How to Deal with Personality Disorders among Church Leaders (Part 5 of 5)

I am not a clinician and this is not a prescription. This is my attempt to start a conversation which is long overdue. I welcome the input of Christian brothers and sisters whose education and experience better fit them to tackle this topic.

Thankfully, you don’t need a psychology degree to start to construct a biblically-based model of how to handle church leaders who evidence untreated personality disorders. This is because we are not dealing with causation (what causes a personality disorder) nor treatment (which should be handled by professionals), but only with how a church might respond to a leader who evidences this particular form of mental illness.

mental illness in the church

via forwardstl, Creative Commons

We are also not talking about all forms of mental illness, but only personality disorders. In particular the following three which are common in cult leaders and spiritually abusive church leaders: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, and Paranoid Personality Disorder. Each of these has specific symptoms which can readily lead to abusive leadership if left unacknowledged and untreated.

This is not theoretical. I was a member for 25 years of a church which became a Bible-cult. Our pastor was eventually professionally diagnosed with several personality disorders—this only after he was committed to the psychiatric unit at a local hospital. For many years prior to that he believed that his lifestyle was anointed by God and that his opinions and viewpoints were divinely enforceable doctrine. In reality he was a very ill man and his illness destroyed several families and left the church in ruins.

So how should a church respond if one of its leaders evidences the hallmarks of an untreated personality disorder? Here are seven thoughts:

1.) Carefully – Churches should hesitate to impugn leaders. There is no other type of human leader available but an imperfect one. The Bible never requires perfection from church leaders, only attainment of a certain degree of spiritual maturity, good character, and ability to teach the truth from God’s Word (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5). Church politics are well-known and there are plenty of parishioners who would love to cry “Personality disorder!” in order to remove a leader they dislike. But the Bible says that God hates it when the innocent are condemned (Prov. 17:15). This is not a witch hunt. Most church leaders are good, sincere folk who sometimes get it wrong but often get it right. They are worthy of honor and this post is not about them.

However, there are clinical, observable criteria which the DSM-IV lists for personality disorders. To think that these never effect any church leaders or that it doesn’t matter if a church leader has them is simplistic at best and complicit at worst. If, after careful and prayerful observation over a period of time, you suspect that your church leader evidences one of these–and in particular if he or she is acting abusively toward church members because of the disorder–then you have an obligation to take action.

2.) Orderly – Despite the protestations of cult leaders, the Bible does make provision for calling a leader to account. Christians have the biblical mandate to evaluate their leaders on the criteria provided in scripture. If a leader violates these standards and refuses to acknowledge sin or repent and change, he or she is impeachable.

The process for confronting a leader (or any other believer) is laid out in scripture in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5: a concerned parishioner should first talk (if safe!) to the offending leader; then to another mature believer (preferably another leader) who will go with them to confront the leader; then the matter should come before the church.

If the leader is truly humble, acknowledges sin, and repents, it may be possible for the leader to remain in his or her position while also seeking further treatment. Or it may not. It depends on how bad things have gotten. The second step in the process ensures that no accusation against an elder will be entertained by the church except on the testimony of two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19).

The length of this process may depend on the severity of the offending leader’s behavior. The worse it is, the more rapidly the process should move. Exceptions to this biblical process are if the leader is actively abusing people or has committed a criminal offense, whereupon he or she should be immediately reported to the appropriate civil authorities. The church has often gotten this wrong; we need to get it right.

3.) Corporately – While confronting a pastor can be done by an individual or by several witnesses, removing a pastor or elder from office is a serious business and should be done by the church as a whole. Various denominations have differing methods to do this, but the point is that just as a leader is called by a congregation, so they are removed by a congregation. The church should stand united as much as possible in the decision.

4.) Compassionately – A person with a personality disorder often does not know that he or she has a mental illness. Rather, the definition of a personality disorder is that the person believes that his or her style of relating to life and people is good and proper, when in fact it is harmful. When a church confronts a leader with the suspicion that he or she has a personality disorder, the leader may become distressed or enraged. Either way, the church should relate with compassion to the leader, recognizing that he or she is ill and/or deceived (Col. 3:12).

5.) Decisively – Compassion’s twin in these circumstances is clear action (Gal. 2:11-14). If a leader truly has a personality disorder which manifests through harmful, abusive behavior, that leader must be confronted. If the leader is unrepentant, he or she must be removed from office with speed. The leader needs help and professional treatment, and the congregation needs relief and protection. None of this is aided by a wishy-washy process or by muddy resolutions or tabled motions. To avoid making a decision is still to make a decision.

6.) Protectively – Both the leader’s reputation and the welfare of the congregation should be guarded when mutually possible. Unless the leader has committed a criminal act which necessitates legal proceedings and the attendant media attention—or unless the leader has already made his or her name a stench in the community—a church should handle the matter with diplomacy and tact. Love always protects (1 Corinthians 13:7). Give your leader the benefit of a quiet removal from office which will enable him or her to seek treatment, deal with sin toward family members or church members, and perhaps someday return to some level of service or leadership.


