Pam Rognlien serves with her husband, Bob, as leaders of 3DM West, and in the Footsteps of Jesus and Footsteps of Paul Experiences.
Drowning in a Sea of Extroverts?
I just love how God has made us each with unique quirks, preferences, and styles of expression! I love being around people who are not like me—I need their perspectives to help stretch my viewpoints, solve problems in ways I wouldn’t consider and just plain live out life in ways that inspire me!
But have you ever noticed how those inspirational differences can sometimes turn into the bane of your existence? Let’s consider just one of those differences—introverts and extroverts, and how they either swim with ease or gasp for air in the sea of Christian community.
God’s pronouncement in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone” rings true to me as I have experienced life. I grew up in a family of mostly quiet, introverted people. I gave my life to Christ at age 16. My new life in Christ was first lived out in a Christian community in upstate New York, and then with a Christian mission organization overseas.
Compared to my relatively quiet family, I enjoyed the excitement of community living, experiencing a variety of personalities and opportunities to grow in my Christian faith. We would sing, evangelize, work, create and worship together which formed very strong bonds of love between us. We were mostly single adults, and had the freedom to choose to be together, or alone, as we wished. I knew I enjoyed quiet time by myself, but I also enjoyed the joy of gathering in groups.
“God places the solitary in families and gives the desolate a home in which to dwell”
Soon the blessing of marriage and children came along—the deepest longings of my heart were suddenly fulfilled! But, as an introvert, I am energized by time alone and my husband, Bob, is energized by being around lots of people. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say he is an uber-extrovert! We also have two sons; one is extroverted, the other is not.
I first noticed my need for “personal space” boundaries had come to a head when our sons were young, around 7 and 9 years old. One day I found myself walking out the front door after Bob’s return from work, heading to the car, leaving their seemingly incessant questions and requests ringing in my ears and muttering to myself “NOT AVAILABLE! NOT AVAILABLE!” I don’t recall if I actually drove somewhere or just sat in the car; all I knew was I needed time to myself, right away!
I always knew Bob and I had very different personalities, which I viewed as the charm that attracted us to each other. Somehow I failed to register the impact of our premarital personality analysis results, or hear the kind suggestion from our pastor who said we might face challenges ahead given the fact that we were exact opposites on all accounts. I had stars in my eyes and wedding dresses on my mind, never imagining our differences could be anything but a bonus, and adorable!
These differences popped up when planning vacations. My ideal was a book on a quiet beach. His was being surrounded by family and friends all the time, the more, the merrier! I saw it as a sign he didn’t love me anymore, and he must have thought I hated him, his friends and his family. None of that was true, of course.
Trying to put a social calendar together between us was also a very delicate balancing act. My preference would be getting together with friends two times a month; his preference was five nights a week! Early in our marriage, I must admit, I won the tug of war over that issue. Our compromise evolved to the point that if he wanted more entertaining dates than I did, he would have to handle the details, and I would join as desired. It seemed OK, but still made me uncomfortable to have people in my home without being “in charge.”
About eight years ago my husband and I began journeying with some Christian brothers and sisters from 3DM, going deeper into what it means to live out lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. It meant offering my home as a place for hospitality. It meant there would be groups of people in my home, even two nights in a row! We ended up renovating our home to create space to accommodate larger groups of people for Missional Community. I was caving in to the reality that this wasn’t going to change, and it was the right thing, but how could I do this without being overwhelmed?
Our friends from 3DM reminded us of the instructions Jesus gave to His disciples on this very point—abiding and bearing fruit. To teach the concept that Jesus spoke about in John 15 they used a semi-circle, a line etched out by a pendulum swinging between times of bearing fruit and abiding. We start with rest, causing us to grow, which produces fruit. We enjoy the time of fruitfulness until that season is over, when pruning occurs, directing us back to a time of rest once again. And so the pendulum swings. I like to say the semi-circle transformed my marriage. It brings health to both me, as an introvert and Bob, as an extrovert, pushing us out of our fleshly preferences, into a rhythm that gives life all around—a life worth imitating.
Our culture is bent towards the belief that the more friends you have and interact with, the more successful you are. A job interviewer will always consider a prospective employee’s “people skills.” It seems equally a banner of success if one can easily float among groups of people, able to talk on any topic at the drop of a hat, and keep smiling. In the book The Introvert Advantage Marti Olsen writes, “We live in a culture that caters to and extols extroverts. We definitely learn that extroversion is the way we should be” (p. 54).
Now, looking back over the past 29 years of marriage, 25 of them as a pastor’s wife, and the launching of two awesome human males that are adding value to our world order, I can say there are skills, tools, and wisdom needed for introverts to navigate the waters of Christian community without sinking into despair. Yes, extroverts, you CAN get too much of a good thing! (Because hanging out with people IS a good thing, introverts!) Some “water wings” that have helped me navigate these waters have been:
- Choose time with people in small groups, as well as large. I find I really enjoy time with 5-8 people, and can have very meaningful interaction with them for quite a while without pulling my hair out. Be intentional about choosing to spend your social energy allotment here.
- I rely on Bob’s ability for marathon time with people (large groups or small) so I can pull out of the crowd if I find my well of “people reserves” running dry. I’ll just quietly slip out for a while, take some deep breaths, read a book, check in on Words with Friends, and then return when I can honestly enjoy the group again. He’s still at it—and the group never missed me! If you’re single, go with an extroverted friend who can spell you in large social settings.
- Find one person or a small group within a large group with whom you can have deeper conversation. You’re not the only introvert in the room! You may find someone else, like yourself, who would prefer a one-on-one visit, making the large-group gathering a win for both of you.
- Release yourself from guilt! Celebrate the handprint of God on you and others! I recommend a great book by Adam S. McHugh called Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture.
I have been amazed by the thanks I receive after speaking at Family on Mission Workshops with honestly about these struggles. I know the idea of gathering groups of people together on mission for God can produce hives for some (quite literally), and not because they don’t love the idea! They just can’t imagine how they could function amidst a group, enjoy it and be used by God in that context. Fear not; you have a place, and God wants to use you. But don’t use the term “introvert” as an excuse to tell God what you can and cannot do. God wants you to live in healthy rhythms, and that means being part of a family that loves you and one that you can love. It may look different than your extroverted best friend’s way of doing it, but there is a way that fits you—so dive in!