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Introverts In The Church: Wendy Dackson

Contemporary church culture, perhaps especially (but certainly not limited to) American evangelical culture, is geared toward extroversion.  The emphasis on ‘sharing’ faith, and personal evangelism, is particularly suited to those who are naturally comfortable with self-revelation, extemporaneous speaking, and multiple simultaneous sensory inputs, and who does not question that faithfulness (to God, to the local church community) is equated with increasingly visible involvement.  The American ‘mega-church’ phenomenon would indicate that ‘successful church leadership’ requires bold personalities who can quickly engage with, and win the loyalty of, large numbers of people.  As Adam S. McHugh points out, this is not necessarily an easy environment in which people who are naturally inclined to deep relationships with smaller numbers of people, defined roles, silence, and reflective space in which to think before speaking.  Indeed, his opening question is ‘Can introverts thrive in the church?’

For the most part, McHugh is far more focused on introverts as church ‘leaders’, with an overwhelming focus on ordained leadership, and the book includes a great many extracts of interviews with introverted pastors, and much of his own struggle as an introverted minister who, in various settings, felt that he was working very much against his own inclinations and strengths, inauthentically attempting to take on a more extroverted persona.  The author suggests strongly that, if a church has the luxury of multiple staff, it would do well to balance the leadership with a good blend of extroverted and introverted ministers—although he notes that many advertisements for pastoral work are worded (explicitly or otherwise) practically to exclude or at least discourage introverts.  McHugh cites many of the strengths of introverts as ordained leaders, including a love of study and preparation (which serves the preaching task well), a preference for individual relationships which is particularly suited to crisis-care pastoral work (such as hospice chaplaincies and spiritual direction), and an inclination toward quieter and more structured forms of worship (which are seeing a revival in the evangelical churches, with many thanks to Brian MacLaren’s championing of ‘ancient practices’).  He gives what appears to me as sound advice to pastors concerning care of the self so that the introverted church leader can function well and authentically from his or her own strengths, even when the demands of the job require more input and interaction than the pastor prefers.

McHugh is weaker, I think, in his assessment of introverted lay people in the church.  Although in the introduction, he promises that his own story will include his church participation as a lay and ordained introvert, I detected no mention of his involvement prior to ordination (or even after, as part of a church community where he was not a member of staff).  He praises introverts’ involvement as lay members of congregations mostly for their willingness to take on ‘behind the scenes’ tasks diligently and dependably, and (rightly) points out that without their help with jobs such as running audiovisual equipment, editing the newsletter, and the like, more extroverted ministers’ work would be hampered—and that the more visible ‘leaders’ should be thankful for the support provided by introverted Christians.  While this is undoubtedly correct, it is not without its problems, especially as it is not a long stride between the attitude of being grateful for this low-key support and assuming that introverts are simply there as handmaidens to the ‘real’ (extroverted) work of evangelical ministry.  McHugh does nothing to counter the possibility of making this step, and is silent on the dangers to extroverts of assuming that a ‘behind the scenes’ person is happy not to receive credit for his or her ideas and contributions, and is somehow less important to the life of the church.

A major point of disagreement I have with Introverts in the Church is the repeated refrain that introverts have less energy and move more slowly than their extroverted co-religionists.  I would argue that introverts (amongst whom I count myself) are less demonstrative about our expenditures of energy—our gestures are smaller, our facial expressions are less dramatic (although in my case that is partly due to an incomplete recovery from Bell’s Palsy)—but we do not have less energy.  We may put considerable energy into the ‘quiet phase’ of a project or activity, where planning and analysis are key, so that the publicly visible manifestation goes more smoothly and efficiently.  And as  Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power, notes, swimming, ice skating (figure and speed), gymnastics, and long-distance running are all athletic activities geared toward those who work best alone—and certainly do not move slowly.

In general, I agree with McHugh that the church—and not just evangelical churches—are often not the easiest environment for introverts, and that the natural gifts of introverted Christians are less appreciated than they should be, for the good of both the individual Christians and for the ecclesial community.  I think the church needs to be considerably more counter-cultural in this regard, as our general secular society is more geared toward extroverts, and the church has taken on that characteristic.  But I think we also need to be considerably more nuanced about introverted Christians—lay and ordained—than McHugh appears to be.


Introverts in the Church:  Finding our way in an extroverted culture, by Adam S.McHugh.  Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 2009.  (Kindle edition) 222 pp., $9.19.

17 comments on this post:

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Wendy, this is a really interesting post. I have been pondering the question, not for once insofar as it concerns the laity but the priesthood. Two vicars ago, the list of desirable qualities drawn up by our churchwardens had at the top of the list that the new priest should ‘love us’. By this I think they meant not a sort of generalised love of one’s fellow man, but someone who could exude a warm and fuzzy love of each member of the congregation individually. While I can see that this would be nice, I must say I have known very few priests who were naturally the hugging type. A few, but not many. I think it is probably a rare quality – if you think of it, being called to serve God and going on retreats in order to commune with God are not really compatible with being a hugging extrovert.

