[The following is Part 2 of a three-part series. To start with Part 1, read “Working with Strong Personalities at the Top.” The link to Part 3—Working in Healthy Ways with Strong Leaders can be found below.]

Senior leaders struggle with various types of tsunami behavior.  Not every leader is the same. Some leaders actually struggle with several types of problems rolled into one person. If you could experience thousands of pastors, you would hear many situations. Staff members would keep you up late at night with multiple tales of woe.

Yet it seems that several types of dysfunctions predominate in many churches. Let’s consider four specific strong personalities—the narcissistic pastor, the obsessive-compulsive pastor, the passive-aggressive pastor, and the shame-based pastor. Each type of tsunami pastor is described in the following pages.  Specific principles for working with these types are then suggested.


The purpose of this article is to help you understand how to work with tsunami senior leaders—in comparison with healthy leaders—so that they do not derail your ministry or destroy your joy, by designing a course of action to deal with their destructive behavior. Therefore, if you work with one of these potentially harmful leaders, take some time to create your leadership plan.

I work with the following types of tsunami leaders:

I need to consider the following principles about working with my tsunami leader:


I will handle the next surprise—or expected—disruption with the following principles:

Narcissistic Pastors

Description of the Narcissistic Pastor

As surprising as it may seem, narcissistic pastors are in love with themselves, no matter what they may say to contradict this. The world revolves around him—he is self-absorbed. All issues and decisions revolve around him. “He has various combinations of intense ambitiousness, grandiose fantasies, feelings of inferiority and overdependence on external admiration and acclaim.” He has an “overinflated sense of importance” to the church. He will focus on issues that build his position and influence, while ignoring other important issues. This can discourage staff members who see the complement of urgent and important issues.

He will quickly want to know how he did with a sermon, looking for approval. You may even hear him claim that he is the church. “This church depends upon me,” he muses. “This place will fail without me.”

He is extremely charismatic. He can pull large crowds of people into his sphere of life—although the high majority will never really know him. He will not open up his real inward life. Yet people will follow him with excitement and admiration. With some narcissistic pastors, people may swarm to his ministry. They may sometimes ignore any suggestion of weakness or failure; he draws them into his webs. He intermittently offers lavish gifts of some type on those coworkers in his immediate circle in order to keep them connected.

Yet the narcissistic pastor has a “distaste for mentoring.” He does not see the value in it and is seldom willing to even consider it. He will leave mentoring to other leaders.

He is inwardly uncertain of himself. He may even experience swings of depression and self-deprecation.  However he will raise his defenses if anyone else agrees with these momentary reflections. Being very sensitive to criticism, he is really not interested in their thoughts.

For those narcissistic pastors who build large ministries, they may develop a strong sense of entitlement.  They may become so comfortable with the trappings of success that they expect certain treatment from others. It satisfies the longings of his soul to be revered by other people.

He is very good at social pleasantries when it is convenient. But if he dislikes a particular task—a report, lesson, meeting, conflict—he just won’t do it. As a result, morale, confidence, and culture diminish among the staff.

When challenged or stressed, the narcissistic pastor will become exploitational or explosive. “He is very sensitive to anything that challenges his self-esteem.” He tends to use other people to advance his own goals. Because he is preoccupied with himself, he may treat other people as objects rather than human beings. He is unable to truly empathize with his followers—so he may turn against people on a sudden whisper of change. He does not think about the needs of his staff or volunteer leaders. He can show jealousy of other people’s success.

Benefits of Working with a Narcissistic Pastor

  • He pursues his own ends without restraint. Therefore, he can be successful at accomplishing his goals.
  • He can be a man of vision, desiring to leave a true legacy.
  • He can be “a gifted and creative strategist who sees the big picture and finds meaning in the risky challenge of changing the world and leaving behind a legacy.”
  • He is willing to take large risks to build the ministry even more—although this can also destroy the church if it does not succeed.
  • He will build large crowds of supporters.
  • He can raise funds with ease.
  • He can call people to follow him as he follows a vision for the church.
  • He can preach in an inspiring, exceptional way that immediately makes people want to do something and feel like they know him.

