Confessions of a Ministry Introvert, Part 2

If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you can find it here:

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?

Engaging introverts

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—from Steve Wozniak’s invention of the Apple computer to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And these introverts did what they did not in spite of their temperaments—but because of them.”

A few years 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. I took on the role and every Sunday, I spent 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.

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  1. Robyn says:

    Hi Amy,
    I really liked these articles. I’m more of an introvert (although I don’t mind begin in front of a group now and then). It was helpful to see these characteristics of introverts and think about how much we are needed. I’m glad you are able to minister to the youth leaders (and I loved the line about coming a long way since “butt charades”!)
    Thanks for your thoughts,

  2. RGB Rao says:

    ~ I want to make note of something possibly surprising – and I don’t have a citation or source to back it up – just something that I have been told. Theres that Myers-Brigg stuff, with the 4 letter personality profile stuff – of these rarest personality profile is the INFJ one (comme moi :-x). These folks are like the intro’s among the intros and particularly adept at counseling. They are also surprisingly the most common profile type among pastors.

    Ciao and thanks for the post! Good stuff!
    ~ Raj

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