I can’t believe I have to do this. But, as we see in virtually every other position of power in the world, the Christian Pastor has the potential to abuse their power with the worst of ‘em. And they do. They do.
We see it all over the news. Pastors getting caught in affairs, getting caught in fraud, getting caught in abusive relationships with the women, men, and children of their congregations. Even getting caught in murder, and the list goes on!
Sometimes they get caught, but sometimes something much more sinister happens: they are enabled by their spouses, their congregations, and by the leadership staff of their church. They don’t get caught, or people know darn well what they’re doing, and allow it to continue for “peace” and “unity’s” sake. Or worse: they think there’s nothing wrong with it.
If you’re one of these enabling flying monkeys that worships the ground your pastor walks on, this article isn’t for you. If you will defend your pastor’s character and behavior, regardless of how he’s spending the church’s money, move along, my friend.
For the rest of you: If you think all you need to do is watch the news to protect yourself from being abused by one of these narcissistic wolves, you’re in a dreamland I used to frequent myself. If you think they’re so rare that you don’t even need to worry about it, you must not have spent the last year and a half trying to talk to these people. I have, and I gotta tell you, it’s like pulling teeth... while listening to nails on a chalkboard.
No, I’m not saying that most pastors are guilty of having affairs or committing fraud, or abusing people. But I will say this: based on my experiences speaking with so many pastors over the course of my life and in the past 18 months, many pastors are not safe people.
Many pastors are dishonest, secretive, narcissistic, manipulative, and greedy. So many. Too many. These characteristics and the behaviors extending from them are abusive and destructive to the Body. They drive people away from Christ and hurt those who don’t leave. They dishonor God’s unconditional love and disrespect Christ’s death on the cross. They teach false doctrines and they dumb down the flock, keeping them dependent and too immature to go beyond the local church.
If you haven’t already, you need to check your pastor.
How Do They Act at the Pulpit?
When checking your pastor at the pulpit, watch for an agenda: Are they constantly sprinkling their sermons with messages and themes that remind you of what you need to do for the church? It could be as subtle as “a good Christian is giving and generous to their local church,” or “Christians filled with the Spirit want to serve others... and this weekend we have a conference and we could really use some volunteers.”
Listen for Criticism: Wolves want control, power, and resources. The desire for control and power over you is abusive, and it’s taken through critical language meant to shame and guilt-trip you into submission. If the sermons are full of criticisms for certain types of “worldly” behaviors that they deem un-Christian, like drinking alcohol or getting tattoos, then they're trying to assert control through shame and guilt-tripping.
Are they preaching, or performing? It is so common in churches today for pastors to perform and portray a character that is nothing like who they are in their real life. For the narc/wolf pastor, their sermon is a performance and a show, not an actual teaching situation with people the pastor intends to know personally and authentically. The pastors most guilty of this behavior are difficult to find outside the pulpit because they don’t want people seeing them as their real selves.
I noticed this at one particular church that I checked here in Idaho. The pastor was on stage performing (*wink*), and I left the sanctuary to go to the bathroom. When I rounded the corner toward the bathrooms, there was the pastor’s wife and leadership staff, standing out in the hall, shootin’ the breeze. If the pastor was teaching a lesson from the Bible, a lesson he found important, why wouldn’t anyone close to him want to sit in and learn from it? Answer: Because they all knew it was just another show. If it was important to hear, they would have been listening to it.
If your pastor is unapproachable or very difficult to meet up with, chances are they’re avoiding exposing their real self to someone that’s supposed to only know their “pastor” self. If you’re good at reading body language and can tell when people are acting fake, you can avoid these types of pastors easily. If you’re not, pay attention to how approachable they are.
How Do They Act in Person?
Does it match how they act at the pulpit or are they two different people? One sign of narcissism is that their public self doesn’t match their private self. If your pastor acts differently on stage in front of the congregation than he does privately with one or two people, he’s fake, he’s acting, and he might very well be a narcissist.
Can they admit to their own sins? Sometimes to appear genuine or humble, pastors will come up with fake sins or made up flaws to confess while talking to the congregation from the pulpit, but if their pulpit persona is fake, they don’t really feel that way about themselves. If you speak to them one-on-one and they don’t have the same humility or honesty about their flaws, you may have a narcissistic pastor. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Christians understand that we are all fallen human beings in need of our perfect Savior. A narcissistic pastor doesn’t feel that way about themselves. They think they are above you and worthy of your praises. They think the rules and laws they’ve laid on your shoulders don’t apply to them because they’re the “pastor.”
