I Do Not Need to be Cured of Introversion

There are a lot of things I need to be cured of.  Introversion is not one of them.  I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand how I tick and accept how God created me. 

  • Why was I always quiet and self-contained as a child, choosing to play outside or read a book rather than go to a birthday party, having a few good friends but not needing to be around a lot of people?
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  • Why was I hesitant for years to speak on the floor of the West Michigan Annual Conference until one day I was so passionate about equal benefits for mental and physical illness that I finally dared to come to a microphone?
  • Why did I not go to a single party in high school, college, or graduate school, instead preferring to study or practice the organ?
  • When attending a conference, why do I often take a walk or go back to my room during lunch for some quiet time rather than eat with colleagues?
  • Why did I have to psych myself up when shopping with my kids at the mall, and why did I read a book in the fitting room while they tried on clothes? 
  • Why did I always get a headache when visiting New York City?

I never really felt different growing up.  I didn’t even know what an introvert was.  No one ever considered me strange because I was not as outgoing as other kids.  My parents encouraged me to lead from my strengths rather than try to become someone I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and acknowledged for the first time that I was a classic introvert.  I also learned that introversion/extroversion is one of the “Big Five” personality traits that are recognized by psychologists.  The others are openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  According to researchers, most people generally fall in the middle of the introversion/extroversion scale, with attributes of both types. 

Extroverts thrive in settings where they interact with other people and work creatively in groups.  They tend to be gregarious and assertive, crave high stimulation, and enjoy the notice of others.  They often experience a “buzz” when speaking in front of others or engaging in risky behavior.

Introverts are typically more reserved and quiet, preferring solitary behavior or interaction with small groups of people.  They dislike high levels of stimulation, shy away from attention, and often have a rich inner life.  Albert Einstein once said, “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”

In graduate school and seminary I realized that extreme introverts like me were a minority.  I observed that students who were the first to speak in class often received more attention than those of us who hung back until our thoughts were fully fleshed out.  At social gatherings people eagerly gathered around those who were the life of the party.  On the other hand, I was often alone on the outer fringes where I sought out others who seemed left out and engaged them in one-on-one conversation.  “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered.

We live in an extroverted country, which is not the case in other parts of the world.  Nor was it always the case in America.  In her 2012 book Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain writes that in the nineteenth century our country embodied what cultural historian Warren Susman called a “Culture of Character.”  Characteristics such as inner strength, reserve, dignity, and integrity were valued.  Cain says, “What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private.”  Abraham Lincoln was an introvert who gained respect from friends and foes alike because of his quiet thoughtfulness, resolve, and honor. 

In the early twentieth century, however, a cultural shift took place as America moved from an agricultural to an urbanized society where cultivating business relationships and making a good first impression were highly prized.  The self-help tradition of Dale Carnegie became immensely popular as children were taught the virtue of outer charm and knowing when, what, and how to speak.  Charisma and the unabashed promotion of self emerged as the Culture of Personality was born.  There was immense pressure to exude confidence, and social failure was anathema. 

A hundred years ago extroversion supplanted introversion as the default personality of America so that today working in teams is considered the most effective way to be successful.  Seeking to be the center of attention works, raising the loudest voice wins, managing gestures and speaking style is critical, and socialization is essential for success. 

Estimates are that one-third to one-half of Americans are introverts.  Therefore, extroverts and introverts would do well to understand each other since we work, live, play, worship, and serve together.  Living as we do in an extroverted culture, introverts plead with their extroverted friends, “I do not need to be cured of introversion.  It’s a myth that introverts cannot be charismatic leaders and that extroverts are generally more successful in life.  Please understand me.”  

  • Because we become quieter when others get louder, it does not mean that we are relationally unskilled or without opinions of our own.
  • Because solitude is a catalyst for our creativity, we need the quiet of our personal space, but it doesn’t mean we dislike people. 
  • Because we are not interested in dominating social situations, we do not have a personality flaw.
  • Because we can be intense and focused, don’t label us as peculiar or stand-offish. 
  • Because noise and high levels of stimulation impede our productivity and we need to retreat at times to regain energy, don’t discount or ignore us.   

“Understand and be who you are, claim the unique strengths of your personality, and act in an extroverted manner when necessary.”  That’s my mantra.  If I don’t understand myself, I can’t expect others to understand me.  Most introverts are not socially deficient, we’re just wired differently than extroverts.  Recent research in neuroscience and psychology highlights the fact that babies who are highly reactive to their environment think and feel things more deeply.  High reactivity is one biological basis for introversion.

