Understanding my personality enabled me to see introversion as a gift rather than a liability.
By Amy Simpson
Like many young adults in the church, in my twenties I got involved in youth ministry. It seemed a logical place to use my gifts: I cared about teenagers and was young enough that things hadn’t changed all that much since I was in their shoes. I grew up in the church, and youth workers made a tremendous difference in my life. I wanted to lend that kind of help to someone else.
But starting my first Sunday at a new church when the youth pastor welcomed me by calling me up front to star in a game of “Butt Charades,” youth ministry left me disillusioned and discouraged. I had hoped to make a positive difference; instead, I became positive I was different—and not in a good way.
I just didn’t seem to fit the mold of a good youth worker. Half the time, I felt hopelessly awkward. The rest of the time, I did a very poor job of pretending to be someone I wasn’t and didn’t even like.
In that frame of mind, at a youth ministry conference, I chose to attend a workshop that promised to help attendees match their God-given temperament with the right role in youth ministry. Finally, I would find my fit.
The presenter gave an overview of Jungian personality theory, then had us form groups based on broad categories of personality. My group was the smallest, about 10 people in a room with hundreds. The presenter then described general categories of personality, talked about how they fit in ministry, and related each to a movie character who typified the people in that category. The movie characters were inspiring, gifted people who made a difference in the lives of young people. The descriptions and ideas were helpful and positive—until she came to the last group. Mine.
Instead of an inspiring, admirable movie character like she had chosen for the others, she chose the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off played by Ben Stein (“Anyone? Anyone?”). She laughed, then suggested some ways people with this personality type could help out without boring everyone to death, but this didn’t feel like a joke to me.
It felt like confirmation that I was in the wrong place—that I didn’t even have a place. I had walked in feeling like a misfit and needing a vision for my relevance. I walked out feeling defective and ashamed.
Much of my out-of-place feeling was rooted in one aspect of my personality: introversion. And I’m not the only one. As Adam S. McHugh wrote in Introverts in the Church, “Living as an introvert in a society and a church that exalts extroversion takes its toll, and shame cuts deep into introverted psyches that are bent toward self-examination. Add into that the hurtful experiences we all have in relationships, and our self-doubts are confirmed, pushing us toward isolation.”
In your experience, do introverts seem disengaged, lacking in enthusiasm, and unlikely to volunteer? Perhaps they feel the way I did in a world of Butt Charades and all-night parties. They might believe they don’t have a place in ministry.
When churches recruit for ministry roles, many emphasize extroverted gifts like “high energy,” “people person,” and “outgoing.” We want quick-thinkers, fast-acters, polished communicators, high-energy handshakers, and outreachers. It’s easy to see how to plug extroverts into people-oriented ministries, and to assume that introverts fit best in behind-the-scenes roles with little people contact and little obvious connection to ministry strategy and vision. Such tendencies show a fundamental misunderstanding of introversion and the gifts introverts can bring to a ministry. This is a serious and costly mistake. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, “Groups also tend to follow the most dominant person in the room even though there’s zero correlation between good ideas and being a good talker. The best talker might have the best ideas, but she might not.” Any ministry team that’s missing the influence of introverts is far less deep, wise, and effective than it could be.
Once when I was interviewing a candidate for a job opening and asked him about his weaknesses, among them he listed, “I’m introverted.” I couldn’t help myself. I actually stopped the interview to correct him. And I hired him (not just because he was an introvert).
In our culture, both introverts and extroverts misunderstand introversion. It’s not a weakness, a flaw, or a euphemism for antisocial behavior. It’s not even rare. Various sources claim a range of 25 to 50 percent of the American population is introverted, with more recent studies finding higher percentages. A 1996 study found that introverts make up slightly more than half the population, a finding confirmed by a 2001 study, in which 57 percent were introverts.
Introversion is a basic trait of personality, a preference for focus on internal stimuli. In real life, introversion and extroversion are not polar opposites, but points along a spectrum. Few are extremists in one direction or the other. And because this internal or external focus is just one element of many that make us who we are, no two introverts are alike.
Psychologist Laurie Helgoe tells us, “What constitutes an introvert is quite simple. We are a vastly diverse group of people who prefer to look at life from the inside out. We gain energy and power through inner reflection, and get more excited by ideas than by external activities. When we converse, we listen well and expect others to do the same. We think first and talk later. Writing appeals to us because we can express ourselves without intrusion, and we often prefer communicating this way.”
Another psychologist, Marti Olsen Laney, defines introverts this way: “Introverts draw energy from their internal world of ideas, emotions, and impressions. They are energy conservers. They can be easily overstimulated by the external world, experiencing the uncomfortable feeling of ‘too much.'”
