Narcissism and the Church with Chuck DeGroat
Today on the podcast, Dr. Dan Allender and Rachael Clinton Chen have a timely conversation with Chuck DeGroat, professor of Counseling and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary, licensed therapist, and spiritual director. He is the author of Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places as well as When Narcissism Comes to Church, which serves as the primary topic of conversation throughout this episode. In this special episode, you’ll learn more about the characteristics of narcissism, how Chuck came to address narcissism in the context of the church (particularly in the realm of church planting), and the reckoning that is taking place in the church today to dismantle structures of narcissism.
- Follow Chuck DeGroat on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter
- Read Chuck’s book, When Narcissism Comes to Church
- Learn more about Chuck and the resources he offers by visiting chuckdegroat.net
- Listen to the first podcast episode in a series on Spiritual Abuse
Dan: Rachael, we have a privilege that is immense. We are going to introduce our third party in a moment, but let’s just say we have come out of a profoundly difficult year into a new, profoundly difficult year where we can’t escape trauma. Where we cannot escape significant heartache. And as we address this issue of narcissism, we cannot escape the reality that we live among narcissistic cultures, systems, and individuals. It may be for many people like, “Oh, God, can’t you guys do something positive?” And the answer is, this is really positive because the more we engage reality, the more of the presence of God shows God’s self. And so let me introduce Chuck DeGroat. Chuck is a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is a counseling and Christian spirituality professor, but he’s also just a dear man who’s written well, some amazing things, but what we’re going to be talking about today is this book “When Narcissism Comes to Church.” It’s a sweet book. “Toughest people to love”… I thought you were describing me but I would say indeed, it is a profound work. I think your first book was “Leaving Egypt” but let’s just say you are a prolific presence, and a gift to the community of God in terms of dealing with things a lot of people have chosen to escape. So thank you, Chuck, for being with us.
Chuck: Thanks, Dan. The problem is, I quote you too much in my books, and then when I see quotes from my books, they’re always your quotes. So… I mean, I need the credit! That’s why I wrote the narcissism book, I need credit!
D: I’ll take that as a compliment, but we know it’s not true. Hey, before we get going, I just want to again, come back to say that people need to know you. People need to know your work and your life and particularly this book, “When Narcissism Comes to Church.” We’re going to be talking about church, but we’re also talking about families. We’re talking about the reality that shows up in almost all systems, particularly the political realm. So people need to hear that there is a very, very heartbreaking reality about certain systems that seem to invite narcissists in, particularly for leadership. So just to begin, How did you write this book? What prompted it?
C: Yeah, I would like to say there’s a short story and there’s a long story. The short story, a simple piece of it was I was doing some consulting with a large church and they were looking for a resource, and we really couldn’t find an accessible resource on this. So “When Narcissism Comes to Church” came out of that. The longer story goes back to the mid-nineties, and being a young, restless, arrogant, reformed guy at a seminary, and having a really kind counseling professor come to me one day. Gary Ruff, who I think you knew back in the day. Gary came to me one day and said, “Chuck, I’m going to say this about as clear as I can say it. If you continue in your current pattern, you will be dangerous to the church. You’re probably already dangerous to your wife.” So he said it pretty clearly. And I jumped into a mental health counselor program at the seminary. I was attending some really good folks who you all have probably been connected with over the years were supervisors. Kicked my butt over the course of three years. So it was really my own recognition of some of my own patterns and that certainly opened me up to just seeing narcissism in pastors and in particular, the church planting world that I was in for about 15 years.
D: Take us a little further, when you speak about the word narcissism, people have heard Rachael and I talk about this actually a few times. So I want you each to engage: What are you talking about when you talk about the word narcissism?
C: Yeah. Rachel, you wanna go first?
Rachael: No. [laughs] No, I’m going to let the expert who wrote a really great book on this go first.
