“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

James 4:6 (LSB)

James knew something about pride. Of all who doubted Jesus’s claims to be Messiah, James could have known better. He was Jesus’s half-brother. He grew up witnessing Jesus’s sinless life. Others could feign ignorance of who Jesus was, but James had no excuse. He rejected Jesus, knowing all the signs pointed to Jesus being the Messiah.

John 7:5 relates, “For not even His brothers were believing in Him.”

Growing up in the shadow of a perfect sibling, James may have let pride become an obstacle to belief. Only after seeing Jesus in His resurrected body did James take the focus off of himself. James would begin his epistle with the highest humility: “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The book of James is possibly the most approachable epistle in the New Testament, where the struggle of being “a double-minded man” is addressed.

Pride after a fall

The Apostle James is an example of the Gospel in action. After stumbling, we meet Jesus. We set aside our pride to believe. It’s how it’s supposed to work, and yet the story can happen in the opposite direction: Someone with faith becomes prideful.

Years ago, a Christian apologist was exposed for having a double life. Right before he died of cancer, his sexual indiscretions were uncovered. The man was a respected author and speaker. His followers felt led astray. The man’s organization scrambled to distance itself from him. People were left to ask, why? It appeared he believed he was untouchable. “Pride goes before a fall.”

Major scandals in the faith get our attention but also send mixed signals. We conclude pride is mostly a public sin. We see an independent evangelist and conclude it’s a problem outside of the church. A sensational display of pride reminds us of the reality of our fallen natures. But the lesson that it’s only a problem when it becomes a spectacle is false. Pride is a pervasive yet private transgression. The Apostle James was corrected from the grave sin of unbelief. As a pious Jew of his day, James likely led a very clean, reverent life. His problem wasn’t a sexual indiscretion or another willful vice. James was convicted of placing himself above Christ. James needed to humble himself.

In plain sight

Everyday pride is a major issue for believers. It’s a serious indiscretion because it challenges God, who has no equal. As bad as a public spectacle would be, personal pride is just as serious, and we can deny it’s happening. Pride often goes undiagnosed. By concealing a prideful attitude, it becomes part of us.

A prideful condition is even worse for leaders. Paul warns they will be held to a higher standard. If a leader’s example is distorted by pride, he will lead us astray. If a leader teaches correct doctrine and yet doesn’t follow it, he spoils his witness. Jesus exposed the Pharisees for ignoring their own teachings.

Many have a natural desire to be in charge. And yet, assuming Christian leadership is a serious endeavor. Leaders are not exempt from the pains of spiritual growth or the struggles of sin. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It’s a Biblical reality that even the most popular leaders can fall into sin. One who takes on a leadership role can do much damage if it’s done in the believer’s own strength. Religious leaders in the Old Testament received harsh penalties for not taking God’s requirements seriously. Fortunately, pride in Christian leadership is exceedingly rare today. Isn’t it?

Problems everywhere

As I shared in another essay, I lived in various cities, writing for media companies. Moving around put me in churches in different parts of the country (East Coast, West Coast, and Northwest), of different sizes (from one hundred members to megachurches), and in urban, suburban, and rural locations.

Wherever I went, I encountered congregations with leadership problems. No church is perfect. You expect there to be struggles and disagreements, and you may take issue with the theology in places, and yet, in every church, the problems weren’t superficial. The issues could be classified in three areas:

1) The senior pastor transgressed and took everyone by surprise.

2) The senior pastor failed in ways the church leadership hoped would change but, unfortunately, the senior pastor eventually was forced out.

3) The senior pastor altered the message of the Gospel, but the church was fine with it because people showed up for the pastor, not the Bible.

The trouble was always the senior pastor; the issue could be traced to pride.

Eyes opened

Like anyone, I saw the senior pastor as an entertaining leader you could relate to. It took a while for me to recognize the problem. A single human leader of a church was liable to make mistakes and, when he invariably did, drag down the church with him.

At my very first church, the senior pastor ended up on the newspaper’s front page. He had committed adultery with a female parishioner. Both marriages were rocked. The church was damaged. The pastor was removed.

In two other instances, the senior pastors had personality flaws. The issues were bad enough to affect the church staff and the congregation. The congregational authorities, the elder boards, tried to reform the pastors. In both cases, it was a long process that saw the loss of members and staff. Ultimately, one pastor was removed, and the other found a different church.

In the final example, there were two pastors with popular personalities. They both headed churches that revolved around their dynamic leadership. It took a while to notice these pastors weren’t preaching an authentic Gospel. They took liberties with the Bible to make it more popular and relevant. It wasn’t a problem in their churches. People were happy to accept the watered-down message. They were there to hear a TED talk about faith, not the Gospel.

