The Spiritual Discipline of Shaking Hands

I love my church, but I hate walking through the front door.

This has nothing to do with the building, my feelings about church, or the people I see once I’m inside. It’s all about running the gauntlet through the church greeters.

I’ve never been a church greeter; I don’t know what they’ve been told to do. It might be a more challenging role than I imagine. It seems reasonable that the best approach might be to give a friendly smile, say hi, and point people in the right direction. And if people act like they want to shake your hand, by all means shake their hands. In my view, some of them are taking their jobs way too seriously. They give loud greetings that truly make me want to turn around and run back to my car. Sometimes they get in your face like they’re trying to intimidate you or kiss you or both. And here’s the worst part: They stick out their hands expecting–no, demanding–a handshake.

My complaint extends beyond the greeters at the door. During the first part of every service, I dread those couple of minutes when someone upfront asks us to greet the people around us. More shallow interaction, mostly with strangers. Learning names I’ll never remember. Shaking hands right before the sermon, when I’m stuck sitting for at least half an hour without the opportunity to wash my hands. Good thing I keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my purse.

Now, part of me really wants to continue in this vein, railing against the forced greetings and the touching and the false assumption that this is meaningful interaction that can serve as the foundation for true community. But that’s not what this post is about. Before I get to my point, though, perhaps an explanation is in order.

I’m a strong introvert. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “That means she doesn’t like people.” Not true. Not at all. Introversion is widely misunderstood in our extroverted society, and this is a popular but false assumption. Here’s what introversion means: Introverts are energized by our internal experiences and drained by external stimuli. Our brains run hotter than extroverts’ brains (it’s true-you can look it up here) and can quickly become overstimulated by too much dopamine. Extroverts are less sensitive to this neurotransmitter and require more of it to feel good. They’re also energized by external stimuli, so interaction with other people feels great and just gets better over time. Introverts have to quit after a while because all that interaction is draining the life out of us. This has everything to do with brain chemistry and energy. It has nothing to do with how much we like people.

I love people. But I love them quietly, in small doses, and a few at a time. I love them deeply, not broadly. I love them respectfully, just in case their personal boundaries are like mine. I love them in a way that often means listening rather than speaking, noticing rather than commenting, and smiling rather than hugging.

Introverts draw our energy from our internal world–thoughts, feelings, and ideas. We are very much in touch with our internal experiences, which in many ways are more real for us than the external. These internal experiences form the lens through which we interpret and relate to the external world. We prefer to interact with others in ways that are true to our internal selves. So when others ask us to override our own thoughts, feelings, and ideas to interact with others, this is difficult and can be somewhat painful. For example, when we feel we must pretend we’re happy when we’re not. Or when we are expected to behave as if we’re super-excited to see people whose names we don’t even know.

My boundaries are wide and firm. For me, crossing those boundaries and touching another person requires a level of emotional intimacy I don’t share with many. It’s more intimate than I will ever feel with a stranger. Handshakes are necessary in many settings but not something I like to be forced or pressured into.

On top of all this, I’m a germaphobe. I have some good reasons for this. I’m asthmatic, with a history of bronchitis and pneumonia. Germs are not my friends. Besides . . . you just don’t know about people’s habits. Recently, when we were visiting another church, the pastor stood at the back of the sanctuary to greet people as they left. “Don’t shake his hand,” my extroverted husband whispered in my ear. “I was in the bathroom with him and he walked out without washing his hands.” Gross.

Yes, I know it’s important to be friendly and to reach out to one another at church. I know the church greeters are there to be friendly and welcoming. I don’t mind–in fact, I think it’s a wonderful idea. But I don’t want to touch them, and I don’t like it when they touch me. I don’t like it when their greetings are over-the-top, and I don’t like it when I get the distinct feeling that standing there is more about meeting their own needs than the needs of the people walking in.

That’s what I want this post to be about. I really want this to be a rant against those over-friendly people who ought to change for my sake. Give me my space. Respect my reserved nature.

But this is not a rant. It’s a public confession.

Because I know how very pathetic, selfish, and unChristlike this is. All of it is true, and my feelings are legitimate, but that doesn’t mean I can’t push them aside for the sake of someone else. I complain that some church greeters are standing there to meet their own needs instead of mine. Well, maybe walking through the front door of the church isn’t about me. Maybe shaking someone’s hand is a way to meet their need.

What kind of person says she wants to be like Jesus–who literally and lovingly touched the sick, the diseased, the social pariah in a society that didn’t even know handwashing was a thing–and shudder over a handshake with the person sitting next to her at church? shrink from the smiling businessman at the door?

What kind of hypocrite thinks this way?

Me. I do. And I’m wrong.

Jesus touched people with leprosy, assumed to be highly contagious (Matthew 8:2-3). He touched beggars (Matthew 20:30), the injured and bleeding (Luke 22:50-51), the sick (Mark 1:30-31), crowds of strangers (Matthew 14:35-36), and all manner of downtrodden people. Probably not as fun as it sounds. And he knew more about germs than I do. Oh, and he actually knew where all those unwashed bodies had been.

I resent that people assume their loud and enthusiastic greetings are as meaningful to me as to them. That a handshake or a grip of my shoulder will feel like a blessing. But I make the same mistake in assuming other people feel loved when I respect their space and give them a more subdued greeting that feels more genuine to me. I wrong them when I assume their greetings are shallow and disingenuous. And if I think others should adapt their style for my sake, surely I must be willing to adapt my own.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and here’s what I’ve come up with. I won’t apologize for being who I am. The world needs people like me to be ourselves, not to try to twist ourselves into some grotesque and unconvincing version of our cultural ideal. But being in community means sacrificing for the sake of others. And becoming more like Jesus means imitating him. Therefore, engaging in church greetings (and maybe even leaving the hand sanitizer in my purse) is my new spiritual discipline. I want to be more like Christ; maybe I can start by getting some serious humanity all over my hands.

  1. Darlene Chiasson says:

    You had me with the first sentence. We must be kindred spirits. As a fellow introvert, I too dread the handshake in the middle of the service. Many times worship will bring me to tears and I feel naked when I have to shake a stranger’s hand while I’m still laid bare from my throne room experience. But I must say that one time I got the offer of a coffee date from that humiliating exercise. The guy sitting next to me misinterpreted my tear streaked face and assumed I was carrying a terrible burden. We are friends to this day!
    I thank you for your post because, as a true introvert, I had thought I was the only one who struggled with this.

    • Amy says:

      That’s funny, Darlene. I’ve had similar experiences, when people thought my private emotional display during worship was indicative of a serious need for prayer.

  2. Candace McMahan says:

    How I love your honesty, Amy. You’re honest with others, but–perhaps more important–you’re honest with yourself. Thanks for sharing yourself–the good and the flawed–in this very public forum. I am enriched by everything you post.

  3. Lisa B. says:

    On top of the things you mentioned, add the (male) greeter searching though your purse without prior notification of this policy. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still unsettled by it. I’d been carrying the same purse to services for the past 6 months and had even said “hello” to this particular greeter before.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.