a thing or two about narcissism (+ church).

iceberg

For a lot of years now I have been journeying with a lot of women who have been in marriages or relationships with narcissists. I’m not talking about plain old self-absorbedness, of which we all have a touch of in different ways. I’m talking about something far more insidious and confusing, too–people with true blue Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or just-plain-real-and-deep narcissism that makes people around them feel crazy, unempowered, abused, and emotionally stripped.

Several years ago The Refuge hosted a gathering for women who had difficult ex-husbands or partners to gain strength and tools for navigating life for their children. It was an amazing night, and my brave friend–whose ex has NPD–shared some practical survival tools that she has tried to learn and also teach her kids as they navigate life with this kind of craziness over the long haul. On my way to the event, I asked one of my dearest therapist friends what one word of advice she had for these women.

Here’s what she said–“Tell them you just can’t ever win… (and they’re not crazy)”

The internet has been buzzing over the past few months with back and forth around this issue with a well-known emergent author and his ex-wife. There are plenty of people writing about that so I am not going to add to that mix. I sincerely hope that some of these oh-so-important questions get explored around these issues of abuse and what it takes for victims to be heard.

What I wanted to focus on was raising awareness on the insidiousness of narcissism in church culture–and how little we ever do about it.

In fact, we feed it.

Almost all of the men married to my friends were pastors or Christian leaders of some sort. Charismatic, powerful, strong, magnetic, charming, bright, and engaging, most everyone in their outer circle think they can do no wrong. In fact, they are often worshipped, elevated to higher and higher levels of ministry and power, and considered “amazing” by so many.

Those in close, close relationship with them, though, experience a totally different story.

Some of you have been married to them.

Some of you have been parented by them.

Some of you have been pastored by them.

You know what I’m talking about.

You know the crazy-making. You know the emotional abuse, and sometimes the physical. You know the hero-worship and the “he would never do that’s”. You know the fear. You know the confusion. You know the exhaustion of always trying to keep the peace. You know the eggshells. You know what it feels like to be misunderstood, accused, tossed aside, ignored–not just by the narcissist, but by their churches and friends and colleagues and fans and followers.

You. Know.

For those of you on the sidelines, an average-person’s definition of Narcisstic Personality Disorder is this: Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism (Mayo Clinic).

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner (Mayo Clinic)

I would add: “Lying. Blatant, unabashed, straight-faced lying.”

Not everyone has a full-blown personality disorder, but people in relationship with narcissists can never win, never give enough, love enough, _____ enough. Many are used to being berated and called the cause of all the problems. They know the truth but everyone on the outside only sees the good so it always feels confusing. When they begin to have boundaries or stand up for themselves or refuse to make that person the center of the universe, all hell breaks loose.

Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders are narcissists. In fact, some of the above symptoms are what get them to the top of their food chains and help them ascend to power. It’s fascinating–and scary, really.

We love our kings, queens, and royalty.

We love people who appear strong and squared away and confident.

We love people who charm us and sprinkle fairy dust on us.

We love people we can follow.

We love to hang on people’s every word.

I do believe there’s a radical shift happening right now in church-dom, where a lot more people are unwilling to give themselves over to strong powerful leaders in the same way. They won’t tolerate the bullsh*t any longer. I’m so glad for it.

However, we’ve got a long way to go to breaking our addiction to strong, narcissistic leaders. They still are the fastest builders of a lot of churches, the fastest creators of a following, the fastest risers to the top.

My heart and hope is that the scales keep falling off our eyes when we become more and more aware of the insidious of narcissism in so much of modern Christian culture.

It’s time to see more than what’s on the surface. 

To get sober from our addiction to celebrity and power.

To break the spell.

To get healthier.

To be drawn to humility. 

To believe victims on the underside of the craziness.

To get healthier. 

To get healthier.

To get healthier. 

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

74 Comments

  • thanks for this, kathy. it seems like more people are seeing through the facade of this kind of leadership in real life contexts, preferring collaborative, fellow pilgrim, and servant-leadership models, but christians do still very much worship at the cult of celebrity online and in the media. i’m ever grateful for the alternate Way you consistently call and lead us back to.

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    • thanks suzannah, yes, i think it’s so true, so many wonderful things happening in all kinds of simple and beautiful ways that i hope we can celebrate. still, a lot of christendom is hypnotized.

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  • You rock, Kathy.