C: This is tough for me to answer simply because, you know, there are clinical definitions that I think are helpful. You know, we were talking about Lasch before this podcast began. In “The Culture of Narcissism” he talks about the longing to be freed from longing, which I think is profound. It has something to do with a need for control. That’s an important piece. Of course, we have the DSM, which is kind of the Bible for psychologists, right? It talks about grandiosity, entitlement, attention-seeking, a lack of empathy. And we could get into each one of those in-depth. There are distinctions like grandiose narcissism, which is more of your stage, arrogant narcissism, and vulnerable narcissism, which is more of your smug superiority. I actually used the enneagram to get into nine different faces of narcissism, which would be much too long to talk about right now. But it has been something that I’ve just toyed with, played with since I first discovered the enneagram in the late nineties. And so that gives you nine different variations. So it’s not just the achiever. It’s not just the powerful eight, you know, but it’s also the dramatic four and the analytical five and the hyper-vigilant six and the benevolent narcissist, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
D: It really is life-giving to read that. And at least my experience when I was reading that was like, oh, you’ve got to have volume two, volume three, to take this material, as rich in the form it is already, But, like any explanatory category that catches you with a, “oh, yes!” there’s something life-giving. Oh, say more. So as you put all the words to that, you know, it has to trigger a lot for each of us, but Rachael. What does it trigger for you?
R: Oh, I mean, well, in some ways, when you’ve been swimming in narcissistic systems and someone’s putting language to, this is what you’ve been feeling, it’s both incredibly relieving and yet also so sobering and like, grief-filled and rage-filled, because I think you even use this language, like I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. But I am also laughing because my husband and I were reading the enneagram narcissism types, and I am a two, and he’s a nine. And so we were like, yeah, this is the truth right here. These really when you are in your most unhealth, this is true. And I just felt really grateful for your labor to bring that kind of nuance to something that I think people use so flippantly but don’t understand the power of it, and the ways it hides in different styles of relating.
D: And for me, it’s a relief that I’m not the only narcissist as an eight among the nine. That’s great.
C: Well, you know, the eights always get targeted. Claudio Naranjo, one of the godfathers of the enneagram, called the seven the archetype of narcissism. But you know, the nines are always the ones who are like, “Who, me? Really?”
R: Yeah, I read that I read that real loud. I was like, he says, this is the one that’s actually the most subtle.
C: I love that phrase: to be storing up arrows in the quiver, you know, ready to shoot.
D: Well, as you have pondered this, I think it would be helpful for our audience to hear: How did you come to address this in the context of the church, but particularly through the issue of those people drawn to do church planting?
C: Yeah, this has caused me not a little bit of pain over the years, doing this kind of work and naming these dynamics, because as soon as you start naming these, particularly in—I don’t get into any specific denominations, but kind of more conservative contexts, male authority contexts, patriarchal—as soon as you start naming these kinds of dynamics, you get pushed back. And I remember this began for me in the church, the first church where I served, where I was a counseling elder, and I was naming dynamics of emotional abuse and narcissism, and it became pretty clear pretty quickly that “this is not anything that you need to be doing, Chuck”. You’re supposed to be giving them love languages, concepts and you know, Mars and Venus kinds of things. But not a conversation about emotional abuse and narcissism, and in the church planting world, that began for me in the early 2000s or so when I was invited to participate in psychological assessments. And if you know anything about church planting, there’s extensive testing and a lot of it is to draw out the gifts. But paradoxically, the other side of the gift is the curse. Right? Is the way of relating that is painful. And so I’d sit around and they’d say, “Well, he is … He’s so gifted. He’s raised all this money. He’s got such good stage presence. He’s so winsome. And I’d say, well, you know, based on some of my testing, I’ve got a yellow, red flag, the very least, a yellow flag, I see some arrogance. I see some superiority. And I’d get shot down pretty quickly because I was pointing to the, you know, the guy who’d raised all the money. The guy who looked the part, and dressed the part, whose spouse looked the part as well. And so this has been painful to name these dynamics in the church planting world. The interesting thing about this, you guys, is that now, probably almost 20 years later, folks from my old denomination have been the ones who have called me over the last six months to say, “Hey, I think that this is a major problem within our denomination.” I think we’ve elevated planters who are narcissistic, and now I think we’re facing a reckoning. And we’re seeing this across denominations. We’re seeing this across networks. There’s a kind of reckoning in the church planting world, the megachurch world, around narcissism.
