Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wolves Among The Sheep: When Narcissism Invades the Church

I am not a professional mental health care provider. This post should in no way be used as a means to decide if an individual in your life is a narcissist. The purpose of this post is to relate my experience of a pastor who I believe to be is narcissist. If you feel you are in an abusive relationship with a narcissist, you should contact your local support line for abused individuals.

I believe I spent the better part of my life subjected to the whims of a narcissistic pastor.
Not until freeing myself of her control did I realize this fact.
She was like the mythical vampire that sucked the life blood of my personhood, my spirituality, my understanding of God.
After researching narcissim, I am begining to believe that this abusive pastor only survived by the 'preying' she did on 'her' church members. In retrospect I can see that she truly had no sense of self.
Oh, she ranted and raved about the world and it's ungodly state. Upon research, however, I see that she was merely mimicing beliefs held by the relgious movement in which she grew up.
A WebMD interview with author Sam Vaknin shed further light on my experiences with her. He describes the narcissist as:

A Narcissist (notice the capital N) has no sense of self. If not reflected by others, he feels annulled, dead, void. It is a harrowing experience (I went through it once). It is like being separated to molecules and suspended in mid air...[They have]hyper-dependence on the views of others, sense of entitlement, a manipulative and exploitative nature, sadism, emotional absence, grandiosity -- incommensurate with real achievements, hyper-reactivity to criticism, delusions of reference...Narcissists are shrewd, shifty, manipulative and mental health professionals are easily deceived and fall prey to the narcissist's False Self (roughly the image that he projects).

Removing the terror of her absolute authority, I am able to see my abuser clearly- and her substance is as clear as air.
She had no original thoughts: her gripes, beliefs, conclusions on the world around her were taken verbatim from the few magazines she read and movies she watched.
She based an entire sermon on a "Touched By An Angel" episode. While the show was inspirational, it hardly merited a three hour sermon.
Many of her life stories were false or stolen from another person's experience.
In one instance she took another church member's account of a near robbery and re-spun it as her own tale.
Vaknin says:

...narcissists have no or very little personality -- they have only or mostly their reflection. That's why they need others, dependent on them for their very self-definition.

I saw this "feeding" happen repeatedly.
Following her three hour sermon, church members would stand and 'testify' of the power and life-changing experience of listening to her words.
If there was no testimonies, she would stalk home in a rage only to return next service and give the parishioners hell for not "heeding God' Word".
I remember in one instance that several church members were excited about the sequel of a Hallmark movie. The movie coincided with the Sunday night service. When the service finished early, they rushed to a back room where a TV was kept to catch the last few minutes of the movie.
When the pastor was informed of this, she publicly berated the parishioners for caring more about a worldly thing such as a movie more than her sermon.
I was berated from the pulpit for saying I had enjoyed a walk in the woods.
According to her, I should have said how thankful I was to be hearing God's Word that she preached.
She was depending on me to lavish her words with her praise. I had not. Therefore she punished me in the most effective way she could muster: to publically humilate. Vaknin projects that, as narcissists survive by manpulation, they themselves are easy prey to it:

My book says that narcissists are easily identifiable and that, once identified, can be easily manipulated. The need to manipulate them arises out of their propensity to destroy everything and everyone around them. To manipulate a narcissist is to survive. It is a survival tactic of the victims of narcissists.

I saw this effect often in her relationships with those who, in her words, "stayed close".
When one of these "close members" wanted a favor from her, they would come and kneel down before her as she sat in a chair. Adoringly, the person would call her "Mom" and praise her recent sermons. They would speak of how her words influenced them to change their sinfully ways- how convicted they felt as God's Word spoken through her fell on their ears.
Then, almost as an after thought, the person would mention the favor: permission to go see a relative or perhaps go on vacation.
Enthralled with the 'reflection' just showered on her by the cunning 'close one', she would, in most instances capitualate.
I often wonder if, severed from the church members who enable her, would she exist? No, I don't think so. I believe she would wither into nothingnes without her supply of their constant adulation.
I wish I could read to these remaining church members Vaknin's warning of the effect a narcissist has:

Accommodate them, flatter them, adore them, admire them or get out of their way -- and fast. They are vindictive. They are aggressive. They are emotionless. In short: they can be dangerous to your health.

I have heard some people say that they can and do love narcissists. I, personally, find it unhealthy (see my FAQ 66 co-authored with Alice Ratzlaff). It is a variant of co-dependence with more than a tinge of masochism.

To live with a narcissist is to endure torturous uncertainty, unpredictability, capriciousness, cruelty -- sprinkled with technicolor displays of "magnanimity," "largesse," and "brilliance".

The narcissist -- forced to obtain his supply of emotional drug is also forced to cater to SOME of the needs of his sources of supply. But he does so only grudgingly and reverts immediately to his former, degrading, abusive, behavior.


Grieving Mother/Therapist, Angie Bennett Prince said...

Your blog is wonderful!

I am so thankful you have been able to process through so much of your loss and grief as spiritual abuse can be so pervasively devastating-when a person tampers with your very Foundation, your relationship with the Living God, it devastates to the core. The ensuing PTSD can shake you to the point of being fearful of future pastoral relationships (the good side of which is that discernment going into ANY relationship is a good thing!)--

Bless you...thank you for sharing your process with us; it brings such glory to God's name, that indeed, "Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world!" 1 John 4:4

I "tweeted" about you and your blog this morning; be sure to check it out:

"MotherGrieving: Grieving Spiritual Abuse? A Wonderful Story of a Victim's Healing:"

Much love, many tears for you, and my prayers are with you,

Angie (MotherGrieving)

The Cult Next Door said...

Thank you so much for your beautiful and encouraging words!
It has been a long and winding road back to healing- I'm still not a 100% comfortable in church- but I'm getting there.
I appreciate the tweet, also!