Chuck DeGroat drops by Valor Media’s Valor World to talk about a hot-button issue for the church, narcissistic leadership. We discuss…
- How narcissistic leadership impacts the fallaway rate with our youth leaving the church.
- Why getting rid of one narcissistic leader doesn’t make the church leadership automatically safe.
- Why the church enables narcissistic leaders in the first place.
- If there is any hope for narcissists.
- The different types of narcissists and how to spot them.
- And more all from a Biblical Worldview.
INTRO WITH CHUCK & MIKE
Michael Stover: I read a lot of IVP books, so when I spotted yours, I was like, that’s good timing with everything going on, you know? You know, with Julie Royce’s report (on Ravi Zacharias). It really… It’s needed, but it’s also sobering. But we need to talk about this– When Narcissism Comes to the Church. For those of you who don’t know, this is the book here. I’ll put a link on the website and everything.
Michael Stover: And I was happy to see that you are familiar with some influencers and authors I read like Diane Langberg and Pete Scazzaro (of Emotionally Healthy Church)… They’re so needed. So I wanted to first actually introduce you to everyone who may not know you, kind of who is Chuck DeGroat? Yeah. Tell me about your background. What do you do? What is your passion? Why did you get into this topic? And I know it’s controversial, too, because in one sense it is needed, but the people who are the voices at first talking about this take a lot of heat as well.
Michael Stover: So it’s like, oh, why are you picking on this word or that kind of thing? So I would love for you to go ahead and introduce yourself and then we can dive into your book.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah. Well, thank you, by the way, for having me on. I’m currently a professor of Pastoral Care and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. I was a pastor for a long time. And so I like to joke around and say it’s sort of like being a player and then you go up into the booth and now you comment on what all the players are doing. But you know, as it applies to the topic of the book, I really like being involved in the on-the-ground-work with future pastors.
Chuck DeGroat: Right? I mean, so I like to be very proactive in developing emotionally and spiritually healthy women and men for ministry. And so that’s really important to mend and not just reacting to a problem out there, right? But being very, very proactive in the spiritual growth, like emotional growth for pastors. So I do that work; I’m a therapist, a licensed therapist. And so a lot of the work that I do is around like a five-day intensive counseling experience.
Chuck DeGroat: I think that’s where I see the most transformation with a lot of pastors, pastors and spouses as a way of really sort of deeply engaging them in the work of naming some of the pain, some of the trauma. You wouldn’t be surprised that people have written over the last year or so since the book has come out with their stories of pain, trauma, abuse and it’s a privilege to be helpful.
Chuck DeGroat: I get too many emails; I can’t be helpful to everyone, right? But I’ve tried to at least sort of engage and honor people’s stories because I mean, probably having me on because you hear the stories of pain in church and so. So, yeah, I’m married, 26 years to Sara. We have got two daughters. We’re just about to be empty nesters. And so I’m both terrified and excited about that. So, yeah, that’s a little bit about me being a writer, author.
Michael Stover: Nice. I have a Sarah, too. And I have a daughter.
Chuck DeGroat: Daughters are the best, aren’t they?
Michael Stover: Yes, there’s something about it; they just soften you…I don’t know how to describe it, you know? They just soften your heart.
Chuck DeGroat: That’s all you need to say! I’m totally with you!
Michael Stover: We’re preparing for my daughter’s (her name is Gracie) her two-year-old birthday. It’s going to be a couple of days. So big shift.
Michael Stover: I love that you’re in the community with boundaries and recognizing how important that is. I’m just excited to share what you know and what you wrote about. I’m in a lot of groups with people who have gone through pain and I’m sure you’re familiar with complex trauma, for example. I would say it’s a big need in the church with some of the damage that has been done by narcissists, navigating that and going forward is very helpful.
Host of Valor World and Co-Executive Director of Valor Media.
IIS THE FALLAWAY RATE WITH THE YOUTH LEAVING THE CHURCH CONNECTED TO NARCISSISTIC LEADERSHIP?
Michael Stover: But I want to say first, one of our missions at Valor is to decrease the fallaway rate of the youth leaving the church. In your opinion, is narcissistic leadership in the church and its unhealthy church leadership structure connected to the fallaway rate?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, yes…That’s a really good question, and I think I think that yeah–there’s probably a real connection there, if not a correlation. Right? I mean, I think part of it has to do with…you know, it used to be that we went to our doctors and we went to our pastors and they had authority and whatever my doctor says, that’s what I’m going to do.
Chuck DeGroat: Whatever my pastor says, that’s what I’m going to do. But we’re in a day when the people, politicians, lawyers, doctors, pastors, psychiatrists, whatever it is, we don’t have as much credibility and authority. The doctor says, wear your mask for COVID. And so it’s a no, no, no, I’m not going to wear whatever it is. Right? And then we we divide churches over this now, right?