Wendy Dackson said...

“Huggy” isn’t always good–especially with people you don’t know well. One of the WORST priests I’ve ever known (now the ‘archbishop’ of ACNA) was an indiscriminate hugger. The first time I attended the church where he was rector, he hugged me before even learning my name. UGH. (fortunately, the people of the congregation were great, and I had good relations for several years there).

There are ways of being caring that don’t involve a great deal of physical contact. A phone call, a note in the post, there are a dozen ways of being caring/loving. Mainly, showing that you’ve taken the time to understand a person. A depth of understanding, and the patience to tease out the depths of an individual’s situation, is a gift that many introverts bring to parish ministry.

Lay Anglicana said...

I agree absolutely about the warmth that one can engender without giving physical expression by way of hugs – however, I am bound to say that the vicars I am thinking of are not good at either.

Wendy Dackson said...

Although it sometimes made me gag how heavily we relied on the Myers-Briggs typology in seminary (and how it quickly became an in-group/out-group thing), one thing I think that would be helpful is if people were coached better on how to minister well and authentically from their preferred personality. Because I’m an ‘introvert/thinker’ rather than an ‘extrovert/feeler’, I was often seen as ‘cold’ by my peers. People who know me well think otherwise, but I think it’s superficial to say that someone who is more reserved and speaks less (but speaks thoughtfully when s/he does!) is less caring. How do we help people access their true selves, and manage to *be* good news from their natural tendencies?

10 January 2013 20:21
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10 January 2013 18:33
Taylor Carey said...

Thanks for the review, Wendy – this sounds a fascinating book which I’d love to read. Does McHugh link his insights into introverted / extroverted ‘liturgies’ with any of the current discussions around fresh expressions and finding new ways of making church ‘happen’?

I’d be very interested to see some exploration in that area, not least because I think it’s an issue which requires careful balance and the maintenance of a creative tension, which McHugh seems to recognise (if I read your review correctly) with regards introvert / extrovert contribution to church life. I’ve just read a selection of essays from “The Future of the Parish System” (, which picks up on many of the themes you mention here.

Wendy Dackson said...

Thanks, Taylor (it’s been a while since I read ‘Future of the Parish system’–probably about six years or so).

The whole ‘how to make church ‘happen” thing isn’t really a part of this book. Maybe on another, called ‘The Underground Church’, it’s more important, but this is really about individuals. There is some talk in McHugh about adding some more contemplative services (which would stretch extroverts!), and encouraging introverts to stretch themselves with some of the more informal, exuberant worship. But it’s always going to be a balance between the two, and no one form of church will actually supplant the other(s) (and that’s my opinion, not McHugh’s).

I think he’s made a good start, but is very weak on lay introverts in the church–and always extols them more in the ‘handmaiden’ role than in actual ‘leadership’ (a word I have great difficulty with, as the biggest mouths about ‘leadership’ actually manage to accomplish very little). A lay introvert may spend a lot of time not talking, but analyzing a situation or problem, and may say something profoundly important. But it tends to get lost in all the busy-ness of extroverted yakkityyak. Or so has been my experience.

Back to Laura’s ‘hugging’ thing for a moment, if I may. When I was on the parish profile committee (a canonical requirement in the Episcopal Church, prior to the search for a new incumbent) when ++Bob Duncan left us at St Thomas’ (Newark, Delaware), we held a large number of focus groups to hear the various voices of the congregation. (Listening wasn’t one of ++Duncan’s great gifts.)

One very astute man said, in response to that very plea for someone who will ‘love us’, that we couldn’t realistically expect a new priest who would give each of us ‘the spiritual equivalent of a full body massage’, and that regardless of who was called, that *we* were responsible for the wellbeing of the parish. Lovely gentleman, soft-spoken and quiet (in contrast to his equally lovely, but much more out-there wife). It was one of the healthiest comments about church life I’ve ever heard.

10 January 2013 20:16
10 January 2013 19:24
UKViewer said...

Having been through the hoops of the discernment process for Ordained Ministry, sadly, without the outcome I and others believed would be the right one, I was surprised by the attention they paid to the Personality Type assessments such as Myers-Briggs and Enneagram.

I was put through both and while they were intended to make me more self aware, they also served to make me more self conscious, and perhaps less confident in my ability to lead in a church context. I have reflected on this for a long time now and believe that this impacted on how I ‘performed’ at the National Bishop’s Assessment Panel, having been given a Yes at the Diocesan Panel.

I also note that many Clergy that I know (and that included DDO’s types) were admitted introverts. While outgoing and appearing people persons, they also have a somewhat studied reflective nature, which you will only notice perhaps when they are quiet, concentrating or listening carefully in certain contexts.

I’m not sure that for me, the ‘huggy, fuzzy, lovey’ priest would be something to aspire to? there must be more to it than that.

