Introverts in the Church [book review]

Imagine you are called to ministry, but you are introverted. What do you do? Do you choose academic ministry and a life of reading, writing, and libraries? Perhaps, but what if you discover that the academic road is a mismatch? What then? Wing it as an introverted pastor in a local church? Or do you simply resign and leave church leadership to the extroverts?

This was Adam McHugh’s dilemma.

Just as McHugh was about to drop his resignation letter in the mailbox to discontinue his ordination process and leave his ministry hopes in the dust he paused, put the envelope in his pocket, and began to rethink the place of introverts in the church. His heart struggle and the ensuing research on this topic are now available in his newly published book Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture (IVP, 2009).

He writes:

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 that 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. (11–12)

Partly, McHugh writes to expose what he considers to be an extroverted bias in our culture and in the church. “In mainstream American culture (in schools, corporations, and social institutions), those who are talkative, outgoing, energetic and assertive have a decided advantage. People who enjoy reflection and solitude, and listen more than they speak, are often viewed as enigmatic, antisocial and passive” (16). He quotes The Atlantic writer Jonathan Rauch (another introvert) who writes that introverts are “among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in American, possibly the world” (17).

So what distinguishes the extrovert from the introvert? McHugh summarizes the extrovert/introvert distinction by three primary categories: (1) extroverts recharge around people; introverts recharge in solitude, (2) extroverts can receive a lot of input and can process this information on their feet; introverts retire to process input and collect their thoughts, (3) extroverts tend to be broader in their thinking, thriving on broad input; introverts tend to be more focused and research limited topics more meticulously. McHugh gives evidence that these distinctions may be rooted in biological and neurological differences (43–46).

McHugh seeks to employ the introverted strengths for the service of the church. His repeated conclusion: “In our day, I am convinced that introverts are an important ingredient in the antidote to what ails evangelism. Our slower pace of life, our thoughtfulness, our spiritual and intellectual depth, and our listening abilities are prophetic qualities for the evangelical community” (31). In other words, introverted pastors can provide a church with a level of theological and spiritual depth and are suited to strategically disciple young men in the church.

In the celebration of the introverted strengths, however, the author is careful to ensure that introverted tendencies are never used as an excuse to avoid uncomfortable self-sacrifice for others (63), never an excuse to avoid fellowship and community (86–112), and never an excuse to avoid personal evangelism (170–186).

McHugh—a Presbyterian pastor—is most persuasive when he argues that biblical pastoral qualifications (eg Titus 1:5–8, 1 Tim 3:2–7, 1 Pet 5:1–3) do not favor extroverts over introverts. “The mark of godly leadership is not a magnetic personality; it is discipline, because discipline develops character” (123). Jonathan Edwards is one historical example of introverted leader he focuses on. Edwards was a disciplined introvert who led by his “relentless, probing intellect” and his “powerful, personal devotion.” Such a man will “radiate both the light and the heat of the gospel” (133). But nothing is mentioned of Edwards’s clumsy relational flubs (like the “young folk’s Bible” episode).

Conclusion

McHugh’s book investigates new territory, and because of this will likely attract a lot of attention. It will at least begin to help clarify the value/role of introverted pastors today (and throughout history), the value/role of introverted church members, and even how to reach the lost introverts of our communities with the gospel.

But you may not agree with everything. At times sections of the book lacked theological precision, some examples revealed a fuzzy polity, there was a heavy use of non-theological sources, an eclectic mix of ministry examples (some of whom I find theologically disagreeable), and the predictable trappings of therapeutically-defined goals (e.g. “healing” and “self-acceptance”).

Ironically, for all the introvert/extrovert temperament talk and therapeutic labels, this book may actually provide what we need to redirect our attention to God’s priorities in leadership selection. A discussion such as the one in the book may help us to move away from “personality type” labels and to discover church leaders that (more importantly) conform to the biblical pattern of faithfulness and discipline. It’s not a definitive book, but Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture is thoughtful and will help us celebrate the diversity of gifts God has given to the church.