Chuck DeGroat: Well, so I do think that the younger generation in particular, as they see pastors who don’t have the integrity to lead well and wisely and from a place that they can trust, they say, well, I don’t know if I can’t trust him or her. I’m not sure that I can trust this story of God. I’m not sure that I can trust the one that they’re talking about. And so this crisis of authority has sort of reached God, if you put it that way. I do think that there’s a sense of like I don’t know that I can even trust that God is going to be there, that God is trustworthy, that God will be present in the midst of my pain, you know, because maybe God is just as cruel or twisted or hypocritical as this pastor is.
DISTRUST IN CHURCH LEADERSHIP CAN LEAD TO A DISTRUST TOWARDS GOD
Chuck DeGroat: And so this is this leads to trauma, right, when people are betrayed in these kinds of ways. This is why I love that you name trauma at the outset of our time together, because it’s not as easy as saying, well, just trust your pastor or just go to a different church.
It’s not that easy when you’ve experienced trauma. You have to do the work of detangling, untangling that with someone who knows the landscape of pain and so that’s significant work. And so I have a lot of empathy for people who are…whatever the word you want to use, deconstructing their faith because of the trauma they experience. I’m not one of these people who are cynical. Ah, I got to get it together as fast as they can and you know, I like that your heart is with them, too. How do we create the kind of church that they want to be a part of? How do we introduce them to a story and a God who is safe, a story that will contain their stories?
THE IMPORTANCE OF A SAFE CHURCH
Michael Stover: Yeah, that’s good. You’re hitting the heart of it. That is a good question. What does that look like? Practically, to be safe?
Chuck DeGroat: Well, safety is such an important word. I was just last hour, I was just sitting with a pastor who has experienced some significant trauma and they were doing–their church staff was doing something on what are the core values, what are the core needs even of our staff members? And he said safety. It was really interesting, that core need of his is really connected to his story of pain, his trauma. Right. He needs to know that this is a place where what you say is what you mean, who you are will be demonstrated and how you show up–your integrity and keeping your word.
Chuck DeGroat: He needs to know that if if you’re my supervisor, you’re my lead pastor and you could commit to mentoring me, that you’re going to be there week in and week out. You’re going to show up curious.
Michael Stover: Sounds like my kind of guy.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, right. Like you’re speaking my language, too. I mean, that’s significant. You know, and I think that when I was exploring this topic of narcissism, all this goes back 20 some odd years for me and my work, my work in the church, a lot of the environments where we see narcissistic leadership are high energy Type A performative–not every environment. There are different kinds of narcissistic leadership.
Michael Stover: I would like to unpack that, too because I think you said, what, nine or more types of narcissists?
THE IDEA OF PERFORMANCE-BASED SUCCESS OVER PROVEN CHARACTER
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, I mean, we can sort of tease that out, but I think I mean a lot of what we see is like more performative spaces where it’s like, “I don’t really care who you are. I just need to know what you can do. I just need to know that you’re going to be successful. I need to know that you’re going to grow our youth group over these next three or five years.”
Michael Stover: Which is a means to an end.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, that’s right. And so then you don’t feel valued. You don’t feel known and you’re just a commodity. How does it play out practically? Well, it’s about creating the kinds of emotionally and spiritually healthy environments–Pete Scazzero talks about this a lot. This is why we all like him and read his stuff–about creating those kinds of environments where there is going to be health, safety, wholeness, faithfulness.
FOSTERING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR HEALTHY LEADERSHIP
Chuck DeGroat: I mean, let’s just go through the fruits of the spirit, gentleness, love, joy. I mean, where there’s an environment where those qualities can show up.
Michael Stover: How do you foster that kind of an environment (which probably ties in with spiritual disciplines)? But we take all of this for granted. We just talk about it loosely. Not everybody understands these words and what does it mean practically?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah. So how do you foster that kind of environment? I mean, I think I think that the tricky thing there is that there are a lot of different ways of doing that. I think the books that tend to sell are the ones that are like, here’s the secret key to fostering the_____… It’s this kind of leader or these spiritual disciplines or this systemic solution. Right. And I think it all comes into play. I think healthy leadership, again, Pete Scazzero’s work and Ruth Haley Barton’s work on healthy leadership is really, really important.
Chuck DeGroat: I think a commitment to practices…Jamie Smith’s work on the liturgies, the way the practices of the church, the way that we live out our faith. Faithful participation in the story of God in an ongoing way. I think that’s a really big part of it. I think systemic health, the systems and structures that are in place that contribute to accountability and transparency and mutuality and encouragement and all of those kinds of things. So I don’t know that there’s a one size fits all…
Michael Stover: There’s no hack.
Chuck DeGroat: No, there’s no hack, there’s no magic bullet.
Chuck DeGroat: But I do think that there are some really great conversations happening on spiritual practices. Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor on leadership, transformative leadership, Tod Bolsinger on adaptive leadership. I think Wade Mullins work on systems, healthy and unhealthy systems…I mean, there are just so many of these things come into play.
Michael Stover: Yeah, it’s very encouraging because it shows that in spite of the negativity going on, there are healthy things going on too.
Chuck DeGroat: Oh, yes, yes.
HOW DO WE AS A CHURCH ENABLE NARCISSISTIC LEADERS?