And again with the criticism: just like we see from the pulpit, if your pastor is very critical to their congregation in person, that’s a red flag. Not only of a legalistic pastor but, a controlling and narcissistic pastor, too. If they’re always giving out unsolicited advice or reacting to being asked questions by being critical toward, they are deflecting by going after you because they are feeling threatened and insecure.
Do they have an “us vs them” mentality? A wolf wants nothing to do with potential threats to his or her control over their church. If non-Christians are a threat because they ask questions that the pastor can’t answer, they ridicule and shun non-Christians. If Christians that don’t agree with the pastor’s policies on membership or tithe-preaching speak up, the narc/wolf pastor will do all they can to silence that Christian. They’ll keep that threat out of the reach of their church to prevent them from hearing different views on the topic. Anything that diverges from what the narc/wolf pastor thinks or wants is a threat to their world of being in control and in power. Those threats are squelched.
Are they an honest person? Have you caught them lying about things? Even little things. Lying about little things easily means they’re willing to lie about big things. Even if they just lied about, oh... I don’t know... what the requirements for becoming an elder in their church are to avoid looking legalistic to a particular church checker and by extension potential churchgoers. Just a possibility. The point is, you can’t trust a liar. You need to trust a pastor.
Look at their History
Do you know anything about their past? If you don’t, there’s a reason. Good pastors get honestly personal in their sermons from time to time, revealing where they grew up, where they went to school, how much they loved their last church if they have one, why they moved to wherever it is you are, and the list goes on. It’s hard for a pastor not to reveal anything of consequence about his past to his congregation that would bring you into a more genuine, personal relationship with him or her.
So if you don’t know about a pastor’s past, that should raise a big red flag. Did they come from a church on the other side of the country? Why? Why did they leave that church and move their family all the way over here? Do they have family here? Did they grow up here? Come on, out with it, man!
Their educational background: Did they go to a Bible College, a theological seminary, or maybe a business school? If they haven’t attended a Bible or Theological school, are they doing anything now to grow in understanding and knowledge of the Bible? Independent Bible studies? Online courses? Other research? If they lack anything showing an understanding of the Bible that warrants them teaching it to others, that’s another red flag.
If they went to business school and majored in marketing, advertising, or pretty much anything business-related, and then you notice a lot of slogans, logos, and corporate marketing techniques around the church, you know: red flag. If they won’t tell you anything about their educational background or where they went to school, I would sprint out of that church as fast as my legs could carry me and never look back.
Look at the Internet
If you can’t find a single cotton-pickin’ thing about your pastor online, you should be careful. And by that, I mean anything negative. Especially if it’s a very popular pastor of a very popular church. Public figures always have opposition. If you have a pastor who previously pastored another church in another city or state and you can’t find anything about why they left or how they found your church, something is being kept from you, dear Christian.
If their online sermons don’t allow comments, or if negative comments are taken down, that’s a concern. How would you know if negative comments were being taken down without seeing them first and then seeing that they’re gone? I know! Post a negative comment and see what happens. If their sermons have thousands of views, but no comments, or just one or two... run. Someone is censoring that comment section like their life depends on it.
How Legalistic or Materialistic is your Church?
These are two factors important to consider when checking your pastor. If your church is legalistic, either in the way they preach, treat their congregation, or deal with the finances and staff, the pastor is more than likely a very power-hungry and controlling person. If the church is very materialistic in how they spend their money and what they spend their money on, chances are the pastor enjoys putting on a big show as an extension of his or her fragile ego. If they're both legalistic and materialistic? Well, you're in trouble, my friend.
How Is Their Relationship With Questions?
The quickest way to check your pastor to see if he/she is a wolf is by asking questions. Any questions, or more importantly, questions about them, or about the church. Even just one question. And pay close attention to how they respond or react.
Questions are threatening to insecure wolves hiding under that sheepskin. They’re also threatening to narcissists who can’t fathom anyone challenging their authority, decisions, or opinions.
If you get a response akin to “How dare you?”, holy crap, you’re talking to a wolf.
If they’re angry at all, same thing.
If you get a response that doesn’t answer the question, your wolf is good at manipulating people.
