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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).
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).
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.