Pride lessons

For pride to run rampant in church leadership would be unthinkable, and so it’s rarely talked about, or looked for. One hopes that it’s a rare problem at some other church.

I found it to be far from the exception. Nearly every church I attended had an issue with the senior pastor. Some problems were major, like adultery or accusations of abusive behavior. Other churches struggled with a senior pastor’s temperament, doctrine, or competency. It was always something.

Everyone’s fear is of a pastor making a major indiscretion. What I found was the damage done by much smaller infractions. A stiff-necked pastor, set in his ways and defensive to feedback, could have people walking on eggshells. You dealt with a spiritual boss who had the final say on everything. You remembered verses about pride. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” In exchanges with a senior pastor, you realized it was a verse for you, not him.

In charge

For some reason, a senior pastor has a stranglehold on church matters, a kind of benevolent dictatorship. The reality is so pronounced that everyone chooses a church based on whether they relate to the senior pastor. Other aspects of a good church pale in comparison. You must listen to a man’s opinions for up to an hour weekly. Given his cemented position as the church’s leader, you need to like him. In many cases, all he needs to hold his job is the support of the elder board. He isn’t going anywhere, nor will anyone else rival him for attention. It wasn’t the way of the New Testament, but this man is his church.

The senior pastor to meant to shepherd the flock. He’s selected for his Biblical knowledge, personal faith, and ability to inspire. A Protestant church would deny the comparison, but the senior pastor is an earthly stand-in for Jesus. We’re aware of the failures of priests in the Catholic Church. Protestants thought they knew better, and yet they adopted a similar model.

A senior pastor is afforded the overwhelming benefit of the doubt to run a church. Sometimes, it’s a recipe for harmony. Other times, it’s a breeding ground for prideful behavior shielded by a fawning bureaucracy.

Digging in

So, what does narcissism have to do with it? When a prideful attitude goes unchecked, it can signal narcissistic tendencies that are hostile to sharing power. How many pastors view the pulpit as their pulpit and the church as their church when we are all ministers of the Gospel? How many pastors view a congregation’s input as criticism, the people who pay his salary? It has been observed that those drawn to leadership positions are susceptible to self-focused behavior. It’s often for a good reason, initially. A leader has big goals and wants to serve.

Pastors often bring up our spiritual weaknesses so that we may seek God. They can lack understanding of their weaknesses. Drawn to the pastorate over a passion for the Gospel, they want to help people mature in their faith. Some display a life-coach mentality. They want people to benefit from prayer, study, and service. This mentality can lead to inflexibility and tunnel vision. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The pastor can’t collaborate.

There is little hard data to support the suspicion of narcissistic leadership in the church. You can’t really do a survey and ask, “Do you feel you’re a narcissistic leader?” Those who notice a problem with church leadership are often maligned, and quickly, by the very leaders who insist there is no problem. Instead of addressing your issue, the leader will invite you to leave the church. Then, you find the same system in place at the next church. It’s the pervasive nature of the senior pastor syndrome that suggests a paradigm.


What turned James around was Christ appearing after His resurrection. James saw the errors of his ways. Today’s leader is asked to rely on the oversight of other believers for correction. “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20.) If every Christian leader did this, there would be no chance for the leader to stumble. His accountability group would help him or seek his removal beforehand.

For a leader to lose his way in the Christian faith, he must avoid accountability. He could be a lone wolf. Or, he may pick accountability partners who are too favorable and forgiving. In many instances of a senior pastor having problems, the elder board knew about it but gave him too much latitude. Church insiders often see a senior pastor as “their guy.”

These problems aren’t helping the church’s growth. Membership is down. Culturally, the church is invisible in today’s America. One hopes the senior pastor would create a dialogue appealing to believers and those seeking the truth. Common in earlier times, that conversation is hard to hear today.


A senior pastor-led church is indicative of an earlier time in history. The church was a resource for vital context about the Bible. The pastor’s weekly sermon was a highlight for a believer’s learning. The top-down model of church leadership was expected, even appreciated. It was how institutions operated.

Today, the believer has endless resources. Anyone can watch sermons from other churches past and present. The theological teaching available online is often better than what the local senior pastor can share in his sermon. The parishoner may know as much as the pastor who graduated from seminary.

These advancements suggest a more collaborative model for the church. People want to be led, and yet, they want a say in what they’re learning. Whether from a senior pastor, or a group of elders who take turns in the pulpit, the parishoner could be treated less like a spiritual project and more like a partner. This humility from the church would receive God’s grace.

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