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| David Tarkington |

Shepherding with Care: Confronting Narcissism in Church Leadership

I have several podcasts I listen to regularly. Some provide updates on daily news from a biblical perspective. Some are focused on historic people, business leaders, military leaders, and other such biographies. Still others are specifically related to pastoral ministry in the local church, from a perspective that aligns with our church polity, doctrine, and structure.

I regularly listen to Jared C. Wilson and Ross Ferguson on the “For the Church Podcast” from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Their banter and humor align with my sense of humor, but the real meat centers around the discussions of practical matters within the church and pastoral ministry.

Recently, they aired Episode 252 titled “Narcissism in the Church.”[1] As I listened to their discussion, I could not help but do a self-evaluation. Perhaps this is what all pastors need to do regularly. Humility is honorable and yet, once someone states how humble they are…they are then not.

Whether it’s a humble-brag, or just elevating oneself in every conversation, it becomes evident that, as Jared C. Wilson calls it, the “glory hog” perpetually turns every good story back on himself or herself. In other words, they become the star of ever story.

Avoiding the big head is a huge issue for those in leadership. Pastors and ministry leaders are certainly not immune to this. Certainly, everyone loves and needs to be encouraged. Compliments are sought. Affirmation is a love language, right? We crave this. Yet, it is far too easy to slide into narcissistic behavior and the wise should take this to heart.

What is meant by narcissism? An official definition is one having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others. This is evidenced by being envious of others, believing others are envious of them and behaving in an arrogant, conceited, self-centered way. Those with what has been termed narcissistic personality disorder have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance.[2] It should be noted that narcissistic behavior, when categorized as “narcissistic personality disorder” often eliminates the reality of it being sinful. If it is simply a disorder, then attitudes and actions are often excused. Yet, that is not what scripture reveals about those who perpetually live and act as if they are the center of the universe. Seems to be in opposition to the first commandment.

While it is certainly a reality that narcissists exist, it is troubling when they are in your church. More troubling is when the narcissist is the pastor. When the “under-shepherd” lives and behaves as if he is the ultimate shepherd.

The concept of under-shepherd is revealed in the New Testament, especially in 1 Peter.

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2-3)[3]

Thus, the pastor, the shepherd of the flock that is the local church is to shepherd as one shepherded by Christ. The command in verse 2 is not just to be a shepherd, but to do the work of shepherding.[4]

There are far too many stories of notable pastors of large mega-churches in the news today that are basically accounts of the fallen narcissistic leader. Sadly, there are likely many others that do not make the blogs, do not get podcasts created about their rise and fall, and are not known among a large audience, but nevertheless are similar in smaller churches, failed church plants, messy mergers, and sadly destroyed congregations of much smaller scale.

So, while I like when people like what I say, when they follow my social media posts, when they encourage me and tell me nice things (seriously, who doesn’t like these things?) it is wise to be aware of the slippery slope of self-centeredness that can lead or reveal the sin of narcissism in one’s own (or in one’s pastor’s) life.

Here are just some things I believe should be categorized as red, or maybe pink flags. Some are from personal experience. Others are from podcasts, stories, and blog posts I have heard or read. These are in no particular order.

