Can an organizational system, like a family, a workplace, and yes, a church, be narcissistic? I began thinking about this while researching how to deal with the narcissistic individuals in my life. I was surprised to learn there is a field of study called “collective narcissism.” Collective narcissism, also known as group narcissism, isn’t simply a handful of people with narcissistic traits who group together. It describes situations where people hold a collective belief that their group or organization is superior to others.  

“Collective narcissism is a belief that one’s own group (the ingroup) is exceptional and entitled to privileged treatment, but it is not sufficiently recognized and externally appreciated by others.”

Hope Gillette. “How a Group Culture Can Become Narcissistic.” January 30, 2022. https://psychcentral.com/health/collective-narcissism. May 24, 2022.

Whatever the reason for the claim of privileged status, an ingroup exhibiting collective narcissism is driven by the desire to to be set apart from other groups. The desire is fueled by the collective concern that their “superiority” is threatened. Sound familiar? 

Can an organizational system, like a family, a workplace, and yes, a church, be narcissistic? Click To Tweet

We all know narcissistic people. Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental condition with a diagnosis. Sadly, mental health sciences tell us there is little hope of changing those diagnosed with this disorder.  However, that is not the case with narcissistic systems. The good news is that there are ways to help a narcissistic system become healthier. There is hope! 

So, what exactly does a narcissistic system look like?  

See if you recognize this congregation. Rev. Wonderful is the pastor of a church. She struggles to carry out the stated missional desires of the congregation, all the while being blocked by members at every turn. When hired, she was told by the leadership they wanted her to carry out particular goals. However, over the years, she has discovered those are not the goals that matter ultimately to them. In fact, when confronted with their contradictory behavior, those same leaders admitted those initial goals are actually unimportant.

She has been told she looks “funny.” She has been told her hair is “weird.” The music director bullies her, and when she confronts him about his behavior, nothing changes. When she takes her concerns to the congregation’s personnel committee, they are aloof and do nothing to address the situation. She is offered no empathy during times of extreme stress. Her ministry is met with continual indifference, hostility, and resistance. She does “all the work” in her one-sided relationship with the church. 

A church is a narcissistic system when it judges others as inferior to superficial standards which it has established. So, like in this scenario, the congregation will typically find ways to say to those they “other,” “outliers need not apply here; you do not conform to us; you are and always will be an outsider.” Such churches will never be pleased until everyone—including the pastor—conforms to the church’s collective mindset. 

How to tell if your church is a narcissistic system?  

Congregations that show a narcissistic bent toward religion show 4 particular traits. First, they exhibit “binary thinking.” In their eyes, you are either in or out, right or wrong. These congregations use terms like “truth” and “authority” as euphemisms for “do it our way” and “no dissent or discussion is allowed here.”  Second, when they say, “come as you are,”  what they mean is “come as WE are.” Their consistent message is that if you do not conform, you “lack faith.” Third, these congregations lack any curiosity about perspectives that differ from their own. There are 7 billion people on our planet. It is the height of arrogance to expect absolute conformity to one mindset. This church never asks what it can learn from other perspectives; it responds to all diversity with, “you are wrong.” Fourth, they make wide use conformity words, such as “must” and “should,” as well as exhibiting an inability to explore another person’s back story. 

Religious Style: Narcissistic Non-Narcissistic 
Primary focus: 3 C’s: Correctness Conformity Compliance   LOVE 
cheat sheet

What to do if your church is a narcissistic system?  

Thankfully, unlike relationships with narcissistic individuals, there is hope for a narcissistic church. There are 6 keys which pastors can use to lead a narcissistic congregation.  

Here is an example of one of those 6 keys.  

Pastors who wish to begin transforming their narcissistic congregation need to focus on collective experiences of self-transcendence. “Self-transcendence” is simply another way of saying “getting outside of oneself.” Fortunately, pastors lead experiences of collective self-transcendence every week, typically on Sunday mornings—it is called corporate worship! Pastors need to take advantage of worship experiences to remind the people that God is God, and we are not. For instance, help the worshipping community get outside themselves as you “bid” (offer invitational statements) prior to worship elements. Consider bidding the Lord’s Prayer with the words, “we are reminded that we are, both individually and collectively as a congregation, part of something bigger than ourselves. We are called to be part of what God is doing in the world through the Body of Christ as we say together, OUR Father…”  It sounds simplistic, but language can create, and alter culture. Use theology to do the heavy lifting when correcting for corporate narcissistic behavior.

The rest of the 6 keys will be elucidated in my next article so stay tuned!

There are ways to transform congregations that seem too stuck to change. If you would like to learn more about congregational transformation, please reach out to me by email, [email protected] 

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