Martin Pettitt, Creative Commons

But the church also must be protected. If the leader is unwilling to step down, refuses to acknowledge sin, or attempts to manipulate parishioners into supporting his or her cause, the sheep must be defended. There are cases where niceness and diplomacy must go out the window and church leaders must deal decisively to remove a dangerous or abusive leader. Shepherds must protect their sheep.

7.) Restoratively – The goal of all church discipline is not punishment but rather restoration. Personality disorders are notoriously difficult to treat. The success rate is not high. But any leader who acknowledges his or her illness with its attendant harmful behavior, seeks treatment, and over a long period of time demonstrates changed behavior, healthy boundaries, and a humble willingness to accept accountability, may someday be in a place to again function as a leader in some capacity. That would be the ideal result.


I have purposely left out the details of how to remove a church leader from office because different denominations have different practices. If you belong to a church which either doesn’t follow its denominational processes or functions independently without a process for holding leaders accountable, then you have a problem. At the very least, 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 provide the qualifications on which to evaluate a leader’s behavior; and Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 provide a template for confrontation.

If you attend a church where these healthy steps are out of the question—I am thinking of a totalitarian cult where dissenters are punished and to even question the leader in your thoughts is considered sinful, as was the case in my former church—then you should leave that church and attend a healthy church where God’s word is honored and the hearts of leaders and parishioners alike are nurtured and protected. It will cost you something, but you will gain far more.

Update, 11/17/15: William E. Krill, Jr., L.P.C., has written an outstanding article about how to deal with the Narcissistic Personality Disordered pastor. You can find it here.

Related Posts:

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.) How to Deal with Personality Disorders among Church Leaders (Part 5 of 5)
Self-Deprecating Narcissists: Why Some Christian Narcissists Appear Humble
Why We Tolerate Psychotic Pastors

16 comments on “How to Deal with Personality Disorders among Church Leaders (Part 5 of 5)

  1. I was going to ask “What steps can you take when your leader is completely totalitarian?” before I saw your last paragraph. Unfortunately, when you are unable to question, all you can do is leave. And you are right, something is lost (i.e. spouses, friends, family), but true life and freedom are gained. And deep inside you know you did the right thing.

    • Yeah, there are some situations you just have to get out of. And it’s hard to do. Cult leaders make it hard to leave. It costs something. But it is always right to leave and pray that God will open the eyes of those left behind. Someday the cult will fall apart. So we pray that it will be sooner rather than later, or that the authorities can step in to intervene if there has been criminal activity. But there is nothing easy about leaving.

  2. It seems to me that certain vocations attract certain types of people. Obviously there are a lot of great pastors who love and care for the flock as Christ would want them to. But there also seems to be a higher than average amount of authoritarian control freaks drawn to this vocation.

  3. Re: “6.) Protectively –”
    When the leader has spiritually abused some persons, and yet others have no clue about it, the removal and the reasons need to be explained. Also, there may be more people, either in the church or outside it, who have been abused but have been silent about it and are unknown to other people. Only by revealing the nature of the abuses publically may the hidden victims even realize that they were wronged, reveal their suffering, and begin healing. This is analagous to the discovery of a financial fraud in a business. Once one defalcation is known, a thorough fraud audit is done to reveal the full extent of the problem; one does not assume the initial revelation is the full story.

  4. Ephesians 5:11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

  5. Stephen do you not think that maybe the Western way of doing church may lend itself to encourage a controlling pastor or elder? If the environment is already set up for a leader to “be in control” then would it not be easy for these kinds of people (who already come in with baggage; family dysfunction) to slip right in and take the helm?
    Also, as the flock is set up (trained) to “receive” instead of critically question, this just adds to the “wonderful” dynamic of controlling churches or cults.

    One thing that really helped me to see how churches set themselves up for this kind of dynamic was listening to Cindy Kunsmen of “Under Much Grace”. She was talking on a podcast about how the seating arrangement in a college setting was different from the seating arrangement in a church. The students sit above the professor; they look down. In a church, the pastor stands above the congregation to where they have to look up to the pastor. We have two types of brain waves: beta and alpha waves. When one looks down, our beta waves go into gear (This seems logical since we tend to look down when we read or study). So the college class seating arrangement “looking down” at the professor is strategically placed so that the students are in a critical thinking stage.
    When we look up, our brainwaves switch to alpha waves (this seems logical since when we listen to music in a church we tend to look up, some raise hands, etc.). We go into a trance-like, emotional state; people are in a “receiving” state of mind. So could it be possible that this would not be one factor in producing a church that could be abused? There are many other factors that would contribute to an abusive church, but this was one I thought was interesting.

    So I would guess that environments favorable for a pastor with a personality disorder would be an important issue to factor in.