    NPD and Psychopathy are a huge issue in the church and the damage caused by our not considering this has been profound. And Suzannah is so right with, “christians do still very much worship at the cult of celebrity online and in the media.”

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  • Um, YESYESYES. Just for starters in my life, the youth pastor who sexually abused my best friend was a narcissist, and her father, who was our senior pastor and knew that the youth leader was a predator and STILL LET HER SPEND ALL HER TIME WITH HIM, was also a “beloved” narcissist. Thank you for saying out loud what I’ve thought for a few months–church culture promotes narcissists like crazy. They hit all the right drums. Which is super scary.

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    • oh heather, it is just all so painful sometimes. i read this week that NPD is 5 times higher in the clergy than anywhere else. 5 times higher! it’s a breeding ground for damage.

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  • After hearing about ‘the-strong-male-leadership-model-of-Jesus’ in almost every sermon for 5 years of a church plant we helped start, I thought healing would be a breeze … because, obviously, the pastor’s thinking was the problem. I soon learned that the problem was also within myself and had to admit all the faulty thinking I’d been trained to believe needed to change. Humbling, but so worth it! Thanks for encouraging people to get healthy and not just focus on the problem ‘out there.’

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    • i really love what you are saying, our responsibility in all of this. we have to start voting with your feet, refusing to follow, break our codependence. grateful for your voice and heart.

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  • Is this not another term for the orphan spirit; there are distinct similarities with the older son in the story of the prodigal son?

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  • And sometimes a leader is humble and sincerely serves others, but their following is narcissistic as a group. If anyone “dares to question or disagree” with the leader, the group behaves as you describe above.

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  • Kathy, you’ve nailed it. And–sadly–I’m here to say that female Christian leaders can be just as guilty. I have seen it up close. I also believe that narcissists at this level and in ministry start to truly believe their own narrative. It’s why they succeed so well when gas-lighting, lying, manipulating, etc. They are charismatic, convincing leaders who inspire people to do all kinds of things: including doubting what they know to be true and instead buying into a total lie. And an narcissist’s best allies? Naive people who don’t believe that extremes of darkness and light can coexist in the same person. Thanks for sharing these words. Very true, very powerful.

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    • True, women are also vulnerable to this behavior, but there does seemto be more men. Why that might be could lead to am interesting and perhaps revealing discussion.

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    • thanks, tamara. yes, the “allies” is such an important thing to remember, our unknown complicity in all of it, getting duped, refusing to see, wanting the wow, being charmed by the charisma. so much danger.

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  • Thanks for bringing awareness to this important issue, kathy. One thing I would emphasize more is that narcissists don’t exist in a vacuum–they are more often than not fed by co-dependents. Co-dependents are often portrayed as “victims” of the narcissist and garner more pity–but in my experience co-dependents are often the worst kind of perpetrators of abuse. They are often the smiling faces that enforce conformity to the narcissistic system of abuse. “Now, now, child, these things are done for your own good” or “why can’t you be more grateful and happy like me?” the ones in my life would often say. It leaves one feeling crazy and therefore stuck. And even for a long time after getting unstuck, healthier systems won’t seem normal to those indoctrinated by unhealthy systems. It’s incredibly difficult to break free and those working to help people escape require a special anointing of patience and grace. Yes, let’s get informed and get healthier–part of which entails recognizing the potential role we may have played perpetuating these unhealthy systems. This is not done for purposes of guilt and condemnation (that doesn’t seem to help much and really is part of the “old” systematic thinking), but for purposes of recognition and reform. Bless you, kathy.

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    • donna, this is so important. thank you! codependence, both individual and corporate, is a huge part of all of this and needs to be addressed. but i can’t tell you how many times in church over the years i have talked about codependence and people are like “i’m not codependent, i’m not married to an addict.” so many false assumptions about it.

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      • You’re precious. Thanks for the validation. That’s all I can say. I hope to see you Sunday.

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  • Kathy, thank you for focusing on this. So few people really understand what it like to be the target or a narcissist. So few are ever officially diagnosed because wild horses won’t get to a therapist – there’s nothing wrong with them.
    Both the parent and a pastor in my life that are undiagnosed meet every. single. one, of the criteria on the list.

    The most difficult thing to come to terms with, for me, once the initial realization is over, is that there is not reasoning with a narcissist. There is absolutely nothing that you can say or do that will make them ‘see reason’ and change. They do not operate from a place of normal reason. They also are not constrained by the same moral constraints most people live by. That is why they can lie with a straight face – with sincerity – even to the point of fooling a lie detector. They do not feel guilt about what they do (or if they do, it is so buried by the pathology that it is of no effect).