According to Olsen Laney, the main differences between introverts and extroverts are in energy, stimulation, and depth. “Introverts are like a rechargeable battery. They need to stop expending energy and rest in order to recharge. This is what a less stimulating environment provides for introverts. It restores energy. It is their natural niche. Extroverts are like solar panels. Being alone, or inside, is like living under a heavy cloud cover. Solar panels need the sun to recharge—extroverts need to be out and about to refuel.”
Besides our differences in energy level, introverts are much more sensitive to stimulation than our extroverted friends. We also prefer—especially in human relationships—to go deeper instead of wider.
It’s all in our heads
Temperament appears to be heavily influenced by neurochemistry—the collection of brain chemicals and the path of blood flow through the brain. Emerging brain science tells us introversion and extroversion show in our neural pathways. One study found that introverts have more blood flow to their brains than extroverts, indicating more internal stimulation. The study also found that introverts’ and extroverts’ blood follows a different pathway through the brain. In introverts, the pathway is longer and more complicated, with blood flowing to the portions of the brain involved in internal experiences like remembering, problem-solving, and planning. Extroverts’ blood flows faster and follows a shorter and less complicated route. It goes to the parts of the brain associated with sensory processing. Introverts are wired to focus on internal stimulation; extroverts external.
This longer path through the brain explains why introverts’ thoughts often come more slowly. When asked a question, introverts might stammer a bit, pause, or ask for time to think. And when you get their answers, you might be blown away by their depth, wisdom, and insight. This is surprising if, when people don’t answer right away, you assume they have nothing going on in their heads. Actually, the opposite is true—all that thinking is what keeps introverts from speaking quickly. Their answers spend more time in the brain, processed and tested and deepened by a path that extroverts’ answers rarely take.
Introverts aren’t out of touch with the world around them; they’re so in touch, they can take only so much of it. Their brains are more active, so external stimuli can quickly overwhelm them. When this happens, they have to recharge on their own. They don’t need to be energized; they need space and quiet so they can draw on their internal energy.
Psychology Today tells us, “A chemical called ‘dopamine’ is released by our brains whenever we experience something positive. It’s an automatic reward center and makes us feel good! Extroverts need more dopamine to feel an effect, whereas introverts have a low dopamine threshold. They don’t require a lot of stimulation to feel rewarded.”
Extroverts increase dopamine by being active and social, producing more adrenaline, which in turn creates more dopamine. Introverts, on the other hand, are far more sensitive to dopamine and feel overstimulated with too much. They thrive on an entirely different neurotransmitter: acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is related to attention, learning, and long-term memory. It helps produce a calm, alert feeling. It rewards not adrenaline-laced activity, but quieter activities: thinking and feeling.
Here’s another misconception. Extroverts often believe introverts “don’t like people.” Some introverts are antisocial; so are some extroverts. In general, introverts like people as much as extroverts do. But they enjoy them best a few at a time. As one pastor’s wife told me, “It is assumed that I like people and like to be with them a lot. And truth be told, I not only like people, I really love them. I love deeply and am ridiculously loyal. Yet I like to love people one-on-one or in a small group.”
Rather than more relationships, introverts value deep relationships. Introverts are interested in people at a level that makes shallow social relationships awkward and painful, and lots of social contact exhausting. They want to go deep, not wide. When I interact with people, I want to stop and really get to know them. My mind fills with deep questions I can’t appropriately ask someone I barely know. So I cast about for something else to say—is it any wonder I stumble over small talk? And is it surprising that many introverted preachers, who can deliver deep and challenging sermons with boldness, suddenly seem awkward when asked to interact informally with a roomful of people who were touched by their message?
Despite what our extroverted culture values, introverts aren’t flawed humans, mutant extroverts, or people in need of correction. Introversion is one of the characteristics that makes the world work, that makes us need each other, and that helps humans, and the church, reflect the image of God. No one should make introverts feel as if they need to reinvent their temperament to find a place in ministry. Instead, let’s understand how introverts can bring great gifts to the church.
Here are some of those gifts introverts bring to ministry, and how to tap them:
Deep thoughts—Remember that long, thorough neural path, and give introverts time to think and opportunities to weigh in on strategies and questions of ministry.
Deep relationships—More isn’t necessarily better. Encourage introverts to focus on one-on-one or small-group relationships rather than pressure them to minister to as many people as possible. Especially if you’re an extrovert who loves to interact with a lot of people, you can’t give people the relational depth and personal attention some crave. Look for an introvert who is horrified by the thought of doing what you do but dying for the opportunity to interact one-on-one.
