The catastrophic impact of leaders falling from grace is damaging the Church. But this isn’t just about sex scandals. In order to understand the problem we need to go much deeper

Legend has it that Harvey Weinstein, the infamous film producer imprisoned for rape in 2020, would tell people who dared to disagree with him to stand in the corner, facing the wall. Many observed the disturbing nature of his narcissism, but most turned a blind eye. Had people been courageous enough to challenge this behaviour, would we have avoided the horrors that lay ahead?

Although he was ultimately convicted of many counts of criminal sex acts, his crimes really began with narcissism, a personality disorder comprised of a distasteful cocktail of selfishness and entitlement, a refusal to acknowledge any weakness in one’s self and which holds no empathy for the humanity of another.

Sadly, narcissism is not confined to Hollywood or politics, but also protrudes from the walls of places we believe to be holy ground – the Church. 

All these institutions have, at times, formed structures that allowed bad behaviour from powerful people to go unaccounted for; playgrounds where sin could dance in the dark. Perhaps this was not intentional but, nevertheless, we are watching more cases of sexual misconduct come to the surface across the global Church. Too often, the victims and survivors have been ignored.

This is not just about sexual sin. We need to address the cancerous infection of narcissism, and ultimately root it out. Spiritually and statistically the Church is crumbling, not just because of the sex scandals, but because we are, all too often, metaphorically placing the injured party in the corner, telling them to face the wall.

Falling from grace 

The failure of church leaders is not new. Abuse has always existed, inside and outside of the Church. And yet I must confess, with social media and its often punitive attacks on the fallen, I have sometimes been guilty of muting the whistleblowers, disbelieving their noisy accusations and putting it down to bitterness. If the accuser was an atheist or deconstructing, then even more reason to burn their pithy words like charcoal. We can’t trust them, they have an axe to grind. It’s easier to push for handling such matters behind closed doors instead, quoting verses such as Matthew 18:15: “If your fellow believer sins against you, you must go to that one privately and attempt to resolve the matter” (TPT) as justification.

When we value the gifting of preachers above the integrity of their character, we allow them to become separate

My stance changed when I saw that, in many cases, Matthew 18 had already been attempted, but the power-players refused to own their sin. The leaders in question were unable to acknowledge the sharing of burdens (Galatians 6:2), because they refused to accept there was a burden of abuse in the first place. 

In one meeting with a victim, I learned of an elder who shouted with tremendous gusto to the rest of the leadership: “We are not discussing the recent allegations!” Later that afternoon, he had a major stroke. 

Some church leaders have refused to allow third-party investigations, declaring that they are not biblical. The problem is, neither is sexual abuse. If we believe we are innocent of an allegation that has been made against us, we should be ready and willing to give investigators the passwords to our computers, the keys to our locks. Our heart cry should be: “Check everything, for if I have done something wrong, I wish to know so I can make restitution.” 

When leaders refuse to be held accountable, everything gets harder. This is where the shouting starts. Often the only way a narcissist can be stopped is by consistent (and reliable) exposure, by the light shining upon that deadly playground. For someone, somehow, needs to stop this abuse. Let these crimes stop at us; stop at our scars. For if it’s grieving us, it is grieving Jesus. And if we hold hope for Christ’s blushing bride, let her blush for the right reasons. 

Not this. 

A new reformation

I believe that you and I are living in the beginnings of a new reformation. A passionate desire for healthy, humble church culture is growing among us. This isn’t new, it’s as old as the scriptures. Two thousand years ago in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul criticised those who engaged in “self-confident boasting” (2 Corinthians 11:17). He promised to only boast about his “weakness”. By rejecting the path of self-promotion, the power of God could flow unhindered (see 12:9). 

The new reformation begins with us attacking narcissistic pride, so that we may avoid the inevitable fall. It embraces our weaknesses, not our supposed strengths. 

It wasn’t until I discovered Chuck DeGroat’s book When Narcissism Comes to Church (IVP) that I learned of the familiar patterns of this disorder. And how its infection can pervade any church. It’s very difficult to find resolution with a narcissist when they refuse to acknowledge a weakness in the first place. DeGroat’s book gave me incredible insight into the diverse range of narcissism, along with the poisonous side-effects that can occur if it is left unchallenged. This disease isn’t just prevalent in megachurches, and it isn’t just found in persons, but within whole Church systems. If we remove the narcissist, its infection can still remain. It’s a learned culture. Where there is power, there can be foul play. Yet where there is humility and an earnestness to do better, there can be a cure. 

When leaders refuse to be held accountable, everything gets harder

I contacted DeGroat to take a deeper dive into the concerns, as well as to explore the solutions. Given the many scandals surfacing across the globe, might the Lord be exposing and recalibrating the Church for us to return to humility and a different structure? 

“Years ago, the author Phyllis Tickle wrote a book in which she showed that within the history of the Church, significant reformations happen about every 500 years. We are there again,” DeGroat told me. “During these times, a lot needs to be torn down, not for the sake of destruction, but for the sake of reformation and reimagination and practice formed by the way of Jesus, and to steward a death that leads to resurrection life within our systems and structures,”  he added. 

I believe we currently dance between two generations with two differing schools of thought: the God Generals of the past, who hold enough testimonies to regale us for another century, and the younger generation, who have less experience, but want honest confession. I often sit between both generations. The younger are asking for the removal of the perfect faҫade. They feel, at times, unwilling to reconcile and have difficult conversations directly. This is where cancel-culture stems from. 