Principles for Working with Narcissistic Senior Leaders

Working with a narcissistic senior leader is very stressful, especially for those who work in his immediate circles. Do not attempt to change his behavior; certainly do not attempt to become his guidance counselor. Nevertheless, you can manage the stress and culture by applying several principles:

  • The narcissistic pastor must learn that he cannot achieve—much less demand—recognition and success apart from finding complete satisfaction in Christ. Although you should not try to become his counselor, you can live out your own adequacy in Christ as an example that may motivate him to seek help.
  • Allow yourself to enjoy the benefits of working with the narcissistic leader. Relax with the stories and wanderings in your meetings. Let him be himself—he can be very entertaining. Don’t bring old hurts and frustrations into each meeting—this requires that you learn to quickly forgive and “grace out.”
  • Recognize that you will be a buffer for other staff members from the senior leader. If so, be very careful to guard your heart. As well, do not enable the senior leader; do not become his “messenger” for poor treatment. Keep your personal boundaries clear, but serve as the buffer with the best of intentions.  Michael Maccoby described the narcissist’s need for this “trusted sidekick.”

“Many narcissists can develop a close relationship with one person, a sidekick who acts as an anchor, keeping the narcissistic partner grounded. However, given that narcissistic leaders trust only their own insights and view of reality, the sidekick has to understand the narcissistic leader and what he is trying to achieve. The narcissist must feel that this person, or in some cases persons, is practically an extension of himself. The sidekick must also be sensitive enough to manage the relationship …. Good sidekicks are able to point out the operational requirements of the narcissistic leader’s vision and keep him rooted in reality. The best sidekicks are usually productive obsessives. But the job of sidekick entails more than just executing the leader’s ideas. The sidekick also has to get his leader to accept new ideas. To do this, he must be able to show the leader how the new ideas fit with his views and serve his interests.”

Consider this reality before working with the narcissistic pastor:

  • Learn to not take things personally. Learn to discover your satisfaction and significance from God—and through other people through whom God will work. Do not expect much empathy on his part towards you.
  • Initiate on your own in areas that need your help. Keep the senior leader informed so that there are no surprises, but move forward in areas of importance. When you update him, let him know how it helps people’s perspective and growth. And after you have given him ideas, do not become upset if he claims the idea as his own.
  • Balance the need to support the senior leader with the staff/volunteer team. Ask if you can do something to help the senior leader in his personal plans, but ask to discuss the needs of the church first. Then listen to his needs after finishing your updates. Bring a written agenda to focus the discussion, and be sure to document every decision soon after your meeting. Try to obtain written directions for his requests whenever possible.
  • Exercise a high level of tact. Do not introduce topics in a way that attacks his fragile self-esteem. Do not introduce topics in a way that criticizes him. Focus on the issue itself and keep the topic as neutral as possible. Show how it affects the church ministry, not how it affects his influence. And certainly, do not try to show him the “error of his ways;” this may result in a narcissistic rage.
  • Identify the situations and factors that lead to problems, and initiate action to avoid them if possible. For instance, avoid gossiping with the narcissistic pastor. Avoid criticism of other leaders in the church—be sure that you are not the initiator of such conversations since you may be quoted by the senior leader later.
  • If you have a rare opportunity to suggest a coach or counselor, be willing to suggest it, but suggest it gently with respect and tact. Once suggested, do not return to it unless the senior leader raises the topic again; do not harp on it over and over.

The Obsessive-Compulsive Pastor

Description of Controlling Pastors

Needless to say, the obsessive-compulsive pastor seldom operates an organic culture. The obsessive-compulsive pastor sees the church as another area that must be controlled with absolute order. The church’s success/performance is a direct reflection upon him—so he believes. So he pursues perfection to the extreme. He watches everything. He cannot resist telling people how to do their work. If he could, he would hover everywhere.

Because of this micromanagement, people feel devalued. They quickly tire of his micromanaging ways in every detail of the church. They long for some type of empathy, but he simply cannot give it. He often has rigid, systematized routines in his own life. He sees life in black and white terms. He certainly expects other people to work in the same way. He may deride other people who do not have such routines, considering them lazy or ineffective. No one may ever be able to live up to his standards, including you.