I cannot change my basic nature, but I’ve learned that if I am to be effective as a pastor, I need to be extroverted at the appropriate times.  Since many clergy are introverts in congregations composed primarily of extroverts, we have to learn how to display characteristics of a balanced personality. 

We cannot hide in our offices after worship but need to be out and about at coffee hour, meeting people and making connections.  We need to take the initiative to introduce ourselves to others, especially those who are introverts and are standing off in a corner.  We have to overcome or at least tame our natural anxiety in speaking before large groups of people, especially when asked to speak extemporaneously. 

Acting like an extrovert wears out introverts (and vice versa), thus the need to control our schedules so that we have adequate time to recharge during long days of meetings.  We would also do well to plan worship that appeals to both introverts (meditative and thoughtful) as well as extroverts (high energy and stimulating).

I do not need to be cured of introversion.  Nor do others need to be cured of extroversion.  We both have gifts to offer our world.  May God give us the grace simply to understand, accept, and honor the way we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Blessings,
Laurie

Peanuts, Crackerjack, and Potlucks

Take me out to the ballgame,
Take me out with the crowd.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I ever get back;
‘Cause it’s root, root, root for the Tigers,
if they don’t win it’s a shame.

For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out, at the old ballgame.

“Who are you going to root for, Mom, the Tigers or Phillies?”  I had my Phillies cap last Friday night when the Detroit Tigers played the Philadelphia Phillies but was forbidden by my family to enter Comerica Park wearing it.  I’ve rooted for the Tigers for the 32 years I’ve lived in Michigan, but that’s only because they’re in the American League.  I’m a life-long Phillies fan (National League), having grown up an hour away from Philly. 

As a kid I listened to the Phillies games every night in bed with a little transistor radio glued to my ear.  Our family would go to several games a summer, traveling to the big city from the country.  Soft pretzels, Philly fries, hoagies, and Philly cheese steaks were all part of the experience.  One of my biggest thrills was attending the last game of the 1980 World Series when the Phillies beat the Kansas City Royals. 

It was a perfect night for baseball on Friday.  We were attending as part of a group of Detroit Renaissance District United Methodists.  We wanted to park at Central United Methodist Church, one of the first Protestant churches in Michigan, which is right next to the stadium.  The lot was already full, but proceeds from parking enable this social justice-oriented congregation to be in mission in the city.

As I observed the collective energy and fervor of 42,317 people rooting for the Tigers, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Why don’t most churches generate this kind of energy?  Why aren’t most of our churches filled to the rafters every Sunday?  Would it help if we served peanuts and Crackerjack at our potlucks?  What if the church were like a Tigers game at Comerica Park?   

familyThe Tigers cater to families.  They have kid-friendly food (Little Caesar’s Pizza and Dippin’ Dots among other delicacies), a mascot named PAWS, massive Tiger sculptures all over the stadium, a carousel made up entirely of tigers, and a Ferris wheel with baseball-shaped compartments.  How is your church developing age-appropriate ministries, programs, and activities that enable children to grow in their faith?

  • Crazy idea: Do you have a biblical church mascot like PAWS who appears at different events?  A camel, ram, sheep, goat, rainbow, or lily?  Kids would love it!

Comerica Park is a warm, inviting, even boutique-like ballpark.  There’s a lot of open space for people to gather, eat, and just hang out.  Located in the heart of center city, Comerica Park welcomes all people to enjoy a fun night out.  The crowd is very diverse, fans represent the make-up of the community, and there is no dress code. 

Do you ever imagine what first-time guests might think of your church?  How is the space in your church facility configured so that they feel at home?  Do you have a gathering area where people can mingle as well as sign up for service opportunities? 

ezraCrazy idea:  Free smiles, coffee, doughnuts, bagels, and copies of the Sunday paper aren’t just for home.  Have them available at church, too!  It also helps to train members to be welcoming. 

Technology and music play a key role at Comerica Park in bringing fans together to root, root, root for the home team.  The huge screen enables the crowd to view close-up replays.  We can also see stats for all the players, and between innings we are entertained by audience participation events, cheers, songs, and waving white rally towels.  Is your church taking advantage of technology in worship to enhance sermons, music, announcements, and visual learning?

  • Crazy idea: How about using a large screen to display Twitter comments on the service?  Ask the congregation to respond to congregational singing, the pastoral prayer, announcements, and friendliness of ushers, with results projected on the screen.  They could even guess how much the offering will be! 

Comerica Park offers all kinds of logo wear to promote team spirit and loyalty.  Every other fan seems to be wearing Tigers apparel.  Our grandson, Ezra, is a Miguel Cabrera fan.

