I once served with a church leader who struggled to tell the truth.
In the words of children, I could have told him, “You lie like a fly.”
He lied about his credentials. He lied to cover up wrongdoing.
And sometimes, he lied just for fun.
Two of his fellow leaders approached me separately about his lack of truth telling. They knew he was lying and didn’t want to work with him anymore.
But by then, lying for him was a way of life.
Welcome to the world of the “Christian” sociopath.
According to Dr. W. Brad Johnson and his son Dr. William L. Johnson in their book The Pastor’s Guide to Psychological Disorders and Treatments, a person with anti-social personality disorder – or sociopathy – has the following characteristics:
*This person seems charming and likeable initially, making a favorable impression.
*This person is soon found to be, in the words of the Johnsons, “manipulative, deceitful, and willing to do almost anything to achieve their own ends.”
*This person proves to be irresponsible, unreliable, and impulsive.
*This person is sometimes vengeful about perceived injustices.
*This person has superficial and short-lived relationships.
*This person is disloyal, insensitive, and even ruthless.
*This person disregards societal rules and does not believe the rules apply to them.
The Johnsons then make the following statements:
“In the church, pastors should be alert to two major manifestations of this disorder. The first type of antisocial is the smooth, personable, charming person who manipulates and exploits others subtly – often without detection – for some time.
“The second type is the belligerent, antagonistic, and overtly criminal antisocial type. This parishioner will have a clear criminal history, arouse fear in others, and be viewed as unpredictable and dangerous. The difference between the two may be emotional intelligence or social polish.”
We might say that the first person mentioned above is a sociopath with a small “s.” The second person is a Sociopath with a large “s.”
Churches are pretty good at not tolerating any Sociopaths in their midst … but they aren’t as good at identifying and dealing with the sociopath … or as one expert called this person, the “sociopath lite.”
Back in September 2001 … less than two weeks after 9/11 … I took “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class taught by Dr. Archibald Hart for my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.
During a break, I told Dr. Hart that I was dealing with a church leader (not the person I mentioned above) who had some of the symptoms of a sociopath. This person kept making the same mistakes over and over again, and when I confronted him about his behavior, he just laughed it off and refused to change.
Dr. Hart shared with me the single best description of a sociopath I’ve ever heard. He said, “They don’t feel any anxiety before they do wrong and they don’t feel any guilt after they’ve done wrong.”
Think long and hard about that statement.
A great secular book about this issue is Dr. Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door. (It’s available as a Kindle book on Amazon.) Dr. Stout claims that 4% of our population – or 1 in every 25 adults – has this condition. Speaking to the sociopath, she writes:
“When it is expedient, you doctor the accounting and shred the evidence, you stab your employees and your clients (or your constituency) in the back, marry for money, tell lethal premeditated lies to people who trust you, attempt to ruin colleagues who are powerful or eloquent, and simply steamroll over groups who are dependent and voiceless. And all of this you do with the exquisite freedom that results from having no conscience whatsoever.”
How does all this relate to church ministry? Here’s Dr. Stout again:
“Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable. This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance. And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do.”
How does the sociopath pull off this kind of internal sabotage?
“You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’ boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.”
These statements from Dr. Stout are all too real among members of my extended family. A female family member married a man who hid this condition well … until he radically changed right after the wedding, making her life a living hell for months.
The month after I left my last ministry nearly seven years ago, my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat in Tennessee. The resident psychiatrist was Dr. Ross Campbell, author of many books including the classic How to Really Love Your Child.
Dr. Campbell told us that he had counseled hundreds of pastors and wives who had gone through the pain of a forced termination, and from his experience and research, the individual most responsible for “taking out” a pastor has sociopathic personality traits, someone he termed a “sociopath lite.”
This individual feels powerless in life and senses an opportunity to exercise power in the church. Since these people have different values from the pastor – and those values are cleverly disguised – this individual uses terroristic tactics like intimidation and manipulation, and the pastor is usually no match for such an individual.
Dr. Campbell observed that it takes a sociopath lite twelve months to break down a pastor and turn people against him. During this time, the pastor becomes so depressed that he can hardly function. These individuals make their plans in secret and attack when least expected, usually when a pastor returns from a trip.
Sound like any church scenarios you might be familiar with?
In a nutshell, sociopaths want to win, and will use any methods necessary to get their way. It shouldn’t surprise us that sociopaths gravitate toward politics where lying, manipulation and winning are usually rewarded.
But sociopaths also like to be near the center of power in a church, and by using their charm or speaking like an authority, they can convince others to follow them rather than their pastor.