Intentionality—In the words of Martin B. Copenhaver, “If an introvert’s slogan is ‘Look before you leap,’ an extrovert likely will prefer Nike’s slogan, ‘Just do it.’ ” Introverts prefer to think before they act. Invite introverts to consider and question why your church does what it does—and listen to their feedback.
Active internal life—Many introverted leaders are passionate about spiritual disciplines, prayer ministries, counseling, mentoring, and writing. Ask them to head to such ministries.
Behind-the-scenes contentment—One introverted friend told me, “I’ve probably been asked five times to serve on drama teams by people who know me fairly well—probably the last ministry I would feel comfortable and called to. I think because I’m an involved leader, people assume I want to be in front of people.” Many introverts are happy to serve behind the scenes, but please engage them in meaningful roles that employ their God-given gifts. Make the missional connection to your church’s overall ministry.
Upfront comfort—Don’t automatically assume introverts aren’t comfortable in highly visible roles; many are. But give them space to energize and let them be themselves. When you do, they will connect with people Tony Robbins wouldn’t. One friend told me, “For years, I have led a short-term mission trip for women. Over the years, I have become more comfortable being myself as a leader who is also an introvert. For example, this past year I asked the extroverts to lead the devotions and prayer times. I sat in the back of the bus more. I crawled up in my bunk and read more. And when I taught my lesson, I did not preach or entertain; I told a story. It was ministry done from my created-in-God’s-image true introvert soul.”
Authenticity—Because introverts are very much in touch with their inner lives, they feel uncomfortable when required to externally express something that doesn’t reflect their internal experience. They value authenticity—so please lighten up on the forced handshakes, hugs, and over-the-top greetings. Save them for people who appreciate them.
Humble leadership—One research project showed that introverted leaders are more likely to apply their employees’ suggestions, less likely to change those suggestions and claim them as their own, more likely to let employees try new things, and more likely to spend time listening to the people they lead. The study also showed that introverted leaders are more effective with proactive employees. Ask them to lead motivated staff or volunteers who need a humble coach to help them move forward.
Slowness to speak—As Sam Rayburn proclaimed, “No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut.” Introverts do this naturally. They aren’t always quiet, but they are likely to measure their words. They learn, though, that extroverts don’t always have the patience to wait for their ideas, so some just stay quiet. Give them time and space to think, then ask them what they’re thinking.
Honoring God’s Design
Susan Cain points out, “Our culture is biased against quiet and reserved people, but introverts are responsible for some of humanity’s greatest achievements— such as Steve Wozniak’s invention of the Apple computer. And these introverts did what they did not in spite of their temperaments—but because of them.”
About a year ago, our children’s pastor asked if we could meet for coffee. We got together, got to know one another, and talked about a possible role for me in the children’s ministry program. I was skeptical going in—I care about kids, but most children’s ministry roles are not right for me. But when she told me she needed someone to minister to adult volunteers, I was hooked. This Sunday, as I do most weeks, I’ll spend an hour or so listening, praying, lending a hand, and supporting a handful of dedicated people who are serving our children. I’ve come a long way since Butt Charades.
All people are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, introverts and extroverts alike. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you may need to look at introversion in a new light. If you think only extroverts can do effective ministry, and introverts need to become more like them, remember this is a culturally based preference, not an attitude that honors God’s creative design. Besides, we don’t need more extroverts. We need more wisdom, more authenticity, more people who are “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). We need introverts to step into their strengths and lead.
Tips for Approaching Introverts with Ministry Opportunities
- Many introverts are cautious about making commitments—they want to think them through and may be concerned about the required energy level. Rather than ask for commitment, give them a chance to try filling a role on a short-term basis.
- Start with people’s inner life, then connect opportunities to what you discover. Take time to ask about their gifts, passions, and personal journey. Watch for what makes their eyes light up. Then suggest roles that will help them express what God is doing internally.
- Emphasize opportunities to engage in one-on-one or small-group relationships.
- Directly connect all roles to the larger mission of the church. If you can’t explain how they fit, introverts will have very little passion for the ministry.
- Provide a job description and clear expectations so introverts won’t be surprised by a need for quick thinking and undefined social demands. Be specific about not only tasks, but also responsibilities to other people so they know who is counting on them and who they should invest in.
- Give them a pass on camps and so-called “retreats.” They require everything introverts can muster and leave them exhausted, crabby, and no good to anyone.
- At social gatherings, give introverts a job to do—something that will enable them to retreat behind the scenes if they want to, minimize awkwardness and small talk, and still connect with other people.
[Amy is a senior editor of Leadership Journal and editor of GiftedforLeadership.com. Read more from Amy Simpson.]