Malignant Narcissists in Ministry: How to Spot Their Covert Tactics

church covert narcissism narcissistic religious leaders Feb 08, 2024

A spiritual leader who is uncovered to be a cult leader is most likely also a covert, malignant narcissist. Cult leaders tend to be narcissists, and the bigger the enterprise or following they have, the greater the likelihood they are malignant or psychopathic. These types of people naturally create cults, even in their own families. 

In this blog, I’m going to explain the traits that separate a healthy spiritual leader from a covert, malignant narcissist masquerading as a spiritual leader. This is not meant to create skepticism or suspicion about your community. There are many ministers out there who have beautiful, authentic hearts and who love God and His people. However, Jesus does warn us about wolves in sheep’s clothing. Use this content to help you stay vigilant; innocent as a dove, and as shrewd as a snake (Matthew 10:16).

In today's age of deception, many will proclaim that they are God's anointed, that God sent them to the world. In this blog, I cover some of the more nuanced dynamics to watch out for with malignant narcissists. If you haven’t already seen my resources on how to tell if a church is turning into a cult, or spotting spiritual abuse, I’d encourage you to start there, as they cover some foundational concepts. Alongside this blog is a downloadable checklist that you can use to spot spiritual abuse or cultish environments. 

What Is Covert Malignant Narcissism?

Everyone makes mistakes. People can be immature. When I’m talking about covert malignant narcissists, I’m not talking about people with their normal faults. I’m not even addressing leaders who may display pride, self-centeredness, or a desire for attention, which can be considered narcissistic. Covert malignant narcissists are a subset of narcissists. They are on the extreme end of the narcissistic spectrum. These individuals not only exhibit five or more classic narcissistic traits such as grandiosity, arrogance, entitlement, exploitation, lack of empathy, envy, superiority, and an insatiable need for validation, but they also display heightened levels of paranoia, cruelty, and an even greater deficit in empathy compared to the average narcissist. A malignant narcissist uses the powers of coercive control, mind control, and psychological abuse in a way that makes them destructive. It’s these types of people that can drive their victims to be admitted to hospitals, checked into psychiatry wards, or even commit suicide. When you add spirituality into the mix, the consequences become even more sinister.

This is a heavy topic, so as we get into it, let’s remember that God is much greater than the most grandiose narcissist or cult leader. He can rival any one of them just as He did with King Pharoah and King Herod. Our God wins every time. Take everything I share here as knowledge that can keep you and others from perishing. 2 Corinthians 2:11 tells us that we should not be unaware of the enemy’s schemes. And we are also told that without knowledge, God’s people perish (Hosea 4:6). He that is in you is greater than he who is in this world (1 John 4:4). Remembering this, let’s dive in.

A covert malignant narcissist demonstrates most of the narcissistic traits, and, additionally habitually practices most of these 13 things. 

1. They Present Themselves as Extremely Pious. 

A covert religious malignant narcissist presents as extremely pious, so pious that their spirituality can cause you to feel like you can never measure up to their lofty standards. Behind this pious facade, covert malignant narcissistic leaders are secretly addicted to things like sex, money, fame, or power. All of them are addicted to the adulation and praise of man. They depend on a following to feed the deep, empty abyss inside their souls. They are good at compartmentalizing, making it possible to maintain an outwardly spiritual and pious life while living a dark, hidden life in secret. Their double life contradicts everything they preach about.

2. They are Chameleons.

These leaders completely distort Paul’s teaching about “being all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22). In his quest to save others, Paul the apostle adapted himself to connect with people. However, he did so without compromising the core message of the gospel or his values. He willingly set aside his freedoms and humbled himself to help others discover the truth of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, malignant narcissist cult leaders, mirror people to gain loyalty, but this mirroring is not about leading them to salvation or serving them; rather, it's about getting intel and winning trust to manipulate people spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically to fulfill a narcissistic agenda. Narcissists distort the teaching of "becoming all things to all people" because they are chameleons who lack a stable inner core. Their fragmented persona allows them to live double lives, creating a facade of hypocrisy. They can preach one thing and live in stark contrast because of their compartmentalized thinking and lifestyle.

3. They Make a Replica of the Gospel–Instead of the Real Thing.

Malignant narcissist ministry leaders subtly create a new religion that resembles the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Bible, but it is not the same gospel. They can preach all the right verses from scripture but with major distortions. We are warned in scripture by the Apostle Paul, “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). Some malignant narcissists may preach sound doctrine but not practice any of it. They may use biblical teachings as a front to cover a deeper agenda that people don’t find out about until they’re deep into the cult. Jesus said about the religious leaders who had similar traits as malignant narcissists, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:1-2).