  • Crazy idea:  Sell logo shirts for clergy and lay staff, who get to pick their favorite numbers, and encourage church members to wear their logo shirts to worship.  Of course, don’t forget Jesus, who gets #99 (the last will be first). 

Tigers fans gladly part with their money through tickets, parking, food, and merchandise because they are proud of their team.  The Tigers organization works hard to secure quality players and coaches in order to produce a winning team.  In the same way church members eagerly contribute to congregations when they are excited about ministries that are truly making a difference in their community and the world.

  • Crazy idea: Encourage local businesses to advertise in the bulletin and on the screen to help support mission and outreach.  Suggestions:
    • Need legal help?  Dial 1-800-Call Job.
    • Want to cater your next Finance meeting?  Call Martha (note: no extra charge for biblical foods).
    • Hungry?  Text Little Caesars during the sermon, and they’ll deliver pizza to your car in the church parking lot after worship.
    • Need a haircut?  Call Delilah (“I specialize in Samson-like buzz cuts.”)

One of the electronic signs at Comerica Park displayed this saying: “Success is measured in seasons, not innings.”  The reality is that baseball is a very long season with 162 games.  No team will win every game, but over time a culture of signing the right players, focus on fundamentals, preparation, and determination will result in success.  Remember, when batters succeed three times and fail seven times out of ten at-bats they are considered very good hitters.  Failure is the catalyst for improvement.

In the same way the church would benefit greatly from thinking long term.  Do you have a strategic plan that will lead you into God’s future?  Are you willing to sacrifice short-term results for a vision that embraces the length, breadth, height, and depth of God’s love?

  • Crazy idea: Have a plan!

Fans respond to excellence.  Last place teams do not usually have the best attendance record.  So it is in the church.  A few faithful will hang in there no matter how listlessly the songs are played, how lost the preacher gets during the sermon, or how tedious the announcements are.  The spiritually mature as well as those searching for a church home do not expect to be entertained.  However, they do come to worship expecting to hear a word from the Lord and be inspired to respond through faithful obedience. 

  • Crazy idea: If your pastor hits a home run with his/her sermon, the soloist deeply touches worshippers, or the choir outdoes itself, offer the congregation an opportunity to respond by lifting crosses in the air or chanting, “We will, we will rock serve you.”    

People go to ballgames because they want to be part of something larger than themselves.  There’s nothing quite like thousands of people cheering on a team that represents their city and state.  The church offers a place where people can become part of building the kingdom of God and where their small contribution toward mission, outreach, education, worship, and fellowship is multiplied many times over when we all serve together.

  • Crazy idea:  If the sermon drags on too long, perform your own seventh inning stretch either by waving your rally towel or singing:

Let our worship be pleasing;
Let the spirit fly free.
Teach us, renew us, remake us;
Children, youth, and adults alike;
‘Cause it’s root, root, root for our Savior;
Live and serve faithfully.
For it’s one, two, three hymns we sing and out we go.

Blessings,
Laurie

 

The Empty Bowl

LOCKDOWN!  A call came from the police within an hour of our first day in our new appointment.  “Lock down the building.  A bank robber is on the loose and is coming your way.” The staff was just finishing a communion service in the chapel as a way of beginning our new ministry together, so everyone scattered to make sure all doors were locked.  As we regrouped for a reception, Gary and I were repeatedly greeted with a smile, “Welcome to Birmingham!  You didn’t know what you were getting into, did you?”

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Sitting in the chapel that first morning, I held the image of an empty bowl in my heart.  It was a suggestion from my spiritual director, who invited me to go into this new adventure completely empty, allowing God to “fill my cup.”

During the last several months I attempted to empty my bowl so I would be ready and open for what lay ahead.  I did not want to drag unfinished business or other personal baggage into the moving van along with everything else.   Bringing closure to relationships was the most important part of that process of emptying.  Even though friendships that have been nurturing and life-giving will continue, the relationship will now be different because we are living in another community and pastoring a different church.

Over the years I’ve learned that emptying my bowl includes five phrases, “Thank you.  Please forgive me.  I forgive you.  I love you.  Goodbye.” Thank you.

The call was unexpected, for we hadn’t had contact in years.  “Hi, Laurie.  This is Tom.  I heard that you are moving and wondered if we could meet for lunch?”  When we met Tom began by saying, “I want to thank you for your influence in my life.  You asked me to chair a major committee at the church at a young age, and I wasn’t sure I even had the qualifications.  Thank you for believing in me and mentoring and encouraging me.  It was a great experience.”

“Tom, I am the one who needs to thank you,” I responded.  “You compiled an extensive handbook for each member of this committee, along with policies, procedures, and checklists.  You also held us accountable with a gentle spirit.  I’ve never told you this, but you taught me more about organizational leadership than you will ever know, and my passion for creating handbooks comes from you.”

