Skip to main content

Pastors With Covert Narcissistic Personality Disorder


The Disorder Defined

Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health diagnosis of the Diagnostic Statistics Manual, a resource for mental health specialists in diagnosing treating people with psychological and psychiatric disorders. NPD is not like other mental health disorders that can respond to medication; there is no medicine specifically for this disorder. It also does not have a good track record of being improved upon with counseling. In fact, most people with NPD never make it into treatment because they rarely admit to having a problem.

The NPD diagnosis is far more than a person having a ‘big ego’ or being conceited, it is a genuine mental health disorder that can generate a great deal of pain not only for the individual who has it, but for countless others who come into contact with the NPD person on a regular basis. This is a particularly damaging disorder in ordained people, because of their positions of relative power and respect. The ordained office and standards of practice in the ordained ministry cannot contain the destructive interpersonal behaviors of NPD.

While not every NPD ordained person will have all of the behavioral signs listed in this article, most have quite a few, and the enduring pattern is one of consistent issues in the area of personal and working relationships, complaints from congregants about oddness of thinking or behaviors, emotional and affective swings, and perceived deceitful ways of communication.


The Covert Version of NPD

It has been recognized that NPD resembles a spectrum, in that there are levels of severity and particular twists on the expression of the disorder depending on circumstance and the uniqueness of the individual who has NPD. “Covert’ narcissism refers to the tendency for the classic narcissistic behaviors to be closely guarded and hidden for the majority of the time.Yet the NPD behaviors that are so destructive to relationships and organizations are still operative, but not as openly as is seen in other NPD individuals.

Ordained, covert narcissists have the very same characteristics of self-centeredness and lack of genuine compassion and care for others as do other NPD’s, but have learned to hide this in order to continue to function in a congregational setting. They cannot openly state their true self-centered negative thoughts and sentiments, especially in a ‘Christian’ atmosphere that requires compliance to things like servanthood,love, care, healing, and forgiveness.

The ordained covert NPD becomes very good at feigning classic Christian attributes, but the closer you get (if they allow you to get close), the less you see the fruits of a real Christian lifestyle; their real focus is self-aggrandizement of unfulfilled fantasies of being a famous, successful, and well respected preacher. They talk the talk, but do not seem to walk the walk when observed closely or observed over time.


Dynamics of the Dysfunction

The covert NPD pastor begins a new charge in a congregation with high expectations of the congregants, as well as a number of assumptions of the spoken and unspoken rules of how a pastor carries themselves, interacts with others, and executes their duties. This is a plus for the covert NPD, as it buys them a good bit of time before individuals begin to discover that there is something ‘off’ about pastor.

This sense of a growing number of congregants or coworkers that there is something different about their pastor begins in their one on one or small group interactions with the NPD pastor. Individuals working closely in an ongoing fashion with the pastor will begin to note the difficulty in trying establish a feeling of genuine connectivity at the emotional and spiritual level.

Over time, as the behavioral signs of NPD are increasingly evident, most congregations will enter a period of time where they try to make remediation to the problems that the NPD pastor is creating, first at the local level, then to the denominational level. This process can take years, all the while personal and corporate injury continues


The One to One Experience

Individuals with NPD are true chameleons; they are great actors, presenting differently to different people and groups as needed. Unlike healthy pastors who present evenly and consistently over all environments, the NPD pastor will seem to have a rapid ‘switch’ in personas in one to one encounters, kind of like how a radio DJ has their ‘on air’ voice and their ‘off air’ voice.This is often startling to observe in one to one interactions.

The following behaviors signs are of note and very common for those with NPD: A tendency to correct or ‘one up’ you in conversation, especially if there is another person to witness this. There may be an appearance of great competency before a large group, but a notable awkwardness in one to one interactions. Apologies go only one way, to the pastor, though if the pastor feels an apology (usually only very public, so everyone can see it) will glean them praise or manipulative advantage, they will make one, but hold hidden contempt for the person they are making it to. Twisted use of Scripture to convict, rather than heal or soothe. Carrying an affectation of being humble, quiet, and passive, alternating with waves of intense agitation, rage, and attack. A discomfort with physical proximity, touch, or hugs. A feeling of emotional shallowness and insincerity in their communication. An apparent lack of interest or ignoring of your thoughts, ideas, issues, or story. A consistent misinterpretation of what you say or write. Tendency to name drop and imply closeness with famous people, or a fascination with child-like heroes. Admonitions against gossip, rumor, and triangulation while they perpetrate the same. Non-acceptance of even constructive criticism; usually met with rapid and vicious attack. Occasional, surprising ‘leakage’ of sarcasm, back-handed insult, and contempt.