11 thoughts on “Introverts in the Church [book review]

  1. Tony I’ve seen this book at my local christian book store and thought about purchasing it because of the title. I consider myself to be some what of a introvert, the problem I’m having though is fellowship in my local church and I see that the book talks about that “never an excuse to avoid fellowship and community (86–112)” I love fellow-shipping at church but there are times I feel uncomfortable. Thanks for the review I always enjoy your blog !! :-)

  2. Interesting.

    I am a fairly introverted guy who has considered ministry in the past (and it just so happens that I am now in a PhD program, heading toward the academic life).

    Being ‘introverted’ has been a hindrance to me, but I’m not thinking of ministry here. I’m thinking about my wife. One of the big concerns my (then) girlfriend had when we were evaluating our relationship was that I didn’t talk very much. She liked me a lot, but was worried that I wouldn’t be able to meet her needs in that area. That’s when I discovered that ‘personalities’ were never meant to be fixed. It was clear to me that Aubyron was to be my wife, and if serving her was to be my joy and duty, that meant that my ‘personality’ needed to change (my wife and I are about to celebrate our three year anniversary, and more in love today than the day we were married).

    My then girlfriend protested, “You can’t change your personality for me.” My reply was, “Why not?” If changing my personality means better serving my wife (whoever that would be) and being better suited to serve God’s purpose in my life, then I had better be changing my personality. I also think that we sometimes hide and protect our favorite sins in our personalities.

    Christians should be used to cataclysmic change in their lives. If Christ can change me from a sinner to a saint, then why can’t he change me from an introvert to an extrovert? especially if it is to better serve his flock. Obviously these changes will rarely happen all at once. What I found is that I was able to act as an extrovert, it just took a lot of work. It still takes work, and there are times when I decide not to do it (and if I stopped working, I would probably go back). But I’m different now than I was.

    When I started considering ministry again, my first move was to join the greeting team at church. I’ve since decided that this young man shouldn’t pursue ministry. If it finds me one day that’s another story. God has put me here to study obscure philosophers from the 16th century (for some reason that’s going to be important). I’m much better suited for this than I would be for ministry. Anyways…

    Can a sinner be a saint? Absolutely, but he won’t remain a sinner. Can an introvert be a pastor? Absolutely, but he must change (to some extent) to serve his flock.

  3. Thanks Joseph!

    I can certainly see a relational tension brewing between an introvert and an extrovert, but communication struggles are the mark of all marriages even among the extrovert/extrovert or introvert/introvert matches.

    I think McHugh does a good job pressing himself and other introverts into fellowship and self-sacrifice for others. He refuses to concede biblical commands to personality type. But I think his overall point is a good one. Pastors can express their love for the flock by feeding and protecting the flock through hours of intense study, reflection, writing, and sermon preparation. This is no less an act of love to a flock than personal conversation. My fear is that guys like yourself, who could potentially bring a lot of theological depth to a church culture, feel unsuitable for ministry for the reasons outlined by McHugh. A love for sheep must motivate every shepherd, but are our assumptions of how this love is manifested informed by personality type expectations or biblical categories? This topic is worth broader conversation.

    I’d be curious to know more about your time as a greeter. Did you find yourself uncomfortable by the conversations? Or did you find that you lacked love for the folks you interacted with? Or both?

    Praise God for introverted pastors in church history. They are often the ones we continue to benefit from to this day.

    Blessings, Joseph.

    Tony

  4. I am called to be a pastor-teacher and I have considered myself to be somewhat of an introvert. I can be out going however it is a conscience effort on my part. It does not come naturally. It also shows when I preach (if you can call it that). I am more of a teacher than a preacher. In the denomination I am in (it is Pentecostal) being less dynamic usually translates into being “less anointed” therefore a couple of pastors I have been under has written me off. I thank God I am under a pastor who preaches/teaches like me but is willing to mentor me and bring me up as a pastor.

  5. Tony,

    I absolutely agree that other personality traits (other than people skills) that are sometimes associated with the introvert/extrovert distinction are definitely important and frequently under-emphasized.

