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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Extraverts and Introverts: a plea for understanding

I once attended an act of worship whose leader issued this challenge: 'we're going to sing a song of praise to God that children love. It has actions. Here they are [demonstration]. So come on all you introverts, let yourselves go and enjoy it!' We duly complied, as we English tend to do in front of others. Maybe I was the only one who felt grumpy about it. Maybe not. But it left me thinking about introverts in the church and why we should have been singled out for mention that day. I don't suppose you would get away with challenging black or gay or even female worshippers like that. 

But it wasn't the church's equality and diversity policies that made me think. Rather, it was my own experience of church life. The other week a simplified Myers-Briggs personality-type questionnaire was doing the rounds on Facebook. Never one to resist a challenge, I took the test. Yet again, I came out stubbornly as an introvert - INFJ for those who know what that means. Since I first did it 30 years ago, I have always emerged as irredeemably introverted. Despite my formative Christian experience in vibrant evangelical churches, despite all these years of leadership in parish and cathedral, despite all the exposure to crowds of people many of them strangers, despite loving this privileged kind of ministry that takes a priest into so many different communities, despite all that I am still an introvert.

Time was when I used to wish I were different. But a wise spiritual director helped me to accept who I am and celebrate the gifts I bring. I now understand how we introverts learn over a lifetime to behave in extraverted ways: getting up to speak in public, working a room full of people we don't know, being genuinely interested in others, asking for money to support the church, knocking on unknown doors to offer pastoral care or support - it's all part of the job as every priest knows. And introverts are often very good at it, because of their nurturing both of the inner spiritual life and the great importance they attach to authenticity in personal relationships. Good 'performance skills' are required in all leaders, and introverts are as accomplished in this as extraverts. It's true that extraverts find some aspects of leadership more congenial than introverts, and less costly personally. But some of the finest leaders in all sectors are introverts, people who don't make a lot of noise or draw attention to themselves, but are quietly effective in what they do. 

I've been reading Susan Cain's book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking [Viking 2012]. She has a lot to say about leadership in a world where extraversion goes with popularity and that loves the charismatic and the celebrity. She quotes two respected gurus among a vast literature on what makes a good leader. One says that what effective leaders have in common is 'little or no charisma, & little use either for that term or what it signifies'. Another affirms that 'many best-performing companies are run by Level 5 Leaders with no flash or charisma but only with extreme humility & intense professional will'. I find this encouraging.

I was especially interested in what she had to say about the prevailing evangelical culture in North America. She attended a large act of worship in one of the US's most flourishing mega-churches. First there's the warm-up. '"Good morning everybody" beams S---, then urges us to greet those seated near us. Most people oblige with wide smiles and glad hands.' Then comes the sermon. '"If you're a business leader, you need to read the Book of Jeremiah over and over because he was a genius CEO."' Straight out of the Harvard Business School then (another institution that comes in for interesting scrutiny). The author says she can't help thinking of an 'Unleash the Power Within' seminar she attended, with all those electric smiles and shining eyes. 

She acknowledges that it is all well-meant and well-done. This is a church with a great record of outreach and social care. 'But at the same time I can see how hard it must be, inside this world...for [this church's] introverts to feel good about themselves.' The (introverted) conservative evangelical pastor who took her into the service said afterwards 'with gentle exasperation': 'greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing - there was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation... Sometimes I feel like I'm going through the motions. The outward enthusiasm and passion that seems to be part and parcel of [the church] culture doesn't feel natural. Not that introverts can't be eager and enthusiastic, but we're not as overtly expressive as extroverts. At a place like [this] you can start questioning your own experience of God. Is it really as strong as that of other people who look the part of the devout believer?'

I can hear extraverts cry: 'choral evensong is all very well for you introverts. What about us?' That's an important question. I guess that the task of liturgy is to embrace all sorts and conditions so that everyone is included and no one feels alienated as somehow a second class worshipper. That was Thomas Cranmer's great project - to create a liturgy that was genuinely common prayer, words and rituals that would not divide people but unite them in one koinonia, a fellowship of faith and love. This postmodern world has made the ideal much harder to attain than in his day. For now there are supposedly no grand narratives any more, only bits and pieces, all equally valid, with which we play at bricolage and piece texts and actions together in whatever way we choose. Extraverts and introverts are bound to do that in very different ways. 