He is usually status-conscious. Because he is concerned about how people perceive him—never forget that his low self-esteem drives him—he looks for reassurance and approval of his performance. He is, in reality, very vulnerable to criticism. When he feels that his perception is questioned, he may become snide, sharp, or explosive to those around him. People who are on the receiving side of his personality would even whisper that he is an angry and resentful man (usually in private only).

Performance is measured by every detail of his work and life. He cannot discern between important details and unimportant details. So he expends energy on all aspects of work, excessively working. He might even become a workaholic, providing an unhealthy example to other staff members.

To the surprise of new staff members, there is little room for relationships, spontaneity, and feelings in the controlling pastor. His perfectionism may be hardest upon himself, but you will rarely see the depth of his feeling. Lubit described the difficulty of having conversations with the controlling pastor, especially those who are strongly bent to obsessiveness.

“Their dogmatism and rigidity can turn casual conversations into frustrating experiences. They are far more interested in telling you what they know than finding out what you think. They are not interested in sharing ideas and thinking together about issues. Whatever interest they have in hearing your thoughts is to be able to find fault with you. Their dogmatism leads them into arguments over trivial things. They feel undeterred in expressing extremist opinions and are generally unable to realize how their statements will make others feel.”

Benefits of Working with an Obsessive-Compulsive Pastor

  • He is self-reliant and conscientious.
  • He can be a great operational leader. He catches details that other people may miss.
  • He often succeeds with his public persona because he has thought about everything.
  • He pursues excellence in ministry. He also continues to learn, striving to be better and better. He often builds a large ministry.
  • He may be an excellent Bible teacher because he spends hours on preparation.

Principles for Working with Controlling Senior Leaders

Working for a controlling pastor is painful for almost everyone. Yet again, the struggle can be lessened if you apply some principles of healthy living. It depends upon whether he pushes your buttons.

  • The controlling pastor must learn that God is sovereign and in total control of all circumstances in his life and in the life of the church. Although you should not become his counselor, you can help him by modeling a life of dependence upon God. You can particularly help him by becoming a prayer warrior who models trust in Christ through your prayer life.
  • Give him everything that he looks for—before he asks for it. He usually loves reams of information—go ahead and give it to him. Learn to speak his language of details. Understand his values for hard work and loyalty. Phrase things in the words he understands.
  • Help the obsessive-compulsive pastor see the forest through the trees.
  • Control your own anger at being micromanaged, and learn to push back in healthy conflict. Don’t debate (they love debates), but don’t hide your disagreement. But be careful, obsessive-compulsives are sensitive to push back. You need to focus in on the idea, not the person. Become an expert at conflict management.
  • Do not challenge his authority. Show respect for his accomplishments.
  • Learn how to handle angry people (but that’s another article).
  • Keep your boundaries firm, and be clear about your boundaries with your senior leader.
  • Talk about your decisions in terms of the benefit to the church, particularly to the effectiveness of the ministry. Be honest about your relational reasons for decisions, but don’t forget the professional reasons for decisions.
  • Get your relational strokes from other people than the obsessive-compulsive pastor.

The Passive Pastor

Description of a Passive Leader

The passive pastor appears happy and encouraging most of the time. He never disagrees with anyone. He approves everything. Yet he never carries through with his promises or makes decisions with a sense of clarity and timeliness. Basically he is passive with life. He does not communicate clearly. He finds it difficult to set goals and initiate action. Patricia King described it like “working in a weightless atmosphere—anything that lands on his desk seems to just float away into outer space.”

If you could watch his daily schedule, you would discover that he becomes mired in trivia, while avoiding the most important things. “Unable to analyze and evaluate, [passive] leaders frequently cannot recognize a good idea when they hear one. They prefer to make decisions based on precedent,” hoping that others will make the decision for them.  “They agree with everything, but deliver on nothing.”

He appears harmless, but he is hiding insecurity and a lack of confidence. Though usually kind, he can easily destroy people by throwing them under the bus without any support from his position. Coworkers usually distrust the passive leader, never quite confident that he will be there for them when needed. Decisions will be made slowly in such a culture—people don’t know if the rules will suddenly change because the passive leader reads a new book, hears another speaker, or wilts before a critical church member. His passivity demoralizes the staff, especially those who want to move forward with ministry goals. In the worst case, everyone on staff simply creates their own silo/turf out of protection. One church, many nations.

