Twenty-five years ago when I was just getting in the seminary/church/pastor game, vulnerability was not a high value. Things have changed. But with a higher value on transparency, authenticity and vulnerability in the church, there is a dark ‘flip-side’ that we need to be aware of.
Recently, I listened to the final sermon of a pastor whose affair was found out the week after this sermon, and who committed suicide not long after. Strewn throughout the sermon were phrases like “Gospel brokenness” and “unconditional acceptance” and “idols to repent of” along with admissions about the messiness of life and the power of God to transform our wounds like God had done for this pastor. Imagine the shock and sense of betrayal when the congregation found out about his year-long sexual relationship with a female admirer of his who he met while speaking at a conference. The discovery was followed by days of throwing his wife under the bus for “emotionally abandoning” him. In the end, the shattered narcissistic false self led him to the tragic conclusion that if that self was gone, he was gone. And so, he acted on this belief, ending his life violently. The self-hatred was apparent in his final act.
A friend and pastor in a sister denomination reached out to me this past week in response to my last blog on narcissism and offered a sobering reminder. He told me that many of the larger “Gospel-centered” church pastors in his denomination who, in fact, enjoy my writings or Diane Langberg’s stuff on narcissism or Dan Allender, and have some passion about injustices and sex scandals, are, in fact, the biggest perpetrators of narcissistic abuse. And this is what increasingly frightens me—the epidemic of fauxnerability—pastors (and many others) who are emotionally intelligent enough to share a general “messiness” about their lives (often in broad strokes admitting weakness and need), but who are radically out of touch with their true selves. They’ve dressed up the false self in a new garment—the garment of faux vulnerability, with the accompanying Gospel vocabulary of weakness, need, brokenness, dependence, idolatry and more. And they may be more dangerous than pastors who simply don’t give a damn about living vulnerably.
When a twisted form a vulnerability is used in service of a spiritual false self, congregations are thrown into painful and often contentious seasons of gossip, opposition, choosing sides, and living in trauma and confusion. I saw it again recently. An influential church elder whose wife left him fell on the sword, confessing emotional unavailability, workaholism and sexual addiction in a posture of ‘repentance.’ He has not done the hard work of long-term therapy to root out deeper issues (which, can I just say, shows a remarkably low doctrine of sin…and I see this all the time among so-called Reformed folk). He now moves from person to person, to any listening ear, sharing about his “brokenness” and “sin” in seemingly a repentant package, only to groom his listeners into empathy and trust for the sake of (…wait for it…) the grand finale—a seemingly innocent, reluctant, but calculated swipe at his wife—for her impatience with him, for her raging anger, for her unforgiveness, for not being willing to engage him. Before you know it, they’re all in tears. I see this happen time and again.
Commercial break for a quick and important note: When I write, I almost always receive one to two emails from former clients or pastors, or pastors I don’t even know, saying, “Why are you writing about me? I’ll sue you.” Even though my policy is to shift details to sufficiently conceal identities, I still get it…it’s always about you….which led a friend to remind me of the Carly Simon song “You’re So Vain” (…bet you thought this ‘blog’ was about you!). This is yet another sign of narcissism. Truth told, I’ve seen hundreds of clients, and similar storylines pop up all the time amidst narcissistic dynamics.
So…is there an antidote to fauxnerability? I’m not so sure. Folks susceptible to it can seem psychologically sophisticated (they know their Enneagram and MBTI and DISC) and some even go to therapy (people, there are a lot of bad therapists out there who simply polish up the false self). Like any form of narcissism, they will need to own a struggle with it and go on a long, honest journey. But, in the meantime and as we deal with this in churches, I’ll leave you with a few final observations about what to look for and do:
- Be brutally aware of the contradictions you see in these people. They’ll be going along well, but something will trigger them and you’ll feel/see their rage or high anxiety or defensiveness, etc. Don’t let there be a “we’re all broken and have contradictions” excuse.
- Don’t trust words, trust character change and stability over time.
- Beware of vulnerability that focuses on the past—“I struggled with porn” or “I was such a broken sinner.” That isn’t vulnerability. Vulnerability is about showing up courageously in the present moment with how you are currently impacting someone or experiencing your inner life in that moment. These folks cannot bear the weight of the present moment.
- Be aware of the eventual “but…” This comes out as “I shouldn’t have blown my stack like that…but…this is the weakest staff I’ve ever had, and they’re lucky they still have jobs…” or “but…as a spouse she’s never loved me the way I needed to be loved.”
- Look for staged fauxnerability…as in, a pastor or leader who conjures up tears at will, whether during a poignant story in a sermon or in a behind closed doors pastoral counseling session.
- Note the victim mentality. Because they are out of touch with inner realities, things are always talked about from the perspective of something/one outside of them or their control. Sometimes this is about how others have hurt them, about a “problem” staff member, or a bad policy. They will eventually pivot to being the victim, and even present themselves as a victim of “sin” or “evil” as outside forces—“sin just got the best of me.” (Hint: this is not repentance.)
- Notice the difference between their words and your experience of them. From the stage, a narcissistic pastor may tell a hard story of being abused as a child and you may feel pulled toward empathy. But in person, you will experience a sense of distance and connecting to them will feel difficult, if not impossible.
- Note the slimy factor. Some will tell me that their narcissistic pastor or spouse or friend feels slimy or icky or…well, you know…you’ve surely felt this before!
- Pay attention to their lack of inner curiosity. If you dare bring up the contradiction you witness, you will receive defensiveness, not curiosity. A vulnerable person is always a curious person and won’t resist your feedback.
- Be aware of general repentance vs. specific repentance. General repentance may be “I’ve struggled with porn” while a more specific confession will not just engage behavior but a long-term relational pattern, like a pattern of misogyny or a style of relating which is condescending and dismissive. A humble person will share specifically and appropriately, to the right people. A humble person will repent ahead of hurting you, because he’s well-aware of his patterns. And he will be accountable.
- Be aware of over-sharing—the emotional “dump” is not an act of vulnerability for some, but a way of using you as confessor or to engender sympathy or to take their side. We share more significant details with those we’re closest to, not everyone who asks how we’re doing.
- Note how self-referential he is. Because someone who practices fauxnerability lost their capacity to mirror, to empathize, to truly be present to another, his sharing will take up all the space in the relationship. He is not sharing to connect or for mutuality.