Frequency of narcissistic personality disorder in pastors: a preliminary study

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NPD and congregation size

There were variations in levels of NPD by the size of congregation.

Table 3: NPD and Size of Congregation Served

Congregation Size

Under 35





Over 200

Covert %







Overt %







Total %







The larger the congregation the greater the likelihood is that the pastor will have overt NPD. The levels of overt NPD are highest in congregations with over 200 people while covert narcissism peaks in those with under 200 and disappeared in those with over 200 in worship. We do not know if this disappearance is an anomaly, though we suspect that it is. However, this also suggests that covert narcissism may be a limiting factor in the growth and health of a congregation, or that the coverts avoid the largest congregations. Conversely, it may be that the covert narcissist pastor finds it increasingly difficult to manage his/her various supply needs and destructive behaviors within larger congregations.

Table 4: NPD and Piety

Piety Practice (“Yes” answers)

Non-NPD %

Composite %

Covert %

Overt %

Have a daily prayer routine





Have daily scripture reading





Bible reading is hit or miss





Has an organized routine of pastor visitation





Prefers “As needed” pastor visitation





Enjoys working with all ages





Enjoys working with specific age groups





Prefers working with volunteers over paid staff





Spends time alone in sermon preparation





Can pray anywhere





As expected, there were differences in piety between the balanced clergy and those who scored high on NPD. There were also differences between the covert and overt forms. As expected, the covert NPD’s engaged in the fewest piety practices, followed closely by their overt NPD peers. Likewise, the coverts did as few visitations as possible and can accurately be described as doing visitation only when it is absolutely necessary or the person being visited is an authority/power figure to the pastor. Whether this is a function of their NPD or simply because they are shy is not known. One of the hallmarks of NPD is overarching self-confidence, which would account for the coverts lack of time in sermon preparation—they believe that they can wing it due to their view of their intellectual properties as being superior. A surprising finding was their self-reported ability to pray anywhere, while the balanced and overts were almost identical. Given their covert NPD and introverted personalities, we expected the opposite.

Conversely, that the overts spent the most time in sermon preparation is at first surprising, as they are so self-confident. However, since they apprehend God as a rival, we suspect that they see their sermons as performance art and performing well takes preparation and practice. We also expected a higher rate of preference for working with volunteers as other paid staff are often seen as threats to the NPD pastor, but this was not the case.


The hypothesis that the ministerial profession attracts individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a means of supply for their psychological needs is supported. NPD in active clergy in the PCC is between 500% to 3000% higher than is found in the general population. The problem is real, and it seems that ministry attracts narcissists for the same reasons that elementary schools and playgrounds attract pedophiles: these institutions provide access to victims. Ministry fills narcissistic supply needs through instant power and respect for the office of clergy. We believe that few other positions would be as attractive to the narcissist. Where else but in the clergy role are people instantly and automatically given authority to tell people how to lead their lives on a regular basis under the imprimatur of God and holy writ, are invited into parishioner homes and their counsel sought during the most intimate and difficult life situations, and where they can fit scripture to meet their desires and ego needs?

Likewise, the hypothesis that pastors with NPD would engage in markedly fewer spiritual disciplines and interactive ministry practices is also supported.

The finding that almost one-third of all active clergy within the Presbyterian Church in Canada appear to have diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder (overt or covert) is deeply disturbing. The prophet Micah states, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God!” (Micah 6:8 NIV) As long as those with balanced narcissistic tendencies can struggle to act justly, love mercy and walk with God they can be a power to make positive change. However, given the characteristics of overt and covert NPD, this injunction would appear to be an insurmountable hurdle for 31.2% of active PCC clergy who appear to have diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This indicates a level of mental illness that is at destructive levels on the whole of the organization rather than isolated instances. The implications are huge. The requirements of Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ commands to love and pray for one’s enemies, to practice humility, to forgive and to put others first are foreign to the pastor with NPD. It is not known what effects these high levels have on shrinking congregations, or if there is a connection, but it should be investigated.

It is unlikely that the overt NPD pastor can remain hidden. His grandiosity and need for adulation eventually become caustic enough that it is likely the people under or over him will resist and work to deny narcissistic supply by dismissing or pressuring him or her to leave—if they are not driven out first by narcissistic abuse. This may be the reason for the large percentage (57%) of NPD’s located in the grouping of those who are currently not in active ministry but who have not retired.

The constant need for recognition as an authoritative expert, the lack of empathy, the need to be right, the inability to forgive, the drive for revenge and the willingness to manipulate, use, and throw away parishioners is the antithesis of Christ. It poisons the gospel message and destroys faith in God and in each other. Whether or not the percentage of NPD pastors, both overt and covert, is directly connected to the fact that 20+ percent of all churches are experiencing internal conflict at any given time (Roozen 2008, 26) is not yet known, but it makes sense that there would be a strong correlation.