D: I can’t help it come back to the question of how’s that reckoning showing itself in this particular day?
C: In the last five years or so, we’ve seen these hashtags #churchtoo, #metoo. It began with #metoo. It’s extended to #churchtoo. I think we’ve seen the reckoning around a number of big-name church planters and pastors who have been called out and have had to leave high profile positions. I think I’m connecting the conversation a lot more in the last couple of years to the larger conversation about race and white supremacy because I’m seeing this in white evangelical contexts, where people of color often find themselves on the other side of the narcissistic bite, or arrow, or whatever you want to call the wound, you know? And so, I’m seeing the reckoning particularly in the white evangelical church over the last five years or so as a number of high profile pastors are called to account. Now, that gets the attention, but we all know of the vast numbers of pastors in smaller churches, the high number of suicides, the lower profile stories that don’t get much attention where the same dynamics take place.
D: So it is, in some sense, a gift of our era that there is a reckoning. A kind of, we have been filled with the presence of narcissism for a long season. This is nothing. And yet, there is something in this day calling us to engage this in a way that you have not seen, given that this has been some of your primary work for a sizable period.
C: Yes, that’s right. Yeah.
R: I think I’m holding this sense of one of the things I deeply appreciate about your work is you talk about the splitting of narcissism and the incapacity to hold together good and bad. Beauty and brokenness, light and shadow. And I think about, I’m grateful that you don’t split off the narcissists. You have an imagination or desire, you have a realistic imagination around what is often possible, but a deep desire to open the door to a different kind of healing when we’re looking at these systems that are, in some ways, narcissistic systems, or at least drawn to narcissism. And I love that you’re linking white supremacy to that. I just was thinking about that a lot as I was reading your book, but you don’t do it in a way that only demonizes. There’s an invitation to a deeper understanding of what this is, the longing to eliminate longing.
C: Yes. Yeah, probably the hardest part of the book for people who have read it, I mean, I thought that I’d get a, you know, punch in the nose from pastors saying you’re way too hard on us, you’re way too hard on the church. I think, by and large, what I’ve gotten is thank you for being kind, you know, thank you for holding a larger vision. I think the harder part of it has been for those who are victims of narcissistic abuse, who said It’s really painful to read the chapter that humanizes the narcissist. I try to do that throughout, but you know, I even begin by saying, there’s not one definition or clinical category that defines who we are. We’re much more complicated than that, right? Really, Dan’s work taught me that 25 years ago, but that’s hard when you have experienced the abuse of the narcissist because it’s black and white at that point, right? I mean, it’s: He hurt me. He’s evil. He needs to go, you know?
R: Yeah, yeah, I think it’s in that healing process until you get a sense of yourself back because that’s such the experience of that shattering. That bite. It’s like you’re really looking for yourself back, and it does feel like, if that person is not evil, I’m not going to get back what I feel like they took.
C: Yeah. Yeah.
R: I have compassion for that.
D: If we could step into that question of, why does the believing community—again, not to say that it’s unique to the believing community—but what is it in the community of God that seems to be drawn into structures that seem to align itself with the presence of narcissism?