When pushed to act, he may carry out assignments reluctantly. At such times, staff members experience his pessimistic outlook, constant complaints, unenthusiastic approach, and impatience. They learn to avoid him if possible.

The passive pastor may even show a tendency towards passive-aggressive behavior. “He will resist demands to adequately perform tasks. Their resistance is most often expressed through behaviors such as procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, forgetfulness, and intentional inefficiency.” However, he may find his vengeance later by doing something sly or underhanded, pulling the rug from beneath a coworker.

Benefits of Working with a Passive Pastor

  • He will allow you to move forward without interference in many cases. Be careful to not use this to your advantage in an inappropriate way.
  • He may be a great indirect counselor for people. People in crisis will love him.
  • He can be a great cheerleader to encourage other leaders.
  • He may preach with warmth and apparent empathy.

Principles for Working with Passive Senior Leaders

  • The passive pastor needs to learn that God honors faith that moves with obedience, as well as the satisfaction that God has for him in Christ. Although you should not become his counselor, you can model a faith that acts. You can be proactive in your actions, and thus become an example of courage and confidence for him.
  • Be proactive with your plans and suggestions. Make up your mind and take the initiative as you work with staff and volunteer leaders. Solve problems yourself with creativity and wisdom.  However, always keep your senior leader in the loop. Document your communiqués to him about upcoming decisions and actions. Step into his office for a few moments to give him periodic updates.  If you are contemplating something risky, get his permission before proceeding (even if it takes a while).
  • Lob some things back into the passive pastor’s court. You are not responsible to fulfill two jobs—his and yours. Don’t’ bale him out of his responsibilities. Don’t make excuses for his passivity when in conversation with other leaders, especially the board. Don’t throw him under the bus on your own, but don’t enable him. Let him carry his responsibilities.
  • Watch for ways to move your vision forward. Patricia King bluntly stated the obvious: “Figure out the opportunities that are going unexploited because your boss is such a lump of inactivity. Get into the game by figuring out how to take advantage of the possibilities that are out there for the company.”
  • If something fails, admit that you are responsible for your actions—do not act in the name of the senior leader as if failure will fall on his shoulders, rather than yours.
  • Build team leadership into the culture of the church. Develop working relations with key board and staff members so that decisions do not rest upon one person.
  • If your passive leader is never clear about what he wants, take the initiative to clarify all discussions and decisions, and then document them quickly.

Other Types of Storms

If we had the time with this article, we could easily consider other types of strong personalities at the top.  For instance, many Executive Pastors work with one of the following other types:

  • Shame-based pastors
  • Co-dependent pastors
  • Aggressive pastors
  • Burned out pastors
  • Depressed pastors
  • ADHD pastors

I encourage you to clearly understand the type of storms that your senior leader creates. Research that type of storm so that you learn how to relate and protect.

(Part 2 of a 3-Part Series)

Suggested Reading

Baldoni, John, Lead Your Boss.  New York: American Management Association, 2010.

Brafman, Ori and Rom Brafman, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior.  New York: Broadway Books, 2008.

Cloud, Henry, and John Townsend, Safe People: How to Find Relationships that are Good for You and Avoid Those that Aren’t.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995.

King, Patricia, Monster Boss: Strategies for Surviving and Excelling When Your Boss is a Monster.  Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Business, 2008.

Lubit, Roy H, Coping with Toxic Managers, Subordinates, and Other Difficult People: Using Emotional Intelligence to Survive and Prosper.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: FT Press, 2004.

Maccoby, Michael, “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” Harvard Business Review, 2004.

McIntosh, Gary L. and Samuel D. Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007.

Miller, Laurence, From Difficult to Disturbed.  New York: American Management Association, 2008.

Neilson, Gary L., Bruce A. Pasternack, and Karen E. Van Nuys, “The Passive-Aggressive Organization,” Harvard Business Review, 2005.

Saccone, Steve, Relational Intelligence.  San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Townsend, John, Handling Difficult People.  Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2006.

Townsend, John, Who’s Pushing Your Buttons.  Brentwood, Tennessee: Integrity Publishers, 2004.