Michael Stover: There’s a question of how do we break the chain of enablement of narcissistic abuse. That seems to be a big trap because people it ties into people-pleasing and fear of man.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, so here again is a really good question without a simple answer to it, right? Yeah, I mean, someone once said to me, well, we just need to ask these narcissistic leaders to repent. And I said, I wish it was that easy.
Michael Stover: Easier said than done.
Chuck DeGroat: I did some consulting work with a large church where we, in the end, the narcissistic leader was asked to leave and the staff said, oh, we’re good now. No, they weren’t good because some of the toxic patterns had made their way into the systems and structures and into the ways of relating the patterns of accountability and into the ethos of the church. Right. And so it’s really tricky because here, again, I think we need to approach this in a sort of multi-level way.
Chuck DeGroat: I mean, I want to think about the narcissistic leaders and I want to think about why do we perpetuate narcissistic leaders in the church? Let me just put it this way. Is there a collective and even cultural sort of environment that contributes to narcissistic leadership? In other words, you and I both live in the United States of America. We’ve got a story of Manifest Destiny. We’ve got a story of conquer, a victory…We really like stories like that, we like to watch movies where there’s a victory.
VALOR MEDIA SIDE NOTE: We appreciated hearing Chuck’s cultural assessment on why he theorizes narcissism took hold in the church. Valor plans to peel back the layers with others on the many facets that led to the toxic roots of narcissism in the church.
Chuck DeGroat: In the end, we’d like to tell the stories of success in the battlefield. It’s not a surprise to me that we’ve got any number of pastors and networks right now using the language of war, of conquest, of victory. Why is that the case? Why do we have this kind of winner take all mentality when it comes to church leadership, when Jesus is the suffering servant, Jesus is the one who does not consider equality with God, something to be grasped but makes himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.
VALOR MEDIA SIDE NOTE: While there is a warrior side to God and Christ, Chuck makes a good point that church leaders have abused this attribute of God to develop an excuse for themselves to rule over congregations with an inappropriate, warrior-like authority.
Chuck DeGroat: Right. That’s the language– that’s the Christ in– the way of Jesus is very different than the way of the conquering, almost like a military leader of the church plant or the megachurch today. Right. And so there are a lot of pieces of this. Right. Not just the leaders and their health, but the mental models that we operate by, the systems that we operate in. There are a lot of pieces to this, right?
Michael Stover: Yeah, the system is a big part. But it’s interesting because there’s a concept of systematic theology. It’s like, oh, yeah, it’s a system.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, and systemic narcissism, right? Systemic narcissism. It’s a feeder system. In other words, there is a really important theorist named Jerrold Post who said there are the-mirror-hungry leaders. In other words, they look to the congregation as their mirror and it’s like my ego. But there are also the followers because of the ideal hungry followers who are like, “Be the person I need you to be my ideal leader.” And so there’s a reciprocal relationship.
Chuck DeGroat: And so we have to ask ourselves, how are we participating in the perpetuation of narcissistic leadership? Even if we’re not narcissistic, we prop these guys up.
Chuck DeGroat: How do we do that? Because I think some of us are where maybe we need to get better at it. This us aren’t aware that we’re doing it. How aware that we’re doing it in the first place, know, enabling and platforming these people.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, well, I mean, I think we have to look at some of our own psychological needs that get met when we prop these people up. I mean, I do think that there’s… This is an old story in scripture, right? God wanted to be the king of Israel, but they were like, no, give us our own king. Yeah, give us a king that we can manage, maneuver, manipulate. This is the story, you know?
Chuck DeGroat: You know, God says, let me lead. And we’re like, “No, we’ll build towers up to the skies.” You know, we’ve been playing this game. Jesus comes and says, “I’m Lord, I’m Messiah, I’m safe.” And we’re like, no, you don’t look like one, you know, so we will crucify you like every other. And so we how do we do it? We do it really creative ways. I think it’s sort of deep within us.
Chuck DeGroat: We sabotage God’s lordship, God’s kingship in a way not to get theological, but I do think that we’re looking for the church planter to be our savior. So then we go into the city
“INNOCENT” FORMS OF NARCISSISM
Chuck DeGroat: I was just talking to a guy the other day, a young pastor. He said–and I’m not trying to out someone–I’m not going to say his name, but I think that this is a bit of the mentality. And I had a conversation with him, but he said he was talking about a major city. And he said, “When I think about that city, I think of a city that needs the gospel. And I think God is calling me to bring the gospel to that city.”
Chuck DeGroat: And I said to him, “Hey, like I get your heart behind that. But have you ever wondered, are there any other churches there right now? Are there any other pastors there? Do you think that there might be a historic black church in the city that has been there for one hundred fifty years, faithfully serving, faithfully chipping away, faithfully showing up to people in need? What would it look like for you to instead of going there, like I’m going to save the city of… you name it, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Cincinnati, whatever it is, I’m just going to go and see what God is doing already and participate in that.” That might look really different…
Michael Stover: Show up where God is.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, that’s right. God is already on the move. Let’s just get to where God is on the move and participate rather than–
Michael Stover: He never even needed us.