C: Yeah. Yeah, it feels like there’s a kind of a contemporary, maybe psychological response to that or kind of theological response. Maybe. I mean when I think about this, this is the age-old question of belonging, to be freed from longing. Adam and Eve in the garden, and a serpent slithers up to them and says surely God hasn’t told you not to eat of that tree? And the grasping for the fruit becomes our first moment of, I’ve got to control this. I’ve got to take this into my own hands. And that’s the story from there on out. You think about when Moses went up the mountain, the people of God are restless, waiting. They can’t wait any longer. And so they form the golden calf. Later on, they demand a king and they’re not satisfied with God as their king. So, this is the story over and over and over and over again. I think in a more contemporary sense, I like the work of Jerrold Post. He’s written books on everyone from terrorists to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump. He’s written about the mirror hungry narcissist and the ideal hungry follower. The ideal hungry follower is sort of like, what are those little fish that attach themselves to, like, larger fish? Something about their insecurity demands that they feed off of another that they see as secure, powerful. And so they’re drawn like moths to a fire, to a flame. They’re drawn to the narcissist as that host. And then, you know, that’s not just an individual. There’s a kind of collective dynamic. Look at us. I’ve worked with systems that are narcissistic, where there’s a collective grandiosity. I worked with a discipleship ministry where it was like, we put out the very best discipleship materials in the whole of North America. There’s no one that comes close to us. It was a Jesus-following, Jesus-honoring kind of organization saying that we are the best disciples in all the world. Collective grandiosity, a group of people that align themselves around a powerful leader. So there’s a really interesting dynamic there. People who follow others in almost a cult-like way because of their own feelings of powerlessness, deficiency, insecurity. I think it speaks to our cultural moment and why so many people who feel disenfranchised, in a way, gather around a particularly powerful leader.
D: And that fits well. I’m thinking of a handful of people right now and they may be wondering who I’m thinking about. But who would say, “You’re not describing me! I run this business. I have done this, etc.” I’ve got so much confidence, but I still align myself with someone who has that same kind of power from the pulpit, that kind of presence. So there does seem to be a kind of narcissism that draws that kind of hungry follower, but wouldn’t fit some of the people I have in mind. At least not in an obvious sense.
C: Yeah, Yeah. Say more about that. Describe the person that you’re thinking of. Is it a person who is more secure, who doesn’t have that sense of deficiency? Maybe a little arrogant, little narcissistic himself?
D: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And oftentimes, in their own world, have created grandiose dreams. Yet when it comes to church, they’re not going to come in and listen daily, weekly, to somebody who is, in some sense, offering a kind of what I’ll call love-oriented, humble-oriented, a spirit of servanthood-oriented approach to the Christian life. They want to hear: we are in a war. We need to fight this war. We are being bombarded. In other words, it seems like narcissism has the ability to shift so quickly to a sense of victimhood. So in one sense, inviting people who gain being victims, even though the fact is, they are resplendent in their power and privilege and yet feel like they’re being assaulted and attacked each and every day.
C: Yeah, that’s right. I’ve said recently, I’ve never seen so many people that look like me, you know, middle-aged white guys, who feel like victims. People with immense privilege who live from a perspective of victimization. That plays a part of it, I think, with every narcissistic leader, I think probably with every narcissist, there’s a hero/victim/martyr, kind of constellation of personality. Look at what I’m doing. I’m the sufferer, you know? And suddenly they have become Jesus, they’re nailed to the cross because of their faithfulness.
R: I’m just more like, oh, where has that been true of us? It’s so easy, I could see, obviously, I mean, Dan, I’m well acquainted with narcissism, but I think to hear those moments and to kind of know our own places where that is, there’s a closeness to that, and obviously a lot of healing, more integration. But that fragility that’s splitting even in the hero/martyr…
D: I’m being described! I’m being named! And, you know, there is something that both wants to turn from what’s being said while simultaneously defend, and say yes, but you don’t know. And yet, Chuck, you do know, you’ve been in leadership, you’ve been in positions both in church and in the context of Christian education, which is interesting. But to underscore, you’ve had, and continue to have, significant power in leadership. And I think that’s again back to what Rachael was saying earlier. The humility you bring in naming your own part in this. We’re not “othering” the narcissist. We’re simply saying, let’s look at the reality of where it plays out in our own life, even if we don’t fit the category of NPD or narcissistic personality disorder in the DSM 5. So you know, let’s draw back to, what allures you to a narcissist?
