Confessions of a Ministry Introvert, Part 1

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.

Alienated introverts

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.

Understanding introversion

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.

To be continued…

  1. Kate says:

    Amy I am cracking up over your butt charades and Ben stein experiences! Although it really is such a great example of the gross misunderstanding of introversion. As an extreme lifelong extrovert somehow finding myself teaching a room full of young introverted ladies in the youth God has really challenged me with a different set of obstacles to overcome my own extroversion. I have always been in awe of the kind of leadership that comes from an introvert who can use their strengths, which are so different than mine, in ways that transform others.
    You are an amazing example of the beauty of introversion and the stabilizing effect that your introspection can have on a community of believers.
    We need more introvertive leaders to hold their place and change the culture of our youth groups and church communities making them friendly safe places for people to experience and grow.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences-we learn so much from each other!

  2. Marie says:

    Love this article!
    Finally, I understand why (being on the introvert side of the scale) I’m at a loss to answer appropriately to rapid-fire questions and after offering pretty lame responses, end up feeling even more inadequate than I did before. Later on, with reflection, the perfect answers often come to me, and I wonder why I couldn’t formulate a good reply on the spot! ie “We think first and talk later.” Also love Laurie Helgoe’s perspective that “Writing appeals to us because we can express ourselves without intrusion, and we often prefer communicating this way.” I am not a writer, but several people have asked if I’ve ever considered writing because they find my written communications quite enjoyable.”
    The other revelation is about ‘depth’. I’ve never understood people that are content with superficial relationships. I’m always unsatisfied unless I get to a deep understanding of a person, and tend to be disappointed if they are not interested in knowing me on a deeper level. knew Who knew that this was a major difference between introverts and extroverts?!
    You’ve explained so many things that have always puzzled in this article. With these revelations, I feel that I now have a much better understanding of myself and others! My hope is that I will judge myself AND others much more gently from now on.
    Thank you Amy!

  3. Ann says:

    Thank you! Great article?

© 2018 Amy Simpson.