Chuck DeGroat: Right. I mean, like God delights to use you and me. Like I’m not a podcaster, but you are, you know? But God delights to use you. But if you showed up, Mike, and you were like, “My podcast will be the podcast that saves humanity. So I think Mike, you need to probably see a spiritual director, you know?”
Michael Stover: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
DO WE ALL HAVE A TOUCH OF NARCISSISM?
Michael Stover: That’s the thing about the book I wanted to touch on is though it raises awareness about various types of narcissists and we could touch on the types. If you’re honest before God, we all can have at least [a touch of narcissism.] It’s convicting. I mean we all can because we have the flesh nature. We have to have at least a tinge of narcissism.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, I often say that Adam and Eve grasped the fruit and they discovered what they’d done and they had. Right? And we’ve grasped ever since. We’re participating in the pattern of grasping and hiding.
Chuck DeGroat: And you know I could not write a book on narcissism in the church without knowing some of it as someone who’s been impacted and traumatized by it, but also as an unwitting participant in it, you know, as that ideal hungry follower at a time showing up in my own egocentricity in my own my own unique manifestation of narcissism, which isn’t quite as grandiose but is nevertheless about me and ego-centered and, you know, has as my own unique ways of manipulating out of people what I need you to give me. Right? And so this is where I think we all need to be doing our own work.
Michael Stover: I would love to tap into more because you really went into shame and woundedness. Yeah, I want to touch on this even though we will touch on the types of narcissists and we probably should even define what [narcissism] is for those who don’t really know. But what I also like is that your book seems to be balanced. You go into a spectrum [of narcissism and you go into the everyday Joes and Jills that can actually still fall into narcissism without being narcissists.
Michael Stover: Yeah. And also that there’s hope for narcissists, which there’s a mainstream belief that there’s none at all, and we should guard our hearts, because they are not safe people.
Michael Stover: So I guess first would be what is a narcissist, especially by a counselor and by the DSM?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, yeah. That’s usually where in the psychological world, that’s where we go first and so if you go to the DSM V, which is like the Bible of psychology. You’re going to see some categories that sort of get at the core features of narcissism. One of those is grandiosity. There’s grandiosity, attention seeking entitlement, lack of empathy, and then impairments in what I’d say impairments in vocation and relationships.
Chuck DeGroat: Some combination of those features, grandiose person, entitled person, a low empathy…so that describes what I would consider to be what we call the grandiose narcissist, what psychologists call the grandiose narcissist. This tends to be the person who is a larger-than-life personality. He feels like all attention should be on him or her is entitled to your allegiance. Your loyalty is hard-charging, high demanding, low empathy. In other words, if you share your pain, your story he is going to say, “Wipe away those tears. There’s no place for weakness here.” Then the impairments of empathy and in relationships and vocation really get at…there’s going to be some relational pain and there’s going to be some pain in the workplace. In other words, your narcissism is going to impact the people around you. That kind of gets at the standard clinical definition of it.
Chuck DeGroat: You know this already. But I try to tease that out by saying psychologists also say that there’s not just the grandiose narcissism, but a vulnerable narcissism sometimes called more of a covert narcissism.
Chuck DeGroat: That tends to be an “aw, shucks” kind of narcissist. Oh, I don’t want to be in charge, but I’m just as angry. My demanding nature isn’t as overt, but it comes out sideways in passive-aggressive ways. I tend to be very self-pitying. I tend to play the role of the victim. And no one gets how hard we work here. No one gets how faithful to the gospel we are at our church.
Chuck DeGroat: And so this more covert narcissism, isn’t that kind of on-the-big-stage-narcissism, but it’s more of a behind the scenes you-better-notice-how-big-of-a- deal-I-am, even though my church is kind of small and my ministry isn’t as big, you better notice that I’m that I’m special, that I’ve got something that the world needs to see. And of course, you know, I tease out nine different [types of narcissim] but that’s probably too much to get into.
Chuck DeGroat: What I’m trying to do with that is I’m trying to say let’s not say that this is a one glass fits all kind of personality. It’s not to say that the caricature is the former president of the United States, or the narcissistic athlete, or the_____. Everyone wants to put it on one person or in one category, and I want to say no, it’s a lot more nuanced than that.
Michael Stover: And people are more nuanced than that.
Chuck DeGroat: That’s right, yeah.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF NARCISSISM
Michael Stover: Could you at least give sort of a nugget version of those [narcisstic] types?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah. Well, I’ll just give you a couple of different pictures of it, right? One might not look as grandiose, but might be a little bit more heady–might be a little bit more intellectual. This is a person who tends to be condescending. This is a person who tends to be more of like he shows up with more of an energy of a “You don’t get it. You don’t know what I know.”
Chuck DeGroat: He might be an expert at what he does. He might be a theologian, he might be a journalist, he might be a physician. But it comes with an energy of “I’m smarter than you are.”
Michael Stover: Does that relate to intellectual snobbery and credentials, that kind of stuff?
Chuck DeGroat: Oh, yeah. Look at all the letters with my name, look at all the schools I went to, look at the length of my CV, my resume.
