The Quiet Pastor: Affirming Different Personalities in Ministry

Posted on January 31st, 2013

Pastors come in different shapes and sizes. Each one brings a unique ministry that is expressed through his or her personality. Pastors' personalities allow them to excel in some areas of ministry and cause them to struggle in others. Some are good preachers, while others are good at crisis care, developing new ministries, teaching, planning worship, or counseling. The reality is that there is no pastor who holds the "perfect" personality for ministry.

Congregations with healthy expectations will recognize that their pastor's personality brings a certain set of gifts and skills, and that he or she needs other leaders to balance the areas of ministry where their skills are lacking. However, members of the body of Christ often do not extend this grace to their clergy and unrealistically expect all clergy should fit into a particular mold.

The Extroverted Bias

Some clergy struggle within congregations because they are constantly being measured against unrealistic expectations. The people in the pews each have their own expectation of who the pastor should be and are disappointed when the pastor doesn’t fit the mold. Often, they measure the pastor against a previous, long-term pastor. Pastors hear over and over again, “When Rev. Smith was here, he did it this way.”

Sometimes clergy are measured against a broader cultural expectation of what clergy should be like in their role. In our culture, we tend to understand clergy personalities in a limited way. We want them to be always outgoing, gregarious, charismatic, full of energy, and never turn down an invitation to be with others. In other words, we like our clergy to be extroverted. Extroversion and introversion, terms borrowed from the world of psychology, are personality types distinguished by where individuals find their energy. Extroverts receive energy from being around other people and thrive in group settings. Introverts enjoy being with people, but find energy from more solitary activities, such as quiet time, prayer, journaling, reading a book, deep reflection, and silent walks through nature. An introvert might excel at one-on-one interactions with parishioners or teaching a class on prayer, but struggle with a week-long mission trip or spending a lengthy amount of time at summer camp.

Unfortunately, introvert is sometimes used as a negative label for someone who is socially awkward, reclusive, or a loner. Congregations tend to be wary of introverted leadership because they think an introvert will be unable to connect with people. This is unfortunate because most introverts value a connection with people, but prefer to spend time with people in different ways than extroverts. Their approach is different from extroverts', but introverts are capable of effectively connecting with a congregation.

The American church reflects the larger culture around it in its preference for church leaders who carry large personalities and seem to have endless energy for people. The evidence for this is clearly seen in the current megachurch trend that often revolves around an extroverted personality type. We fall in love with personalities like Billy Graham, T.D. Jakes, and Rob Bell. We prefer the outgoing, gregarious, and talkative pastor who never seems to tire of shaking hands and kissing babies. In contrast, we do not appreciate nearly as much the quiet, introspective, and reflective pastor.

Because of this bias the expectations congregations have for clergy are clearly not in favor of introverts. There are many introverted pastors who do their jobs well but are treated poorly because their personality does not line up with the narrow expectations of a congregation. On the flip side, it seems that many clergy get away with underperforming and neglecting parts of their job as long as they are outgoing and delightful.

While in seminary, I participated in a class taught by a retired bishop who served within a large Protestant denomination. He warned us of the priorities of congregations when they are in need of a new pastor. His words remain etched in my memory, “The most common responses I received when meeting with church committees who desired a new pastor was that they preferred clergy who are talkative, attractive, and fun.” He smirked and asked the class, “What do those traits have to do with effective ministry?”

If you want to see the extroverted bias firsthand all you need to do is look through profiles of churches that are participating in a search and call system to find a new pastor. The expectations of congregations largely match the traits of extroverts. Often their number one request is a charismatic preacher who exudes enthusiasm and excitement, which I have found in many congregations means they want someone to entertain them. As a church we must ask ourselves if this is what the body of Christ really needs.

Misunderstanding Introverted Clergy

Introverts often struggle in the church because they are misunderstood. Because they don’t fit the stereotypical mold of the extroverted pastor, people are confused by their personalities. Introverted pastors who are not capable of always “being on” at church are seen as distant, aloof, or even cold. Their inability to be with people non-stop and their reluctance to be the center of attention is considered a strike against them. Introverts have to go to great lengths to assure people they are not avoiding them because of this misunderstanding.

While introverts are not as effective as extroverts in meeting the exterior demands of ministry they do excel in other areas. Introverts are effective at moving below the surface of life. There is certainly more to ministry than shaking hands, exchanging small talk, and spending long amounts of time with parishioners. Ministry requires clergy to move beyond the exterior and into the interior life of themselves and the congregation. Introverted clergy are well suited for this journey into the deep. They are naturally curious about the inner workings of the self and gain energy from reflecting on the human condition and how it intersects with faith. Through introspective work, they are quite insightful and can see many things others overlook.

Among the gifts introverts offer are thoughtful sermons, good listening skills, rich prayer, and a calming presence. I believe that a calming presence is the most precious gift introverts can offer the church. The 21st century church is consumed with anxiety and fear about its future. There is a real need for self-reflective leadership that is able to take a deep breath and remain calm in the face of the rapidly changing world, which now surrounds the body of Christ. We need clergy with depth who hold the capacity to help the church discern when it is acting out of fear and when it is acting out of grace and love. The answer is not more chatter, noise, and distraction but an invitation into a quiet space where we can listen for the movements of the Spirit. Introverts can lead the way to this place.

Affirming Introverted Clergy

In a church that is heavily influenced by an extroverted bias, introverted clergy need affirmation and support. Introverts need the church to honor their true nature and not pressure them to be something they are not. Occasionally, it is okay for clergy to forgo social interaction to find quiet spaces where they can journal, read, and think deeply about faith. Introverted clergy will be better leaders because of this time away and better able to use the many gifts they bring to their congregations. It would thrill an introverted pastor to hear a congregation for once say, “We love the contemplative side of our pastor and the depth she is able to share with us.”

The truth is that extroverted and introverted personality types are both valuable and needed in the body of Christ. Together they make the church’s ministry richer and stronger. In my opinion, one of the problems in the modern church is that we have expected extroverted leadership to address all our needs. Because of this approach we have not respected it limits. It is time to recognize that other leadership styles are needed to bring balance to the ministry of the church. We can no longer afford to overlook and neglect the gifts of introverted leadership. The leaders in our church hierarchies and those in the pews need to become more aware of the tendency to push aside the gifts that introverts bring to the table.

If they don’t make this effort, it will be the church’s loss. God has given the church the gift of introverted leadership and if it ignores it the church will continue to lack wholeness. When you don’t balance the gifts of introverts and extroverts you do a disservice to the church by giving them a one-sided representation of the gospel. The people of God deserve the whole gospel, not a mere half.

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