a moving on to get true needs met.

Aside from being warned against self-love, I gather that clinging to a false image will keep one from knowing the true self and moving on to maturity. As the Psalmist tells us, “Behold you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). God desires truth in our hearts, and he bestows what he intends by giving wisdom. I appreciate that the Scriptures encourage realistic appraisal, not thinking too high of ourselves (see Romans 12:3). Nor should we think too little of ourselves, another form of narcissism.

So if I understand correctly, Narcissus was immobilized by his desire to obtain something illusory. He was stuck in unreality, not able to embrace imperfection and limitation, which would make him vulnerable.

Narcissists avoid vulnerability. They project a front to protect themselves, but in so doing they lose the capacity for intimacy.

The third chapter uses the Enneagram to identify nine masks or personas associated with narcissistic behavior. The author writes, “To my knowledge, no one has made a clear connection between the Enneagram and personality disorders before. However, having worked with and taught the Enneagram for more than fifteen years, I think the connections I make are worthwhile and helpful additions to conversations on both narcissism and the Enneagram” (48). Those familiar with Enneagram will appreciate this analysis, and those like me who have little or no knowledge of it should still be able to glean insight. Each chapter including this one has a list of additional resources.

The book goes on to explore the many facets of this subject. It’s a fitting textbook but also points the way toward healing and transformation. Most impressive for me is the balance and maturity. A book like this could have easily devolved into finger pointing. Instead we must examine ourselves and the systems that we help perpetuate.

It’s ironic that in looking for love and well-being, we put on masks in our hope of obtaining it. I appreciate the attitude that Rich Mullins sings about in his song “Peace”:

Though we’re strangers, still I love you
I love you more than your mask

Can we ever know peace without discarding our masks? Can we know love as God intends it apart from revealing our true selves?

Michael Dalton