    And they absolutely must maintain the perfect inner persona they have created at all costs – they will do a scorched earth MO to not just silence, but punish and crush those who stand up to them or expose them. They a Must Prove the detractors are Wrong at all costs.

    Anyway, I could probably get a good rant going, but this is enough. Agaon, thank you for shining the spotlight on this. People won;t fix what they can’t see.

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  • Yes. Yes! YES!! I’ve been openly sharing from my personal experience with the toxic narcissism rampant in so many church pastors and leaders for a while now. Your words resonate perfectly with what I’ve been sharing. I agree that there is a growing number of people who are refusing to allow further abuse by such self-absorbed people.

    It’s long over due. While narcissists do not see and own their part in the toxicity, it’s what must happen for churches to become a healthy place to journey faith in. It’s what must happen so that people can become and remain healthy.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  • The boundary setting is such a good clue. This was when everything went crazy for me, consistently. I now see the pattern, but it’s been five years since I worked for my narcissistic former boss. Every time I tried to set a boundary for myself, he would lose his mind. Screaming, raging, refusing to speak to me. It was probably a year or two of working there before I saw him get angry (they’re charming, after all, and want to present a good image) and the minute I said “no” to an unrealistic demand I saw the other side.

    The difference in the church, for me, was that this person also used apologies as ways to woo people. Typically most resources mention narcissists can’t say “I’m sorry,” but he could, as part of his nonstop act. Because in the church apologies and “repentance” and “forgiveness” can get you pretty far. So he would “apologize,” always profusely and dramatically, assuming I would be kind and forgiving, which I always was. And the cycle would continue. Completely terrifying and super hard to identify without knowing about it. I just felt that something was “off,” and of course he tried to make me feel that perception was crazy.

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    • This is where we must understand the difference between the false repentance you mentioned and what the Bible says about true repentance being from the heart. Actions speak louder than words.

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    • thanks, sarah. yeah, the boundary setting one is a huge thing. once that happens, look out. have you ever seen the movie “bully”, it has nothing to do with narcissism but it made me think of what you said at the end. the principals would tell the bully “you apologize” and they would and they’d say “see, he’s sorry” and then course the person being bullied would be bullied again.

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    • Sarah–You bring up such a key point–so many times people try to treat these disorders a little too orderly. They aren’t the best-defined diagnoses–there’s a lot of grey area. I had someone tell me my father wasn’t a true narcissist because he could show some compassion (very much on his terms, but he could). He’d run over animals on the road and pull over to shoot rabbits and prairie dogs for being “nuisances” though. Cruelty is a sign of sociopathic tendencies as well. The point is that disorders can run a pretty wide gamut and like kathy says, the best protection is to get healthy and centered oneself to avoid becoming a victim of the wide array of craziness.

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  • Unfortunately so familiar and so true. I have five close friends who are ex-pastors ex-wives. I worked for several of their husbands and watched the destruction firsthand. I’ve been walking through the healing process with them all over the years. One of the hardest things for them was watching people believing the public persona their husband still carried and having people not really believe them or blame them for all the troubles that the breakup of their marriage had on the church. For awhile I worked at a Christian Bookstore right down the street from a Church where the pastor had molested a bunch of young boys and had even admitted it, and still the people would come in and say “I know he’s innocent. He would never do that.” I really believe the church as a whole in this country needs to re-evaluate what makes someone unfit to pastor. If they traumatize their family regardless of rather they are stealing money or sleeping with someone else, they should be held accountable. And if the wife and children who know the man the best and have the most to lose by confiding in someone they are being abused, people should believe them until it’s absolutely proven that their story isn’t correct. I’ve seen way too many of my close friends suffer at the hands of just the kind of man you are describing. The scary thing with the guys is that even if they do get caught and lose their churches they go right out and start another one with nothing changing.

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    • thank you. the complicity of the church in all of this is such a huge thing. we l like what narcissists can bring and like being part of it in all kinds of weird ways.

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  • Thanks for this Kathy. We need to be aware that the seeming markers of success may actually be a sign of sickness and imbalance. I’ve made it a personal rule to try to never become loyal to a vision or an organization. My loyalty is to individual people.