If you get no response at all, your wolf suspects that you can see them and they’re playing dead.
If you get a word salad response (a bunch of words that confuse you and have nothing to do with the question), your wolf is trying to deflect and confuse to avoid answering the question.
If you get a response that answers the question but not entirely, and you either suspect there’s more they aren’t telling you or you can see signs of deception in their body language, your wolf likes to pretend to answer questions to appear open and honest while lying through his shiny, pointy teeth.
If your pastor answers your questions without deflection, confusion, avoidance, dishonesty, anger, or discomfort, regardless of whether they know the answer, hate the answer, or don’t care about the answer… then you may have a keeper, my friend!
Here are some examples of a wolf-life reaction to questions in real life.
I followed the podcast of one of Utah’s most popular seeker-friendly churches for a few weeks. I observed their pastor’s reaction to the question, “Why don’t you teach more from the Bible?” He pulled the ole’ switcheroo on this question by deflecting. He said, “Whenever someone asks me that question, I always say the same thing: Who are you loving right now? Loving people is way harder than doing a deep Bible study. Try loving people. Now that’s hard.”
This answer does a few things that expose this pastor. First, it doesn’t answer the freaking question. The question wasn’t, “What’s the hardest thing for a Christian?” It was asking why this church doesn’t teach more in-depth Bible studies. And instead of answering it, he deflected by answering a different, irrelevant question. Why? Because he knows the answer and he knows it will make him look bad.
Second, it attacked the questioner’s character by assuming the reason they want to learn the Bible is that they think they’re intelligent or they’ve matured more than everyone else. He’s assuming a condescension and self-righteousness by the questioner, but they’re asking a simple question. A question that all Christians should ask of their own church if it applies. Wolves can’t handle questions like this. They end up attacking the character of the person asking them because they feel backed into a corner.
Third, it tells two subtle, sneaky little lies. Is loving others harder than studying the Bible? Yep! Is that how Christians should measure their spiritual maturity? Uh, not entirely, no. This pastor is relying on his audience to be ignorant enough of the Scriptures to miss this lie, which is this: How well you know the Bible or how deeply you’re able to study it doesn’t affect your maturity in Christ. The Bible tells us differently. The second lie is apparent by both his refusal to answer the question and his refusal to change his preaching style to incorporate more Bible study, and it’s this: Deep, meaty Bible study isn’t important for Christians. Again, the Bible tells us differently:
1 Peter 2:2-3
2 Peter 3:18
1 Corinthians 13:10-12
2 Peter 1:5-8
1 Timothy 4:11-15
1 Corinthians 3:2-8
I mean... come on. It’s everywhere, Pastor! Not only is learning the meat of the Word important, but it brings Christians into spiritual maturity, and it helps them to love better. It’s also another way in which Christians show their love for God, by worshiping Him with their minds. And let’s not forget: it’s your job.
Another example: I sent my questionnaire to another pastor of a different church and received a multi-faceted wolf-like response. First, the church had already blocked my email address to prevent me from sending my questions to the pastor. They also blocked my secondary email account which they found on my Facebook profile to prevent me from emailing from there and it made me think, “Wow, this guy is serious.”
Then when I tried to contact the church through one of their elders via Facebook, I received the “how dare you!?” response. This “elder” gave me the distinct impression that he believes there is no such thing as wolves in sheep’s clothing in the Christian church. That all pastors and church leadership are worthy of the title and I have no right to question them. Well, except for the ones he doesn’t like (because that’s not narcissistic). He finished it by threatening me with eternal hellfire for my “sin” of questioning the local churches, demanded that I repent, or God’d punish me for my evil “rebellion”.
Holy guacamole. Talk about needing to be in control! And talk about idolizing the local church! Sheesh! Whoever said the local church was equivalent to God Himself? Not God!
This guy has some issues. Also, I’m pretty sure he’s a wolf.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are some pastors that are open to questions. Even welcoming of them. They’ll tell you their salary, their favorite book, and their worst sin honestly and without flinching because true shepherds love the truth because God is truth. Because Jesus is the truth, and when we lie, we dishonor the truth. When we fight the truth, we’re fighting against God.
Therefore, we send pastors the Questionnaire, church checkers. We ask questions, and you should too. We check pastors for signs of wolf-like behaviors, and this is why we check churches.
For Christ and His Kingdom.