It is important to understand that an individual with NPD sees the purpose of any individual is their use and ability to increase the status of the NPD. It is never really about you, but what you can do for them in enhancing their status as the amazing, wonderful, important, highly skilled, accomplished, and well-loved preacher that they truly see themselves to be.

More Public Behavioral Signs

Because covert NPD pastors have, at their core, a deep drive to create and preserve an idealized image without the real emotional depth and character to achieve it, there will be inevitable incidents that will begin to demonstrate the truth behind the well-manicured image. Preserving the false image is such of central importance to the NPD that they will work to preserve this at any cost, even at the cost of congregational unity, serenity, and mission.While they are publicly bragging about the number of new members, they are ignoring the flow of members leaving by the back door.

It is often true that covert NPD pastors present their private lives in over the top glowing terms, never noting any real difficulty in personal relationship management or enduing the normal discomforts and pains of family life. In truth, their private lives are often a shambles, but with a near perfect image presentation. In contrast, less covert NPD’s may openly display their constant displeasure with their personal relationships.

Since the ordained NPD is in a church environment, the always handy excuse of ‘the devil at work’ can become an echoing theme as a means to explain away the NPD caused dysfunction in the congregation. Or, there will be a plethora of ‘pat’ excuses in the form of ‘oversights’, ‘overwork’, ‘illness’, or a generalized presentation of martyrdom to divert attention from the truth of the NPD behaviors and manipulations.

Initially, many congregants may express a sense of satisfaction in the way the NPD pastor preaches and teaches, as it usually tends to be quite simplistic, with ‘black and white’ contrast that enthuse congregants who are looking for a ‘back to basics’ preacher. But over time, others may complain of a lack of “meat’ in the sermons, along with complaints of sermons devoid of deep, genuine emotion or addressing of topics such as pain, woundedness, and healing.

Scroll to Continue

There even may be occasional ‘leaks’ of genuine attitude during preaching that show startling intolerance towards certain groups of people.There may also be a pattern of the NPD pastor having trouble ‘keeping up with’ hospital visits, and even a stated discomfort with performing weddings or funerals. This is because people with NPD have a tough time when confronted with the need to be empathetic and the fact that they are not the center of attention at these events.

Eventually, a larger portion of the congregation will become aware of the NPD’s pattern of scapegoating others in the congregation; both individuals and groups will be targeted, often viciously, in staff meetings or small volunteer group settings.

Those that have a vested interest in the congregation beyond simply attending church on Sunday will also begin to notice a pattern of misrepresentation of known facts concerning the congregation. These skewed statements from the pastor may include ‘facts’ about finances, plans and directions of the larger congregation, and most classically, attendance numbers.For the NPD pastor, the only real value of attendance numbers is that they uphold the image of the pastor. When the numbers inevitably begin to plummet, the pastor will begin to use every excuse in the book to explain the fact away.


Effects on Paid Staff and Volunteers

It’s usually the venerable church secretary that is the first to notice and then suffer from the covert NPD pastor. If the congregation is large enough to have other paid staff, and if there is a good sized body of volunteers in the congregation, these folks are the next in line to receive wounds.

Employees and volunteers will discover that their pastor hold idealized and often impossible standards of success for the underlings, even as their own ministry dwindles. The pastor then will not support them and even subvert their efforts. There may be even harsh criticism of programs and events that employees and volunteers are executing that are actually very successful. Though high standards are a good thing, in most church situations, standards are the bar to strive for, not the one that incurs wrath if not met.

The underlings may make the logical decision that they indeed need to work harder and display greater professionalism, after all pastor is calling for this. They may labor for many years before discovering that they will never be able to satisfy the pastor, because the only one who can really get a pat on the back or praise for success is the pastor, and no one else.There can be no true collaboration or development of shared vision, the only vision is the one the pastor has for their own self-aggrandizement, and this is often vaguely stated, not recorded, and quite fluid.

Inevitably, staff and volunteers will fall away, either due to frustration, stress related illnesses, discovering the truth about the pastor, or because the pastor has begun a purging campaign to eliminate all who disagree.Councils and committees begin to be filled with passive people that pastor can control, and engage in ‘group-think’, pacifying the pastor’s views and direction. All of which serves to help the covert NPD pastor to increase their power.


Effects on the Congregation and Larger Church

There is a relative ignorance of the average congregant to the personality disorder called narcissism. Overt narcissists are much easier to spot; they are annoying, openly egotistical and contemptuous, and are often flashy. Covert narcissists are just that: covert.

It may take years for members of a congregation to uncover the covert narcissistic pastor. Some congregants will always refuse to believe it, while many will become long term victims of relational, emotional, and spiritual abuse. Many, many people are hurt by these pastors.

Those who take years to discover the truth about their pastor may only discover it after many people have left the congregation. At this point, the typical victim of an NPD feels quite embarrassed about their being deceived, and is in fact, trapped in a complex web of the NPD that is very hard to get release from.

Pastors with this illness can operate with impunity for decades in churches, due to the ‘forgiveness’ factor, as well as their gaining of experience in manipulating others.. Also people respect the title of ‘pastor’ so much, they cannot fathom how an individual as ill as a narcissist could become a pastor in the first place.Some denominations, ignorant of the disorder, just keep moving them, hoping a change of venue will cure the issue...after all, most denominations have shortages of pastors, right?Other denominations know they have a sick pastor, but continue to move them in a kind of desperate shell game.Over time, a congregation that suffers from an NPD pastor will decline, sometimes at a steady rate,sometimes rapidly. Once any other paid staff leave or are fired, the vast reduction of congregants may leave a hole in the budget, so that new staff cannot be hired. Instead of any reserve monies hiring new staff, it may be used on objects and items that will enhance the pastor’s image of themselves or their ministry.

NPD pastors should not be reviled, they should be treated with compassion, care, and respect. Yet,there also needs to be decisive and protocoled intervention. The destructive pattern they perpetrate on congregations and individuals must be halted, it will not cure itself.Many higher structures in denominations do nothing about NPD pastors unless they commit an overt moral sin that is discovered, and that is an inadequate and unfortunate lapse of response. It takes a very strong, prayerful, knowledgeable, and courageous congregational leadership to challenge and remove such pastors. Most could use the help of trained, qualified counselors to accomplish the task with as little damage to the congregation as possible. But most congregations simply suffer and wait out the NPD pastor’s tenure, while the wise members vote with a dusting off of their sandals.


Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on January 02, 2020:

I certainly will.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on December 28, 2019:

I’ve experienced this. Thanks for writing.

OLUSEGUN from NIGERIA on December 11, 2019:

Uhmm, Interesting.

William E Krill Jr (author) from Hollidaysburg, PA on December 19, 2016:

My heart goes out to you, Les; it is a very tough thing (that I have been through myself a few times). My only suggestion is for you to find a qualified clinical counselor who is experienced in NPD pastors (we are far and few between).

Les on December 16, 2016:

As a dedicated volunteer Ive held management of 5 different departments within the church and an active board member for over 10 years with 3 different pastors. Our current pastor has completed 4 years. It has taken me 4 years of much pain and confusion to gain awareness that the pastor of the church I attend likely has NPD. I have had very distinct encounters that were devistating to me personally and spiritually before I started to realize how impossible it is to collaborate and gain support from him on projects. He has accused me of unfounded cruel things (one on one never in a public forum)undermines me with other volunteers under my management and is sarcastic and cruel to some in my charge who decided to not only stop volunteering, but leave the church. Other volunteer leaders and support staff members have also followed this path. He has called out people during services, embarrasing them publicly, while other dedicated leaders either simply avoid him or have left the church with family and transfered memberships to other churhes altogether. The irony is his wife is a family counselor and must know he is a troubled soul, but images must be kept up I guess. My question is WHAT TO DO? It is not only my view but other volunteers see his narcisistic controlling traits as well. It is my view, this behavioral disorder is not suited for supporting true spiritual growth for those seeking salvation. There is only a public sense of brotherhood but privately there is really none.

gregb4hope from El Paso TX on January 18, 2015:

Interesting , perhaps they are not really "born again" and thus many are pretenders, thinking more of and for themselves than others. For myself, "successful" pastors are measured not by their title or prominence but by their ability to lead others based on how they follow Christ. In order to lead they must learn how to follow! Instead of a true calling by God have you many who simply have chosen pastoring as career. They are not the same, though it's congregants can still benefit in some cases the effectiveness of the full gospel becomes hindered.

Related Articles