Today we are looking at the readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord, January 6, 2020. You may also be celebrating this on the Sunday before or after, of course. Either way, the lectionary readings are Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; and Matthew 2:1-12. I’m looking today at the gospel reading, the arrival of the magi. We all know this story, or we think we do. All of your parishioners know this story, or at least they think they do. Many of them may not understand why they’re only hearing it now, which to many of them is way past Christmas, but this blog isn’t about instilling a love of the church year in them. You’re on your own there, friend preacher. I feel your pain.
Anyway, I want to look today at King Herod. I am not a doctor or a therapist, but what we know of Herod seems to exhibit some similarity to narcissistic personality disorder. According to the DSM-V, persons with narcissistic personality disorder usually display some or all of the following symptoms:
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people
- Fixation on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
- Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions
- Need for continual admiration from others
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
- Exploitation of others to achieve personal gain
- Unwillingness to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people
- Intense envy of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them
- Pompous and arrogant demeanor
I am not going to use this blog as a platform to talk about current or recent political figures. If you want to go there, that’s your prerogative. But I think political figures from 2000 years ago are fair game. And much of what we know about Herod, from Biblical and other sources, makes him sound like this sort of person. His kingdom was based on his own sense of self-worth. He had no empathy for those around him, including his own subjects, and his own family. He did some great things for Judea, including a glorious expansion of the Temple, but he did them for his own sake, for his own legacy and his own need for glory. And in today’s reading, we see his envy. When he hears about Jesus, the newly born King of the Jews, he is terrified because Jesus is a threat to his supremacy. Jesus is a threat to what he holds dear, his own self-worth. If Jesus is king, then what does that say about him?
This envy, of course, leads to the slaughter of the innocents we saw on the First Sunday of Christmas. But I want to focus here on how to deal with narcissists today. You may have some people living with Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the pews. Or perhaps people with tendencies that way, who may not have the full-blown disorder. More than likely, they are not treated. People with narcissistic disorders don’t tend to seek treatment, because they don’t think they need it! Whatever problems they run into are never their fault, but the fault of others. These may be the people who like to take over congregational meetings, or who like to cause trouble in the parking lot meetings after worship. In one way, you wouldn’t expect narcissists to even be part of the church, because they don’t think they need anyone’s help, including God. On the other hand, these are people who have a great desire for power, and sometimes the local congregation is a place where they can find that power.
These people are very, very hard to help. And sometimes very, very hard to deal with. They expect everyone around them to listen to them, and when they do not get their way, they can fly off the handle. It is not uncommon for others to be intimidated, or even frightened, of them. In my experience, about the only thing that helps is confidence, both personal and institutional. Build up your own confidence as best you can, so that when someone with narcissistic tendencies tries to bully you, you can stand firm in your own actions and beliefs. And perhaps more importantly, work to build up institutional confidence. By that, I mean work to clarify the role of staff and elected leaders. Make sure that your congregation council (or whatever you call the elected governing body) understands and embraces their role as leaders. They are the leaders who make the decisions, not others behind the scenes. In my own congregation, we have recently clarified a protocol for dealing with congregational conflict. It is now clearly written in black and white that such conflict will be dealt with by the executive committee, which is composed of the pastor and the elected officers. It means that none of us can be left high and dry on our own, which had been my experience a few times prior to this. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do when there was significant conflict I was aware of, or when someone verbally attacked me. Now I know that I have the support of several others, and they have my support. This isn’t a quick fix to deal with someone with narcissistic tendencies, but it can help over time. But if you have such people on your council right now, then you’re in a tight spot, and perhaps the best you can do is to try to build up the rest of the council’s confidence to talk back to them. It’s not easy, and it’s not quick. Good luck.
But this has all been about how we as leaders deal with people with narcissistic tendencies. I haven’t talked about how we deal with them directly, how we preach to them, how we help them to grow. Honestly, I don’t know. This disorder is a tough nut to crack, because part of the disorder itself is an inability to see oneself clearly. I don’t think anyone with mental illness can really get help until they admit they have a problem, and someone with narcissism may never even consider that they have a problem.
This is humbling. It’s always humbling for us clergy to remember that there are some things we just can’t do. Some demons that can only be expelled by a miracle. Perhaps that’s the best I can tell you this week. Be humble, and remember that whatever help you try to give anyone, it’s always out of your hands. Only God can truly heal; we’ve been given a role to play, but only God can provide hope and growth. Like farmers working the fields, our role is incredibly important, but the water and the sunlight comes from God.
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