Similar conversations were repeated with other friends over the last five months.  “Thank you for walking beside me.”  “Thank you for coming to my rescue.”  “Thank you for praying for me.”  “Thank you for being there for our children.”  “God bless you for your kindness.”

The bowl cannot be emptied until we have said our thank-you’s.  Thank you.  Please forgive me.  I forgive you.

In our United Methodist Book of Worship there is a ritual for leave-taking for a pastor in which these words are spoken:

Pastor: I thank you, the members and friends of — United Methodist Church, for the love and support you have shown me while I have ministered among you.  I am grateful for the ways my leadership has been accepted.  I ask forgiveness for the mistakes I have made.  As I leave, I carry with me all that I have learned here.
Congregation: We receive your thankfulness, offer forgiveness, and accept that you now leave to minister elsewhere.
Pastor: I accept your gratitude and forgiveness, and I forgive you, trusting that our time together and our parting are pleasing to God.

Forgiveness is an essential part of emptying my bowl.  I continually make mistakes, unintentionally hurt others, and don’t always exemplify the mind and heart of Christ.  Taking the initiative to reconcile when relationships have been strained takes an enormous amount of courage.  Yet we cannot move on with a clear heart and no regrets without leaning on God’s grace, saying what needs to be said, and making things right.  Please forgive me.  I forgive you. I love you. 

None of us says, “I love you” as often as we should.  Yet no three words have more power to bless, affirm, heal, and transform than “I love you.”  During the last five months I decided to empty my bowl by telling as many people as I could that I love them and that I am far richer for their presence in my life.

I made a list because I didn’t want to leave with a bowl that was half empty.  Gary and I met with groups of individuals who are very dear to us.  I also had lunch dates with people who prayed for me, loved me when I was unlovable, and whose lives have touched me deeply.

Those times were filled with laughter as well as tears.  Memories of open water swims, bike crashes, family camp, weddings, and hospital stays.  We remembered when I was dressed up as the prostitute Rahab for a first- person sermon.  Memories of “Olympic games” at a strategic planning retreat brought gales of laughter.  Our young son Garth’s antics when he was introduced to the congregation on our first Sunday at First UMC, Grand Rapids, twenty years ago, elicited knowing smiles. Funny and even embarrassing incidents from my years as a district superintendent were recalled.

Even though we vowed to continue friendships, we also needed to acknowledge that things would be different.  At times I was surprised at my emotional reactions.  A few weeks ago I ran into a couple whom God accidentally (no … intentionally) placed in my path many years ago on one of the darkest days of my life.  I dissolved into tears attempting to explain how much their presence and compassion gave me the strength to endure.  I love you. Goodbye.

It’s no coincidence that these five phrases are often suggested by Hospice caregivers for people who are transitioning from life to death.  In order to bring closure to a life, it’s important for people to be at peace, and peace comes from being released from the lockdown of regret, anger, uncertainty, and longing.

When sitting with people who are dying, I will occasionally ask if there is anything they need to take care of before emptying their bowl and letting go.  More than once there has been a specific person they wish to see, whether a family member, friend, or someone with whom they have been at odds.  When resolution comes a peaceful death often follows.

Over the past few months we emptied the bowl by saying goodbye to both people and places.  Our three children came from different parts of the country to say goodbye to the house in which they lived for twenty years.  We went to old haunts, took an eight mile walk around the local lake, and shared stories.  We came full circle, then said farewell.  Goodbye.

At the end of my conversation with Tom, who has a chronic illness and is on disability, I decided to go deeper and asked, “How is your spirit?  Have you found a faith community?”

“I wasn’t prepared to answer that question.”

“I hope that you will find your place in a church for your own spiritual nourishment and so that you can connect with God and others and continue to make a difference in the world.  Despite your illness you still have something to give, Tom, just as you made a huge impact on my life.”

“For a long time I thought I could will my health to improve.  I don’t have the energy to be an advocate for my illness or change the world.”

“It may seem as if illness has emptied your bowl, Tom, but God invites you to fill it with hope and encouragement.  God is not through with you yet.”

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With an empty bowl I am not locked down in my own narrow attitudes but am able to see God in every moment and live fully in the present.  At the same time no one is locked out, for there is room in the bowl for everyone and everything.  Constructed out of gratitude for the past and hope for the future, my bowl is ready to be filled with new adventures of faith and transformation, a passion for sharing the story of a Savior who offers the abundance of loaves and fishes, and a grace that undergirds every moment.

Blessings, Laurie

P.S. The bank robber was caught outside the Presbyterian Church across the street.