An Introvert in the Church

Posted by on March 15, 2013 in Mormon Life | 17 comments

Is the LDS church compatible with everyone’s temperament, or does it cater to certain kinds of personalities?

I’m currently reading Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. As an introvert, it has been an interesting and helpful read. It discusses what makes introverts unique and successful, and how we function in a world that tends to cater to extroverts. One of the questions the books poses is: how does religion cater to introverts and extroverts. I’m running off a definition of introverts drawing energy from being alone, preferring to work independently, and feeling uncomfortable with crowds and people they don’t know and extroverts drawing energy from others, preferring to work in groups and enjoying spending time with and meeting new people. Because introversion and extroversion are only one aspect of our personalities, we can’t say that church is good or bad for all introverts or extroverts. But I think it is an interesting discussion to have; how does the church cater to introverts and extroverts?

Cain uses the example of evangelical Protestantism to suggest that some religions cater to extroverts, leaving introverts feeling less worthy or useful in their churches. Some of what was said rang true for my experience in the Mormon church.  Adam McHugh, an introverted evangelical pastor Cain interviewed said:

“The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion… The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that their not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like.’ It feels like ‘God isn’t pleased with me.’”

After reading this, I started to consider what aspects of Mormonism cater to extroverts. The first example I thought of was the expectation that all young men serve a mission. With the change in the mission age, there seems to be higher expectations for women to serve as well. For an introvert, the call to serve a mission can be terrifying. (At least it was for me when I was considering it.) The notion that you will spend your time talking to people you don’t know, knocking on doors of strangers that probably don’t want to talk to you makes me squirm. But the policy that all young men must serve a mission puts introverts in a quandary. Either they spend years in a state of high anxiety, or face the stigma of not serving.

McHugh said of evangelical church services “Everything in the service involved communication… Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing. There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation.” This descriptions of worship also reminded me of LDS services. Often walking into Sacrament Meeting is slightly stressful for me. All I want to do is sit down quietly but instead I have to make small talk with the greeter and people who approach me. When I haven’t attended church in a while, this pressure to talk to people is even worse as people go out of their way to talk to me. They are trying to be nice, to fellowship as they have been taught, and it stresses me out. I rarely find God surrounded by other people; instead I find God when I’m alone with a book or music. So Mormon church and temple worship is not the best place for me to feel connected to God, although it does happen.

Other ways that Mormons might cater to extroverts include the emphasis on activities and ward functions for people of all ages, on “every member a missionary”, on worthiness interviews with near strangers. I see it in assigning all members to speak or pray in Sacrament meeting at least once in their lives, regardless of how comfortable they are with it. I see it in callings being assigned based on the needs of the ward rather than the needs and comfort of the members being called. I say this because often the bishop makes a calling without asking about the member’s circumstances or feelings, and there is a big taboo against refusing a calling. So introverts may be asked to be in leadership or teaching positions that they do not feel suited for and that will give them extreme anxiety, and they may feel they can’t say no even if saying no is in their best interest.

On the other hand, there are aspects of Mormonism that cater to introverts. Home and visiting teaching are chances for interaction in small groups. The church encourages personal prayer and scripture study, a process that could speak to introverts, allowing them to find God and spiritual fulfillment by themselves. The emphasis on family time allows introverts to spend time with those they feel comfortable with and not feel guilty about it.

In my experience, I feel the church leans towards catering to extroverts, with its expectations of public and social involvement. It can, of course, be good for people to learn new skills if they wish to. Learning to speak in public and to interact with strangers can be helpful. But is church the best place to learn those skills? Can fear brought on my certain expectations make it hard to worship? Is it right to expect all members to function the same way when Gad gave us widely different personalities? Does God want us all to turn into good speakers and cheerful small-talkers? Or is there value we are missing in the introverted members of our wards when we ask them to function like extroverts?

What is your experience? Are you an introvert or extrovert? How has that affected your experience at church? In what ways do you feel the church leans towards introversion or extroversion?

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17 Comments

  1. I could not agree MORE. I am the mother of two introverts and married to one too. I myself am an intro-extrovert. I would rather by by myself, but I am thrust into extrovert activites often because I can be comfortable in front of others, and I share some of those more extrovert talents like singing or piano playing that the church loves so much.

    I’d rather be by myself or in a small group of people–preferably where I know every person. It’s been enlightening having kids and a husband who are very introverted and to see how they navigate a culture that expects people to show up to every meeting, ward dinner, YW activity and pack meeting. How do we navigate it inspite of the expectation? I simply ask them, “How do you feel about being involved with that?” Nine times out of ten they will attend and leave early–my goal is to help them listen and honor their comfort level and realize that it’s a beautiful thing to be who they are. :)

    Fabulous post!

  2. I agree with all your major points, Defy, although I would add nuance to some of them. For instance, although I am an extreme introvert, I actually enjoy public speaking and teaching; those activities suit my introversion very well, because I can prepare in advance and go through all the mental “what if” scenarios, and as the acknowledged “authority” for the length of the lesson or talk I don’t have to fight to have my voice heard. It isn’t worth speaking up when anyone else is leading a lesson, though, because experience teaches that the extroverts will talk right over me.

