Signs in a Congregation That a Leader Has Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Having experienced leaders like this in parishes like this, and grown them anyway, I believe this describes too many Orthodox parishes in North America today. Read and learn. Let the pastor beware. Taking steps to solve these pernicious and destructive issues has gotten me bounced from more than one parish. Go in with both eyes open.

Article by John of the Cross, Published at Hubpages (9 October 2013)

Member Beware

BurnsWhen searching for a congregation to join, it is important for the seeker to learn the signs of sick congregations. Not infrequently, the illness in a congregation can be traced to one very influential and powerful individual, who may be in either an official or unofficial leadership position. Official leadership positions may include the pastor(s), deacons or elders, or congregational council or committee members. Unofficial leaders can include individuals who have held official positions in the past, a member with a great deal of money and giving power, or those that have some degree of a ‘fan club’ of supporters.

Church congregations seem to magnets for people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and especially a type of NPD called ‘covert’. NPD leaders in a congregation tend to be covert because the characteristics of NPD are quite diametrically opposed to the common image of Christian behavior and countenance. This covert quality will serve to effectively hide the NPD leader for an extended period of time (even decades).

Because NPD people are highly talented at shifting blame and attention away from their own character flaws, the average congregational member may never suspect that there is a very sick leader who is perpetrating the decline of their congregation. Prospective members need to recognize the signs of a congregation with an NPD leader so as not to join what is essentially a doomed congregation. Prospective ministry new hires need to be able to discern congregation with and NPD in power so as not to take a congregational call to what will be a hellish ministry.

Signs To Look For

NPD 1A Culture of Secrets: Because Covert Narcissistic Personality Disordered leaders in congregations are highly manipulative in ways that do not fit with the faith, they tend to foster a great deal of secretiveness in their decisions, dealings, and interactions. It will give the feeling that there are things you are ‘missing’ but cannot put your finger on. There is an overall lack of transparency, with the feeling that many decisions and actions are made in private deals and conversations that bypass the official protocols.

A Negative Atmosphere: There will be either a shallow sense of joy and purpose, a sense of deadness, or outright negativity in the larger congregation. There may be pessimism that any new idea can work (usually an effect of the only ideas that are seen as valid and good are the NPD’s ideas). Or, there may be a plethora of special interest in-fighting between ministry groups (NPD’s seem to enjoy pitting people against each other). Still yet, there may be predictable campaigns against perceived enemies of the NPD leader. Once one enemy is eliminated, the NPD leader will predictably find a new enemy to purge, and yet another and another until the congregation is a mere shell of its former vibrancy.

People Walk on Eggshells: The closer the individual is in function to the NPD leader, the greater there will be a sense that they are ‘walking on eggshells’. There will be avoidance of speaking about the NPD individual, or the NPD’s issues or failings, there will be eye rolling when the NPD is mentioned, or a spooky silence.

Imbalance of Power: There will be a clear imbalance of power; if the NPD is the pastor, the congregational council or other elder leaders will be quite impotent and only serve as seat fillers to required positions. The NPD individual will be the puppeteer to the other leadership. If the NPD person is not the pastor, their committee or area of responsibility will gain an uncanny centrality to the congregation. For example, educational programming decisions or new ministry developments having to be approved by the property board.

Check and Balance Bodies Are Dying or Dead: Committees or boards that are supposed to be the ones responsible for oversight and supervision of staff are essentially non-functional or simply rubber stamp approve what the NPD leader wants. For example, a Staff-Parish Relations Committee that is ‘in the back pocket’ of the NPD leader; they would not dare to challenge the NPD person.

Group-Think Predominates: There is a strong tendency for any committee or individual to avoid any conflict or open difficult discussion at any cost. The group simply ratifies anything that the NPD leader wants, and even goes to work to keep others ‘in line’ by being the ‘axe-men’ for the NPD leader.

Strong Avoidance of Mention: No one is willing to speak up about the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room; the NPD leader may be doing outrageous things and the congregation may be in dire straits, but no one mentions the problems at all.

Rumor and Gossip are Rampant: Though the NPD leader is likely to rail against talk behind their back (some of which may be quite true), the NPD leader has created a culture in which non-transparent communication is the norm. The NPD leader may preach vehemently against rumor and gossip, all the while being a major producer of the same.

Communication Is a Mess: There is no consistent method of communication flow; there is confusion of what information is private, confidential, general knowledge, or public. There are no clear norms about how information is managed. Triangulation, the habit of not communicating openly and honestly face to face between two people, but communicating through a third party is common. Communication is not clear; it is covert, vague, and often very confusing.

