By Kurt Lammi
When we think of leaders in the early church, the first two people who come to mind are probably Peter and Paul. Peter was the “blockhead” turned into “the rock.” Paul was the persecutor turned evangelist who arguably wrote around half of the New Testament. But there are plenty of other early leaders who are just as important to church history, even if they aren’t as well known. Today we might think of them as the introverted leaders in the church.
Consider the role of John in Acts 3-4. Throughout these chapters, there are a number of cases where Peter and John are doing various things together. They go to the temple (3:1), where Peter heals a man who couldn’t walk and then the man clings to both of them (3:11). The two men are arrested (4:1-3), and they are both recognized as being bold in faith (4:13).
Peter is the one who does most of the speaking, but John is right there with him. It appears that Peter is an extrovert and John is an introvert. Both are bold in faith and seen as leaders— John just does it in a quieter way.
Our hymnody even speaks about the importance of introverted leaders. Consider the lyrics to the hymn “There Is a Balm in Gilead”: “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. … If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all’ ” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 614).
All of us—introverts and extroverts—are vital members of the body of Christ. When Paul wrote about the body, he said: “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22).
So often introverts are dismissed as shy (implicitly “weaker”) and therefore apparently unsuited for leadership. But not all introverts are shy, and effective leaders are certainly not exclusively extroverts.
Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture (IVP Books, 2009), estimates that 25 to 40 percent of Protestant pastors are introverted, with an even higher percentage among Roman Catholic priests.
When asked in an interview with Christianity.com if introverts can be in church leadership, McHugh replied: “Perhaps the better question then is how introverts can lead in a way that is life-giving and natural. I think self-care is absolutely critical for introverted pastors and leaders, because my experience is that introverts in ministry are more prone to burnout than extroverts.”
Alicia Nierman, pastor of First Lutheran Church, Xenia, Ohio, echoed that sentiment. After spending time chatting with people, Nierman said she needs to find time to recharge by herself. “I spend long hours working alone, and I believe the quality of my work is better for it,” she said. “My strength as an introvert is that I seldom present anything—sermons, newsletters, class materials and worship services—without a great deal of thought.”
Even if introverts get drained being around people for too long, their introverted personality can be a strength to their ministry.
“My strength as an introvert is that I seldom present anything … without a great deal of thought.”
Vanderbloemen Search Group, which helps congregations find the right people to hire for various ministries, publishes resources on church staffing. In a blog post, its chief operating officer, Ben Homesley, argued that congregations looking to develop leaders may actually be best served by the gifts that introverts offer. “Society has historically done a terrible job of correctly defining leaders by saying they must be outspoken, loud and overly confident,” he said. “True leadership would be better defined as poise, experience, discernment, a calming presence and the ability to make decisions during a time of crisis.”
Some people, like Peter and Paul, are extroverted leaders in the church and play a very important role. But those who are introverted leaders in the church, like John, play a vital role as well. Whether in early history or in conversations around its future, the church needs both types of people in leadership.