C: When I think about ministry, in particular, I mean, how many people, if the stats are right, 90% of people don’t like public speaking, but pastors are called to public speaking, and then speaking on behalf of God, so no wonder we draw narcissists to ministry. And, you know, we give degrees called Master of Divinity degrees. I think, Rachael, you’ve mastered divinity. Dan, you’ve mastered divinity, right?
R: Yeah, It’s kind of embarrassing. But I haven’t mastered divinity. Just so you know, it just leads to more questions. I mean, there is a caveat.
C: Yeah, there is. But, I mean, they give us these titles, right? Reverend. Minister, I’m a minister of word and sacrament. I’ve had hands laid on me. So now there’s a special kind of authority given, I’m not just, you know, the CEO of a corporation. I’m special. Called out by God. Holy. Set apart. You know, people feel this with pastors and ministry leaders that they are somehow special and set apart in a particular kind of way. And so the power that you’re talking about, Dan, I think is a particularly important point that we need to emphasize in ministry context in particular. That we give immense deference to people in pastoral ministry, pastoral power, because of position, title, authority, robe, clerical collar, and all the rest.
D: And when you disrupt this—and you have been—you have been called into particular churches, into denominations. How’s it going?
C: [laughs] Well, so, it’s really interesting. I’ve seen an evolution to the answer to that question. I think that what’s really interesting, I’d be really curious to get your take on this, you guys. There has been growing curiosity around psychology and self-understanding. When I first broke in in the mid-nineties, I was at a seminary where you did psychology over here, and you did theology over here. Never the two shall meet. And so even my first writing was an attempt to say no, the stories cohere, they go hand in hand, but I’ve seen a whole lot more curiosity. And so what’s tricky about answering the question of how it’s going is, I can go in, and I could begin to poke around, and the response I’ll get is oh, I know my stuff. I’m a seven, you know, I’m an enneagram seven and my sevenness shows up in these ways and, you know, I’m really humble. I’m a follower of Jesus. You know, the gospel invites me to take my sin seriously. And I do. Chuck, you need to know that, I constantly confess my sin to my church staff. I constantly confess my sevenness. So, I don’t know why in the world you’d ever think that I’m on the narcissistic spectrum because I’m just a, you know, I’m a bold sinner. Psychologists like you come along and you’re always poking and prodding and looking for problems where they don’t exist. That’s what makes it tougher nowadays to answer this question. I don’t know if you guys have seen that, but that’s what I’m seeing.
D: Oh, I remember. I’m old enough that I remember the day that even the thought of some level of introspection was a radical thought. And to be able to actually take people back to how Jonathan Edwards went about the, you know like there had to be models that especially within the reformed community, had some ascendancy to invite them. But yeah, today, in some ways, people are language familiar and therefore more able to escape than they were 20-30 years ago.
R: Well I just think about that. The youngness, the childishness of narcissism at its core. And I think a lot about, just because people have the right language, you can still feel that sense of, you’re still drinking spiritual milk. And again, we all get to be on a journey. There is a redemptive arc that we get to participate in, but it goes back to yes, I think I do see people having more language, but the way it’s been integrated and connected to story, not just this is my personality. How did this come to be? How is this playing out over and over and over again, and why are people drawn to something that’s perceiving to give them a really clear answer for really complex, tension-filled, messy spaces. And I guess I understand how people are like a moth to flame to something that presents as big enough and clear enough and rigid enough, you know, for all the complexity. But that, for me, is where I’m looking. You know, in your psychology. you’re looking for something. It always tells me what are you afraid of in the complexity of what is likely true?
