Can Introverts Thrive in the Church?
One man's testimony of ministry and self-discovery in his calling
I am an introvert, so the question whether people like me can survive in the church has fueled a meandering and bumpy journey, one that’s led me in and out of Christian community, both as a layperson and as a pastor. This has been a journey of both self-discovery—as I have been learning how to make peace with my personality and to work out of it instead of against it—and of God-discovery—as I have been growing in my ability to see God’s hand in my introverted life and ministry. On this journey, I have been regularly accompanied by disappointment and hope, two companions that have worked together to push me onward.
I stand at a mailbox on a street corner in Princeton, New Jersey. As I stare at its familiar blue color, I wear only one winter glove, because the other ungloved hand clutches an envelope. It is a brisk afternoon, with the late winter winds gusting, negating the effects of the sun. New Jersey commuters, hoping to find a nonexistent short cut through the married-seminary-student neighborhood, pass by me with puzzled glances at this scene.
It is the day that my potential for leadership in the Christian community has come to an end, without ever truly beginning. What I hold in my ever-reddening hand is my resignation letter from the ordination process of my denomination. I have wrestled mightily with this process for four years, and just an hour earlier, I had resolved that I am not called to ordained ministry.
Eight years later, I have come to realize that my death matches in those days were not vocational per se but were primarily temperamental. Even before I began pastoral ministry, I was convinced that my personality excluded me from it. There was no room in ministry for someone of my disposition—or so I thought. In my mind at the time, ideal pastors were gregarious, able to move through crowds effortlessly, able to quickly turn strangers into friends. They could navigate diverse social circles and chat about any number of topics. They thrived in the presence of people and were energized by conversation and social interaction. Though they could work alone, their pulses quickened when they mingled among the people of their communities. They were charismatic and magnetic, capable of drawing all kinds of people to themselves by virtue of their likeability and able to persuade people to follow them based on charm alone. I saw them surrounded by eager church members, percolating with warmth, streaked with the admiration of their community.
I, by way of contrast, relished times of solitude, reflection, and personal study. I enjoyed people, and I found satisfaction in depth of relationship and conversation, but even when I spent time with people I liked, I looked forward to moments of privacy. I found crowds draining. I could stand up in front of hundreds of people and preach a sermon without nervousness, but I often stumbled through the greeting time afterward because my energy reserves were dry.
Though I did not know this eight years ago, there is a label for this personality feature that I once thought crippled my potential for ministry: introversion. But more than my introverted temperament was involved in producing such agonizing doubts. Partly to blame was the one-dimensional image of leadership that I had constructed. There was an irresolvable conflict between that artificial image and the temperamental characteristics of introverts. I subconsciously believed that ministers and other Christian leaders needed a certain set of personality traits in order to thrive in ministry. I tried to beat and squeeze myself into a mold of leadership instead of becoming the kind of leader that God designed me to be.
My struggles to be an introverted pastor are representative of the struggles many introverts face when navigating the waters of Christian community, which can be unintentionally or intentionally biased toward extroversion. As a pastor who has participated in both independent and denominationally affiliated churches, it is my experience that evangelical churches can be difficult places for introverts to thrive, both for theological and cultural reasons. Just as I have had a difficult time squaring my own temperament with common roles and expressions of the pastoral ministry, so also many introverted Christians struggle with how to find balance between their own natural tendencies and evangelical perspectives on community and evangelism. A subtle but insidious message can permeate these communities, a message that says God is most pleased with extroversion.
Fortunately, disappointment has not been my only fellow traveler on this road, but I have also been accompanied by hope, hope in the calling, healing, and transformative power of God. My journey has not been guided by my own heroism or impressive displays of faithfulness but by God’s sovereignty. The same mysterious force that seemed to prevent me from depositing my resignation that day has also been a constant voice calling me into church ministry, parachurch ministry, and chaplaincy. God is bringing me through a process of self-acceptance, both in terms of my introvert identity and also in terms of the gifts and contributions I bring to the Christian community.
I have only taken a few steps on this introverted journey of faith, but I wish to invite you, who are perhaps wearing only one glove yourself, to join and walk with me.
Taken from Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam S. McHugh. Copyright(c) 2009 by Adam S. McHugh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.