4. They Are Charming, Self-effacing, and Humble.

Covert malignant narcissists can be incredibly charming, self-effacing, and humble. These narcissists aren’t the narcissists who are outwardly obviously full of themselves. These are people who are so covert that they can present themselves as humble, sweet, winsome, self-effacing, endearing, and kind. Their ability to disguise themselves can fool even the most discerning people. It takes grace from God to discern their true nature. Remember that the disciples did not discern that Judas betrayed Jesus even though they walked and ate with him for three years. It may have been in the aftermath of it all that the disciples replayed their 3-year history with Judas and, in hindsight, saw the red flags all along. That is often the case when you discover that the person you looked up to and trusted is a cult leader, malignant narcissist, or psychopath and realize your relationship with them was a lie. This type of personality can wreak massive destruction in the body of Christ because they can cause people to walk away from God. 

How does this kind of benevolent narcissism play out in ministry? These leaders often love-bomb by creating an atmosphere of care and affection to win people’s hearts and their loyalty. This works particularly with young, naive, or vulnerable people. They might have lots of different ways to create this atmosphere:

  • teasing people
  • spending lots of quality time with them
  • coming up with special nick-names for people to make them feel special
  • giving gifts
  • doing sacrificial things
  • acting like the mother or father that they never had
  • giving special, privileged attention 
  • using their power and influence to open doors of opportunity that their victims could not get otherwise
  • making themselves a safe place or a confidante who listens and cares
  • promoting people who comply with them into positions of power or influence

These things are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. It is when they are used to manipulate that they become narcissistic tools.

5. Objectification

Love-bombing is not a gesture of love. It is a form of abuse. It is the first stage in the cycle of narcissistic abuse. There is no loving sentiment. There could be idealization, but that is not equal to love. It is a closer cousin to envy and idolatry. It is possible that while showering others with affection, deep down, the narcissist harbors contempt. Love-bombing takes a monumental effort for a malignant narcissist because it is not in their nature. It is so far from their nature that it is exhausting, but they see it purely as an investment towards their agenda. Narcissists tend to view the people they love bomb with condescension, believing that the people they love bomb are weak and pathetic for needing this love investment from them. They consider these kinds of emotional needs beneath them. They frequently look at their followers with a sense of superiority, finding them pathetic, stupid, and inferior. They may even speak negatively about the same people who remain loyal to them, all while portraying a loving facade to others. They don’t view others as having their own God-given destinies but as objects to further a personal agenda. When people are objectified in this manner, they become disposable, and the malignant narcissist betrays the trust of those who rely on them.

6. Gifting Covers for Their Hidden Life.

Covert, malignant, narcissistic leaders are often remarkably gifted or intelligent. They might have excellent oratory skills and be well-spoken and articulate. Their gifting, mixed with their hard work ethic, causes them to rise heads and shoulders over their peers and have a lot of influence. They may be gifted with generosity and be seen doing a lot of charity for the community. The gifts and good works of a malignant narcissist create tremendous cognitive dissonance when people discover that the person practices evil and lives the opposite of what they preach. 

The reason a malignant narcissist acts so charitably and benevolently is because that is the kind of image they wish to portray about themselves to the world because that adulation, honor, and reverence from the people who follow them is what feeds their insatiable thirst for narcissistic supply.

7. Grandiosity Is Presented as Vision.

These leaders are highly visionary, driven by their grandiosity and preoccupation with fame and success. They attract authentic, genuine, hard-working, caring individuals who aspire to contribute meaningfully and who love to be part of a cause bigger than themselves. The narcissist’s chameleon-like ability to connect with people allows them to bring together a diverse community into a unified whole. They are always on the lookout for new recruits to bring into the fold of their grandiose vision. They view other ministries, works, or initiatives as sub-par, inferior, and not on the same spiritual plane of relevance or importance as what they are doing. 

For those who have favor with this kind of leader, the feeling can be pretty otherworldly. You get to be part of something larger than yourself. Often this comes with being part of a community for the greater good, and connections with quality people–your tribe. All these relationships and the vision can be an incredible experience. It creates a high, like heaven on earth. Many needs get met in a person’s soul when this happens–often creating a sense of belonging, love, and purpose. Most of the people attracted by these toxic leaders are good, solid, loving, and empathetic people. They are unknowingly operating within a corrupt system. Unfortunately, when things start feeling off and they begin questioning, these individuals find themselves sidelined, vilified, and shamed.

8. Lofty Titles.

Malignant narcissists take on lofty titles. They like to be called “apostle” or “prophet”. I’m not saying that people who call themselves apostles or prophets are cult leaders or malignant narcissists. I’m just saying that malignant narcissists, because of their grandiose view of themselves and their belief that they are special and unique, often take pride in, and hide behind such titles. They do not take kindly to “dishonoring people” who fail to treat them with the utmost courtesy and reverence. 

