Editor’s Note: Introverts in the Church, (InterVarsity) has apparently struck a nerve. The book is in its eighth printing (as of 3/22/2012) and is giving our ‘extrovert-dominant’ church culture much to ponder, especially about long-standing assumptions on spiritual maturity and the qualities we think leaders ought to possess. I caught up with Adam McHugh via email and telephone to discuss this sorely neglected topic. His answers are both thoughtful and thought-provoking—particularly on the gospel and how it can be applied to the issues raised in the book.
Why did you decide to write a resource for introverts?
It started as a personal quest. I knew that I was (1) Called to be a leader in the church. I had gifts of teaching and pastoring and I relished opportunities to help people listen to the voice of God in their lives. But it was also clear that (2) I was an introvert. While I enjoyed people and the various aspects of church leadership, I found them draining and I longed for times of solitude, study, and quiet reflection. I experienced a lot of tension between these two realities, especially in an active, gregarious evangelical environment, and the research I did was a way of trying to make sense of my call in light of my introverted temperament and vice versa.
But then I started talking with other introverts about my experiences, and I realized how prevalent, and even sometimes how crippling, the struggles are for introverts in the church. I even talked with a number of introverts who have left their churches – or even church in general – because of this issue. So what began as a study of introverts in Christian leadership expanded into an exploration of central aspects of the Christian life, like community, spirituality, evangelism, and worship, from an introverted perspective. My deep hope is that the book will help introverts to find peace in their God-given personality preferences and to discover their places in their Christian communities, which so badly need their gifts and strengths.
What are the qualities of an introvert that may be overlooked?
Put bluntly, I think most qualities of an introvert are prone to be overlooked! In our extroverted society, we value aggressive, action-oriented, gregarious people, and I think this extroverted bias has bled over into some of our churches, where often the “ideals” of faithfulness are strikingly extroverted. We praise people who are social and expressive, eager to participate in a wide variety of activities, have an overt enthusiasm, share their faith with strangers easily, assume leadership positions quickly. But introverts do not usually fit this profile, and our lives of faith may be a little slower, a little quieter, a little more solitary. We are often calm, thoughtful, reflective types who may be invisible to others if they are not looking or listening.
Yet I think that introverts have tremendous gifts to bring to others. In the book I start with our listening abilities. Because introverts process internally, we can offer people a non-judgmental presence that helps others open up to us. There is also something about being intimately connected to our inner worlds that produces a great deal of creativity. Many introverts are gifted writers, artists, musicians, and even actors. I also think that having a rich inner life lends itself towards a deep compassion for others, something I have seen in many introverted pastors and chaplains I have worked with. Further, we are capable of an insight that is borne of self-awareness and listening, a peacefulness that spreads to others, and a servant mindset which is often expressed in behind-the-scenes service.
Can introverts be in church leadership?
Absolutely. The reality is that introverts are in church leadership—I’ve seen studies that estimate anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of Protestant pastors are introverted, with an even higher percentage among Catholic priests. Interestingly, it seems that the larger churches are, the higher is the percentage of introverts leading them. A recent survey reports that 45% of megachurches are led by introverted pastors. Erwin McManus, Dan Kimball, and Mark Driscoll, among many others, are self-confessed introverts.
Perhaps the better question then is how introverts can lead in a way that is life-giving and natural. I think self-care is absolutely critical for introverted pastors and leaders, because my experience is that introverts in ministry are more prone to burnout than extroverts. We need to discover and embrace our rhythms of expending and restoring energy and to care for ourselves—souls, minds, bodies and intimate relationships—so that we can find joy and vitality in ministry and life.
How has being an introvert helped your ministry?
That’s a question I haven’t been asked much! Too often we define introversion by what’s it’s not, rather than what it is. I would really like to start defining it by its assets, not its liabilities. I have worked in a number of different ministry settings—in the church, in college campus ministry, and in hospital and hospice chaplaincy—and being an introvert has helped me in all of those roles. My listening abilities as an introvert are probably the greatest gift that I have to offer people. In our culture people so rarely have the experience of being truly listened to- having their words, feelings, and experiences taken seriously. I have developed the skill of listening to what’s unsaid – the doubts, questions, and feelings that lie underneath what someone is saying. It’s amazing how transformative it can be for a person to simply be listened to, even when no problems are solved or no advice is dispensed.
Some people are surprised when I tell them that my introversion has also aided me in preaching and teaching. My natural bent toward study, thoughtful reflection and writing—all things that come to introverts pretty easily—have all helped me develop as a preacher. I love going deep into the nuances and applications of the biblical text, and I also think that my tendency to observe helps me to speak into the life of the community and the culture. Even though I enjoy writing sermons more than I do preaching, I am very comfortable in the pulpit, as long as I have had ample time to prepare. The fellowship hour after the service is another story though!
How can introverts be evangelists?