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    • A true shepherd’s (read Pastor here) heart is more interested in the individual’s personal growth in Christ than in the growth of the numbers within his or her congregation. Pastoring is most effective across a dinner table or a coffeeshop table than from the platform. My question in congregations that are most narcissistic is, “where are the elders and deacons”?

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  • Great article. Sobering. I was raised by a mother with NPD and have seen it rampant in the church. Thanks for addressing it! Wish we could sit for a few hours over a cup of coffee 🙂

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  • Thanks for the thoughts, Kathy, but why wouldn’t the life of a religious leader attract males and narcissists when most all religions are represented by male gods? What really bewilders me is why any woman would see god as a male persona. Not to take away from the good in the great lessons of human belief systems, but why would women follow and support anything that has no women in it? What have we done to ourselves, calling god ‘Lord’?

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    • Spot on! l’m struggling with faith right now. Religion seems too much like intense group male narcissism – this perception has grown with me over the years in Church. On the verge of leaving because of it.

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  • I’ve found that the reason narcissism exists so pervasively in the church is that we don’t recognize the idols in our hearts and minds for what they are and ask God to deliver us from the idols of our own making. In my opinion, idolatry is the real issue here.

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  • I’m gonna post this link on Jim Henderson’s facebook page as this post is pitch perfect as he is about to release his next book that tackles this head-on, especially a certain high-profile pastor from the pacific northwest. Your writing is strong as ever kathy!

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  • I had a friend share this on FB and it’s such a blessing to have read this. I’m in the middle of a horrible divorce. My ex is a minister and I can relate to everything written above. We have a Covenant Marriage so I still have a long road ahead, but I’m determined…I will shake the sand from my sandals and not look back! I hope to one day use my experience to help others…I’ve learned to smile all over again and dream. Life is good and hopefully more people will see what’s going on in our churches and give the wolves in sheep’s clothing less opportunities.

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    • thank you so much for taking time to share in the middle of what you are going through. peace and hope and courage to you as you keep walking toward freedom and healing…

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  • So, the question then becomes, what, practically, will the church do? When I was
    abused and discarded by my narcissistic church leader husband of 23 years, I was seen as “unstable” and cast away from my church. The lead pastor did listen to my story, but then he verbally lashed out at me saying that all I wanted was for him to “punish” my husband by removing him from ministry. I was homeless, and the church I had gone to, tithed to and served tirelessly as a volunteer as well as paid staff for a season, did not help me. Because I was attended another church when I told the pastor and church Secretary my story, they said I should go to that church to get financial help (which I had not asked for but did need). I told them I was uncomfortable doing that, that if help were to come it should come from my church of 20 years. To that, the Secretary, whom I had once considered my friend, my “sister in Christ,” even, replied, “They will help you. People come in here all the time who we don’t even know and we help them!” Could she even hear herself? I was thunderstruck. I had poured out my story of upscale violence, gaslighting, parental alienation, physical intimidation, withholding finances, his trying (unsuccessfully) to have me “committed,” my ex’s diagnosis by our marriage counselor as having narcissism, and the hell I’d been through missing my kids, only to be told I just wanted to punish him? Well, who wouldn’t? But that isn’t why I was there. I was there in a cry for help. And the church really did not help me. They did offer to pay for a Christian arbitor (to stop the court proceedings) but when my ex declined they never even got back to me to tell me what I already knew he would do. And to this day, he stands on the platform helping to lead worship. The band plays on. We hear a lot of talk about ending domestic violence, but church leaders obviously are not educated about the issues or how to help victims or actually admit that men in the church (or women who abuse) might need help and accountability. Abuse is about an imbalance of power. Narcissists seize power. And the church lets them. My ex knows how to charm and use people but the very ones he uses for his own strokes hold him on a pedestal. Those who see through him know He is a master manipulators and won’t get involved for fear others will alienated them or because they think they can’t change him anyway. But I was cast out. And most women who experienced what I experienced would never step foot in another church. But after three years, I have hardly missed a Sunday at my “new ” church. Not because I am a superChristian like my ex, but because I love Jesus and need to be worshipping him with other imperfect people who love him. My church’s unofficial motto is, “We are the perfect church for imperfect people with imperfect lives….” Coming together to honor the only Perfect One. Churches need to create an atmosphere where no one need create a facade of righteousness. Because my only righteousness in me is from my Savior. I stand only by His Grace. I pray the church learns how to extend that same grace in His great name.