  • Entourages – Whenever I go to a conference or event and see a well-known pastor who has an entourage of young men encircling him, walking with him, going ahead and preparing the way, I wonder (in my head, not out loud…mostly) “Who does this guy really think he is?” Perhaps he needs a ministerial Secret Service. I don’t know. There may be reasons. Maybe he brought his entire staff, so they are just going everywhere together. That’s legit. But, if this is just celebrity fan base stuff, it reeks of someone trying to be like Drake or Taylor Swift with a collection of hangers-on hoping to be featured by the Baptist paparazzi. Of course, I could be totally wrong. They could be a family with twenty kids, so it may just be a family outing.
  • Refusing to Share the Spotlight[5] – I heard one pastor make clear that if he were invited to speak at an event, he would not share the stage and would be the only speaker at the event. Perhaps he was burned in the past by sharing the pulpit with someone with unorthodox doctrinal leanings. I get that, but often it just seems that the one with this rule is just ensuring that he is the lone voice to the masses.
  • Being the Brand[6] – In the age where every church seems to have a logo and a tagline (We have a logo, so not saying this is wrong. Or, if it is wrong…we’re wrong.) there seems to be far too much emphasis in some places to “protecting the brand.” This is corporate-speak and is common among businesses. The saying that “all publicity is good publicity” may be true at times, but often not when it comes to churches. In this case, when one notable mega-church pastor declared himself to be the brand, it soon became clear to many that something was wrong. It was. It still is.
  • Always, Everywhere, on Everything – I attended a conference recently that featured a guest on stage from another church. Her commentary was good. Her church is solid. I have no real issues with the church she attends at all. However, as she was speaking I looked up her church to see some of the things that she was mentioning as her ministry focus and programs she was responsible for leading. As I looked at the site, I saw numerous video links, sermon links, blog posts, articles, updates, and highlights. What I noticed was that almost every single one of them featured the church’s lead pastor. I mean…it was an overwhelming amount. I understand and affirm the role of the lead pastor and see how his voice and leadership are vital for the church. I mean, I am a lead pastor, so not throwing us all under the bus here, but there was an overwhelming feel of “pastor-focused” stuff on this church’s site. If this pastor moved on, eighty percent of this website would have to be scrubbed. Just seems a bit dangerous. Likely not narcissistic but cautionary.
  • Always the Hero of the Story – Ross Ferguson and Jared C. Wilson touched on this in their podcast. This is something I see often, especially from new pastors and those just starting out as church planters. If all the stories shared by the pastor in his sermons feature him, his wife, or his kids then be careful. Now, self-deprecation is actually a bit helpful at times, but the narcissistic pastor will actually reveal his laziness in sermon preparation by almost exclusively using personal illustrations to make his points. In case you are not hearing what I am writing here – I am not saying personal illustrations should not be used. They should, but sparingly. Why? Because one of two things will inevitably occur. The stories will begin to highlight how good the pastor is at dealing with all of life’s issues. He (or his wife or kids) will become the spiritual heroes of every story. Or…they may become the butt of the joke at times. Suddenly a sermon is an unfunny stand-up routine where God is shoved to the sidelines and self is center stage.
  • Would Rather be Popular than Biblical[7] – See Luke 6:26.
  • Ignores the Biblical Qualifiers of the Role – Can a pastor be disqualified? Certainly. Yet, the narcissist will ignore those as referenced in 1 Timothy 3 to continue in leadership.
  • Always the Smartest Guy in the Room – Now, the pastor may actually be the smartest guy in the room at times, but the arrogant person will work to make others feel stupid for his own gain. Arrogance is not a spiritual gift.
  • “Me Monster” – The stand-up routine of Brian Regan’s “Me Monster” set is hilarious.[8] Like most jokes, they are funny because there is an underlying truth. I won’t explain this, but would just say search for Regan’s routine and take note. BTW – if you haven’t ever been the moon, just remain silent at parties and eat your chips in the corner.

There are more warning signs, but I will stop here. I am focusing on this sinful reality of pastoral narcissism because I know, but for the grace of God, there go I. Seriously, I feel this weight. I know me. I actually would like the limelight more than I would like to admit.

However, to be clear, just because a pastor is well-known, on the speaking circuit, preaching at conferences and events DOES NOT mean that brother is a narcissist or self-focused. Many wonderful brothers I know are well-known and have great influence and are far from narcissisic.

Nonetheless, I am reminded that my calling as a pastor was not God saying “Oh David, I am so glad I finally created you so that you could go and save my church and make it what I have always dreamed.” Yet, some pastors I meet seem to have this concept of calling. I chalk it up to immature excitement for pastoring in some. Yet, eventually, there will be a humbling moment. It is in that moment one’s true calling and qualifications to serve as an under-shepherd will be revealed.

Being accountable for the spiritual health of those within our church family, for the doctrinal and biblical fidelity of our teaching (not just on Sundays, but in every room and group that is part of our local church,) and being answerable to God for how I lead is heavy. The all-too common celebrity pastor syndrome is toxic. Maybe reading about the dangers of narcissistic pastors will be helpful to keep many from sliding into that reality. I pray the acknowledgment will lead to awareness for all and repentance for many (and I am included in that category of many.)  


[1] Wilson, Jared C., and Ross Ferguson. “Episode 252: Narcissism in the Church: For the Church.” For the Church | Episode 252: Narcissism in the Church, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 28 Feb. 2024,

[2] “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 6 Apr. 2023,,the%20best%20car%20or%20office.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Pe 5:2–3.

[4] Lockett, Darian. “The Call of an Under-Shepherd.” The Good Book Blog – Biola University Blogs, Biola University, 19 Nov. 2014,,as%20one%20shepherded%20by%20Christ.

[5] “15 Signs of an Arrogant, Unhealthy Pastor.” Vanco, 22 June 2022, .

[6] Cosper, Mike. “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Episode 6: The Brand.” ChristianityToday.Com, Christianity Today, 2 Aug. 2021,

[7] Vanco.

[8] Regan, Brian. “Me Monster.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 July 2012,

Church Planting Champion

David Tarkington