    I wonder, too, if it isn’t so much the structure and expectations of the church at large that makes church difficult for introverts — I wonder if isn’t more the local culture of a local ward. For example, I’ve been in wards where bishops have made a real effort to cut down on the pre-meeting noise so that introverts like me have the calm space to center ourselves in preparation for worship. My current bishop, though, is an extrovert — an extrovert on (figurative) steroids, even! — and the culture of the ward is very hard on me. The minutes before sacrament meeting are less like worship and more like a berserk high school pep rally. And perhaps understandably, the extrovert bishop (who is a really fine man, and sincerely interested in helping ward members, but with whom I’ve clashed because it simply doesn’t occur to him that some people are driven to tears by the very thing from which he draws his own energy) has called people who are mostly like him for most positions in the ward. In RS, for instance, we’ve had members of the presidency in a state of warbling ecstasy over the roar of talking and laughing before/during/after RS meetings because to them it shows how much the sisters enjoy being with each other.

    There is simply no contemplative space in this ward because the extrovert style is valued so highly, while other wards I’ve lived in have been calmer, more peaceful, more accepting of the introverted style.

    So I think church can go either way — introvert or extrovert — based on leadership style and on individual manifestations of introversion. Like the rest of the world, though, noise tends to drive out reflection, so it’s much easier for a ward to celebrate extrovert personalities and look at us introverts as freaks who should be pulled “out of our shells” (I hate that metaphor!) and made to mimic extroverts “for our own good.”

    • I agree that this is a nuanced subject, but I do not think a blog is the place for a thirty page post on the subject. As I said in the post, I was speaking in generalizations. I too enjoy teaching although I am an introvert, but know others who are terrified at the prospect.

      The idea of leaders playing a part in the atmosphere of a ward is interestng. I’ve never been in a ward like the one you describe; that would be very hard for me. I think leaders can certainly make or break a church experience.

      I also don’t like to be told to get out of my comfort zone. I have things to add that come from my comfort zone, not from trying to act like something I am not.

  3. The church does not necessarily “cater” to extroverts, but we have to face it, the majority of our leaders definitley do not fit into the introvert mold. I think that the best ones are in-betweeners. (Just my opinion, and I mean, in general.)

    I have to contimually override my normal impulses in order to be effective in the church. I actually did not go on a mission because of my aversion to meeting new people. I do fine at church because I can go around shaking hands (something I truly enjoy), then go sit on the pew with my wife and granddaughter and close off the world around me somewhat.

    I have come to understand my impulses and preferences for being alone. If I had my druthers, I would be living in a ghost town miles away from most humans. (I would have my wife with me. She is the one person in this life I do not want to do without.) But, in order to live the Gospel to its fullest, I have to be around people, since the Gospel is not about what I can do for myself, but what I can do for others.

    Glenn

  4. My church experiences taught me how to speak and interact with groups of people and with strangers. That still did not teach me how to do chit-chat. I do not think my introversion was appreciated by one of my mission presidents. I think the other mission president recognized how my introversion could help the members of some branches understand how to work with some missionaries and local leaders.

  5. I just finished that book and really enjoyed it. I am introverted – but only slightly (according to the last Myers-Briggs I took). I think on the scale of introverted to extroverted churches Mormons are somewhere in the middle. We’re not like the mainline Protestant churches I’ve been to that scuttle the kids out after a short “Children’s sermon” so the adults can have peace and quiet, nor do we have the exuberance of Southern Baptists or the sensory overload of megachurches.

    The Mormon church suits my level of introversion well. I like giving talks and lessons for the same reasons Ardis mentioned, but I also feel fine raising my hand to comment, and do it fairly often. I’m not very good at chit-chat, but I love visiting teaching. I didn’t serve a mission, and I’m sure I would have found tracting excruciating, but think I would have found meaningful discussions with investigators to be very enjoyable.

  6. I think church, and our experiences with it, is a major factor in whether we become introverted or extroverted.

    I identify with being introverted. I am very comfortable with lots of alone time — I enjoy and often prefer doing things on my own (travel, visiting museums, going to movies, etc.). On a church level, I’ve never been comfortable attending church activities. I never liked mutual, Young Womens, the church Christmas party, and I do not enjoy going to RS activities currently.

    I’ve often wondered if my introvert nature is actually somewhat tied to my feelings towards the church. While I’m a believer, I have never identified with the feelings and beliefs many TBM have. I felt that way as early as primary and since I grew up in Provo, UT (oy vey!), I’ve wondered if my aversion to the prominent culture played a large part in my introvert tendencies at least in a church setting.

    Plus, I’ve noticed that I tend to be quite extroverted if I’m around non-members. If I’m at a job or part of a group where no one is a member, or even when I was a missionary, I noticed that I could talk to people a lot more openly and be comfortable with my own personality — something I tend to shield quite a bit in the presence of Mormons.