Let me draw four conclusions about sociopaths in the local church:
First, most believers are unable to detect any sociopaths in the body.
The anti-social personality floats through a church largely undetected. They can develop a following as somebody who is cool as well as someone who sounds like an expert in many fields.
It takes a discerning pastor or a psychiatrist/psychologist/counselor to spot a suspected sociopath, and most people lack the training to do that.
We don’t want to label people prematurely because when we assign someone a label, we may unwittingly choose to avoid or destroy them, and that’s not what Christians are about.
But the discerning leader can say, “That person seems to have the symptoms of a sociopath, and for that reason, we’re going to monitor them carefully.”
Just realize that only a trained professional can make a definitive diagnosis, but since people with anti-social personality disorder rarely go for counseling, sometimes all that a pastor can do is guess at a preliminary diagnosis.
Second, you can’t allow sociopaths into church leadership. Period.
If a sociopath joins the church staff, he or she will eventually try and turn the staff against the pastor. Better to fire them and take the heat than let the staff member destroy the staff and later the church.
If a sociopath is elected to the church board, that individual will eventually try and turn the rest of the board against the pastor.
It might take a year or two, but they will lead an attack against the pastor … and manipulate other leaders to do his bidding.
To quote the current Geico commercials, “It’s what you do.”
This is why a pastor needs to have veto power over prospective board members. The discerning pastor will think to himself, “There is no way in God’s universe that I am going to let that person into this church’s inner circle.”
But if the pastor can’t discern the sociopath lite, or lets him/her into leadership anyway, he’s signing his own death warrant.
Third, sociopaths are twice as lethal as narcissists.
Most narcissists are not sociopaths … but most sociopaths are narcissists.
Dr. Stout writes:
“Narcissism is, in a metaphorical sense, one half of what sociopathy is. Even clinical narcissists are able to feel most emotions as strongly as anyone else does, from guilt and sadness to desperate love and passion. The half that is missing is the crucial ability to understand what other people are feeling. Narcissism is a failure not of conscience but of empathy, which is the capacity to perceive emotions in others and so react to them appropriately.”
She then writes:
“Sociopaths, in contrast, do not care about other people, and so do not miss them when they are alienated or gone, except as one might regret the absence of a useful appliance that one had somehow lost…. where the higher emotions are concerned, sociopaths can ‘know the words but not the music.’ They must learn to appear emotional as you and I would learn a second language, which is to say, by observation, imitation, and practice.”
In other words, sociopaths are morally and spiritually hollow inside. They lack core convictions. When they’re out in public, they take their behavioral cues from others because they don’t have an internal sense of morality or appropriateness.
Am I scaring you yet?
Finally, sociopaths almost never change.
Because they lack a conscience, they never sincerely admit that they’ve done anything wrong.
Sociopaths won’t go for counseling because in their minds, they’re fine the way they are.
But they are experts at blaming others for their messes.
Inside the church, a sociopath tends to:
*hide in the darkness and avoid the light.
*blame the pastor for whatever is going wrong in the church.
*serve as the hidden ringleader of the faction determined to oust the pastor.
*go after the pastor not for any spiritual reason, but just because he or she can.
*ignore the church’s governing documents and Scripture in attacking the pastor.
*avoid any pathway of forgiveness and reconciliation.
*engage in retribution for even the smallest of offenses … including going after the pastor for not letting the sociopath become a leader.
When I spoke with Dr. Hart fifteen years ago, he told me the only way to deal with a sociopath inside the church is to marginalize them.
And that means two things:
Once you’ve identified their behavior, make sure to monitor them closely, and never … ever … ever let them become leaders.
Because if you do, you will regret it … and so will many others … because you will not be able to appeal to the sociopath with Christian principles and values.
They have their own value system … and only they know what it is.
There are experts inside the Christian community who prefer not to label people. They don’t like the idea that we can call someone a “sociopath” because that term infers that the person can’t change … and, these people believe, God can change anyone.
I get that.
These Christian experts prefer to train congregations, leaders, and pastors to be healthy, and in the process, to handle any church sociopaths lovingly but firmly.
The problem is that all too many Christians, churches, and pastors usually give up so much ground to sociopaths that by the time they’re detected and dealt with, they’ve already done enormous damage to the cause of Christ.
Because sociopaths lack a conscience, I believe they bring unrepentant evil right into their church family … and no church can thrive when evil is brazenly present.
Have you ever met anyone you suspected was a sociopath lite inside a church?
How did it all turn out?
My guess is that they left quite a mess behind.