    What I’m nervous about is the cultural tendency toward “finding a place” rather than changing to fill the role your called to. (God gifts people for specific roles, but there is hardly a person who is perfectly suited any given role).

    There is a place for introverts in ministry, absolutely. But it seems that being introverted in this case just means that there are certain things in ministry that you will be good at (perhaps study, thoughtfulness,…) and there will be other things that will come only with difficulty (relating with people), and in a strong sense, demand a lot of effort.

    Now there is also the issue of people in authority preferring certain personality types to the exclusion of others in the church. That is a serious problem. The extroverts get noticed for their care of people. Perhaps there should be more occasions for introverts to get noticed for their giftings, but they should also be seeking to outdo others in their care for people.

    To answer your questions about my experience, I just don’t know what follows “Hi, how are you doing?” I’m fine with people I know, although maybe because I feel more comfortable with silence around them. Maybe it would be better if I liked sports :) Greeting did help. It was uncomfortable, and not something I would normally do, but that’s why I was doing it. And yes, in some ways I do find that I lack love (taken broadly) for others.

    As for my wife and I, we’re getting along swimmingly. Hardly ever an argument, never a fight. She learns from me and I learn from her. I talk more, she plays more games with me (most of my relationships have been based on doing things with talking as a side-effect).

    By the way, I’m a big fan of Edwards. Have you read any Leibniz? His Discourse on Metaphysics is really impressive. Has some great similarities to Edwards stuff.

  6. The categories of introvert and extrovert are, perhaps, useful as adjectives for describing how a person behaves. I’m not so keen on this idea of a fixed gulf between two ‘personality types’ of which we are either one or the other.

  7. WOW!! I really needed to read this book!
    I knew vaguely I am introverted but I had no idea.

    You are right on certain parts but I now have a LOT better understanding of myself.

    Thank you Tony!!

    David

  8. I’m an introvert who moved artificially into the extrovert camp by virtue of anti-depressants. Being so nervous to talk to people that you end up without a close friend to speak of can be depressing, even in a friendly church like the one I’m a member of.

    God has gifted me tremendously and I earnestly desire to use my gifts to his glory. However, not being able to network well often leaves me marginalized with others doing the kinds of ministry where I would do well. It’s exceptionally frustrating. I know that God has a plan, but I find it difficult to believe that he has given me gifts to contribute to the Body of Christ and a desire to use them but has not made it possible in an extroverted environment for me to do so.

    By the way, the drugs are great. I still don’t have a particularly close friend, but I at least get enough positive social interaction to feel like I might be worth something and I’m actually asked to do more things. In the past year I’ve filled the pulpit of a local church, preached in three churches in India, led worship at another church a few times, got asked to consider taking on the music ministry at two other churches and even led a mission team as part of a larger effort overseas to take the gospel to Muslims.

    My point is that it may be ideal for a church culture to recognize the gifts of introverts while they are behaving like introverts. However, this simply isn’t the spiritual environment we have to work in. Introverts are typically not recognized by extroverted leaders. If you want to use your spiritual gifts, you have to be extroverted.

    So, while I am naturally an introvert, the temptation is to loathe myself for being one. If there is any value in introversion that God has given, then this is not a good thing. I would love to be able to minister effectively as an introvert, but I doubt that the extroverted culture will allow it.

  9. This looks like an interesting book. And perhaps helpful.

    I’m an introvert. Actually, “melancholic introvert” is more accurate. And I think I’ve just gone through a dark period which I made darker by trying to force myself to be an extrovert in the thinking that:

    “introvert = selfish = sinful…so stop!”

    So, while I don’t care to find an excuse to stay in my comfort zone, I have to remember that I have the temperament I have because God wanted me to have it.

    Before the recent dark period started, I experienced an unfamiliar but very welcome “openness” where I got a taste of extroversion. And as it passed I fought to keep it, to no avail.

    It’s like you have a thick innertube tied to your back. You try to get outside yourself but you start doing that and you get pulled back. And I started freaking out about my faith (“is it real”).

    Anyway, maybe this would be a good book to take a look at.

    Thanks.

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