Sometimes, the older generation don’t want to admit there is a problem at all. I admire their tenacity and perseverance, their desire for honour over being right. But I recoil at their refusal to look deeper at the pain; those Gethsemane moments that prepared Jesus for the ultimate battle and that victorious atonement. Souls erode in an atmosphere of pretending.

I’ve been part of attempts to confront leadership. At the time, we hoped we were helping; we hoped those in power were able to understand that we were sharing these concerns because we were on their side. The younger generation were pointing to the iceberg ahead, while the captains of the Church, much like those on The Titanic, preached: “Keep playing the violins!”

For as long as the powerful carry this wilful blindness, refusing to own the harm they have caused, for as long as the ego rides higher than the humility of our Lord, healing cannot occur. We will leave the victims out in the cold while keeping our own malevolence warm. It is a stance brutal enough to find victims taking their own lives. The devil is playing his hand and, in our pride, he’s winning. 

Can you spot a narcissist?

Signs of narcissism taking root in a church culture include:

• Instant defences to constructive criticism

• Refusals to listen to hurt

• Deflections back to the victim

• A desire for the powerful to be heralded as the most important in the room by ways of separating themselves from the congregation.

The solution 

So how do we avoid narcissism infiltrating the systems of our own churches? 

“There is work that we can do to cultivate health,” DeGroat explains. “This generally involves creating habits and patterns that promote self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social intelligence, clarity of call and purpose, accountability and more. It requires far more rigorous formation of pastors and ministry leaders and far more attention to organisational health.

“There is a lot of fear, given movements of deconstruction, exits from evangelicalism and polls about trust in churches and pastors. When we get fearful, we often react by doubling down and becoming defensive. I really believe that it’s important for us to notice our anxiety and shift to a place of curiosity. What might God be doing amid this season of reckoning? What new opportunities do we have for lament, repentance, surrender, re-formation and a return to humility, simplicity and service? How might we see Jesus anew as our eyes adjust from their glaring obsession with power, to the wisdom and ways of the one who served, suffered and died in love?”

And so we return to Paul’s writings, and his charge to lead with our weaknesses, not our strengths. What healing there has been when I’ve seen great and gifted men and women of the faith stand up and say: “I wronged others. I need help.” We have seen phenomenal restoration, not just for victims but for perpetrators. We are not looking for perfection, but for courage. For this echoes a greater faith. Hurling abuse at a narcissist does not introduce them to themselves, it merely makes them defiant or silent. It rarely brings an apology. Trust me, I’ve tried it. 

Avoid separations

When we value the gifting of preachers above the integrity of their character, we allow them to become separate from us, from accountability, from truth. Celebritism trumps the right to be messy. That perfect faҫade must be lived up to, and creates personas who can’t turn to their friends and say: “I’m struggling”. Instead, they separate from community, pain builds and, before they know it, they’re using their authority not for the good of the Church, but for their own self-gratification. 

Some perpetrators have been brave enough to admit defeat. But often, this only happens once they have been caught red-handed. Therefore, accountability must be as vital as Jesus is to the Church. Koinonia (fellowship) must be an anchor for all leaders, a demand that all persons are accountable to the wisdom of elders who hold the right to have tough, unadulterated confrontations.

6 ways to cultivate health in your church 

1. Promote humility by substantiating a feedback culture

Leaders should be asking: “How do you experience me?”, “What could we do to make things better?” This will help catch upstream issues that need to be remedied. 

2. Ensure that everyone of influence holds a voluntary vulnerability 

It is not enough to have accountability; we encourage and praise the vulnerability of showing our weaknesses, recognising the need for the whole body of the Church to work in unison. 

3. Emphasise wider leadership roles (whether elders, deacons, bishops or trustees) and their role in guiding church leaders

Remove VIP treatment that could cause separation for those in the spotlight, and therefore loss of accountability. 

4. Cultivate a space for honourable confrontation that builds trust and connection between the community 

Avoid aggressive attack and gossip, but communicate clearly so that the church is not confused. Honesty and inclusion of all parties will avoid isolation for victims and perpetrators, as well as the separation of any narcissistic types that could create greater problems later. 

5. Utilise those qualified in employment law and HR 

Ask these professionals to create guardrails of pastoral wisdom that will protect both leaders and the church community. 

6. Shift the focus away from powerful anointings and impressive spiritual gifts 

Instead, ensure the focus of the Church is on the beautiful and humble character Paul so often writes about.


Listening to victims is vital. “Remember that the person who is lower in any power structure than you are has a greater awareness of the situation than you do”, writes David Brooks in How to Know a Person (Random House). “A servant knows more about his master than the master knows about his servant.” I have got this wrong on a few occasions. As a leader, I’ve refused to look at a scenario by way of a victim’s framing. Those conversations caused much hurt to those who were already in pain. It was a posture I had learned from a church culture, from Hollywood, and I am haunted by it still. 

As long as the ego rides higher than humility, healing cannot occur

In all my research of narcissism in the Church, I have been unable to unhear the stories of the victims. I have been haunted by their pain and tears. And so I beg now of good fathers and mothers of the Church, the ones who have not taken advantage of their authority, to step into the gap, to stay in the room and to listen, no matter how abhorrent the tales might be. 

If King David could humbly turn down the opportunity of killing Saul, if Manasseh could rebuild an entire city after first destroying it with idolatry, then we still have hope in a humbling reformation. The creation of a gentle kingdom, where no one is sent to stand in the corner of the room.