C: Yes, that’s it, right? And it’s about living in that tension in a relationship, right? One of the questions that I’ve asked for the last 15 years or so of anyone who reports to me or is around me or in proximity to staff is how do you experience me? Or how do I impact you? I may have gotten that from an Allender book years ago, I can’t remember. But, how do you impact me? How do I experience you? It’s really painful to get the answer to that question in a specific way. I remember a student came to me before COVID, before everything got shut down and said, Chuck, you know, you talk a lot about presence. And you talk a lot about showing up. And yet when you walk out of your office and through the atrium at the seminary, you’re going about 60 miles an hour to get your cup of coffee and to get back to your office, and I’m calling out your name and you’re not even responding. So then it’s on me at that point to, you know, do I say. Well, why are you in my office right now, student? I don’t have time for this! Uh, no. My response was, tell me more about your experience. It’s painful, right? It’s painful to lean into that. I want my students to adore me. I’m at heart, a narcissist. I want them to adore me. I want them to say Chuck is the most important professor I’ve ever had. And yet, Chuck, you don’t live up to what you speak. You walk 60 miles an hour past me instead of being present to me now. Ouch.
D: Damn! Can we move on? Apparently not. These are the kind of moments where just even that as an illustration, anyone who has to be in public, I mean to speak in public requires enough grandiosity to in one sense get on stage and bear the effect. And whether it’s a classroom of 10 people or an audience of 10,000, on one level, it doesn’t really matter. And when you begin to get pushback with sentences like that, then the reality that rises within me is you don’t know the cost! You don’t know the cost. The cost is not minimal. So my 60, I may be traveling more like 72 MPH to depart, and to now hold what I think Rachael’s putting words to: Can we hold the tension of both? There is something that you’ve got to grapple with and to receive while still honoring. But you need space after some of those encounters, whether people go but it’s so easy for you to be up on the stage talking and to say it’s not as easy as you may think. So, the ability to hold the tension, shadow, and glory together. It’s one of the ways that at least some of the effects of narcissism begin to dissolve would be too hopeful, but at least break apart.
C: Yeah, yeah, that’s so good. I was spending some time with our student council of the seminary yesterday over Zoom, and they’re holding some tense conversations well and wisely, for the most part. Tense conversations that we’re having around all kinds of issues right now. They’re carrying the burden of leadership. And I said I love that you’re getting this opportunity right now president, vice president, and secretary of the Student Council, because when you first came in as first year students, all you could do was complain about the administration. And now you’re saying okay, how do we hear those who are struggling, and at the same time build a bridge to the administration? That’s the tricky part of it, right? That’s what we’re all in this trying to do. But I do think that you know, one of the major antidotes to narcissism is curiosity. And I know that there have been seasons of leadership for me where I’ve lost some curiosity because I’ve been exhausted. I have not showed up very well. And my first response was not curiosity. It was defensiveness. It was you just don’t really know how busy I am. I’ve written some really important things. Do you know what I’ve written? And I’ve got this course that I need to teach and this podcast I need to do. So just keep that in mind. Next time you want to come and take up some of my time, know that I’m capable of that, right?
D: Do you find that there is a growing curiosity? As you said at the beginning, that there is a zeitgeist, a spirit of ownership of some level of the effects of narcissism? Are you finding that in the work you’re doing that there is a growing curiosity?
C: That’s tough. That’s tough to answer with a yes. Maybe that’s still the remnants of growing up in the reformed tradition. I can’t answer one way or the other. You know, when I look at our political environment, let’s just say right now, the white evangelical church, I would like to think that all these tools that we’ve offered, all these insights that we’ve offered over the years have amounted to something. But I’ve seen people go through hard, hard journeys of dealing with abuse, who now find themselves 10-year veterans of really good counseling doing the kind of work that we all do and yet aligning themselves with the powers in ways that I find to be really, really disturbing, aligning themselves with whiteness, white supremacy and with versions of narcissism that play out in sinister and cruel ways in our culture nowadays. And I would want to say, but you of all people who have taken your story seriously ought to know that what’s happening right now is toxic. And yet, I don’t see that happening. I see it in pockets. I’ve seen curiosity since the book came out, I’ve had pastors reach out to me to say, I wonder if I’m narcissistic. I see it in pockets, but I’m alarmed by what I’m seeing on a larger cultural level within the church. I’m just wondering if we’re not coming to a moment of massive reckoning within the church where we might find the institutional church in the next 10 years not quite having the same power that it has had for the last, let’s say 50 to 200 years. That may be more than you wanted from that question.
