This year’s theme is “The Story/The Stories.” Each week our blog will focus on a story from a youth minister. We hope these stories help inspire you in the great work you are doing, as well as let you know you aren’t alone in the crazy, sweet, often hard to fathom world of youth ministry. This week we are hearing……
The Story told quietly
Andy is the Minister to Students at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.
In one of my last classes in seminary, the professor wrote “ENFJ” on the board and mentioned that this personality type (referring to the 4-letter combinations described by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) has the least number of adjustments to make in congregational ministry. God calls all types, of course, but by and large, he said, this is the kind of person most churches think they want, what many expect a minister to look and act like, and the one who might feel most natural at this work.
As almost the complete opposite type – “ISTJ” – my initial response was, “Now you tell me?”
The stronger feeling, though, was relief. I’d already started to feel challenged in some of the ways I’m sure my professor had in mind. Shortly after graduation, I bumped into him and mentioned being called by a church to a full-time youth ministry position. His only comment, knowing me as a capital “I” introvert was “Good luck – that’s extroverted work.”
While pride made me want to fight back against what I perceived as typecasting, the first few years on the job have softened my resistance and basically proved him right. Reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, brought even more relief, affirmation, and some strategies for survival.
These strategies include acknowledging the extrovert ideal held in American culture and “faking it until you make it” (to an extent). Introverted clergy can add “embracing the principle of ministerial initiative.” We may not be good at putting ourselves out there, but we cannot always expect others to approach us. Theologically speaking, we mimic the Incarnation.
Learning how (not to mention, how long) to pretend extroversion, though, is the lesser of two essential needs. The greater urgency is for introverts to own and “double down” on the strengths God gave them. Youth, especially, are looking for listening ears in a sea of advice-givers. The current and future Church needs those who think before they act. In an era when activity and work-a-holism eat people alive, contemplatives can share from experience about the treasures of silence and Sabbath-keeping.
Arranging work and home environments that best serve us isn’t selfish. It means we’ll be better ministers, better spouses and parents, more energetic, more enthusiastic, and more creative. If that means fighting for a more private office or respectfully questioning the popular science of constant collaboration, then that’s what we need to do. We have to protect our “restorative niches” – fishing, one-on-one meetings, writing, naps, lunch breaks spent alone, camping out in libraries, whatever restores us – like our lives depend on it. They do.
I imagined several more adaptations of Quiet for introverted youth ministers and ended up with ten reminders for myself:
- Beware of under-sharing. Boundaries are good, but systems issues are hard to navigate when people don’t feel like they know you.
- Major in calls and in-person communication. You may write well, but not all read well. Plus, text-based messages don’t always signal the level of care, initiative, and respect verbal attempts often do.
- Seek out symbiotic relationships with extroverts. Hire high-initiative interns you don’t have to hand-hold too much. Share leadership with staff and lay leaders when you get to do what you’re good at and get to hand off what you’re not.
- Enjoy your gregarious and participatory students, but don’t ignore, alienate, or shame the shy, gentle, or autonomous. Most teaching and community-building methods, even when employed by introvert facilitators, unwittingly reinforce the extrovert ideal.
- Talk openly and often with loved ones about needs and expectations. Be sensitive to theirs and honest about yours. Your family is your first ministry.
- Organize your schedule/space so that you can do excellent work. Solitude increases creativity, wisdom, and joy, which are fruits the church needs from your labor. A bad ecosystem won’t produce good fruit.
- Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Guard “restorative niches.”
- Don’t let self-monitoring turn into self-negation. You can only fake extroversion for so long. Find jobs and projects that allow you to stay “in character” more often than not.
- Use your writing and premeditation powers to your advantage. You might have to “gear up” for public speaking, meeting facilitation, and intentional conversations, but your thoughtfulness usually makes for good preparation and good content. Go forth with confidence!
- Quality over quantity counts in relationships. Look hard for close friendships, and wait patiently for them to come. Reward yourself when you accomplish even the smallest of networking goals.
The Bible, Christian tradition, and human history are full of those who changed the world because of, not in spite of, their quiet strength and notorious introspection. Einstein, Ghandi, Moses, Rosa Parks. The list is long.
One who fits the description is Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop martyred in 1980. As a shy, conflict-avoidant priest, he was appointed to leadership by the (violently oppressive) political establishment because they saw him as someone who wouldn’t cause trouble and would be easy to control. They didn’t anticipate Romero’s determination to preach and live a Gospel that sided with the poor.
I first heard his story at the Romero Center in Camden, NJ, a retreat center that educates visiting groups of young people about the Christian call to justice. A week after my visit, I was surprised by tears when watching the Romero movie that tells it cinematically.
Almost anyone would be touched by the movie’s depiction of Romero and his close and influential friend, Father Grande, as courageous and convicted. What added an emotional layer for me, I think, was seeing the good news shared so powerfully through a personality so understated. If Oscar Romero is capable, might we be?