Chuck DeGroat: But there’s a different kind of narcissist that looks more like what I call the benevolent narcissist. This is the, “Look at how helpful I am. Look, I show up to every need in the church. I’m on every committee. I’m a deacon. Why don’t you people recognize how incredible I am? How come people don’t recognize what a gift I am to this church?
Chuck DeGroat: There’s more of a bully, sort of aggressive, dictatorial narcissist and there’s a little bit more of a wallflower narcissist, not as relationally or emotionally as aggressive, but more of a passive-aggressive kind of personality. There’s one that shows up as more lawyerly like I’m going to tell you all the things that you did wrong and correct all the things that you have mistaken.
Chuck DeGroat: I’m going to I’m going to show you where all your failures are.
Michael Stover: Sort of like the Pharisees.
Chuck DeGroat: Right. And so what I want to say is that let’s just not say that it’s just the performer on stage, but it might be the legalist. It might be the condescending intellectualizer, or the benevolent giver, or the wallflower, passive-aggressive wallflower, or the dictatorial bully. All of the above might be forms of narcissism.
Michael Stover: Thank you for unpacking that, that really helps. Could you tease out real quick to what is a healthy form which most people don’t know and I’m glad you touched on it–a healthy form of narcissism maybe–what I would call soul care.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, it’s a whole it’s a healthy attentiveness to one’s self. Right? It’s a good form of self-care. It’s a really you know, this comes under the I would say historically in the church, this comes under the guise of self-knowledge or self-awareness. Saint Augustine tells this story in the first nine chapters of The Confessions, and he begins Chapter Ten of the Confessions with, “Noverim me Noverim te.” In other words, in the Latin, “Let me know myself. Let me know you, O’ Lord.”
Chuck DeGroat: He tells a story. No one says, well, Augustine is narcissistic for telling his story in those first nine chapters. No, he’s trying to tease out how is my journey? How’s my story been a journey in sort of losing and finding God? What are the mistakes that I’ve made along the way? What do I need to know about myself and my proclivities, my sin patterns you might say?
Chuck DeGroat: In psychology, when we talk about healthy narcissism, we talk about the young child who in the best of ways… It’s like you’ve got a young child now, right?
Michael Stover: Yeah.
Chuck DeGroat: The kid says, “Look at me, look at me, daddy. I did a cartwheel!” Now at forty-five years old, if you’re saying, look at me, look at me! I did a great sermon. Look at me!” That’s a problem.
Chuck DeGroat: But we don’t tell our kids at two years old, you’re a narcissist. We say, “Oh yeah of course we all long to be seen. We all long to be known.” And by the way, that’s how God created us. God created us to be known, to be loved, you know? An intimate relationship– the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creating us– God’s good and beloved creation to be known in a reciprocal relationship, right?
Chuck DeGroat: And so that’s the core, right? I mean, I long to be known now. I have ways of going about getting that need met that can be destructive, sinful, if not destructive, right? Attention seeking kinds of ways, but that longing to be known is a God-given long.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE TO HAVE A HEALTHY GOD-GIVEN LONGING AND A UNHEALTHY SEEKING?
Michael Stover: That’s a good one, too. What’s the difference between the God-given longing and unhealthy seeking?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, well, I mean, I think the unhealthy seeking is when we go about getting that need met on our own terms, right? And this is where we get into the language of the early church of order of desire and disordered desire. I think that that there’s this in which let me just put it this way. When you asked me to tell me about who I was earlier on, what I wanted to say first actually was I’m the beloved of God.
Chuck DeGroat: I am known and loved by God and at my best, Mike, I’m seen and I’m known and I’m held securely in that space.
Chuck DeGroat: And then there are the days where I wake up and I’m like, wow, I wonder how I could get my needs met today? I need a little bit more attention and my wife’s not giving me enough attention or my colleagues are not giving me attention. I’m not getting enough credit for the things that I’m doing over at the seminary these days…or my girls don’t appreciate me enough. And so I’m going to remind them of just how special I am.
Chuck DeGroat: Now, listen, we all do this all the time. And in that sense, I think you were saying earlier hinting it like we all have a tinge of narcissism, right? We all do this all the time. And that’s kind of the way sin plays itself out historically. Do we know this about ourselves? And so do I later go to one of my colleagues and say, boy, I was just fishing for your praise earlier today and I’m sorry about that. I’m seeing it now and it was really inappropriate. I was texting you, trying to get you to retweet something that I put out there. What is that about? Like, you know, so that’s it. I mean, we just have to do the work of knowing how our sin patterns show up in the world.
Michael Stover: Yeah, it’s a process that’s a good one to how do we know how it shows up? That probably ties into what is accountability, but. What is healthy accountability, because there’s been an abused form of accountability and what it looks like is sort of something like this, “Open rebuke is better than secret love.” And that’s like the tenet of the whole thing. And it’s like, well, does this accountability mean let me go out of my way to put you down? No.
Chuck DeGroat: No.
Michael Stover: So I would like to hear what you have to say on that?