D: No, no, I think it’s important for us to again attempt to assess. Where are we? And yet we may be full of the reality of narcissism. But in that sense, we’re the children of narcissists. We have our own narcissistic tendencies, but we’re also, in one sense, we’ve grown up with narcissistic structures, leaders, powers and principalities. And, you know, maybe I’m again being too psychological here, but there is an assumption that I’m operating that until we address the effects of growing up under those powers, we’re going to be less disposed to actually disrupting those powers. So when you work with children who have been in narcissistic families, narcissistic parents, churches, political systems, what do you offer? How do you engage?
C: That’s—you ask really complicated questions, Dan. Rachel do you have any…?
R: I’m like, can you tell me? It’d be really great to know.
C: In many ways, this generation of church planters, to talk more generally, and speak to the church. This generation of church planters that I’ve worked with over the last, let’s say, 15 to 20 years were children of baby boomers, or children of people who grew up in an era of victory, post World War Two victory. A sense of entitlement, grandiosity on an international stage. A sense of Manifest Destiny. You know, I see in the church planting world, which leads to a kind of colonialism that I’ve seen in church planting, where I could just go into the city, forget the fact that there are, you know, 72 black churches in the city. This city needs the gospel, and I am the white savior for the city. I’ve seen that, as a kind of by-product within the children of a generation of this kind of grandiose narcissism. But we see it in individuals. Maybe I could pause there for us to have some comment on that. But I was going to say, I see it in unique ways in children. That would be a much different kind of psychological profile of the child of the narcissist. But that’s a different trajectory. Maybe we could stop there. What about this manifest destiny, Rachael? This church planting colonialism, have you seen it?
R: Yes. Yes, I have. I have an interesting story of being a woman called to ministry, coming up through all kinds of formational processes that basically said, you can’t be called to this particular type of ministry. And so I think to have been in formation with the people who have planted all of the churches, and even having to repent myself of that kind of superiority in my spiritual framework of: there’s something I have to offer. When you say that, like, yes, there are all these churches who could actually use resources on support and are doing the work and are actually indigenous to that community that you want to serve. I think that in some ways it’s hard to talk about arrogance. It’s hard to talk about these things that I think people feel labeled and they feel defensive, and they feel like I’m trying to do a good thing. And, honestly, trying to figure out how to love at such a time as this and to be courageous, I just keep coming back to your language around a longing to be free from longing. I think we’re in an era where that grandiosity, that victory, that manifest destiny is being contented with, the harm it’s caused is being exposed, and it’s increasing the longing for shalom. I’m not surprised that people are doubling down with this desire to be free from longing that’s intensifying. And it’s actually going to require us to be more courageous, more willing to enter our baptism, more willing to die to structures that have sustained some of us, not all of us, and I have a lot of compassion, genuinely have a lot of compassion for that. And, enough. This has to stop.
C: That’s right. One of my heroes is St. Teresa of Avila. She is my favorite 16th-century reformer. She was a 16-century reformer 1000 miles south in Spain, a little bit after Calvin and Luther. But she was a reformer. But the reform happened on the margins of the Catholic Church. And I think sometimes in genuine reform movements, it has to happen in the margins. A friend of mine calls this the Church of Refugia. The Church of Refugees. There’s a sense in which I’m not entirely sure can happen anymore through the typical church plant in the city. Even the church plant that has all the right language and philosophy and vision around shalom in the city. I actually think that this massive moment of disorientation and deconstruction is leading us to a whole new way of thinking about church. I don’t know what the reorientation looks like. Now I’m channeling some Walter Brueggemann language. I don’t quite know what that’s going to look like, but I think one of the things that I’ve appreciated about The Seattle School and what I’ve learned from all of you, is we have to honor these moments. We’ve got to honor the ache. We can’t try to fix it too quickly. And what I see from people is let’s write the next book about how to fix the church, and the next iteration, rather than just sort of honoring and grieving through this massive moment of reckoning that we’re in. I mean, that’s where I think we’re probably doing a lot of work behind the scenes in our counseling rooms right now with people who are just grieving in their own ways.
