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The Church of the Introverts

By Mark Clavier

One of the things I most enjoy about living in Britain is that I get to experience life as an extrovert. I’m not suggesting that my move across the Atlantic somehow caused a seismic shift in one of my Meyers-Briggs categories. Rather, I’ve discovered that strong American introversion translates into an acceptable degree of extroversion here in Britain. In fact, usually when I mention that I score incredibly high on the Introversion scale on the Meyers-Briggs test, people here refuse to believe me. I’m apparently too open and friendly to lay any reasonable claim to introversion. So, I get to be an introvert who masquerades as an extrovert.

Life here has made me aware how fuzzy these definitions are. Introversion and extroversion do indeed describe ways people interact with others (or don’t, as the case may be) but these social attitudes are themselves shaped by surrounding social expectations. American culture prizes characteristics we normally associate with extroverts: confidence, friendliness, openness, and talkativeness. Encounter Americans abroad and these cultural traits jump out at you, not infrequently in ways that make one want to say to one’s compatriots, ‘Please shut up for a minute!’ We are a brash people, especially the male of the species. But, because of the kind of sociability Americans esteem, even introverts learn to perform in ways that are confident, friendly, open, and talkative. Perhaps not as much as their extroverted neighbors but enough to make them seem socially confident to many non-Americans.

Here in the UK, on the other hand, society seems to have been exquisitely calibrated to produce the maximum number of introverts among the general population. It probably has something to do with British reserve and the abject fear of causing social awkwardness. Better to sit quietly and avoid eye contact than risk causing offense or making a social gaffe. Note, however, that none of this holds true once Brits enter a sports stadium, imbibe sufficient quantities of beer, or watch Eurovision together—then even seasoned trainspotters or birdwatchers are transformed into raucous social animals.

There’s a kind of chicken and egg scenario here: do extroverted cultures produce more gregarious people or do amassed extroverts create gregarious societies in which even introverts must learn to behave like extroverts (and vice versa)? In other words, to what extent do we create society in our own image, favoring practices and customs that allow us to stay in our comfort zone? And what about subsets of that culture such as institutions and organizations? In theory, at least, they are even more susceptible to this phenomenon since many of them attract certain kinds of people who reinforce their own predominant culture. To see what I mean just try to imagine a conference of reserved and thoughtful salespeople or a rowdy gathering of library archivists.

This observation got me wondering about the Church and new modes of clerical practice. Are we perhaps inadvertently creating a Church of the Introverts? Here’s my thinking:

Surveys in both the US and the UK suggest that Anglican clergy are generally (perhaps even increasingly) grouped on the introverted end of the spectrum (though this is more pronounced in the UK). Among clergy, Catholics tend even more towards introversion while Evangelicals tend towards extroversion (which may account for the deep suspicion many Brits have of them). This suggests that more clergy than not find prolonged social engagement taxing, especially in uncontrolled environments. Perhaps this accounts for the most sacrosanct of clerical activities: the Sunday afternoon nap.

These same clergy are also engaged in thinking about shared ministry in the modern-day church. They’re the main drivers behind the so-called empowerment of the laity. How much then does our introversion influence how we imagine that ministry being shared? Are we perhaps inadvertently creating elaborate systems for allowing ourselves to remain safely within our comfort zones? And then does this vision of ministry attract more introverts than extroverts, thus reinforcing that bias?

This might strike you as preposterous. The church is simply trying to allow laypeople to be more involved in the mission and ministry of the Church, which is our shared responsibility as baptized Christians. True enough. At the same time, I can’t help but observe that the collaborative systems devised to foster shared ministry often leave clergy in roles more comfortable for introverts. These are generally defined by structured environments (e.g., liturgical worship or meetings) or managed one-on-one situations (e.g., pastoral counselling, supervision, or line management). These might be symbolized by three tables: altar, desk, and meeting table.

Messier situations are left to the laity: they’re encouraged to go into people’s homes, visit the sick in hospitals, engage with the local community, organize fellowship, work with children and youth, and the like. Their roles generally require more social flexibility and creativity than clerical ones. They have to put themselves out there in ways that make us introverted clergy feel uncomfortable, especially once we’ve become accustomed to the performative aspects of our jobs (i.e., standing up in front of people).

In my own ministry, it has been striking how many of these active laypeople are, in fact, extroverts—without their throwing themselves into church functions like fellowship meals, youth activities, and community activism, I would have been sunk. In how many of our churches must laity be extroverts just to start an active ministry? They have to take the initiative, put themselves forward bravely, because no one ever approaches them in the first place.

Turning clergy into managers is just the sort of thing one might expect introverted clergy to do even if not deliberately. Managing allows us a greater degree of control over social interactions and easy escapes into the safety of our offices. And in more extreme situations, this can even excuse clergy from having to deal meaningfully with many people. Outside of worship they spend their time managing the few who are ministering to the many. I don’t think these forms of collaborative working are devised in a programmatic way, but rather evolve from our disposition towards working in ways we find comfortable.

Now, all of this is undoubtedly grossly unfair. But I think it does at least open up an interesting thought experiment. If the surveys are correct about clergy being overwhelmingly introverted these days, how might that shape how we understand collaboration? And, if we were to imagine how extroverts would understand collaboration, would mission and ministry look different than it does now?

My own money is that we would end up with a far less managed church, where ministry is much messier, congregational life less structured, and roles less distinctly defined: more like how a family operates than a business. Our collaborative systems would also involve and facilitate a lot more of our going out into the world than people coming into our church offices. Our laptops might even gather some dust and Facebook benefit from our absence because we would be too busy actually co-laboring rather than striving to be leaders.

But that would be just fine—after all, we were called to serve not to lead.

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