When our kids were young, we’d play a game around the dinner table to help develop their critical thinking skills. We’d ask them pop questions and ask for their quickest answer. We wanted to know what ideas and perspectives were just beneath the surface for them.

With three wide-eyed boys around the table, hungrily glaring at the lasagna and garlic bread, we said to them, “We have another pop question for you tonight. But this one, we want you to think about for a moment. Are you ready? Here it is: What’s more important? Integrity or loyalty?”

They temporarily lost interest in their food (which never happened at our house) and whispered in each other’s ear, earnestly trying to find the answer to this trick question. Suddenly, they looked up in unison and said, “We think they’re both important. But somehow, integrity seems most important.”

That’s precisely the answer we hoped we’d hear.

Loyalty is a virtue and speaks of conviction, courage, and even a strong work ethic. But when a narcissistic leader demands loyalty, they take this virtue and wield it like a sword. They hold others to a standard that they don’t abide by. The relationship is not reciprocal; it’s one-sided. If they manipulate, gossip about, or wrongly attempt to control you, and you’re negatively impacted by it, your very response feels disloyal to them.

It’s like running over someone with your bike and then blaming them for their injuries.

We wanted our boys to understand that while loyalty is a great virtue, integrity trumps loyalty. If you walk in the fear of the Lord, and you hold fast to your convictions, you will be loyal to those you serve. But if by chance you serve a narcissistic leader, your integrity might call you to stand up in a way that seems disloyal.

Recently on Middays with Susie Larson, I spoke with a licensed therapist, Dr. Chuck DeGroat, about his book, “When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.”

Chuck shared that narcissism has many faces and isn’t always easy to spot. Yet, the more grandiose version of narcissism is highly prevalent among church leaders. Dr. Groat writes:

When we experience narcissism personally and relationally, the toxic effects are painful and crazy-making. Perhaps he’s the church planter whose charm and sense of authority appears compelling but whose leadership style produces a relational debris field. Or the spouse whose controlling behavior makes you feel unsafe and crazy. Or the committee chairwoman whose team walks on eggshells. When narcissism invades family, work, or church life, the impact is dramatic and traumatic.

Though we tend to discount our gut instinct, we ought not. If you’re in a relationship that feels one-sided and unsafe, don’t assume it’s all you. And don’t discount what it stirs up in you. Things get complicated when that self-obsessed person is a family member. Seeking out a counselor might be a great place to start. But like Chuck said during the interview, if you serve under or alongside what you think might be a narcissistic leader, proceed carefully and wisely lest he makes you the problem for saying there’s a problem.

There’s a way to navigate such relationships but there’s no formula to it. May God give you divine wisdom and discernment as you move forward from here.

When you turn to the right or turn to the left,
you will hear his voice behind you to guide you, saying,
“This is the right path; follow it.”
Isaiah 30:21 (TPT)

Narcissism 101