I will never forget seeing the first of the four letters.
It was more than a decade ago, and I was looking at the results of a Myers-Briggs personality test that I had done for a church planting assessment (one that found me to be insufficiently extroverted and entrepreneurial for church planting), and while I was sure that there were treasure troves of useful information in further analysis of the remaining three letters, it was the first one that stopped me in my tracks.
I … for introverted.
It had genuinely never crossed my mind that I was introverted. I liked people for the most part. I was usually around people and happily so. I worked with people. I pastored people for a living. In my mind, introverts were those who always wanted to be alone and who were kind of jerks to people. I could be the latter at times, to be sure, but I wasn’t an outcast or someone who loved spending prolonged periods of time alone in deserted spaces. And, I couldn’t be an introvert. I was a pastor, and besides, I had learned that it was extroverts who did well in the world. I always thought that there were extroverts and then losers, nerds, loners. It seemed to me that the successful and likable in the world were extroverts and that the world was built for them. Even the church world. Maybe, especially the church world.
But, it said “I” and this personality test was trusted and respected in the church world. This was before the popularity of the Enneagram (I am apparently a 6 by the way), and people were experiencing life-changing results by rightly identifying and understanding their own particular four-letter combinations of complexity. As I started to explore and study what introversion is, I started to be able make sense of a lot of my experience.
It explained why I would come home after multiple church services on a Sunday with a level of exhaustion that I couldn’t even begin to describe. Not just tired, soul level exhausted. It explained why my true friendships were few in numbers and were all with people I had known for decades. I have always been a guy with hundreds of genuinely fond acquaintance relationships and very few friendships. It explained my anxiety around situations and scenarios with lots of strangers where I had to mingle and not where I got to have the relative position of safety of being the pastor guy on stage. It explained a lot of my self-loathing that I put myself through because I wasn’t more fun as a hang, or why I couldn’t be more winsome and charming in conversation. It explained … my life.
Over the last decade then, I have tried hard to understand how a person who is called to serve lots of people can function faithfully in that calling and still be true to the fact they are introverted in nature and personality. I have met so many people in ministry who are in the same space. What follows then, are a few principles that I have come to understand over time, and by no means a comprehensive coverage of the subject. I am not a psychologist or a sociologist. I am just an introverted pastor trying his best to be a faithful shepherd while still being who God made me. Here are some things I have learned. They may or may not resonate with others.
- Knowing yourself and particularly knowing your own limitations is very helpful and liberating. I have spent way too much time and energy loathing my own personality. I have sometimes even thought that I was loathing some sort of sin when in fact I was just loathing myself. I am introverted, intense and a bit of a tough nut to crack at times. It’s okay.
- You don’t have to be extroverted to faithfully love and pastor lots of people. Introverts don’t dislike people or even struggle to love them, they just process the world internally and not externally. I love my extroverted friends (they use lots of words so that I don’t have to), I just don’t have to imitate them in order to love others. You can serve people by knowing them, caring for them, reaching out to them, discipling them, leading them, all without having to be an extrovert.
- You will feel more comfortable in the pulpit in front of hundreds of people than you will feel in a small room with twenty. This doesn’t mean that you are necessarily hypocritical or play acting on stage (you may well be and you should fight against that), and it also doesn’t mean that you get a pass on regular community life because you operate well in the pulpit. More on that in number 4. It does mean that you will find settings that are most people’s worst nightmares (public speaking to a full room) quite a lot of fun, and you will find other scenarios that other people feel very comfortable with (dinner parties) to be truly terrifying and anxiety inducing. It also means that people might find you a little disappointing “in person.” You won’t be as winsome, funny, articulate or together as you are in the pulpit. I have learned to recognize that disappointment and be at peace with a measure of it.
- You are going to have to override many of your natural desires in order to be a faithful pastor who lives in community. Your introversion doesn’t give you a pass on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus walking with other disciples in community. Just because you are more comfortable in the pulpit than you are in the congregation doesn’t mean that you get to live a life where your only meaningful connection with your congregation is from the pulpit. I have been horribly guilty of this. I now force myself out of “green rooms” and into welcome areas, and Sue and I make it a regular habit to be in the homes of our church family and to have them in ours. I have used introversion as an excuse for being a bit of an aloof jerk at times. There is no pass for that. All of us, regardless of personality are called to imitate Christ and to display the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. That means that I often have to do things and be places that I wouldn’t naturally want to be at or do. It’s called being a Christian, and we don’t get a pass.
- Learn to manage your energy levels by leaving margin in your schedule where you can. The key discovery for me in my understanding of myself is how draining I find personal interaction and how I need time to recover through times of internal processing. I try to not stack multiple appointments in my calendar as much as I can, and my wife and I try to stagger our weeks so that we don’t have multiple nights of other people in a row. It has taken some adaptation but it makes the world of difference.
- Introversion can lead to dangerous isolation. You think you want to be alone, but it’s not actually good for any of us to be alone for prolonged periods of time. Don’t get isolated, and don’t use introversion as an excuse for hiding.
- Introverts can be really hard work to be friends with. I have good friends who try really hard with me and I don’t return the favor well. One of the dangers of internal processing is that internal can actually be synonymous for self-focused if allowed. Make sure that your friendships are two-way streets. I have work to do on this, and I am painfully aware of a few places it is needed in my friendships now even as I type this. I expect friends to understand some of my foibles and complications (and I have a few) and yet I don’t always lift my head to see how I can love them well through theirs. Some friends prefer calls over texts (it’s insanity, but true); some enjoy board games (totally mental, I know); and some love random drop ins at their homes (certifiably mad, to be sure) and I need to leave some of my comfort to love them well in theirs.
- My desire often isn’t actually to be alone but to be free to be quiet and myself within a trusted group. I have discovered that you can go to the party and not have to be the life of the party. It’s okay. Still go, and leave early, but go. I love being at home with my family way more than I love being at home alone. My desire is to be safe, not to be alone.
- Don’t overplay your introversion as if it is some form of pious virtue and more central to who you are than it actually is. It’s tiresome to hear about it all the time because it feels like you are telling people to stay away, and it is only one part of who you are. People will then think they are loving you well by giving you space that you probably actually don’t want. I have a terrible habit of demanding space through declarations of introverted need and then feeling rejected when the demanded space has been lovingly granted. It is a silly game, but one that I have played all too often.
- The exhaustion you feel after a full day with your church family is probably not because they tire you out, but more likely because you tire you out. It is not because you don’t love them but because you do, and wish you could serve them more winsomely, warmly and well. If your people do consistently exhaust you, then you need counseling, or a new career, or both. But, serving your people will exhaust you because of who you are, and that’s okay. See point 5 on finding space for rest and recovery.
- Beware of giving your worst self to your favorite people. I have a tendency of giving the worst version of myself to people I feel safest with, and so my family and my close friends get the exhausted, grumpy, impatient me because I wore myself out giving a better version of me to others. Leave space for those close to you so that they also get to experience rested you.
- Enjoy the grace of the gospel. Jesus loves weird little introverted you, and is preparing a nice quiet room for you to enjoy for eternity where you will be free to step out into the streets to worship with others without being exhausted by it all. And I don’t think there are phone calls in heaven. Or board games.
I am sure I will learn many more as I go. If nothing else, this post has been a space for me to process as I do best, which is internally, with a couple of thousand very fond acquaintances.