'Fauxnerability' a growing phenomenon among narcissistic pastors, leaders

‘Fauxnerability’ – as in, faux (not genuine) vulnerability – is a word Chuck DeGroat coined during the writing process of his book When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.

“It speaks to a growing phenomenon I’ve seen among narcissistic pastors and leaders who may know some psychological language or talk about their personality type or even see a therapist – but who manifest a kind of false vulnerability,” he explains.

DeGroat is Professor of Counselling and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, USA. He is also a licensed therapist and an ordained Reformed Church minister. Speaking to Eternity on the release of his book last year, he explained that the common psychological definition of narcissism includes grandiosity, a lack of empathy, and impairments of intimacy and identity, among others.

But while DeGroat said that definition is “a fair place to start,” he also noted “narcissism comes in a number of different guises, which sometimes look less grandiose but are no less sinister”.

Narcisstic Personality Disorder is a mental illness gaining more attention and awareness, as DeGroat pointed to the spectrum of controlling behaviour it can manifest as: “Power can be abused in obvious and subtle ways, and narcissists are adept at manipulating, exploiting, and empowering themselves, all to protect a fragile sense of their own self-identity.”

One of those ways is using fauxnerability.

“I often think of a leader who is known for his Christian books on sin and grace and who communicates winsomely about his brokenness, but who is a tyrant and a bully behind-the-scenes. Despite infidelity in his marriage and a trail of pain left behind him among staff members who have served with him, he continues to gather people for worship each Sunday, leading from his fauxnerable, false self,” DeGroat tells Eternity.

Identifying narcissism in a person who is fauxnerable can be “tricky at first” because, says DeGroat, “This is someone who can come across with the appearance of humility and curiosity, but who ultimately does not demonstrate either one.”

“You may not know in the short run. When I do church consulting, my initial assessments with pastors can sometimes be confusing, especially when there is the appearance of humility and a willingness to participate fully. But in time, the narcissistic leader will reveal [themselves]. You may notice that the initial willingness and winsomeness turns to resistance and rage.”

However, over the course of someone’s lifetime, it becomes more evident.

“This is someone who is internally split and self-deceived, and so the pattern can look like a Jekyll/Hyde phenomenon where you will see the nice, spiritual side of the person but you’ll also discover the toxic, harmful side in time,” DeGroat explains.

Why your church is in danger

DeGroat’s experience over more than 20 years as a therapist has led him to believe churches and other Christian organisations or communities are ripe for manipulation by a narcissist who uses this fauxnerability.

“I do think churches are particularly susceptible because we use the language of sin, brokenness, weakness, neediness, and more when we talk about the gospel. But churches and Christian organisations are not immune to a culture of celebrity and a misuse of power. And so, fauxnerability simply ‘works’ for these leaders. Their appearance, at least on stage, seems to have all the markings of humble leadership, but it is anything but that,” he says.

“In the church, they may even talk about their ‘sin’, but it is usually abstract and they have a very hard time acknowledging real and specific ways that they hurt people. The capacity for spiritual abuse is significant because this is someone who generally has trust with people because of the appearance of humility, but who has the capacity to hurt and harm deeply,” he says.

“I think it’s appropriate to have empathy … but we also need to demonstrate accountability.” – Chuck DeGroat

So is there any way to avoid being fooled by a narcissistic Christian leader’s fauxnerability? Again, says DeGroat, “it’s tricky”, acknowledging that he and his counselling peers have been manipulated and hurt by such a person. Nonetheless, “paying attention to the whole person” including “how they behave on stage and in private” and “how those closest to [them] experience [them]” are helpful ways to recognise fauxnerability.

“Does [the leader] simply talk about humility or manifest humility and curiosity in everyday conversations and through leadership? Do [they] talk about sin and brokenness abstractly, or can [they] specifically and personally name and confess the ways [their] sin and brokenness show up in real-time?” DeGroat asks.

What’s the best response?

This approach is consistent with the Bible’s wisdom about a person’s true character being reflected in the fruit of their lives (Matthew 7:16), and the need for love to be expressed in action, not merely words (1 John 3:18). But responding to fauxnerability as a Christian can also be confusing – especially when showing grace for an offender’s brokenness, or responding to their repentance.

DeGroat acknowledges these difficulties: “I do think that someone who manifests the characteristics of fauxnerability is likely someone who has experienced significant hurt and trauma themselves. I think it’s appropriate to have empathy.”

“But, if this is someone in leadership with the power to harm or abuse others, we also need to demonstrate accountability,” he explains. “Grace is often spoken of in purely individualistic terms, but grace on a larger and more systemic level may be the care and protection of the flock and the exposure of a leader’s sin.”

“It’s hard to say” what might happen if someone is confronted about their fauxnerabilty, DeGroat points out. “Those with narcissistic personality disorder are like a well-defended fortress who resist accountability at every turn. Those on the narcissistic spectrum [but are not full NPD] may show some initial resistance but have the capacity for curiosity and openness.”

“A false repentance usually has the appearance of a quick fix.” – Chuck DeGroat

How can I know if they have *really* changed?

And if they repent? How can anyone know if it is another example of fauxnerability or genuine?

“Repentance is demonstrated over time. It’s demonstrated in consistent and ongoing action matched by a posture of humility and curiosity. An initial repentance may turn out to be mere words,” DeGroat advises.

“Those who are repentant also show remarkable empathy for others, moving toward those they’ve hurt in order to understand and repent more deeply. A false repentance usually has the appearance of a quick fix.”

Even seeing a counsellor or a psychologist can be an exercise in fauxnerability for some people, warns DeGroat.

“There is a remarkable and disappointing lack of understanding of narcissism and the psychological dynamics behind it among therapists. I often see therapists duped by narcissists,” he says. “Therapists only see one side of a person, and don’t have a window into a person’s style and pattern of relating across relationships.

“I consulted for a church where the lead pastor was seeing a therapist and who brought a letter that he called a ‘clean bill of emotional health’ as a defence against accusations of abuse among staff members. Later when I was given permission to talk to the therapist, we realised that she’d been completely manipulated by this leader.”

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