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  • It seems that North American paradigm for masculinity is to become a narcissist. Narcissism is all too common among church culture which is dominated by men sad to say. Love your post Kathy!

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  • Thank you Kathy, I worked with a lady who I assume from reading your article has Narcisstic Personality Disorder. She completely broke me. And being an introvert it is taking a while to recover. Thank you for caring and being honest. David

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  • responding from the UK……
    Read the article with great interest as one of our church leaders (my husband and I pastor a church) is a (probable) narcissist with a hefty dose of BPD for good measure! Very difficult to deal with but fortunately I am a counsellor so at least I could understand what was playing out after my husband had said ‘no’ to this particularly leader. Church life has been extremely difficult and were it not for having God, close friends outside of church and my therapeutic understanding, the situation could have potentially destroyed us emotionally as this particularly lady is adept at ‘grooming’ others to elicit sympathy and we can see the whole Karpman triangle dynamic! We both feel that the body in question has an unconscious/conscious agenda to ‘rub us out’ and/or destroy us, the whole ‘splitting’ dynamic is in full flow currently!

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    • yikes on the hefty dose of BPD, too. so hard. glad you have each other and some good support. that karpman triangle is such a helpful tool, too. peace to you from across the oceans..

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  • So true about when you start setting boundaries and standing up for yourself…all hell breaks loose! Depending on whether the narcissist is your church leader, husband/wife, or parent; you either become excommunicated, divorced, or disowned. That in itself is a blessing, though your whole world has fallen apart, you finally have the opportunity to search for that rarest of pearls — your true self! That in itself is a difficult enough journey. I applaud all those courageous people who have broken away from the known (liviing or working with a narcissist) and stepped into the unknown.

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  • Kathy, I have been a pastor and missionary for 45 years. In that time I have only encountered perhaps two pastors who would meet the criteria for true NPD. Big egos? Sure. Some. Fragile self-image? Again, some. Because of that I wonder if it is wise to suggest that “many” pastors have NPD. All pastors, like all people , need to constantly rely on God’s grace and truth to keep their lives and ministries safe and helpful. The problem comes when pastors and leaders create a “personna” that hides the real person.

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    • thanks so much for taking time to share. i appreciate your perspectives and glad your experience hasn’t been quite so widespread 🙂 i think it depends on the circles that we’re in and one of the reasons i’m comfortable with “many” is that if i lined up a bunch of people (not just locally but all over the place) i know who come from an evangelical attractional tradition (because that’s a lot of our roots), it won’t be one or two, not necessarily with NPD but with those tendencies for sure…i think certain kinds of systems breed it and others thankfully don’t.

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  • I have been reading on this subject since 12-2015, I was involved with one. He (musician, not church leader) I think worse! He put me on a pedestal, Claimed to love me, repeatedly told me he was the best catch I ever had. Moved me from one side of Texas to the other. I called it quits in January 2016, I had to pay for the trailer so he could drive me back! I wasn’t able to bring everything, when I tried to ask about my “stuff” he blocked me from every social site he was in. I was demoted, as my friend said…I am concerned about how I go about, getting my stuff back?

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    • i am so sorry i am just now responding to this. somehow i missed it and i apologize. oh, it’s so hard, how to do the “post” stuff with narcissists. all of that fallout is just brutal. thinking of you as you navigate these tricky waters.

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  • Thank you so much for writing this article. I could not agree more with all of your points. Please keep speaking truth that is refreshing and comforting!

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  • kelli, i am so sorry i am just now responding to this! i missed a few comments here and am catching up today. thanks for being honest and for the work that you are doing to raise awareness and provide support for others. it’s a gift and it’s great to meet you out here!

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  • Part of the problem is that the church has too long espoused a cult of leadership, instead of a proper understanding of servant leadership.
    At church you typically have a large number of genuine Christians who want to serve God and others, who attend looking for a positive and loving experience. Then you have a minority of ambitious people who are all too eager to snap up leadership roles in order to get attention, control others, or self-aggrandize. Naturally, all the sheep end up being controlled by the wolves and church structure and values makes it hard to dislodge these predators. Because they are not rooted out, they turn many off to church.. or force people to seek out alternative churches or start their own splinter groups.
    When I’ve travelled hours to get to church once a week I expect it to be a refuge of safety, a special time. Not somewhere that I have to duel with narcissists and leave feeling put down or slighted.

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  • Would you pray a blessing for the sick Evangelical Maranatha Church in Beverwijk, in the Netherlands?

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