    • That is fascinating, Faith! Thanks for sharing this. I never heard of the brainwaves issue before. I do believe that our western style of “doing church” does tend to put the emphasis on the pastor/elder/leader while removing power and participation from the congregation. If you haven’t heard of it, I recommend Frank Viola’s excellent book, “Reimagining Church.” It discusses the difference between how the first century church seemed to operate and how we do church today. Viola would argue against a professional clergy and instead would emphasize the priesthood of all believers and the role of elders as recognized, spiritually mature lay persons. While I don’t agree with Viola in every detail, he expresses his ideas clearly and there is much to commend his position.

      • I will have to read that book; I have heard of it before. thanks for mentioning it.
        another book I am reading right now is by Wayne Jacobson “So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore”. It is fiction.
        One of the things my husband and I are interested in doing is trying it out – just having people in our home and fellowship WITHOUT the obligation of it trying to be something else then just believers loving each other and the Lord. I think when we think that we have to grow and become a “church” then we would lose the love fellowship of just BEING the BODY. That is just the perspective that we are leaving up to Him to take where He wants.
        Hey Stephen if ever you and your family are in Florida look us up; we would sure love to meet you guys!

      • Aw, thanks Faith =) I will have to get that book by Wayne Jacobson. Sounds great. If we are ever in FL, we will be sure to look you and your family up. Same goes if you swing up through Columbus, Ohio. Blessings to you!

        On Sun, Mar 2, 2014 at 5:42 PM, Liberty for Captives wrote:


  6. Actually to clarify we have theta and delta waves also- not just beta and alpha.
    It is just beta and alpha are our most prominent waves we use while awake.

  7. “There is no other type of human leader available but an imperfect one.”

    I love that comment. It rings true in all areas of life wherein we relinquish our authority: visiting a doctor, living in a republic, obeying a police officer, submitting to a judge, etc. Having said that, our leaders should not be above the laws they preach; blatantly-law-breaking legislators need to be removed from office. The same goes for pastors with serious mental illnesses that alter their perceptions of the reality we share. If they’ve convinced you, however, that their reality is the only reality, it becomes much harder to recognize and fight abuse.

    I have to refer to Anthony’s comment here. Sometimes (in fact, I’d say it’s more often than not) the healthiest option is to leave. I’ve seen families devastated by the fight to call a pastor to recognition of a problem. Sometimes the family is ostracized, but more on that in a bit.

    Pastors with personality disorders will sculpt an elder board who will toe their personal line. It may take years, or if the pastor is especially charismatic, it may happen in months, but the church member who recognizes a disorder in the leader should also consider that the disorder may have affected in a detrimental manner the elders (and many members) as well. A person who already feels hesitant to call a pastor to task is easily discouraged from proceeding by not only one but possibly all the elders, for the elders are often themselves invested in keeping the status quo. A church is an organism. An unhealthy member(s) cannot survive without support from many.

    I been involved in several ‘break-ups’ where the members should have walked away rather than engage. Because we want to behave biblically, we may put ourselves through a horrendous ordeal which can be completely avoided by fleeing, and seeking redress only after safe harbor is found. In one case a member discovered that the youth pastor’s wife was a convicted pedophile, yet because the senior pastor (to whom it had been revealed) was ‘counselling’ the youth pastor’s wife, none of her problems were known to the church’s families whose children routinely went to sleep-overs at the YP’s home. It was only when a child was abused – and an independent investigation by the family of the abused revealed her record – that the family felt they had a strong enough case to go to the reluctant elders. What happened afterwards was a tragedy, an affair so acrimonious that the senior pastor and the board of elders ordered a shunning of this family. Why? Because the pastor had defined ‘reality’ for all the members, a non-reality wherein he had the power to control the pedophile and also control what ‘biblical behavior’ was for the congregation. This is *very often* the case with churches where the senior pastor has a personality disorder.

    My advice is fairly simple. If at any time you feel a sense of unreality – a feeling of semi-panic where you think “this can’t be really happening” – leave, because your mind is not playing tricks on you. If there’s abuse, flee, and don’t look back until you have support of uninvolved friends or family. From there, present your case.

    God doesn’t call us to be abused – physically or mentally – by someone with a mental illness. He does, however, call us to love one another, which is different from enduring abuse. Talk to someone in confidence outside of the church if there is any question. If that person is usually reasonable, and says, “I can’t believe this”, there is something wrong.

  8. Wise words of advice Susan. I agree, because we did just that- leave. I felt guilty for awhile after that we did not end up discussing why? with the pastor; at that time, however, we were not in a position to discuss theological doctrines with men who already felt they had the “answers for all men”. We just knew something was amiss and did feel that panic welding inside of us whenever we went to church on Sunday.

  9. I wonder about protecting the leaders reputation. If the person has a personality disorder and doesn’t think they need help, isn’t it cowardice to protect their reputation. My concern is they will just try to move onto another ministry.

    • I suppose it depends on the scenario. It would take wisdom in each case to decide the right course of action. You’re right: you don’t want them just to move on to another ministry where they can hurt people.

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