When I was a kid, one week in the year held both excitement and dread for me: The annual church camp. I loved the idea of being one of the crowd, being in a team, being away from home, being me! The problem is I’m a chronic introvert and actually very shy. The reality of the camp was a kid who once again felt out of place and longing to be like the ‘in kid’. A week of pure, unadulterated peer pressure ensued, a week of looking forward to being back home hoping maybe next year would be different. Over the years, I’ve overcome my shyness, but I’m still the introvert who inwardly looks on and imagines being ‘in’. Every action by another, may or may not be a subtle criticism of me. Like virtually all life issues, pride is at the root. You must understand, at this point being shy has nothing to do with being an introvert, in the same why that self-confidence is unrelated to being an extravert.
Colossians 3:1-4 ‘You have been raised to life with Christ. Now set your heart on what is in heaven, where Christ rules at God’s right side. 2 Think about what is up there, not about what is here on earth. 3 You died, which means that your life is hidden with Christ, who sits beside God. 4 Christ gives meaning to your life, and when he appears, you will also appear with him in glory.’
I share these bible verses because they have been central to my thinking for most of my Christian life. I’ve grappled with being who I am and yet becoming more like Jesus. I’ve shared my story about summer camp to demonstrate the grappling of identity that says somehow my quiet and introverted style of being was not necessarily seen to be the right way to go, that in fact, I should be trying to be more of an extrovert. I always knew, deep down, that this was wrong and that this introvert was pretty much OK just as he was. For years, I denied this intuition as everything in life then, and more so now, says I shouldn’t be an introvert. The loud and confident risk takers rule and lead and inspire… apparently. Consequently, I tried to join in to being ‘in’… You can imagine the result as I tried to prove to myself that I could be bold and assertive too. I was always going off to do ‘the thing’ when I really would have preferred to have a quiet life. Naturally, when I try to be an extrovert, I appear to be strident and bossy because it’s just not my natural setting.
This is what many introverts do, and it’s our loss and there are many of us out there, so there are many people making a loss! It is also our churches’ loss and our communities’ loss. At the risk of sounding arrogant, it is a massive leadership loss too. When it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best. A third to a half of the population are introverts. A third to a half! So that’s one out of every two or three people you know. So even if you’re an extrovert yourself, I’m talking about your friends and your spouses and your children and the person sitting next to you right now, all of them subject to this bias that is pretty deep and real in our society and very much so in our churches. We all internalise it from a very early age without even having a language for what we’re doing. Extrovert good, introvert not bad, but less… In truth we should know that extrovert is good, introvert is good and so is everything in between.
Now to see the bias I’m eluding to clearly, you need to understand what introversion is. It’s different from being shy. Shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about how you respond to situations, including social situations. Extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments. These things aren’t absolute all the time, but they are a lot of the time. Extroverts don’t always need to be loud or at the centre of the party to dominate. Extrovert and introvert do not equate to volume. Here’s an example of introversion in my life: I’m writing this blog sitting alone in a cafe. In a cafe is where I do all my best work, alone and yet surrounded by people. I love people, but my initial creative rush needs solitude and strangely, a busy cafe offers me the best of both. Then, when I’m ready, that work can be shared with others for their comment and influence. The key then to maximising our talents for God or just in life is for us all, introvert or extrovert, to put ourselves in the zone that is right for us and to understand our zone and value the zone of others.
I run for fun and because I like cake. I haven’t joined a running club because when I run alone, my mind fills and becomes an interesting place I enjoy. I process, pray, pontificate and create. When I run, I enter the world of the happy introvert where what’s in my mind, becomes exciting and may even become a reality. At school they called it day dreaming, but they were so wrong. What they didn’t know is that my life is so much more interesting in my head. Here’s where the bias comes in, the big issue. Our most important institutions, for people from our schools and our workplaces to our New Church, are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ who need lots of stimulation, even entertainment. They are designed for focus and measured attainment. Success is not always a number, it can be a shape or an experience. We have this church belief system right now that we call ‘contemporary church’, which seems to hold that all creativity and all exciting life, comes from a very oddly gregarious place that needs to give and receive constant input. Here’s the rub, so to speak, contemporary and charismatic are not the same thing. Extrovert can so easily replace the role of the Holy Spirit in our church life. We become personality led not Spirit led. We value talent over character. John C Maxwell says, “Talent is a gift, but character is a choice.”
Okay, some of you are thinking, ‘what is this to do with anything’. Well the answer is about leadership in church and the ability to step out in faith and be a good steward too. When it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions unless the extrovert (often insecure leader) is looking for rubber stamping ‘yes men’. Obviously, no leader will ever knowingly acknowledge this to be the case in their choice of leaders. This is a loss because introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take inappropriate risks but considered risks. We call it faith in church circles.
I stumbled upon some interesting research (I love Google) that found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do because when they are managing employees or volunteers, they are much more likely to let those people run with their ideas and release a greater degree of creativity and flexibility, whereas an extrovert, can quite innocently get so excited about putting their own stamp on things, that other people’s ideas might not as easily reach the surface. The net result for the extrovert can be the churches’ loss of morale and commitment. For the introvert, the danger is a lack of focus and clarity in this diverse and creative environment. The church then, needs a greater balance and respect for the ‘style’ and character of both types of leaders and of course for the myriad of variations in between. At this point, I must say some of my best friends are extroverts. I’m not an extrovertist! We all do fall at different points along the introvert/extrovert scale and I suspect we can slide along that scale depending upon the context of the situation we find ourselves in. Carl Jung, the psychologist who first popularised these terms, said that there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert. He said that such a man would be in a lunatic asylum, I know a few who should be…
Some of the worlds most transformational leaders have been introverts. I’ll give you some examples (once again thank you Google). Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Gandhi each described themselves as quiet and soft-spoken and even shy. They all found themselves in the spotlight, even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to. This turns out to have a special impact for leaders like this. Perhaps people could feel that these leaders were at the front not because they enjoyed power or control over others and certainly not out of the need to be seen, but because they had no choice, because they were simply doing what seemed to be right. I have no idea of all of their positions regarding their faith, but I do know that their motivation for leadership should be at the heart of the motivation of a church leader.
What I’m saying is that culturally, within the Church, we need a much better balance. This is especially important when it comes to creativity and to productivity because when psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at sharing ideas and catching ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them so those great ideas sink. I think this may be a British ‘thing’. We invent everything, but often fail to realise and capitalise upon it because solitude and being self deferential is a crucial ingredient often to creativity.
When you look at the insights of contemporary psychology, it turns out that we can’t even be in a small group of people without instinctively mirroring and mimicking their opinions. To fail to do so, is to be a rebel. Even in the simplest of concepts and issues you will start ‘aping’ the beliefs of the people around you without even realising that that’s what you’re doing.
Groups / leadership teams follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, the ‘silver back syndrome’ I like to call it. This is true even though there is no connection between being the best talker and having the best idea. Coincidentally, this isn’t about being the loudest in the room, just being dominant. Take a look at the power of the silent and strong (read moody) types. Much better for everybody to go off by themselves, generate their own ideas freed from peer pressure and group dynamics, then to hold one on one talks with the ‘boss’ and then come together as a team to talk things through and make the ‘big calls’.
At the start of the 21st century, we entered a new culture that historians call the culture of personality. Suddenly, instead of working alongside people, now people are having to prove themselves in a crowd. We ‘blue sky’ think in teams which is a dream for extroverts and a dead loss for introverts. Consequently and understandably, qualities like magnetism and charisma suddenly seem really important. Our role models and leaders are really great salesmen. That’s the world we’re living in today? That’s our cultural inheritance?
Interestingly, Scripture knows all about this new culture because it really isn’t that new at all. The Bible and so God, have always valued character above all else. The character of the introvert or extrovert are of equal value to God and of far greater value than gift or ability. The character is our core, our foundation that everything else is built upon, our ability to teach and lead according to scripture and so in the heart of God. 2 Timothy2: 2 ‘you then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.’
I guess for now, I’ll continue seeking to hide my life in Christ with the knowledge that he’s OK with me, introvert or not and that when I allow Him to lead, all these pieces are very likely to fit together and the grappling can stop.