But I would like to think that together we can create liturgy that is generous enough to have space for everyone. I doubt if an introvert would introduce a liturgical silence by saying 'Come on all you extraverts, just shut up and be quiet for once!' What matters is how we are natural and easy about acknowledging in public the extraverted and introverted sides that make up each of us. That calls for traditional Anglican grace and sensitivity that I need to learn and re-learn as much as the worship leader with whom I began. 


  1. An excellent article - thank you. I love the sentence, "I doubt if an introvert would introduce a liturgical silence by saying 'Come on all you extraverts, just shut up and be quiet for once!' "
    I just so happens that I bought Susan Cain's book recently and I am looking forward to reading it when I take a week's break in a fortnight's time.

    David Butterfield (York)

  2. I suppose I should call myself a extrovert, but when I come before God our maker I find myself turning into a totally different person. I look for the still small voce that calms the storms in my life, ( being a total whirlwind sort of person usually) and feel Gods love and peace around and within me. I feel if we could all loosen the "ties" that bind us, we could each find a very different person inside of ourselves. Thank you for this article, it reopened my eyes.

  3. I found Susan Cain's book very helpful, too.
    Thanks for these reflections ... I was directed to them by a rather extraverted (but understanding) friend :-)

  4. Saw the link to here in the CofE Newsfeed. Thought 'Has he read Susan Cain's book?'. You have. As an extrovert (just) I commend the book to everyone to help the general understanding of personal relationships.

  5. Thank you for such a perceptive article. As another introvert with learned extrovert skills, this rang so many bells with me. Susan Cain's book is now on my Christmas list.

  6. "So come on all you introverts, let yourselves go and enjoy it!"

    There's a word for coercing someone into (supposedly) "enjoying" something they they don't want to do, and that word is rape. You were violated---you have every right to feel (at least!) "grumpy".

    1. Are you kidding me? I in no way read this as a call to feel victimised. It is a call to be (at least a bit) more sensitive. I didn't even see this as a call to stop overt expressions of praise or even to place limits on extroverts. It reads more like 'lets not be to quick to judge those who aren't into public displays of affection for God or of those who prefer quieter more.privately intimate expressions of love than what may be on offer and make space for them in our services ... I could be wrong though because I type out as an ENFP.

  7. Worship preferences are a bit more complex than that, though. I'm a pretty extreme extrovert. I love Choral Evensong and just now I'd say it's the cornerstone of my spirituality. With the best will in the world, enthusiastic Evangelical worship has never been, nor will ever be, my bag of chips.

  8. I really appreciate Cranmer's work and although I come from a free-for-all style Pentecostalism I have grown to love liturgy in the the Anglican style. The ideal church, to my mind, would be the one that offered both traditional (quiet and personal --perhaps isolated worship) and contemporary services (louder, more open and expressive worship) rather than trying to blend them into a disharmonious unity. In my own parish however, the introverts are in control and public expressions of affection are frowned upon as a whole.

    I am curious though: is the 'Sign of Peace' a difficult task for an introvert?

  9. "I am curious though: is the 'Sign of Peace' a difficult task for an introvert?"

    Only when it degenerates into a mass meet-and-greet.

  10. I'm very taken with your posting here. I was never attracted to cheer-leading for Jesus type services, but have always enjoyed a range of services from stiff-upper-lip choral evensong (anything from Staid-State-Church to Spikey and Smoky); quiet 8am parish said communion/low mass with no music to Solemn Mass with oodles of Latin. I also like very plain "monastic" style services in bare chapels a la Mirfield to my own parish, which is decidedly Anglo-catholic but decidedly not predominantly Medieval in flavor. Obviously I'm partial to Anglo-catholic liturgical piety in its variety of species. All of the examples I've mentioned have in common that they provide for silence in worship and make no demands upon the worshiper beyond presence. I've never cared for the imposition of demanding that you be happy-clappy (singing required, just follow the projections on the screen) that's often found in that other kind of service. It leaves little space for the worshiper to be "where he or she is" at the moment when in church. BTW, the Peace in my parish is warm and cordial without being instrusive. It can be done--it just requires a bit of respect for the idea that all of us are at different places and tempos in our pilgrimage--something Anglican tradition values; other traditions, not so much.

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  12. A quick google sees 61% of Anglican women and 51% of Anglican men as introverts and around 60% of the clergy as introverts. As an extrovert I have always felt in the minority in the church!

    Indeed I suspect some people see Extroverts as less spiritual!