Chuck DeGroat: Well, I mean, ideally, when I by the way, when I talk about discipline in the church, I’d say the core work there is discipleship, where there’s good discipleship, there’s really good knowing and being known. There’s really good accountability. I think that when you talk about the kind of emotionally healthy discipleship, that Pete Scazzero talks about, it is not Lone Ranger discipleship. It’s I know you, you know me– we’re in a relationship. So let’s say, for instance, you and I work together.
Chuck DeGroat: You come to me and you say, “Hey, Chuck, I know you’re my supervisor, but can I give you some feedback? And I say, yeah, Mike, what do you need? What do you want to say? And you say, you know, there are times when I just feel like you value me and there are other times where I feel like you use me. And there are a couple of instances lately where I’ve experienced that. Can I tell you more about that?”
Chuck DeGroat: And I say to you, “Yeah, tell me more about that.” That’s a really good, healthy accountability, curiosity, discipleship. And that’s ideally what I want to see in and among us, right? I think it’s when we begin to become punitive with those words and with our actions, when our discipleship becomes more like a kind of heavy- handed discipline and accountability becomes a one-sided because “I’m up here on the org chart, I get to tell you what to do. But you don’t have any business telling me anything about how I show up.” That’s when it becomes a problem. The real need for mutuality, complementarity when it comes to these relationships.
Michael Stover: How can seminaries change their educational structure to prevent narcissistic abuse from their students who will be future church and ministry leaders?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, well, so you’re asking a seminary professor that question now, and I think that’s probably part of the reason I made the transition from pastoring, is I wanted to be involved in that work. And so we invite students to do the work of knowing themselves in the classic sense, not just psychologically, but in the theological sense of knowing oneself. I mean, I think ultimately the goal there is humility, not a kind of therapeutic-like introspection, although that can be really helpful, but ultimately for the sake of humility.
Chuck DeGroat: And so I invite my students to get to know their own stories. Let’s connect the dots of your own story. Let’s connect the dots of your family of origin, how you learned to relate. Students do some of that work and they’ll say, “Wow, addiction goes back three generations in my family. I wonder how it plays out in my life?” I was doing this work, by the way, with a student–a young student– who was almost sort of Pharisaical:
Chuck DeGroat: “I’m so glad that I’m not an alcoholic like my dad and my dad’s dad. And I said, “Okay, so let’s tease that out. Addiction is a pattern in your family. How do you think that shows up for you?”
Chuck DeGroat: And he says, “Well, I don’t drink, or I don’t drink abusively.” And I said, “Okay, how do you think that plays out for you?” Well, it turns out that his obsessive-compulsive tendencies play out in his consuming of theological knowledge and his own condescension like his own, and it alienates him from people.
Chuck DeGroat: Some of the dynamics of addiction are playing out in ways that look pretty righteous. In other words, we invite students to get to know their own stories. We invite them to pay attention to how they show up. We invite them into healthy relationships with one another, in other words, into a community of hopefully honest people on the way alongside Jesus who is doing the work, the humble work of knowing themselves. We invite them to pay attention that the systems that they find themselves in when they do their internship.
Chuck DeGroat: So how are you experiencing the church you’re in? What are you observing about yourself and about others? And so we do a lot of this internal and external work to get them familiar enough with this so that when they get out there, at least they’ve got some capacity for it.
Michael Stover: Can you tell me about that program for those who might be interested in the school?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, so I teach at Western Theological Seminary. It’s on the lakeshore of Holland, Michigan. It’s a beautiful town. It’s a college town. Lots of great coffee shops, beautiful lake, snow in the winter. Perfect weather in the summer. But the program is actually here. We have the new Eugene Peterson Center here, as well as people know the work of Eugene Peterson. But, you know, it’s a program it’s a master of divinity program. But we’ve got other programs, doctor of ministry programs. We’re really focused on pastoral formation.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HAVING NARCISSISTIC TRAITS AND SOMEONE WHO HAS FULL-BLOWN NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER?
Michael Stover: Nice. Thank you for sharing that. What is the difference between someone who has narcissistic traits and someone who has full-blown narcissism?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, so now you’re talking about that spectrum that you hinted at earlier. And this is where you get into some conversations with folks like when you talk about narcissism or healing the narcissistic person, they’ll say that’s impossible. And I want to say that if we keep narcissism along a spectrum, in other words..It’s sort of like there are some people who have a common cold and then there are some people who have the common cold that have a really bad cough and there are some people who have the flu.
Chuck DeGroat: Think about narcissism in that way. OK, well, if we think about it like that along a spectrum, what we see is that there are some people who have the full-blown flu and we call that Narcissistic Personality Disorder with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the healing process, if there is a healing process, is not weeks, it is not months, it’s years. And this is why people say narcissists can’t change, because when we talk about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it’s so ingrained in their personality.
Chuck DeGroat: That’s why it’s a personality disorder. It’s so ingrained in their personality that change is incremental. If there is change, it’s very, very small. Whereas when we talk about the common cold or the cold with the cough, we’re talking about a narcissistic style or type where there may be proclivities or tendencies, but there’s a self-awareness. And so might this might be the person who’s like, yeah, I see that in myself. I want to grow, I want to change.
