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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Minister as Narcissist

It was one of those newspaper articles you read in the blur of airplanes and transit lounges, and I wish I could have saved it to nail down the reference. Never mind--my subsequent research has also revealed the same depressing fact: public ministry is a profession with one of the highest incidence of narcissists among its members.

Who's the holiest of them all?
To add insult to injury, would you like to know the only other profession that comes close? Yes. It's acting. Followed by teaching, medicine, law-enforcement.

Of these professions listed, I have now been in three of the top four. I am gripped by a sudden urge to cut my throat (if only that such histrionics were not a symptom of narcissism itself, which they are).

Without going into the clinical details of traits and behaviours (which are easily available via a google search), public ministry's congregational setting provides a perfect environment for narcissism to thrive. The congregational setting provides a warehouse of what is called 'narcissistic supply'--needy souls looking for something outside their own inner resources to give their lives shape and meaning and balance. The lonely, the vulnerable, the searching, the depressed and demoralized. Gone are the days when church was an indispensable social institution and a church-going a matter of tradition and family life. Now, it's mostly those who are in a position to feed a narcissist, if it happens to be their fate to walk into a church led by a real charmer.

Oh, very well....I will fix you.
Ministers in the Christian tradition will argue that that's just as it should be--the reality of broken humanity that creates the pre-conditions for loving community, God's kingdom on earth. What you give these seekers, they'll say, is God through the more knowable Jesus. But that's not quite true, because all the congregants will know of God or Jesus is mediated chiefly through the minister, his/her pious tone and churchy timbre in reading scripture, his/her homilies where the medium and the message become easily conflated. Their exalted and special status, which even the most stubborn skeptics readily defer to. Robed like wizards, they enchant and become an object of veneration themselves. A quantum of lost souls comes with the job, and their immediate experience of church is the person of the minister.

Our Unitarian preaching tradition is the most autobiographical, and thus arguably the most vulnerable to the self-aggrandizing enchantment of the narcissist. We do not locate religious authority solely in the Bible, which all might read for themselves, We prefer to locate it in the individual conscience. However, the reality is that if people were that self-sufficient, they would not turn up weekly for the consolation or inspiration that emanates from the pulpit. On the contrary, they rely on ministers to discern for them. And since we feel free to draw from any source, that means only those sources we know. Thus, our worship can become a week-in, week-out installment of "meet my mind." What is required of the congregants is compliant respect for, or at least respectful attention to, whatever the robed figure at the holy end lays out.

I've seen this in action. Ministers who tweet pithy feel-good, new-age vacuity in order to receive 'likes' about how wonderfully spiritual they are. Ministers who pretend to encyclopedic knowledge on arcane issues of faith, when all they've done is sex-up a wikipedia entry for nods of veneration at how wise they are. Ministers who use their personal charm and charisma to create acolytes and disciples, rather than autonomous, adult human beings. Is it any wonder that sexual and financial misdemeanors result from clergy who have lost all sense of themselves as mere human beings, whose regular supply of mono-focal attention and adulation has reinforced their need for specialness?   Not surprisingly, most shatter or lash out when challenged or confronted.

I suppose this rehearses the old trope that people's selection of professions buttress their personal deficiencies. You know--psychiatrists are mad, doctors are the biggest hypochondriacs, teachers are rather dumb, and ministers need to be ministered to. But, really what do ministers get out of a profession with low pay and long and unsociable hours, other than status and attention and (usually) uncritical veneration? Narcissism stems from a terror of abandonment, and the attentive numbers in the congregational setting can create the illusion that the minister is essential and central and indispensable. And so the narcissist minister actually preys on the congregations needs. The end-game is domination rather than mutual, cooperative relationship. Charm, usually thought essential to ministry, cannot free; it enslaves.
An excessive investment in self comes at the expense of investment in others.
Of course it is not true to say that all ministers are narcissists, any more than all actors are. A friend on a  recent film shoot, however, noted the difference in behaviour between two well-known Australian actors-- Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. Weaving came to the relatively low-budget shoot alone, kept a low profile, learned his lines and hit his marks, even learned the names of the un-famous, journeyman actors he did scenes with, as well as the grips and hands. Wenham, on the other hand, came to the same remote location shoot with an entourage--bodyguards, a personal assistant, and a makeup artist/stylist--kept aloof, learned no names, and disappeared into his trailer whenever he was not required. Now, which little bunny is well-adjusted, and who would you rather work with? Says it all, really.

I have also known ministers who are clearly in it for the humble service rather than the self-aggrandizing. These tend to be the less flashy, and interestingly, the most unaffectedly devout, those whose pastoral care rather than pulpit performance (and it is a performance) was at the center of their ministry. The quiet achievers of the denomination, and there are many. Maybe it is true, as a recent study showed, that genuine believers (in the traditional sense) are just nicer people.

Now, of course, I can only spot this, because I've got this. It's not some anomaly that I've been in three professions which all virtually guarantee that I can be king of the company if I want to be. And, from what I've read, the self-aware narcissist is not automatically exempt from his narcissism. What would be required to undo these reflexes is fearless and searching personal inventory through on-going reflection, and trying to have the values I would wish to have brought to the forefront of my thoughts regularly. It's a process, in short, of spiritual practice.

All spiritual practice aims to transcend the narrow prison of the self, and there are many paths of practice--through prayer and meditation certainly, through ritual, through music and art, and also through genuine, self-effacing service to the needs of others. This last one is the transcendence offered and modelled by Jesus, that pesky Galilean, that first leader of the loving community we call 'church', whose undoubted charisma was sublimated to his larger work of binding up a broken world. It is still perhaps the only viable, if remote, alternative to the world we have.

If religion is about anything at all, it is about transformation of people like you and me into the people we would wish to be. The word 'minister', after all, means 'servant'. And so, for this narcissist, the choice of ministry is an aspiration to become a better man.

1 comment:

  1. As a Wiccan priestess, I have always tried to empower my coveners to become priests & priestesses themselves. This is a lot easier to do when you can select people who want to become priests & priestesses, and have approached the tradition because it is fairly well-known that that is what the tradition & practice set out to do.

    Unitarians talk about the ministry of all believers, but in order to achieve this for real, I think we'd need to have congregational contribution type services more often. And there is always the possibility of people taking services themselves.

    *But* not everyone wants to be spiritual 24/7. They might come to church to be sociable, or to have a sing, or an hour's snooze... or maybe because they really like being on committees ;) (Weird.)

    I guess I'm a bit of a narcissist (otherwise I wouldn't think my opinions were worth listening to), but I can't be bothered with dependent followers. I'm always willing to listen to people's problems and stuff (because just being listened to can make a huge difference), but I get frustrated if they don't make an effort to help themselves.

    I love the way you address the really difficult questions!