Personality Disorders in the Church: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (Part 3 of 5)

This is the third in a five-part series on personality disorders in the church.

1.) A Sensitive Topic: Personality Disorders in the Church (Part 1 of 5)
2.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Part 2 of 5)
3.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (Part 3 of 5)
4.) Personality Disorders in the Church: Paranoid  Personality Disorder (Part 4 of 5)
5.) Personality Disorders in the Church: How to Deal with Them (Part 5 of 5)

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder in the ChurchSnow fell deep in Maine that winter. It piled high around the church parking lot and crept like a glacier toward the center. Pastor Ferris* asked me to act as parking-attendant to maximize the remaining space. It was a good idea—really, it was—but we failed to notify the church beforehand.

Sunday morning came with a wind-chill of five-below zero and I huddled in my green overcoat and gloves, wishing I could keep warm. The cars rolled in, unaware that I was supposed to act as guide. I waved my arms and tried to corral them; to line them up like Ferris had wanted. “Don’t let anyone get past you,” he’d said, his voice tight with strain. The situation worried him—I could tell it made him feel out of control—and so we would constrain every car to follow my commands.

I managed to arrange the first dozen or so vehicles as prescribed, but then a car shot past me as I helped another to park. My cell phone rang—it was Ferris. “Steve! Why did you let Mr. D drive past you? Didn’t I tell you not to let anybody get by? Go over quickly and make him back up!” I peered up at Ferris’s office window. He stared back at me through the glass, cell phone to his ear, gesticulating.

Isn’t he supposed to be preparing for the service? I wondered. How can he be doing that and also watching me? But his priority was to control the chaos in the parking lot. Apparently I was unworthy of trust. God’s message could wait: Ferris was directing traffic via his marionette.

*Not his real name

In my experience with cult leaders and spiritually abusive people, more than a few demonstrate symptoms of personality disorder. The most prevalent of these tend to be Narcissism, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Paranoia.

obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

Spiritual leaders who have personality disorders confuse their followers.

A leader with a personality disorder believes that the way he or she conducts life represents spiritual maturity, advanced sanctification, or prophetic wisdom. In reality, the leader’s behavior is often sinful or twisted. This creates tremendous confusion in followers.

In the case of my former church, our pastor was removed from leadership and only subsequently diagnosed with personality disorders. When I read the DSM-IV description of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, it read like a biography of my pastor. If your pastor or spiritual leader evidences such symptoms, recognize that he or she needs help. And don’t be deceived by their rhetoric which claims that such behavior is actually evidence of righteousness, higher wisdom, or greater purity. Personality disorders are notoriously difficult to treat.

Note: Paragraphs in quotes are from the DSM-IV.

Diagnostic Criteria of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder

“The essential feature of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency. This pattern begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.”

Criterion 1: Preoccupation with details so that they lose sight of the main purpose of a task. We call this majoring on the minors and minoring on the majors. It is a hallmark of legalists. “Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder attempt to maintain a sense of control through painstaking attention to rules, trivial details, procedures, lists, schedules, or form to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost. They are excessively careful and prone to repetition, paying extraordinary attention to detail and repeatedly checking for possible mistakes. They are oblivious to the fact that other people tend to become very annoyed at the delays and inconveniences that result from this behavior. Time is poorly allocated, the most important tasks being left to the last moment.”

Of course, annoyance is rarely the most serious reaction by parishioners. Rather, followers are told that God is as concerned with details as is the legalistic leader. Details become enormous moral issues.

Criterion 2: Perfectionism which interferes with task completion. “The perfectionism and self-imposed high standards of performance cause significant dysfunction and distress in OC Personality Disorder and Perfectionismthese individuals. They may become so involved in making every detail of a project absolutely perfect that the project is never finished. Deadlines are missed, and aspects of the individual’s life that are not the current focus of activity may fall into disarray.”

For example, in my former church our pastor once ordered thousands of back issues of a Christian History magazine in order to make complete sets for every member of the church. However, those magazines sat unused in neat piles on a table in a back room—for ten years—because our pastor couldn’t decide how to proceed with the process. Everything had to be perfect before he could consider handing them out.

Criterion 3: Excessive devotion to work, to the exclusion of friendships and leisure activities. “Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder often feel that they do not have time to take an evening or a weekend day off to go on an outing or to just relax. They may keep postponing a pleasurable activity, such as a vacation, so that it may never occur. When they do take time for leisure activities or vacations, they are very uncomfortable unless they have taken along something to work on so they do not ‘waste time.’ If they spend time with friends, it is likely to be in some kind of formally organized activity (e.g., sports). Hobbies or recreational activities are approached as serious tasks requiring careful organization and hard work to master. The emphasis is on perfect performance. These individuals turn play into a structured task (e.g., correcting an infant for not putting rings on the post in the right order; telling a toddler to ride his or her bicycle or tricycle in a straight line; turning a baseball game into a harsh ‘lesson.’)”