The NPD pastor is like a spiritual and emotional vampire, taking from others what he needs without regard to their health, wellbeing, or even survival. One must wonder at how many people are driven out, never to return, from churches annually, and the Church overall, by these pastors.

Particularly damaging is the narcissist’s lack of empathy. Ministry on a parish level requires deep expressions of genuine empathy, which the narcissist is incapable of producing. Thus, the narcissist pastor’s display of empathy is an act designed to manipulate others into giving what is most needed: narcissistic supply of gratitude, admiration, importance, and being needed. While capable of appearing empathetic for a time, the narcissist pastor is incapable of continuing the performance in the end and will attack and discard the individual parishioner who no longer provides adequate supply or who sees through the empathic façade and challenges him or her on their sincerity.

Equally damaging is the narcissist’s need for a scapegoat on whom to vent his or her rage. Since the narcissist pastor cannot conceive of being wrong or making a mistake, he or she must always have someone else to blame for what goes wrong (Hotchkiss, 6). Often that scapegoat is a subordinate who the narcissist will isolate and attack relentlessly until the subordinate leaves, at which time another scapegoat is needed (Lerner, 60). If there is no subordinate, the narcissist pastor is likely to find multiple parishioners to attack one or two at a time. The attacks leave the targeted individuals bewildered, discouraged, and sometimes with their faith destroyed (Harbinson, 58). In one large church, every member of the staff had written a resignation letter and the Associate Pastor was questioning his call to ministry. In another, a long-term senior pastor with covert NPD had hired and then driven out 21 associate pastors; only one is still in ministry.

Narcissistic rage must not be minimized, for it “has a special unforgiving quality. It is striking how this rage can live on in the unconscious, seemingly untouched by events that follow the wounding situation. Years after the fact, one can be astonished to experience the rage anew, as if the precipitating event had just taken place” (Schwartz-Salant, 41). This rage does not diminish over time and, when coupled with narcissistic envy, produces a viciousness that is intended to destroy a perceived opponent, even though the targeted individual has not intentionally done anything to deserve this treatment (41).

Conclusions and Recommendations

We have only scratched the surface and have perhaps raised more questions than we have answered. Obviously, it would be beneficial for the Church to reduce the rates of NPD within clergy. Treatment should be an option (Kernberg & Yeomans 2013, 17) though incredibly challenging since narcissists generally cannot conceive that there might be anything wrong with them; it is such a huge threat to their fragile egos that the idea itself must be summarily rejected. We conclude through the lens of experience that dealing with narcissism at NPD levels relies on many of the same steps one must use in diagnosing and treating any form of cancer: early detection, aggressive and quick removal of the problem, and appropriate long-term treatment and follow up are needed. One of the greatest challenges of NPD is the inability of the afflicted individual to admit he or she has a problem and seek help. Nevertheless, ways of encouraging narcissistic pastors to seek treatment should be explored.

Appropriate and timely interventions would also appear to be essential, otherwise the narcissist is allowed to run roughshod until a congregation is deeply wounded or even destroyed. While the tie between congregation and narcissist pastor may need to be severed, particular care must be taken to ensure the healing of the congregation. While the statistical likelihood of a pastor regaining mental health after suffering NPD is small, it must be remembered that all things are possible with God. Therefore, safeguards must be placed to protect the wounded pastor, and attempts made towards restoration (Gal. 6: 1–2)—but without placing parishioners in further danger.

We recommend that studies be done to explore and identify procedural and testing protocols to catch early indices of narcissism in ministerial candidates, and urge them to seek a different profession. This should be done at the seminary, Bible school, denominational, and individual church levels.

We likewise recommend that the connection between narcissistic clergy and destructive conflict in the churches they serve be studied. It is proposed that there is a direct link between high rates of pastoral narcissism and church conflict. If that is the case, then church conflict interventionists should be trained to recognize the symptoms of overt and covert NPD, and develop effective interventions accordingly.

There are no panaceas. Within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, three in ten congregations today have a minister with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is one of the most difficult mental disorders to treat. If these figures are extrapolated by percentage of clergy, every congregation has the potential of having a minister with NPD at some point in time. Now extrapolate our findings to the United States. Conservative estimates are that there are roughly 300,000–350,000 churches in the United States. If the percentages hold true, 96,300–112,350 congregations in the United States are pastored by clergy with diagnosable Narcissistic Personality Disorder.


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