How to Avoid Becoming a Narcissistic Pastor

Posted by Aaron Buer on September 9, 2021

Many of you may be listening to or at least have heard of the Christianity Today podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.

It’s the story of Mark Driscoll and the church he founded in Seattle, Mars Hill.

The story is alarming on many levels and I believe there is much we can learn from it as leaders.

What scares me the most is the potential damage a leader can inflict on a congregation.

I don’t ever want to be that leader. And yet, it keeps happening.  

We need to be realistic about the potential within all of us to slide toward narcissism, to revel in the attention and influence and lose touch with character and accountability.  

I’ve made a vow to never become the kind of leader who can destroy a church and hinder the effectiveness of the Gospel in a community.

I hope you feel the same.  

In this post, I’m sharing three practices I’m currently engaging in to protect myself from…well, the worst version of myself that is capable of narcissism.

Heresy Police

Part of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill story involves Driscoll saying incredibly inappropriate things from the pulpit.

It strikes me that he must have been accountable to no one but himself in the process of developing his sermons.

It seems to me no one was holding him accountable before or after his sermons.

Whatever the case, I believe there is a lesson here for the rest of us.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing that whatever pops into your head as you study and prepare to preach is good and right.

Is anyone involved in the process with you? Is anyone checking your work?  

I’m a preacher. God has gifted me to study, interpret, and teach His Word.

Just because I have this gift doesn’t mean I’m infallible as a preacher.

It doesn’t mean I get it right every time and it definitely doesn’t mean that every idea I have in the process is from God.  

Something I’ve implemented over the last few years is what I jokingly call my “heresy police.”

There are a handful of people that I invite to review my notes in the days leading up to the weekend.

In fact, recently, I’ve been sending them a full script.

This practice has given me reassurance that I’m not going to stand up on the stage and say something inaccurate or heretical.  

I’m also realizing that this is a practice that grows humility.

The more influence I gain, the more grounded and accountable I need to be.  

Older and Wiser

When I was 23 years old, I began my first ministry role as a high school youth pastor.

It was a big church, around 1500 people in regular attendance.

I got the job through the influence of a teammate on my college volleyball team, not because I was experienced in ministry or because I had any idea of what I was doing.  

Something interesting began happening to me almost immediately: When student pastors from the area would gather together, and other leaders heard what church I was with and how many students were showing up to our youth group, many of them looked to me for wisdom and guidance.

As if, somehow, because I had a hundred kids showing up that I knew what I was doing.  

Now, here’s what’s scary: Over time, I started to believe them.

I found myself believing that because of the size of my church and youth group I was somehow elite.  

Listening to the story of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, I was struck by the fact that at some point in his career, Driscoll began to refuse mentorship from older and wiser pastors like John Piper because their churches were not as large as his.

In other words, what can I learn from someone whose church is smaller than mine?

That might sound insane to you.

I’m telling you, it makes sense to me because I can remember feeling a bit of the same.

Never underestimate how gaining influence, status, and recognition can deteriorate your sense of humility and grounding.

These are some of the dangers of “success” in terms of church size and numbers.  

So, what do you do about this?

Recently, I’ve realized my need for older and wiser voices in my life.

I’m not talking about mentors in terms of the success I want to achieve.

I’m talking about mentors who have the character I need to develop.

If you are a driven, growth-oriented leader, you don’t need a mentor who is driven and successful.

You need a mentor who is thoughtful, deep, and seasoned.

You’ll figure out the tactics and strategies on your own. You’ll read the books and listen to the podcasts.  

What you need is a mentor that will help you cultivate your faith and care for your soul as you strive after success.

Not Impressed and In Your Face

One of the beautiful things about ministry is the joy of impacting people’s lives.

It’s wonderful to be told how meaningful your sermon was or how your ministry changed a person’s life.  

Of course, in our celebrity-oriented culture, this can get sideways quickly.

I’m not sure our fallen nature can handle being told how amazing we are over and over again.

It doesn’t seem to lead to good things.  

The more influence you gain and the more impact you have in your ministry, the more likely it is you will be praised by the people you faithfully serve.

And, who knows, that influence could widen beyond your local church. Then what?  

Again, in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Driscoll’s leadership and communication gifts were praised, then revered, and then his character flaws and dysfunctions were protected to the detriment of the entire church.

The lesson here, I believe, is our need for accountability.  

You need some people in your life who are not impressed.

You need voices who speak to you as a person and not just a pastor.

Who has permission to get in your face and tell you when you’re off?

Who have you invited to call you out when you are off course.  

In each case that I’ve studied where a narcissistic pastor did catastrophic damage to a congregation or community, that leader stopped listening to honest input from people who actually knew him.  

One of the ways I’m combating this scenario is through an accountability group with a handful of other guys who aren’t impressed by my ministry accomplishments.

They ask me hard questions and challenge me when I’m off.

I rely on this group to keep me humble and level headed, knowing how easy it would be to isolate myself from accountability.

It’s important and necessary.

Wrap Up

It’s exhausting each time I read about another pastor or leader behaving badly and the fallout of toxic leadership or moral failure.

I’m not interested in falling into those patterns.

I’m committed to pursuing healthy habits to protect my church from a dysfunctional version of me.

I plead with you to do the same.

Topics: Advice

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