It is easy to see how pastors with this disorder can inflict harm on their congregations by abusing their time, demanding high commitment, and frowning upon activities not directly related to scripture or evangelism. At the same time, pastors may refuse to take sabbaticals or scheduled vacations because they feel they must do the “Lord’s work.”

Criterion 4: Overconscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values. “Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder may force themselves and others to follow rigid moral principles and very strict standards of performance. They may also be mercilessly self-critical about rules and insist on quite Effects of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorderliteral compliance, with no rule bending for extenuating circumstances.” Pastors or spiritual leaders who exhibit this behavior have difficulty expressing compassion for parishioners in difficult moral crises. They evidence black and white thinking, with little understanding of grace or the complexities of life.

Criterion 5: Pack-rats. “Individuals with this disorder may be unable to discard worn-out or worthless objects, even when they have no sentimental value. Their spouses or roommates may complain about the amount of space taken up by old parts, magazines, broken appliances, and so on.” This shows dependence on “stuff” rather than on God.

Criterion 6: Difficulty in delegating tasks or working with others, unless they submit exactly to his or her way of doing things. “Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder stubbornly and unreasonably insist that everything be done their way and that people conform to their way of doing things. They often give very detailed Pastors with OC Personality Disorder fail to delegateinstructions about how things should be done (e.g., there is one and only one way to mow the lawn, wash the dishes, build a doghouse) and are surprised and irritated if others suggest creative alternatives. At other times they may reject offers of help even when behind schedule because they believe no one else can do it right.”

The primary danger here is that pastors with such dysfunction offer their own opinions and interpretations of life tasks as if they are gospel truth moral issues. For example, in my former church our pastor gathered all the men of the church around the riding mower to show us how to operate it—and then walked us around the property to give detailed instructions as to how to mow in order to avoid getting clippings on the parking lot. To foul the parking lot with errant strands of grass was considered a moral offense. He also struggled to delegate anything to anyone. In his final year as pastor he did finally delegate one major project to a deacon—procuring new toilets for the bathrooms.

Criterion 7: Stinginess or excessive frugality. “Individuals with this disorder may be miserly and stingy and maintain a standard of living far below what they can afford, believing that spending must be tightly controlled to provide for future catastrophes.”

Criterion 8: Rigidity and stubbornness. “Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder are so concerned about having things done the one ‘correct’ way that pastors with OC Personality Disorder steamroll peoplethey have trouble going along with anyone else’s ideas. These individuals plan ahead in meticulous detail and are unwilling to consider changes. Totally wrapped up in their own perspective, they have difficulty acknowledging the viewpoints of others. Friends and colleagues may become frustrated by this constant rigidity. Even when individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder recognize that it may be in their interest to compromise, they may stubbornly refuse to do so, arguing that it is ‘the principle of the thing.’”

Every victim of spiritual abuse has experienced interactions with their abuser which seemed stylized or oddly wooden. The abuser puts their interpretation of doctrine into a rigid box and proceeds to barge through life and relationships like a steam roller, flattening other people with their Messiah-like sense of righteousness.

Associated Features and Disorders

“When rules and established procedures do not dictate the correct answer, decision making may become a time-consuming, often painful process. Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder may have such difficulty deciding which tasks take priority or what is the best way of doing some particular task that they may never get started on anything. They are prone to become upset or angry in situations in which they are not able to maintain control of their physical or interpersonal environment, although Obsessive-Compulsive and Passive-Aggressivethe anger is typically not expressed directly. On other occasions, anger may be expressed with righteous indignation over a seemingly minor matter. People with this disorder may be especially attentive to their relative status in dominance-submission relationships and may display excessive deference to an authority they respect and excessive resistance to authority that they do not respect.

“Individuals with this disorder usually express affection in a highly controlled or stilted fashion and may be very uncomfortable in the presence of others who are emotionally expressive. Their everyday relationships have a formal and serious quality, and they may be stiff in situations in which others would smile and be happy (e.g., greeting a lover at the airport). They carefully hold themselves back until they are sure that whatever they say will be perfect. They may be preoccupied with logic and intellect, and intolerant of affective behavior in others. They often have difficulty expressing tender feelings, rarely paying compliments. Individuals with this disorder may experience occupational difficulties and distress, particularly when confronted with new situations that demand flexibility and compromise.”


If your pastor or spiritual leader evidences more than four of these characteristics, he or she may have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder. We’ll talk about how to relate to such individuals in the last post in this series.

3 comments on “Personality Disorders in the Church: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (Part 3 of 5)

  1. Interested in part 5. Is it still forthcoming?

    • Hi Don, it is. I’ve shifted back and forth between series and some posts that bubbled up of their own accord. My plan is for my next several posts to toggle back and forth between this series and the “Frankenstein Faith” series. That’s the goal. Finding time to write is a challenge right now. Stay tuned, and thanks for your interest.

  2. Please pray for my pastor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: