I recently got this message:
I read your post “What is Stopping You?” on Engage & Equip and I have some questions. I agree wholeheartedly with the post, as well as the other posts/sermons as of late about community and living sent, etc. However, I am unsure about how to get past what I feel is stopping me much of the time, which is that I am introverted. I know that God made me this way and so it isn’t a mistake. I know that introversion is certainly not an excuse to sit out of Jesus’ callings of community and reaching out to people with the gospel. The part I struggle with is how to do that as an introvert. How do I be myself, and not be fake, but still reach out to people?
This is kind of dramatic, but honestly I often feel broken, or like I am missing some crucial element that other people have. My husband is also introverted, maybe even more so than me, and so, as terrible as this sounds, sometimes I feel like we are extra disabled when it comes to community; that instead of being a good kind of team, we are hindering each other. Sometimes I feel like we need to play extrovert in order to participate in community, which can be stressful on our relationship. When I talk about being introverted with those close to me (many of whom are extroverted), the reaction I have sometimes gotten is the assumption that I don’t want community or that I don’t like spending time with people, which makes me afraid of saying no in the future. I feel like it is one thing or the other: that we should be either hanging out with people all the time or that we are loners.
Maybe these are questions that can’t be answered, but do you have any suggestions on how to live in community/serve Jesus as an introvert? When it is ok to say no? Should I be pushing myself past what feel like my natural limits (for lack of a better word) or should I be listening to them?
First of all, although the genius of TED talks is often massively overblown, I always tell introverts to check this one out:
One of the problems with talking about introversion and extroversion is that they are so poorly understood. These aspects of temperament have become fairly widely used in popular discussion, and they often are assumed to include aspects that they actually don’t. Some things tend to correlate with introverts (like internal processing) or with extroverts (like gregariousness), when in fact those examples are not necessarily parts of those temperaments. For example, there was a young woman in our last small group who probably said 45 words in 10 weeks in our group discussions. She’s plenty intelligent and completely understood what was going on. And yet when I mentioned one time that she was “an introvert.” She managed to get out seven or eight words informing me that I was totally wrong about her. You can love and be recharged by being around people and not be gabby.
We introverts often assume that we are more substantive people than extroverts, because introversion is supposed to presume that we are more contemplative. But I know many introverts for whom the contemplation inside their heads has more to do with baseball box scores than with macroeconomic policy or theological subtlety. “Loaner” doesn’t mean “thinker,” nor does it mean that one is less emotional.
So assuming we can cut through all the fog around these temperaments, generally speaking, introverts are going to feel more centered and recharged after spending time alone, or more alone. With this, though, there are two important observations can be made:
First, temperaments change over time. For example, sometimes people who are hurt emotionally become more introverted or extroverted as a response. There are numerous examples to demonstrate that experiences (both positive and negative) and convictions may lead us over time to take actions that slowly change our temperament. Some people’s temperaments are more elastic than others, both in how quickly they change and in the amount of change possible, but personalities are more flexible than people think, especially over time.
Second, it doesn’t need to be terribly difficult to find a certain rhythm of being together with people and alone. I think the problem for introverts tends to be that they have a family and often a job that includes relating to people, so they don’t have a lot left over for church and ministry. Let me offer two partial solutions.
1. There are lots of ways to serve people that are fundamentally introverted.
Working in the sound booth can be a lonely task. The same is true of being a sound technician, blog editor, and even front desk receptionist on a slow day. Most of youth ministry and children’s ministry is going to be pretty social – but a good portion of the kids themselves are going to be introverts. So, there are plenty of ways to serve people without needing to be the life of the party. You can cook meals, organize the children’s closet, sterilize toys, fix computers, vacuum rugs and clean tables, assistant in research, and so on.
2. Introversion at its heart isn’t anti-people.
Most pastors in America, even the happy ones, are introverts. That might sound crazy, but you’ll notice that most pastors really aren’t that good at working the crowd or a room. Most pastors, like myself, prefer our study. But we also recognize that our books can’t get saved. Our monitors aren’t having marriage problems. And our office chairs aren’t looking to integrate the gospel with their occupation. The ideas and theology we are studying is meant to be delivered to people. Introversion has the great strength of commonly being more contemplative. It’s also good news, though, that the fact that you are emotionally recharged away from people doesn’t actually say much about your ability to work with and serve people. Ministry is a labor, and oftentimes it’s not going to be recharging, it’s going to be sacrificial.
All of us have to sort these things out. And all of us have to face the realities about what kind of impact we want to have, and what that is going to cost us. Alexi and I are both introverts, and we are both severely task oriented. And yet I watch her focus on each of our children personally and nurture them in the ways that they require. While it may seem like a sad reality as regards our emotional comfort, love is no respecter of personality types. However, sometimes our personality types make it so that we have different things to bring to the table. I’m an introvert, I’m a contemplative thinker and reader, I’m addicted to learning and thinking – and most people tell me that that’s not perfectly common. I don’t like to emote with people; I like to think and teach. I recognize that my way of being doesn’t need to be a high percentage of the population. In fact it probably shouldn’t be. And yet, I find that in working with people, I often have important and helpful things to bring to the table precisely because of the way I live my life, which is predicated by my desires, interests, capacities, temperament and personality.
Yet we must constantly remember that personality categories are often deeply misunderstood. People often chalk up to introversion other things that make them averse to relationships. No matter how introverted someone imagines himself to be, we must still recognize that we are created to be relational. No prison punishes bad behavior by making introverted prisoners be around people more. Solitary confinement is punishment and degradation for all humans.
Depending on our personalities, we may bring very different things to the table, in different intervals, and from different perspectives. But in all cases, our mission is the same, and the Christian mission irreducibly contains the presence of humans. Loving one another makes the other unavoidable.
I think for many of us, this has to get sorted out as we go. One of the first steps is to begin thinking and praying through which of our characteristics – whether introverted or extroverted – belong to functionally neutral categories like “temperament,” and which might be rooted in real personality and character flaws that need to be examined in light of the Gospel.
One thought on “Introverts and Serving People Directly”
Thanks for sharing this. I come from a gene pool of some painfully introverted people myself. My father, deservedly voted “most shy” out of 100’s of his high classmates, now lectures at UW and travels for conventions and seminars. He has many times told me how very against his natural bent it is to be Mr. Outgoing in a room of people when he is definitely more of the sit alone and read for hours type. I have learned from him and just general life experience that for some of us (“introverts”) it will be, perhaps always, work to put ourselves in positions interacting with other people.
Our gifts and ease may lean to the opposite but that does not make it a disability. It just means we have to put forth the effort to be a balanced person. We all have areas we are naturally strong and areas that will require our disciplined attention. For a person who naturally can contemplate, meditate and be alone attention to outside relationships may be needed while to someone who naturally is interactive with other people it may take effort to slow down, be alone, think etc. Not that people usually exist in such strict polar personalities. The gist of it is that we all have areas to which God can apply his grace & strength and help us grow. It helps to focus on the value of the task, in this case making the conscious effort to reach out to people. There is no end to the eternal value of helping, loving, & knowing another person so any effort on our part is well spent. 🙂