Chuck DeGroat: But I also know that I impact people in a way that hurts them. And so there’s a self awareness. There’s a capacity to repent. And so the higher you are on the spectrum, let’s say zero to 10, when you get up in that seven, eight, nine, ten range, I’m wanting to say, yeah, you need to do really serious work and you probably need to step away from your church if you’re a pastor, to do that work.
Chuck DeGroat: If you’re in the four or five range, three, four or five range. Yeah, maybe you can remain in your pastoral work, but let’s get you on sabbatical. Let’s give you a therapy. Let’s see if you’re willing to ask the really hard questions. Does that make sense?
WHAT IS A SABBATICAL AND WHY DO WE NEED ONE?
Michael Stover: Yes. What is a sabbatical? I know but a lot of the audience may not know. It’s a growing movement, I would say.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, it’s sabbatical like Sabbath at the root core word. There is a season of rest, a season of holiness, a season to get away, to stop, to rest from your labor.
Michael Stover: The hustle.
Chuck DeGroat: Rest from the hustle to not be a producer and so many of us feel like we have to produce and we’re still mentally living in Egypt, where we were productive, where we were commodities, right? And so it’s about stepping out of that mindset, stepping out of that situation and being in a place where we can really rest and become whole
WHAT IS SYSTEMIC NARCISSISM?
Michael Stover: That’s good. And [I want to go back to what] you unpacked just not too long ago. [when you touched on the earlier topic of a system of narcissism] I know going into that, what touches on that is the word septic narcissistic system. Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it.
Michael Stover: Yeah, the reason I use that is like when there’s sepsis or when there’s…to use language that we’re all familiar with the virus, it doesn’t just impact one person, it impacts everyone, right? And so now it’s not just the one person in the room, everyone’s impacted. And so so that’s where we have to really tease out, like, how is the system impacted? A little while ago, I told you the story of a church removing the narcissistic senior leader and then saying, “Well, the problem is out of the system now.”
Chuck DeGroat: And me saying, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. We’ve got much more work to do to tease out how this has impacted the rest of you and how the virus continues on in the system, how the sepsis continues on the infection.” And the system continues on.
THE IMPORTANCE OF HEALING FROM OUR TRAUMA THROUGH AWARENESS & INTENTIONALITY
Michael Stover: Thank you. I have two last ones and then we can wrap it up, but I really appreciate this. In your book, you talk about the importance of healing ourselves. You say the most important components, of healing trauma in oneself is awareness and intentionality. Can you address that to the audience?
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah. So imagine narcissism as like an automatic response. I mean, it’s all the person knows. If I say to someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, you show up in ways that are really angry, if not rageful. He will say to me, “No, I don’t. I’m passionate. I mean, this is just passion for the gospel. This is passion for the Lord.” And so it’s almost like an automatic response, right? Awareness invites us to pay attention to our automatic responses.
Chuck DeGroat: Neurobiologists tell us that ninety to ninety-five percent of our daily activity is automatic. We’re serving life on repeat. And so I want to pay attention to how I show up. And that involves a real intentional process of maybe inviting people in to say, “Hey, can you tell me a little bit about how you experience me and me becoming aware of my style of relating?” I use that language ad nauseum. My students know it well–your style of relating.
Chuck DeGroat: What’s my style of relating? Am I domineering? Am I condescending? Am I perfectionist? Am I benevolently helpful, as I talked about earlier? Am I hyper vigilant? What’s my style of relating? And so as I get to know myself, it’s like, “Oh wow. So you experience me as condescending. I always just thought that I was helping you with all my great knowledge and wisdom. Tell me more about my condescension and how that impacts you.”
Chuck DeGroat: [This] leads to humility. Good self-awareness always leads to humility or should maybe [lead to] humility, I should say, right? It doesn’t always lead to humility. Sometimes it leads to, as I say in the book, “faux-nerability” (faux vulnerability). So a little bit of self-knowledge to convince you that I know what I’m doing, know what I’m talking about, that I’m humble, but good, good self-awareness leads to humility. And I think that’s what I’m longing for, to be honest with you, Mike, that’s what I’m longing for in pastors and what I’m longing for in the church.
WHAT DOES HUMILITY REALLY LOOK LIKE & WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Michael Stover: You know, what is humility?
Chuck DeGroat: I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question, but like in podcasting and stuff, I don’t think. But when I think about humility, I really think of the core, the root of the word humus (of the earth), you know, it’s like–my favorite holiday is Ash Wednesday. Why? You are dust and to dust, you shall return. You are of the earth. A lack of humility is “I live above all of you.”
Chuck DeGroat: I don’t have to live with limitation. The narcissist doesn’t believe he’s equal to you and me, much. He doesn’t believe that he has the same limitations as you and me. You know, he’s a little bit better. He’s a little bit above us. He looks at me and he says, “You know that guy Chuck DeGroat? He’s just kind of weak. He talks a lot about pain and woundedness and vulnerability.
Chuck DeGroat: Like if he really did his work, he could get over all that stuff. You know, he’s just a whiner and a complainer and so, I mean, I think that humility is to be right where Jesus is of the Earth, the crucified Christ, the one who knows suffering. Who went to hell and back for us. You know?
