When we are at cross-purposes with Christ

Narcissists have been in the news this week, and it’s probably not who you’re thinking of. No, the narcissists of which I speak are clergy. Anglican priests, to be exact.

A story from the Religious News Service last week noted that the Church of England is stepping up its psychological assessments of candidates for ordination in response to concerns about the kind of priests the church is attracting. 

A lot of this has to do with growing awareness of child sex abuse at the hands of English clergy, but part of it also has to do with certain mental pathologies, particularly narcissism, that seem to be especially prevalent among clergy.  

The story cites the work of researchers R. Glenn Ball and Darrell Puls, authors of  “Let us Prey: The Plague of Narcissist Pastors and What We Can Do About It.” (Cascade Books, 2017) Their 2015 study found that about a third of mainline Protestant clergy in Canada showed signs of a narcissistic personality, which ultimately gives them too much confidence in their own abilities, to the disparagement of others. “There is a temptation to bully and demean,” the authors write.

At the same time, Church of England officials fear that newly ordained clergy seem to be growing increasingly conventional and less inclined to be innovative in their approach to ministry. This, too, is worrisome to the church. The church needs risk takers as well as caution keepers.

I pondered this as I thought back over the rigorousness of The Episcopal Church’s vetting of candidates for ordination. Trust me when I tell you it is so hard as to be almost impossible to become a priest in the Episcopal Church these days. There are countless hurdles and places to wash out along the way. For every person eventually ordained, I bet there are at least 10 who once thought about it but were either rejected or dropped out of the process, for whatever reason. I’m guessing those who stay in are blessed with a pretty healthy ego, which helps us withstand all the scrutiny and assaults on our sense of call. It could be that the whole process ensures an over-representation of narcissists, though I hope that is not the case. 

Not everyordained person is going to have topnotch people skills, and even the best clergy have their bad days when their responses to others are harsher than intended. And I know, too, that one person’s toxic narcissist is another person’s charismatic leader. It all depends on your point of view.

But here’s a line from the story that really struck me: “Narcissists often come to apprehend God as a rival, not a loving presence, and eventually may see themselves as God.” This seems like a good cautionary question for all of us, clergy orlay. Is God getting in our way? Are we growing impatient with the slow work of God? Are we letting efficiency or expediency trump compassion or loving-kindness? Are we just a little too concerned with our own sense of importance and the value of our time, and a little too blasé about the impact of our actions on someone who is vulnerable?

I can certainly recall times I fear I’ve been at cross-purposes with my savior. I think the key is for all of us to own those times, not deny them or get defensive or try to justify our own boorishness. Rather, we should confess, receive absolution, and move on, striving to do better.

Rest assured, the opportunity to improve on a poorly-handled situation will not be long in coming. Every day is a new chance to get it right. As the meme making its way around Facebook these days says: “In a world where you can be anything … be kind.”