If you're dealing with a male malignant narcissist or cult leader, there are some in ministry who call themselves apostles or prophets and use that title and position to absolve themselves from having to follow Jesus's commandment to love others and to walk in the same compassion that God has. The problem is that to be an apostle is to be a father. Paul says, You have many teachers and prophets and leaders, but you only have one father (1 Corinthians 4:15). The true test of an apostle is whether they are a father more than anything else. Do they demonstrate humble service to those they say they are leading?

9. Black-and-white Thinking Leaves No Room for Love.

It’s a red flag when a so-called prophet or apostle thinks in black-and-white terms but does not love. Chances are you are dealing with a narcissist who is developmentally arrested and who has not matured enough to relate to people. They cannot hold together the complexities of who they are as humans, with the good, bad, and ugly all together. They can only see people as either all good or all bad. People are either for them or against them. They tend to villanize people as soon as they fail to meet expectations. Be careful of people who categorize people this way. It is a sign of emotional and spiritual immaturity and arrested development, which can easily turn into manipulation. 

10. They Talk in Monologues.

These types of leaders talk in monologues. They're not interested in your ideas or hearing you speak. They are only interested in you executing for them. They may make it seem like they are working as a team, but what they're looking for is a group of individuals who will do their bidding, take hits for them, be their flying monkeys, and execute their agenda. 

 11. They Appear to Be Sacrificing for a Cause.

Beware of seemingly sacrificial leaders who project a noble image while, beneath the surface, maintain associations with questionable individuals and lack the courage to confront and expose wrongdoing.

Behind closed doors, these leaders form connections with morally dubious figures. I'm not referring to leaders who engage with the imperfect for the purpose of redemption or introducing them to positive influences. Rather, I'm addressing those who share deep affinities of the soul with shady characters. As the saying goes, "birds of a feather flock together." When a spiritual leader aligns closely with someone of questionable character, it raises concerns and speaks to something impure within them.

As King David expressed in Psalm 26:4-5, the biblical perspective emphasizes the importance of not associating with deceitful or hypocritical individuals. There's a discernible discrepancy when a leader claims to serve the downtrodden, marginalized, and poor but exhibits more mercy and compassion towards wrongdoers than the victims of their deeds. It indicates a misplaced allegiance, where these leaders not only fail to confront evil but actively cover it up. Such behavior raises red flags about the authenticity of their commitment to justice and compassion.

Covert, malignant, narcissistic leaders can appear to be sacrificial for their cause. This appearance gives them the semblance of elite spirituality so that others admire and try to emulate them. However, when they are benefiting from relationships with those who do evil and fail to confront evil, they fall short of God's call. 

God is clear that He hates evil. In Revelation, He rebukes those who tolerate evil, saying, “But I have this against you: You tolerate Jezebel” (Revelation 2:20). God does not teach that we should value loyalty over truth. One thing God had against many kings was not standing up to evil and darkness and the idolatry of their day. The Bible Says about many kings throughout the Old Testament, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but”--but– “The high places, however, were not removed” (2 Kings 12:3, 15:4, 15:14,15:35; 2 Chronicles 20:33). Ephesians 5:11 says, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” So God is not just looking for loyal followers. When it comes to loving God, there are two sides to the same coin, following his ways and confronting evil. 

 12.  They use kind people as a buffer.  

A subtle yet pervasive strategy employed by male cult leaders or malignant narcissists involves placing a soft, nurturing, sweet, kind, and endearing woman as a buffer between them and the public. This strategic move is designed to divert attention away from their own hardness and callousness. When a malignant narcissist lacks empathy and compassion, partnering with a virtuous and sweet woman serves as a calculated image-boosting tactic, enhancing their trustworthiness, credibility, and likability in the eyes of the public.

Cult leaders such as Jim Jones and Keith Raniere employed this method, surrounding themselves with such women to carry out their bidding. By manipulating vulnerable, good-hearted individuals to be the public face of their operations, they successfully lured many into their cults. Malignant narcissists prioritize relationships, not for genuine connection, but as strategic tools to appear credible to those they seek to convert to their cause.

13. Malignant narcissists are paranoid.

In the intricate world of malignant narcissists, paranoia runs deep.  They are worried about the government tracking them down, and leaving paper trails. In fact, they worry about all kinds of things. So they do things covertly.To shield themselves from potential incrimination, they go to great lengths, often avoiding having their names officially tied to documents, charitable organizations, or any traceable entities. They may use devices that cannot be tracked. A lot of what they do will be shrouded in secrecy. They will have "yes men ' to be a front for them so that they can’t be tracked down and don’t have to answer to anybody–whether that’s a government or others in authority.  They don't appreciate having to be under anybody's laws, so they avoid coming under scrutiny.