Tone of Intolerance: Despite the well-crafted ‘Christian speak’, there is an uncomfortable sense that there is an unstated intolerance of particular classes of people, or those ‘outside’ the sphere of influence of the NPD leader are not worth the effort to even address. There may be occasional ‘leakage’ of shocking levels of intolerance, such as the NPD leader openly derisive of a class of people, other denomination or religion, or politic.

Vision and Mission are Disorganized: The effect of an NPD leader in a congregation is that the entire congregational effort gets tainted with the toxicity of the NPD style of interacting with others. This skews the central mission and blurs the vision of a congregation. The tell-tale signs will be an inconsistent vision, mission statements that are laughable in light of the functioning of the congregation, and frequently stated plans that never reach fruition, or run off the rails soon after decided upon.

Good People Disappear: Congregations that have an NPD leader will methodically lose good, skilled, and motivated people; they just don’t hang around for the abuse that NPD leaders mete out or tolerate the frustration of fighting the devil right inside the Church.

The Backdoor is Wide Open: There will be a constant hemorrhage of members leaving via the ‘back door’. People leave quietly to get away from the sick (and ultimately dying) congregation. There will be no one doing follow up on these departures, because everyone already knows why people are leaving, but no one will talk about it. Meanwhile, the few new members will be celebrated with great attention.

Numbers Don’t Add Up: Numbers in claimed weekly attendance, the numbers ‘claimed for Christ’, non-worship program attendance, income, expenditures, hours worked all will have curious irregularities if examined closely. Often, there will be new rules that closely guard the numbers from view; sometimes members only permitted to view the numbers if there is someone official to interpret the numbers for them.

Spiritual Stagnation: Programs that are supposed to be producing spiritual growth and development are shallow, poorly planned, led by weak leaders, and poorly attended. There is often a sense of one dimensional spirituality instead of a richly textured, developmentally sensitive and process oriented effort that delights and celebrates individual and corporate growth.

Persistent Decline: When there is an NPD leader in a congregation, there will be a persistent decline globally. It may be a slow spiral, an irregular spiral, or a rapid spiral, but have no doubt, with an NPD leader in power in a congregation, the congregation is headed for at least serious damage that may take decades to recover from, and may in fact kill the congregation.


Unfortunately, the likelihood of a leader with NPD making significant changes in their behaviors is bleak at best.

Depending on the position of leadership that the NPD person has, there will be varying degrees of opportunity and success in deposing them. The lower the level of their position and power, the more effective efforts will be at neutralizing the NPD individual’s damage and actions. The higher the NPD’s position and power, the less chance there is at making significant change. NPD leaders can stay in position, in a congregation, or in a ministry career for a very long time because they are either not recognized for what they are, are submitted to by those under and above them, or they are highly skilled in manipulation and survival. An educated congregational member is one that can make reasonable efforts to end an NPD leader’s selfish and sinful destruction of a congregation, or make the decision to move on to find a congregation that is genuinely true to the purposes it was founded for.

Ultimately, the only hope for congregations for strong, covert NPD leaders is for others to pray that their reign and career to come to and end.





  1. I think a good follow up to this post would be, “How to identify NPD characteristics in yourself.” I think those who struggle with this aren’t even aware of it. We are all tempted in different ways, and for some control is a huge temptation. It is a sickness like any sin, and like any out-of-control passion in leadership, it can end up destroying the congregation.

    I’m a somewhat recent convert, but I think I have seen this happen in a local parish. I felt something was very unsettling about the leadership there and I left that parish and joined the congregation that I feel I was meant to join. It is a very small, but loving and vibrant community.

    In the Protestant world, I think you can more easily disagree with the pastor because Protestants seriously lack spiritual fathers…everyone is just a brother. So challenging the status quo can be a bit easier. In Orthodoxy, there is more respect for the spiritual father, which is a very good thing. But topics like this make me wonder how you remain submissive to the Church and to God, but don’t allow yourself and others to be victimized.

    • Fr. John A. Peck says:

      Jeremiah, we don’t allow men to ‘discern themselves’ – that’s why you have to be called out of a community AND be under spiritual direction to discern a calling. The priesthood is leadership, and is not for everyone. It’s hardly for anyone, frankly.

      • I don’t know what you mean “we don’t allow men to ‘discern themselves’” recognizing sin in yourself is part of the whole business of repentance.

