The introvert pastor – oxymoron?

The Leadership Journal attached to Christianity Today is always worth a read in my opinion.  There’s a range of good material, from short articles by regular contributors like Gordon MacDonald and John Ortberg to the longer pieces which appear in the hardcopy journal.  So when I want a quick read of something light and short with my cup of coffee, this is one of the places I go.

At the moment they have a great article running on pastoral ministry as an introvert.  (At this point, I would have hyperlinked that but WordPress is playing up so here’s the address if you want it: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2011/summer/introvertedleader.html).

It’s a subject which has become close to my heart in the last five years or so of church leadership.  You see, I am an introvert.  For those who know me well, no surprises there!  And in latter years I have been surrounded – without exception – by extroverted models of church leadership.

Which is funny as I once found, quite by accident, an academic article which claimed that there are more introverts than extroverts in church leadership!  The same article, however, claimed that if you are an extrovert in ministry you are more likely to be in a church which tends towards the charismatic/happy-clappy end of the spectrum.  Maybe the fact that I am surrounded by extroverts says something significant about the kind of church I’m in!

Anyway, that was a digression.  My point is that my early models of church leadership have been extroverts.  And, on the whole, these have not been middle-of-the-road extroverts.  These precious friends are actually big, big extroverts who love people, have enormous capacity for connecting with huge numbers of people on a very personal level, laugh more loudly than anyone else in the room and draw others around them without even seeming to try!  To them, standing at the front of a church to speak has come easily and their large persona has meant that others have found it easy to connect with their preaching.

And then there was me.  The one who prefers to hide in the corner of the room.  The one who would actually prefer not to be seen sometimes.  The one who is so often silent in a large group and yet who comes alive in a smaller setting.  In fact, those closest to me say that I appear not to talk in big social settings whereas in a conversation with only one or two others you can’t always shut me up!

As a new leader, I was faced with learning to preach, learning to connect with lots of different people, learning to hold the attention of a roomful of people, learning to be the face of the envisioning and inspiring side of church.  And my models were extroverts.  And, as a result (yet through no fault of those people!), some days I was ready to quit.  How could I preach like that?  And how could I ever connect with lots of different people when even one or two people sessions would leave me feeling drained?  I used to wonder why on earth God seemed to think it was a good idea to create me as an introvert yet call me to this ministry.

It took me a long time to find a way of ministry which made sense of both me and my call.  This article which I have just read refers to so many things which I too have learnt in my own process of making sense of introversion and pastoring.  I wish I had read it before I figured so much out the hard way!  It has made me reflect on some of the principles which I have discovered work for me.  So here is a selection from my list:

  • You’re an introvert.  That means you’ll probably never have a problem with taking time out to be present to God and absent to others.  Pastoring’s essential elements of reflection, study and prayer will probably come more easily to you than to most extroverts.  Appreciate that gift!
  • You’re an introvert.  You’re also in a people job which requires you to spend time with people!  The balance of the two means from experience that you can only do x number of one-to-ones or group sessions each week.  Exceed x at your peril!  And don’t forget to schedule space between those meetings where possible.
  • You’re an introvert.  But the act of preaching is a people task.  Lovely as it was to spend hours by yourself in the study preparing your message, you have to learn to connect with your hearers.  That means getting over your wish to hide in the corner, it means living your life on the outside even only for that half-hour and it may mean being a ‘bigger version’ of yourself than when you are talking to only one other person.
  • You’re an introvert.  Just accept that you will never have people flocking round you like the out-there extroverts.  And be glad anyway, for too much adulation can be dangerous for the heart!
  • You’re an introvert.  For you, self-care means all the usual stuff but especially that you have a few safe and trusted friends with whom you can share your heart and who will tell you off when your life becomes too ‘interiorised’ or when, on the other hand, you overextend yourself with people/activity commitments.
  • You’re an introvert.  You’re a pastor.  God knows what he’s doing.  Ergo, it will be ok in the end!  And if this awkward combination keeps you more dependent on Christ, then all the better.  Win-win, in fact!

But in the end, the thing which I have learnt, the thing which is actually most significant to me I think, comes from having been surrounded by extroverted church leadership models only.  Those extroverted church leaders who have been around me in this first five years of leadership have taught me to stretch myself.  So often it would have been easier to say, ‘I’m an introvert so I don’t do standing at the front, preaching, envisioning or up-front leadership’.  It would have been simpler to opt-out or to settle for the kind of content-heavy preaching which never seeks to connect with the hearts, minds and emotions of my listeners.  I could have decided that inspiring a roomful of people was not something I needed to be able to do.

But you extroverts showed me a different way.  Your model of leadership pointed me to the deficiencies in my own natural style.  It called me to grow in areas that were uncomfortable for an introvert.  And it made me realise how much my success as a pastor depends upon the enabling of the Holy Spirit.  Because I am just not a natural at every aspect of this job!

I’ve also learned about the risk that some emerging extrovert leaders may start to look at me and think that they could never lead in the way I do.  Maybe they’d see my passion for books, my love of solitude, my fascination with the nitty-gritty linguistic detail of a text when I am preaching, my understated leadership style, and conclude that they are not cut out for this.  But at least now I am aware enough of this dynamic to explain to them why they don’t have to.

And, what’s more, I know plenty of extroverted leaders to mentor these young leaders into a model which more suits them!

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2 thoughts on “The introvert pastor – oxymoron?

  1. Brilliant! I am off to read the Christianity Today article in a minute – 🙂 So much of what you have written makes sense to me. Whilst I am not an all out introvert in many ways (I love to be around small groups of people all the time) – I have many introverted characteristics- that I have tried to ignore, or alter the shape of, just to try to match those of the extroverted leaders around me. This has not only been exhausting, but has compromised who I am, and how God created me. I am slowly learning that if God has called, he will also equip, and this will not always look the same! Thank you for sharing your thoughts – 🙂 Off to read the article now …..

  2. Pingback: Life in the moment « The Art of Steering

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