Conclusion

So I just shared with you 13 subtle ways that the narcissism of a covert malignant narcissist plays out in a church or ministry context. To summarize, these people:

  1. present as super pious but are two-faced;
  2. behave like chameleons to gain favor and trust;
  3. create a new religion that mirrors Christianty, but it is not like true Christianity;
  4. are witty and charming; 
  5. love bomb;
  6. are remarkably gifted and attract wonderful, hard-working, caring people to make their dreams come true;
  7. are highly visionary and preoccupied with fame and success;
  8. may insist on lofty titles;
  9. think in black and white, and villanize people who disappoint;
  10. speak in monologues without interest in others;
  11. can appear so sacrificial but live an ugly double life;
  12. use high-trust, sweet, pastoral people as a buffer to lend more credibility to themselves;
  13. are paranoid.

What do you do if you suspect a leader like this? You’re probably in a tricky situation. Even though the leader and the system may be corrupt, you probably still have sweet, authentic, well-meaning people in your community that you love dearly, with whom you may have formed deep connections and whom you love. There is still a sense of family and community. The work can still be meaningful. You could be dealing with an extremely intelligent leader who does accomplish good things and who may believe that the ends justify the means.

You might still enjoy the work or the vision. The thought of losing all of these things can be devastating, absolutely devastating. It could be tempting to want to turn a blind eye because of what it would cost you if the whole thing fell apart. Walking away from all this could leave a vacuum in your life. Maybe you've invested so much already. How do you swallow that? 

I do believe that none of this is a surprise to God. He knew what you would go through. He knew what your leader would be like and allowed it to happen. His ways are not our ways. His purposes and His ways are much higher than ours. Take time to lean into your faith. There's so much peace, confidence, and clarity when you believe that God has your back, even in all of this, and that there's a higher good in it all. 

If you need to process more what you're in and what's going on, try changing the scenery. It can be confusing to try to sort out the good, the bad, and the grey while you are in the environment that you are concerned might be toxic. See if you can go somewhere else, unplug for a while, and process with God somewhere. 

Stepping away for a period often illuminates aspects that may be difficult to discern while immersed in the situation. Change your geographical location, expose yourself to different voices and perspectives, and seek the counsel of a third party—an objective, trustworthy, God-fearing individual who is not part of the system. This external perspective can assist you in sorting through the intricacies of your experience. You’re going to need these new perspectives and outside voices to see through the groupthink that narcissistic leaders tend to create. In communities that have been spiritually abused, everyone has had to ascribe to one leader's teachings, which can create groupthink: Everyone thinks the same way and has the same blind spots. That is a dangerous place to be, no matter how well-meaning people around you are. They can be well-meaning and deceived. You want to guard against the effects of groupthink by inviting other voices from other people who are working in other parts of the body of Christ. 

Of course, spend time with the Lord and know that He has a good plan for you. He plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). And Romans 8:28 says, that “God works all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” So even if this feels devastating, He's working something for your good, even through all of this. Take some time to get close to Him to see the next thing He has for you. Remember that God is always ahead of the game, and he has already made provision for you for what is next. Guard against placing any human being on a pedestal is crucial, remembering they are mere mortals. Be cautious not to idolize leaders to the point where your allegiance to them surpasses your allegiance to God. Humans are fallible, but God remains steadfast.

Pray fervently for discernment, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide your thoughts and actions. Consistently measure every situation against the timeless truths found in scripture. Don’t lose heart, and don’t throw the baby away with the bathwater. God is good, and He is powerful enough to see you through this difficult time. 

God bless you. 

Related Resources

Watch the video version of this blog here.

Download this blog's checklist here.

Discern Toxic Environments

  • 10 Signs Your Church Is Turning Into a Cult. [Read] [Watch]
  • 10 Subtle Signs of Spiritual Abuse: How to Spot a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. [Read] [Watch
  • Is My Church Turning Turning into a Cult? 10 Signs to Watch For. [Read] [Watch]

Religious Narcissists

  • 7 Red Flags to Spot A Narcissist [Download]
  • A Religious Narcissist’s War with God; How They Claim to Love God but Covet His Position. [Read] [Watch] 
  • The Addiction of Religious Narcissists: How They Pursue Narcissistic Supply Through Religious Camouflage [Read] [Watch]
  • Three Unforgettable Things Jesus Said You Should Do When You Encounter Religious Narcissists. [Watch]

Be Encouraged:

  • 5 Things God is Doing For Good When You Are in a Toxic Relationship [Read] [Watch]

Leaving Toxic Environments:

  • Get access to my free 25-minute training on how to navigate high-stakes transitions successfully here.
  • 7 Steps to Leave a Toxic Church Unscathed [Watch]
  • 5 Things You Must Do When There Is Spiritual Abuse in Your Church [Read] [Watch]

Find more resources in our topic-based catalog

Downloadable Resources 

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