    It’d be fascinating to see some sort of study about how church culture impacts our social skills and how we adapt those when not in a church setting.

  7. I am an introvert but I would bet that my ward wouldn’t think so. I have those extrovert talents — I teach as my profession, I sing loudly, I play the piano, I am comfortable with public speaking, I even enjoy it. But as previously stated, I’m not convinced that those are really all that extroverty. When I’m giving a talk, its just me. When I sing I only hear my voice becasue everyone else is mumbling and dragging. Not everyone else. Most everyone. I also speak my mind.

    On the other hand, I work at home alone (when I’m not teaching). My husband is an introvert who works long hours, so most nights we curl in the living room and I read while he watches basketball. It is silent, but a loving silence. I have lots and lots and lots of silent alone time. So I’m okay with three hours of manic, but I usually feel exhausted afterward, even a little teary. I get downright angry if we have evening meetings on Sunday. I think that pace of constant interaction can be more comfortable for extroverts.

  8. I am an introvert. I enjoy giving talks and lessons because I don’t have to rely on my charisma to be heard. I prefer having an assigned time for people to pay attention to me, rather than being alone in a crowd being ignored because I don’t have the talent for keeping people’s attention. I have no chit chat talent and have spent my 40 years painfully learning.
    While I have a little bit of anxiety and used to be shy (different than introversion), I am very motivated to connect with people. So even though I need lots and lots of alone time, I also want to have friends and I want to help others and be a part of the community, etc.
    My husband, however, is an introvert who is completely comfortable chit chatting but practically hates being around people. He always wants to leave places before me (usually doesn’t even want to go in the first place).
    I sometimes have trouble going to places, but usually enjoy them while I am there, but then I am tired afterward because it is tiring to be around people. I am always glad I went to church.
    My older kids seem to be introverts (although the younger two might be extroverts), but I have taken great pains to help them develop social skills. So none of them are shy and they have all learned how to talk to people. But the oldest two definitely need alone time at home.

  9. I’m a shy extrovert (yes, we exist), which basically means that I need to be around people and thrive on community and relationships, but I’m also terrified of talking to new people. Church activities are great for me, because they provide a “safe” environment where I can be around people and have an excuse to make new friends.

  10. I am an introvert. Church generally wears down my energy and often I try to come to sacrament meeting as close to the opening prayer as possible and leave as soon as the lessons are over. However, being asked to teach and speak in public has been very helpful in teaching me to be out of my comfort zone and participate in those activities. I feel church is a better place to learn those skills (than at school or on the job) because, there is less pressure. Inevitably at church you have family or friends encouraging you and a MUCH smaller chance of hearing negative comments about your talk. In school or on the job you run a much higher risk (ex. failing grade, being fired, etc.) if you do poorly.

  11. I am an extrovert who needs constant tasks and loves to talk and discuss ideas, my mind going way too fast many times for church. I find our religion a great exercise in working on my quiet skills:being still, listening and not being able to discuss during sacrament meeting, to be quiet for 2hours during a temple session, to find every day to read without distractions, to plan in small groups and have unity in a presidency. I guess my point is that no matter your natural inclinations, religion requires stretching and learning things, even in our personality.

  12. I’m an introvert and church exhausts me!

  13. Emily U’s comment reminded me that I’m grateful that the Mormon Church doesn’t have a time for fellowship/greeting/peace in the middle of sacrament meetings. I hate it when I attend other worship services, and I’m expected to greet (sometimes hug!) strangers as part of my worship. So.much.anxiety!

    • Ha! Yes, the only thing I don’t like about my local UCC is that we are supposed to hold hands with strangers and sing at one point. Totally outside my comfort zone. Sometimes I try to leave before that point.

  14. I can resonate with those introverts who (mostly) don’t mind teaching lessons or being in front of others. I also second the OP’s suggestion that full-time missionary work may be particularly exhausting for introverts. For me, it was not even so much the constant engaging with strangers (though that was definitely difficult). It was the constantly being with one’s companion, and not having Any time (aside from showering or using the restroom) to really be alone. It meant that I was losing energy, but not having real opportunity to restore myself. I just wanted to be able to go for a run alone or even the chance to sit and write in my journal by myself.

  15. As a youth I was an extro-extrovert …. and I was often frustrated with shy introverts … thinking that they needed to break out of their shell, speak up, work harder, and help (for pity sake) the rest of us build the Kingdom of God. It shames to me to this day that I had those thoughts.

    Now, as an adult, I’m still an extrovert, but as J points out in her comment: better at being still. (Thank you church for taming, in some part, my extro.) I’m also wiser and I see that every person brings beautiful gifts to the body of Christ.

    I think church activity and activities do cater to extroverts. I think we would be wiser – and better – to open our minds to how wide the Gospel net actually is. We do need all the parts. And I think we need top better at thinking of different ways that things can be done.

    Suzette

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