When I started in the discernment process. I read ‘Called or Collared’ by Francis Dewar. The story of someone who became a Priest, despite himself. He describes in chapter 1, P5 those elements that might be the nature of a ‘calling or vocation’ :

1. It will be some activity that connects deeply with your nature, character and history.
2. It will always be prompted by God.
3. There will be something new, creative and non-standard about it – perhaps never done before, or not in that particular way.
4. It often (perhaps usually) stems from some ‘thorn in the flesh’ that you have come to some sort of terms with, something you think of as a problem, trauma or disaster, some wound, disability or handicap.
5. It will have something that in some way:

*enriches the impoverished
*Or gives sight to the blind,
*Or release to prisoners,
*Or freedom for the oppressed

These are the things that we need to be looking for in our priests and leaders, their humanity matched with God’s grace and sacrificial life. Putting that into a parish profile might be a difficulty, but why not give it a go?

And as we are just about to start meetings in our parish to do just that, I will be taking that idea along to them.

Laurel Massé said...

to # 5 I would add “comforts the brokenhearted”.

Wendy Dackson said...

Ernie, I’d add to #5 ‘challenges the status quo’ as well. Wishing you the best as you move forward.

11 January 2013 13:30
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10 January 2013 21:09
claystories said...

Hi all – I’ve just re-read Introverts in the Church and I think it raises many pertinent issues. But, even before I read Wendy’s review, I noticed that it did mainly deal with introverts in leadership roles in the church and not with the rest of us.
I do think this is a flaw in many other Christian books, that they are all written by ‘professionals’ in full-time ministry which means I often find them hard to relate to.
It would be great to have more books written by the average common-or-garden believer, but then I guess we’re all too busy going to work, looking after family, doing church etc etc.

Wendy Dackson said...

We too often equate ‘leadership’ with being visible and voluble. I got really sick of that in my last churchy job, because I was starting new initiatives and cleaning up a lot of problems caused by the lack of attention to detail caused by extroverted ‘leaders’–some of whom were taking the credit for what I had done (even when it was their deficiencies that I had to cover). I got far less credit than I deserved, and my objections when I had the audacity to say, ‘Hey, that was ME’ were bulldozed. Never thought I’d have to protect myself from the Church, but there you have it.

11 January 2013 13:49
10 January 2013 22:40
Wendy Dackson said...

I’ve been reading a fair amount about introversion lately. A few that I’ve found helpful are:


I’ve read the sample of this, and it’s interesting enough to actually purchase:

Some others, especially ones on networking and self-promotion for introverts, are more about trying to ‘correct’ introversion, as though it’s some kind of fatal personality defect.

10 January 2013 23:27
Benita Hewitt said...

The topic of introversion/extroversion in congregations is something that I’ve wanted to research for some time. My view is that contemporary evangelical churches are a much more comfortable place for extroverts. As an introvert myself who goes to church alone, attending a contemporary/evangelical service can feel like being at a party where you know no-one and feel very uncomfortable. It’s also likely that you’ll have no idea what’s going on, as they tend to be without an obvious structure. I’ve found my home in a traditional anglo-catholic church, where it’s comfortable to be an introvert, I feel relaxed and have time and space to meet with God. On Sundays I often look round and notice how many people there are on their own, particularly males.

I too am disappointed that McHugh feels that introverts ‘move more slowly and have less energy’ than extroverts. I would argue that it’s because we have more inner depth and that the extroverts are just to shallow to recognise and appreciate us!

Personally, I thank God for the diversity of His church and that we can all find our place in it to worship Him … the stiller and quieter the better, in my case!

Wendy Dackson said...

One of the authors (Laurie Helgoe, I think) said that being an introvert in a world that favors extroversion is like trying to meditate in a mosh pit. I found that description particularly apt!

Benita Hewitt said...

Wendy, I can relate to that! I used to find the hubble of people chatting, laughing and the band playing during communion particularly off-putting. Not a holy time at all.

11 January 2013 13:27
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Wendy Dackson said...

Some of the stuff on ‘ancient practices’ such as retreats, scheduled daily silence, meditation, may be helpful to those of us who don’t respond well to the louder forms of worship. I had one student who denigrated everything that wasn’t ‘exuberant’ worship as stuffy, meaningless, old-fashioned. It is, however, funny that some of the people who are the most ‘modern’ in their worship forms are the most conservative and conventional in their theological outlooks.

But introvert doesn’t mean ‘shy’ or timid, either. I know my writing doesn’t come off as that! Indeed, I often have to ‘tone down’ on the internet because my written words are carefully chosen for impact, and I’ve been accused of being aggressive, almost to the point of bullying. (Largely that happens from people who are less educated and are proud of their lack of learning, but so be it.) And an introvert can be perfectly happy as a public speaker–especially if there’s been a chance to prepare what is to be said, do appropriate research, know the context and time limits and other expectations. I know I am, as I’ve presented academic papers internationally, and preached in six dioceses across the US and UK, and two Oxford colleges.

11 January 2013 13:45
James H. Blackmore said...

Thank you all for a fascinating discussion. Of course there is room for all of us TYPES. It just takes time to understand and appreciate that we ALL fit in somehow by God’s grace.

14 January 2013 10:33

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