Here are a few practical tips for navigating cross-cultural ministry as an introvert.
First, accept yourself. Learn more about your trait by reading the references given below. I felt deeply affirmed when I first discovered the literature on introversion and could finally make sense of so many experiences that had wounded or frustrated me over the years. Knowing that I was not alone with these feelings went a long way toward my making peace with myself, and it has helped me stand up for my differences now in a very extroverted ministry context. Well, sometimes I stand up for myself, since it is doubly hard for introverts to make waves—but I try.
Second, pace yourself. Introverts are easily overwhelmed by situations that offer too much stimulation or demand they put themselves forward for long periods. Give yourself frequent breaks to process what is happening. Notice your energy rhythms, and plan your schedule accordingly. It is not easy, but I have tried to arrange my schedule for the past 20 years so that I can take a daily afternoon nap. Yes, people think I am strange and will rarely consider my needs when making their schedules, but my family can testify to how much better life is (for everyone) when I get my daily rest, and I believe it has saved me from burnout. It really is OK to live your life the way it works for you.
Third, set priorities and personal boundaries. No one can do it all, and since introverts are more affected by the input they receive, they need to be even more careful not to become overcommitted. Choose to invest your energy and time in what is most meaningful for you. Since group settings are draining, keep meetings to a minimum, especially if you work with numerous extroverts who dominate the discussion. Train yourself to say “That sounds interesting; let me get back to you” when asked to do something. Do not hesitate to respond “Sorry, I’m busy then” if what you plan to be busy doing is resting and regrouping from another activity. Give yourself permission to leave a gathering when you have had enough, though some cultures make this more difficult than others. We once had the bride and groom at a wedding in France chase us out to the parking lot when we tried to leave before the presentation of the cake—at 2:30 AM (the party continued till dawn)! It seems odd, but just knowing when we will be free to leave an event makes us introverts more willing to participate, and we enjoy it more if we have an exit strategy planned.
Fourth, find your role. Unstructured social interaction can be a nightmare—mingling before and after worship is usually highly uncomfortable for me—so find something to do. Strangely, it can be easier for introverts to be part of the welcome team than just a face in the crowd, since an official status offers a reason to talk to people coming in. In a park outreach our church plant held last summer, most of our group met people by casually striking up conversations with the parents and kids playing there, which is the last thing I would ever want to do—I instinctively shy away from anyone who speaks to me on the street or in a store, even if what they are offering looks attractive. Yet I felt totally at ease sitting at a table handing out the participant’s papers to kids for simple carnival games, since I was part of a specific activity, and people came up to me. Shared activity is a good alternative to conversation-based groups for introverts when building relationships.
By now you may be wondering if it is worth the trouble of trying to minister with an introvert’s temperament. Take heart, because we do contribute some essential things to our sphere of influence, even though our natural tendency to be self-effacing may make it extra difficult to acknowledge them. Here are some ways introverts can make their own unique contributions:
First, use your powers of observation. This default introvert setting is very helpful when learning our way around a new culture. We facilitate our integration by carefully studying what other people say and do; we then can act accordingly. The introvert tendency to approach with caution can help cross-cultural workers avoid cultural faux pas or giving unnecessary offense to those we want to reach for Christ. Careful observation also expresses itself in service, as we notice what needs to be done in a given situation and are generally happy working behind the scenes to make things happen.
Second, offer a listening ear. Because introverts process life internally, they offer a quiet, calming presence in a world that is often overstimulated. Our tendency to reflect deeply on our experience helps us to develop compassion and an ability to see another’s point of view. The extroverted tendency to think out loud can lead to a lot of directionless talk in meetings, but as careful listeners introverts can ask helpful questions that refocus the conversation to keep it on track. People who talk less take up less space, and they thus can offer more space to others. In a cross-cultural setting it is even more important to listen and understand where the other person is coming from so as not to inflict our preconceptions on them.
Third, share your insights. Because introverts tend to observe before entering into conversations and experiences, we often have insights that others who plunge right in to the action might not have. We are more attuned to others’ moods and can sense tension or emotions that may be overlooked by the larger group. Spending most of a discussion listening to what others have to say enables us to see the bigger picture in a way that those who are promoting their point of view might miss. The trick is to make our voice heard, especially if we rarely speak up. I cannot count the number of times I have made a point that was completely ignored—until another more vocal person made the same point, to widespread approval (often that person is my enthusiastic husband). It can be helpful to cultivate a regular spokesperson with more influence than we naturally have to promote our views. On the other hand, our voice can sometimes carry more weight because it is seldom heard; we can be thought of as the silent sages of our community.
Fourth, develop your creativity. Solitude is a key to creativity, and our unique contributions may be stifled if we have input from too many other voices. Do not believe that to be valuable, ministry time must be spent with other people. The rich inner life of the introvert can find expression in all manner of creative outlets that bless the community as a whole. In one ministry assignment I happily wrote many scripts illustrating the week’s Bible passage for worship, and I loved developing the children’s program for the family camps we did each year. Many introverts also enjoy teaching and preaching, since study and reflection energize us. Those roles offer a certain control over our contribution and give us a mandate for sharing our views that we may not feel we have in casual one-on-one conversation.
So, if you are an introverted cross-cultural worker, God bless you—and He can use you. At times we may need to act like extroverts in order to accomplish something we care about, but overall it is healthier to operate within the “sweet spot” of our temperament and gifting. Not everything about our cross-cultural-worker calling will come naturally to us, but it is calling, not temperament, that determines our life’s work. Dare to believe that your way of being and doing in the world is valuable, and give yourself permission to cautiously go out and preach the Gospel, perhaps where no one has gone before.
And remember, Jesus took naps.
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron
The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts in the Church by Adam S. McHugh
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Also listen to Susan Cain’s TED talk
Introvert Confessions, Part 1 was published last week.
Question to consider: How do you practically “dare to believe that your way of being and doing in the world is valuable?”