D: Well, there’s something of an intersection between lament and groaning. They’re not the same, from my standpoint, lament begins in the moment, but casts one’s eyes to what is the heritage, the tradition, the past. But groaning is what you put words to with regard to longing. It’s the desire to see in the present, but with eyes to the future. What it is that we have dreamt to be. And it’s hard enough, if not impossible for a narcissist to lament. And yet, on the other hand, even less so openness to groaning. And then to be able to say, can we be in this moment where we can name in our families, friendships, working relationships, in the systems that we’re part of that actually do good, have narcissistic, as well as racist realities. In the same way, I find racism, narcissism, that reluctance to name I’m not a narcissist. I’m not racist. Oh! Okay, good. Great. That resolves that. And then to be able to say one doesn’t have to be a capital N or capital R. One can begin to actually lament and groan regarding the reality that there are, again to use a benign word, tendencies, and in that, it infiltrates every system that we’re part of—the interplay between narcissism and racism.
C: Yes, yes, yes. Rachel, I think you just wrote on– not wrote on– spoke on this recently, didn’t you?
R: Yes, definitely. Actually today. [laughing] Yeah. And actually, I did spend time in Romans 8 talking about groaning and this active waiting, that is, it’s a movement. It’s a giving birth to something. It’s trying to birth the future into the present. And I think there is going to have to be a movement of repentance that has centered a more narcissistic presence or structure. And it’s going to require a level of trust that I really think only Jesus can spiritually gift us. Because there are communities in the margins who are acquainted with the underbelly, who actually have a lot of resilience to live into this complexity and have practices in spiritual formation. We have a lot to learn. I’m curious, even just the small glimpses, in your book of the movement you’ve made with people who have found that sense of I’ll grab your hand and we’ll walk through the door, as we come toward the close of this conversation.
C: So with that, it’s important to say that most of us have found that those who are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder—don’t expect that there’s going to be much change. There may be some mitigation, but don’t expect transformation. This is why the spectrum is so important. There’s a narcissistic spectrum. There are narcissistic style types and disorders. It’s kind of like having the sniffles, a bad cough, and a full-blown flu. And I do find that people you know, the normal sinner, the fool, the evil– I mean, there’s a kind of a spectrum. So those on the lower end of the spectrum are apt to be curious and self-aware. There are folks who we can work with, I’m really eager to work with people who are curious, even if they’re continuing to sin in very real ways, even if they’re addicted to particular kinds of patterns, if they’re willing to work with me to disentangle those patterns and their participation in larger patterns, well, let’s do it. But it does require an immense curiosity and with personality disorders, of course, you all know this, it’s long term work. There’s not a medication for narcissism. I wish there was. But it is a dissembling, a disentangling of patterns of relating that have been operating for a long, long time. I think that’s probably what I’d say initially on the path to healing. I would be really curious to get your assessment of it.
D: Well, what that implies to me is there’s another conversation in the very near future. Because, I want to be so conscious of the fact that you’ve got other things on your schedule, my dear friend. But to say as we come to a close, there is hope with the reality that there can be a calling out from, and you’ve seen it with regard to people, so even those folks who are highly diagnosable, you know, with hard, good work, there could be movement. But we’re really asking, our audience to not blanche and walk away from a discussion where you’re implicated, but where you also have to face the fact that you’ve been drawn into relationship and into systemic servitude to structures that have kept you blind and, in many ways, continuing to do harm to yourself and to others. So we’re going to step away and say thank you. Thank you, thank you. And we can reprise and return to what you’ve invited. Thank you again, Chuck.
C: Thank you!