        It is interesting how some “personality disorders” the psych establishment catalog, are already well known under the heading of sins of flesh or of spirit. NPD would fit under the headings of pride and vainglory.

        • Great points, thank you. As for discernment, in the Orthodox tradition discernment takes place in ecclesia (this usually takes the form of prayer, discussions, and confession with a spiritual father). Nor does this just apply to discerning vocations/direction; the spiritual father can (gently – so as not to tempt despondency or unbelief) open our awareness to the sins in our blind spots). When we admit how warped our perceptions are by pride, we have to give up the idea that we are capable (even through prayer) of guiding ourselves.

  2. I have a poem that fits into this topic. Where some leaders under the pastor are covert NPDs. It’s called “My Daughter is Watching.” It definately is a cause for Spiritual Warfare! Let me know if you’d like it posted on your site.

  3. Excellent article. Sometime ago, I wrote an article on leaders with NPD. If anyone is interested here is the link:

  4. I read this article with some interest. Are you talking about NPD characteristics or actual NPD as diagnosed by a psychiatrist? Because someone with actual NPD cannot be medically treated (only with counseling) and should be removed from any ministry leadership position immediately. My brother has diagnosed NPD and it has ripped our family apart.

    My congregation has some of these characteristics, and yet does NOT have the toxic feel. Is it possible that these characteristics are still left over from the definitely NPD pastor that left 10 years ago? What can I do as a pastor to foster the necessary changes? I have a feeling that we are just small and disorganized, but after reading this, I’ll be looking a little more closely at some of this and open a discussion and dialogue within the leadership to examine this!

    • The article was not making a medical diagnosis. Although I am not the author, I think of it like you probably do – a list of warning indicators. I think you are probably right about the legacy; even after a poisonous pastor has left the pulpit, there is a lot of healing that needs to be done. I pray that y’all are able to discern the problems and bring that healing (in Christ).

    • Holly, as a former pastor/church planter (25 years) and as a professional in the behavioral field who writes and does videos on narcissism ( I do have suggestions to pastor who have congregations that were under an NPD pastor. 1) Look at the congregation like you would a dysfunctional and mistreated child. 2) A pastor attracts and keeps similar and counterpart people to his ministry (narcissist pastors attract co-dependent sheep/co-dependent pastors attract NPD and abusive sheep (I was a co-dependent pastor). 3) Model and constantly teach what healthy boundaries look like (you don’t use people, power of saying “no”, reciprocity in relationships or the relationships are sick, etc.). 4) You model in your life the Christian tenets inherent in the 12-Steps used for recovery which means total surrender to God all the time, no reservations (ultimate cure to narcissism which says, “I’m God!”). 5) Unconditional love does not give right to a narcissist to abuse or take advantage of others or pastor… discipleship=obedience and surrender. Hope this helped. Here is an article I wrote about “Narcissists in Ministry.”

  5. Thanks for this. It’s something I wish I had known prior to my reception into the Church. The first parish I attended was so afflicted. Here’s another series of posts on the same subject that might be helpful to readers. It helped me and some others discern that we needed to leave a toxic situation:

  6. What is the NPD leader is your father?

    • That is a very difficult situation. A prayer rule is crucial in part so that you know God’s love directly, in part so that you can receive His strength, and in part so that can develop the discipline, understanding, patience, and love to be both humble and true. In our tradition, children of priests do not have their fathers as confessors – finding a spiritual father will be of great help and is easily defensible without causing offense etc. (I mention this because life for you may feel like walking on eggshells). God bless you!

      • Thank you for your reply father. My father is not our parish priest, he is the ‘president’ of our ethnic community. He has been in his current post for 25 years. In the fullness of time I am now involved in the parish council and I see many of the NPD traits in him. I often speak to him about ways to improve or change but this often results in a serious argument which becomes very personal very quickly. In all honesty I cannot believe some of the things he says to me. I have a spiritual father who I confess to and get advice from who has advised that it is good for me to be involved in the life of the parish. In addition to me being the Psalti of convenience, I assist with the running of the greek school. There are two veteran parish council members who my father views as ‘troublemakers’. I find them very decent people and speak to them often. They confide in me various mistakes my father is making and his puts a lot of pressure on me as I often agree with them. My father also recently resigned from his post but changed his mind when a number of our restauranteur council members blackmailed him
        Into staying by threatening to resign en masse. I have faith that God will not abandon us, but I worry that there are thousands of people in our area who are put of coming to our church for various reasons. My father’s view is that these people are apathetic and not interested and we cannot trust any of them.


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