By Dr. David Schnittger, President, Southwest Prophecy Ministries
This article is the third in a series on the subject of “corruption in Christian leadership.” We began by looking at biblical examples of corrupt leadership. We considered King Saul as an example of corrupt civil leadership. Then we considered Hophni and Phineas as examples of corrupt religious leadership.
In the second article we described the corrupt attitudes that these individuals had which led to their corrupt actions. The essence of Saul’s attitude was “a MEOCENTRIC view of the universe.” In other words, “the universe revolves around ME, and everything people around me do must have some relationship to their attitude toward me.” The essence of Hophni and Phineas’ attitude was that the “the ministry belongs to me. I can use the resources and the people associated with MY ministry any way I please.”
If we were to express these attitudes in psychological terms, in my view Saul was primarily a “sociopath” and Hophni and Phineas were primarily “narcissists.” All three had characteristics that could lead one to conclude that they exhibited characteristics that were both sociopathic and narcissistic, as human behaviors tend not to fit into neat little categories. These “conditions” share some similarities but also some differences. Let’s define these terms before we proceed. I will quote from the DSM-III-R (American Psychiatric Association, 1987) for a brief description of each. Both are clustered in the DSM-III-R as “personality disorders.”
Some of the characteristics of a sociopath are: “fails to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior; e.g. destroying property, harassing others, stealing, irritable and aggressive, fails to plan ahead, impulsive, has no regard for the truth, reckless, lacks remorse.”
Some of the characteristics of a narcissist are: “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), lack of empathy, and hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others, reacts to criticism with feelings of rage, is interpersonally exploitive; takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own needs, exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be noticed as ‘special’ without appropriate achievement, has a sense of entitlement, requests constant attention and admiration, lacks empathy, is preoccupied with feelings of envy.”
In my 40 years of vocational Christian ministry, I have served with and under several
Christian leaders that were either sociopathic or narcissistic or some combination of both. Let me give some examples so you can have some idea what these attitudes look like in the context of a Christian organization. I have changed the names to protect the “guilty.”
I was once on staff of a large church with over 2,000 parishioners. After I had been on staff for several years, the senior pastor left because of adultery. Aside from his infidelity, “Michael” had been a very humble and affirming pastor, who did not micromanage the staff. After 18 months “Andy” was hired to be the senior pastor. Andy was of a very opposite temperament than his predecessor. Andy radiated pride and self-importance. He felt it was his role to be the CEO of the church, and to micromanage the staff. It soon became obvious that his litmus for success was not competence but loyalty. The staff began to divide between those who were minions and those who just focused on doing their jobs. After he had sorted out those who were in his fan club and those who were not, he began to skillfully and systematically marginalize the “disloyal” and replace them with his loyalists. Within 18 months, Andy had split the church. Three pastors left, along with several lay elders, deacons, and a cadre of very committed people. Those who left were demonized by Andy and his sycophants. Andy consolidated power and ruled the church for several years, before departing for another ministry of greater size and prominence. Andy was primarily a sociopath.
Years later I served on staff of another church under a senior pastor by the name of Matt. Matt was a very personable, charismatic man, who was loved by all. He was a very competitive man athletically, who was obsessed with winning in sports. He also coached his daughters’ softball teams, and loved having undefeated seasons. He also portrayed himself as possessing unusual scholarship. Matt was very cordial with subordinates unless they happened to disagree with him. Then, he would become sullen, authoritarian and would occasionally fly into “purple rages.”
Matt was also very attentive to the finances of the church. The first thing he would do when he came into work at the beginning of the week was open the church safe and find out who gave what. He was very nice to the generous givers, but had little time or regard for those less generous. Matt was also very generous with himself in terms of the use of church funds for his expense account. Matt thought nothing of using his expense account to pay for golfing trips with church buddies, or to pay for liquor for his parties.
It was eventually discovered that Matt had a habit of beating his wife and daughters so badly that police had to intervene. Matt had surrounded himself with elders and deacons who protected his drunken and raging behavior from congregational scrutiny. Eventually, the beatings became known within the congregation in such a way that his enablers could no longer protect him. He was fired and has since become an open infidel to the Christian faith. Matt was primarily a narcissist, who, viewed the church as HIS! Like Hophni and Phineas, Matt’s basic attitude toward the church was: “This ministry belongs to me. I can use the resources and the people associated with my ministry any way I please.”
How do people like Andy and Matt make their way up through the ranks into Christian leadership? Let me give my opinion based on 40 years of observation. I am convinced that sociopaths and narcissists more commonly occupy positions of leadership in Christian organizations than secular ones, because they view “the ministry” as a soft target for their predilections. Christian organizations are primarily populated with “nice” people, who are humble, trusting and easily led (or misled). Within that environment, charming and often articulate individuals are able to make inroads more easily, and consolidate power.
My observation is corroborated by statistical analysis. Eric Barker identifies the jobs that are most attractive to psychopaths. “Clergy person” is number eight on the list. (click link here). I think another reason why psychopaths are attracted to Christian organizations is that there seems to commonly exist within the secondary ranks of Christian organizations individuals who are easily led, and who will, because of self-interest, sign on to all kinds of mischief and tyranny in order to keep their positions.
I am reminded of what Friedrich Hayek said, in a political context, of “why the worst get on top:” “The totalitarian leader must collect around him a group which is prepared voluntarily to submit to that discipline they are to impose by force upon the rest of the people . . .advancement within a totalitarian group or party depends largely on a willingness to do immoral things.”
What is true in government is also true in Christian organizations, as politics is all about the acquisition and distribution of power. In my experience, in every Christian organization in which I have served, leadership is occupied by the best and worst of people. Which group eventually prevails determines the tenor and direction of the organization.
In my next article, I will go into the consequences of corrupt leadership taking over an organization. We will explore what corrupt leadership looks like from the pews as well as what it looks like in the board room. This article will help you become more discerning as to the kind of leadership that is prevailing in your church or the organization in which you serve.
 Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Abridged Edition: The Heritage Foundation) 19, 21.