As I was exploring this topic, I had someone ask me whether an “introverted evangelist” is an oxymoron. But I firmly believe it’s not that introverts are ill-suited to evangelism; rather, many of our common strategies for evangelism are ill-suited for introverts. Even though teaching on evangelism is (thankfully) changing, there are still some prevailing models that are very difficult for many introverts. One of those models is the spiritual salesmanship model, to borrow an image from evangelism professor Rick Richardson. We must be fast talking experts, armed with answers to all the questions, able to persuade others and “close the deal.” Or another common mode of evangelism is debate – we need to prove that our worldview is superior to that of others. Most introverts will struggle with these methods, since we’re not naturally aggressive or chatty and our internal processing slows us down in situations of conflict or debate.
I think there are different methods and images for evangelism that are more suited for introverts. One of the things I suggest is that introverts, instead of radically stretching themselves to initiate with strangers in uncomfortable situations, should start with the people who are already in their lives and ask how God is already at work in them. Evangelism is always a response to what God is already doing in people, as he works on people’s hearts in ways that transcend even the most profound words we can muster. We can come alongside of our friends and partner with God in teaching and embodying the gospel of Jesus. And we can use our gifts as introverts – especially listening and compassion – to demonstrate the love and the presence of God. By listening to people, and really giving them space to express their questions and doubts, we ensure that when we do speak we are addressing the real needs and concerns of a person.
Despite the prevailing opinions of most church planter evaluation committees, do you think an introvert could make a good church planter? How so? What advice would you give?
Sometimes I wonder whether any committee would choose someone like Moses or Timothy to plant a church. Moses claimed he was inarticulate and uncomfortable in the spotlight; Timothy was young and struggled with timidity. There is a disturbingly consistent trend in the scriptures that God chooses unlikely people to carry out his mission and lead his people. And it is clear that God’s call is not contingent on personality type. If those responsible for planting churches do not allow that God will call introverts to plant churches, they are disregarding biblical patterns and missing out on many gifted and inspired leaders.
I know several introverts who are currently involved in planting churches, and they are tremendously gifted people who are seeing much fruit in their ministry. They are finding that their introversion, in many ways, is helping them. They are building relationships one at a time, asking the questions that are enabling them to understand the culture and the people they are trying to reach. They are eager learners, and through listening and observation and theological reflection, they have developed a compelling vision for their communities. They are investing deeply in the leaders God has brought to them. They are people of deep prayer and spiritual discipline, which restores them and gives them God’s eyes for people.
It’s important to stress that introverts can be wonderful communicators and have social skill and confidence; we’re not necessarily shy or standoffish. The difference is that social interaction and life in the outside world drains us. So I think the key to church planting, and any leadership position in the church, is caring for your soul. My friend Chris, an introvert planting a church in Pittsburgh, says that Sabbath, maintaining his intellectual life, carefully balancing his schedule, and finding some sort of role that helps him to meet new people (for him it’s serving as a tent-making barista at a local coffee shop), are critical to his success.
Don’t extroverts suffer more when communal life fails to live up to expectations?
I don’t find the discussion about whether introverts or extroverts suffer more in community to be a helpful one. It only promotes competition and victimization, two things that destroy community. One thing that’s absolutely essential for the reader to know is that I wrote my book for introverts. Of course I want extroverts to read it but they must understand that they’re listening in on a quiet conversation between introverts. If someone reads what I say about introverts and infers that I’m thereby saying the opposite thing about extroverts (e.g. Community can be hard for introverts, so therefore it’s easy for extroverts), then they’re not going to have a good reading experience. I tried to make that clear in the book. I wasn’t saying that introverts are the only ones who experience misunderstanding or who struggle in community. Introverts certainly don’t have a corner on suffering! My hope is that extroverts who read the book will develop understanding and compassion for the introverts in their lives and will help shape their churches into places that honor the gifts and rhythms of introverts.
What is the gospel and how can it specifically be applied to the main issues you raise in the book?
This isn’t a comprehensive definition, but I would start by saying that the gospel is the reality that in the person of Jesus Christ – in his life, death, and resurrection – God has reclaimed the world as his own and has broken the powers and strongholds that ensnare and divide people. In Christ we have been adopted as God’s beloved children – our new foundational identity – and God is rescuing us from the false identities we have constructed and freeing us to be the people he created us to be. The body of Christ is comprised of unique, diverse members who have different gifts and strengths, and we are intended to work together, bringing all that we have, for the glory of God. We are of different cultures, genders, social status, and temperaments. My book explores in depth the introverted temperament, and how the church doesn’t always value what introverts bring to the table. People who fall on the introverted side of the personality spectrum can love God and love others authentically, bringing their God-given gifts to bear on their communities.
If you could add a chapter or two to your book, what issues would you address (or expand further)?
To be honest, I don’t have chapters I want to add at this point. I wanted to specifically address introversion in the contexts of the Christian life and Christian community, and I explored the major aspects of that life. No one had written the book before. There are already great books for helping introverts and extroverts relate to one another, that look at the role of temperament in marriage, in parenting, and at work. I would like to see someone else write Extroverts in the Church, however!
Adam S. McHugh (Th.M., M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary) is an ordained Presbyterian Minister, a spiritual director and an introvert. He has served at two Presbyterian churches, as a hospice chaplain and as campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He grew up in Seattle, Washington and graduated from Claremont McKenna College and Princeton Theological Seminary. He and his wife live in Claremont, California.
Visit Adam at http://www.introvertedchurch.com/