Michael Stover: Incarnating.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Michael Stover: I didn’t touch on this, but my wife and I, we both have long-term chronic illnesses and connecting with Christ, being down to earth, incarnating, being in the trenches was very helpful through the journey. So is there hope for people who, you know, they might have, say, PTSD and complex trauma–I know Diane Langberg touches on complex trauma. Is there hope for people like that who are victims and they can react to these things, even be angry?
Michael Stover: Or I mean, I know it’s a secular source, but there’s a guy who wrote on complex trauma he [covers], the four F’s, the fight, flight, fawn. and freeze. Yeah.
Michael Stover: So, you know, my wife and I, we love serving the Lord and getting in the trenches. And we didn’t ask for it, it’s just something…
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah.
Michael Stover: We don’t take it lightly. We kept pushing it off for doing ministry and it was more of like, you got to do this type thing.
IS THERE HOPE FOR TRAUMA VICTIMS WHO WANT TO DO MINISTRY WORK?
Michael Stover: There’s things you’re talking about that need to be talked about. So, of course, having healthy accountability and so forth [is crucial]. But I’m bringing this up because there’s young people who want to serve, do ministry and might even want to help with home churches and even church plants. And there’s unsafe leaders and church planters. But is there a healthy form of all that? What does that look like? And is there hope for those who are victims of trauma but they’re trying to heal.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah. I mean, years ago I kind of started a church within a church, it was a bit of a church plant, but it was like I called it the worship service for Freaks and Geeks like me who have been through pain. And we just tried to create a safe place for people to show up. The simple sort of message and participation in the liturgy and coming to the table together. I think that there’s hope. I think it’s about creating places of safety, there’s a longing for safety.
Chuck DeGroat: Trauma survivors need safety. They need places where they’re not activated so that they don’t go back into their fight, flight, freeze, fawn response mode so then they can be invited out to be whole-hearted, to be vulnerable participants in worship and in the life of the community. And so it’s possible, it takes some really wise and healthy… And leaders who’ve done their own work and, you know, trauma. I think so… But I have hope.
Michael Stover: That’s good. That’s very encouraging. Well, number one, what is the site that people can find you?
Michael Stover: And it’s easy.
Michael Stover: And for those of you you don’t know, you can go on Amazon or most major bookstores to check out When Narcissism Comes to the Church. And we ourselves, at Valor, we intend to have group discussions around the book as well. So it would be nice to have you back sometime for Q&A, with a group if you would like.
Chuck DeGroat: I would love that.
A PRAYER FOR ANYONE WHO NEEDS IT
Michael Stover: Any sending messages that you would like to part with and a prayer? Oh, yeah, if you don’t mind, I ask everyone I interview if they could share the gospel.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, and would you like me to close in prayer? Is that what you’re asking?
Michael Stover: Yes.
Chuck DeGroat: Well, I mean, my simple [answer]…Is to follow Jesus. I think Jesus points us to the way; Jesus lives the way, you know? The disciples were called to follow Jesus. “They were like, what in the world is this? The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make sense. You’re supposed to be a military leader. You’re supposed to be a wise Pharisee.” I think the way of Jesus is always confusing and disruptive and disorienting, and it challenges us at a core level.
Chuck DeGroat: And so follow Jesus and you’ll find your way like the disciples did. Peter was stubborn, but he found his way. It cost him in the end, but he found his way, right?
Michael Stover: I was more like a Peter.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah. So yeah, follow Jesus. And I think in many, many years of following Jesus, for me that doesn’t mean, hey, you’ve got it figured out a lot of the time. It’s hey, here’s another area that I want to invite you to take a look at. Here’s another place that you stumbled that I want to invite you to just pay attention to how you’re showing up. Maybe I can pray that for your listeners as we go.
Michael Stover: Sure and before you pray, if you can just share the gospel for those who may not know.
Chuck DeGroat: Yeah, well, I mean, I would say that what I just shared is for you. You are broken-hearted like I am. You are the wounded, you’re the needy, you live out of unhealthy patterns that I live out of, that we all live out of that sabotage life and joy and flourishing in abundance and connection. And Jesus meets you along that path. Not to shame you, not to condemn you, but to say, hey, I’ve got a better way.
Chuck DeGroat: So follow me along the way and I’ll show you the path of life. It might be complicated at times, but I’ll show you the way.
Michael Stover: And then your prayer, if you can cover those who aren’t saved, those who are searching or in the middle of searching their own faith and of course, those who are saved, [healthy] leadership that kind of thing.
Chuck DeGroat: Let’s pray. Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all within earshot of this podcast right now, those who might be listening right now, snarking at the Jesus, for those who are disoriented and deconstructing faith because they’ve been hurt, for those who are wholehearted followers of you, meet us all wherever we find ourselves in the midst of our shame, in the midst of our confusion, where we’ve been hurt, where we’ve been abused, where we’ve been terrorized, where we’ve fooled ourselves, where we’ve sabotaged our own joy, where we’ve hurt other people, where we’ve abused the things you’ve given us to steward, wisely, would you meet us as you are prone to do with abundant grace?
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