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Ministry and personality type

16 May, 2013 Julian Harydman

personality type

In the Middle Ages people were pigeonholed into one or other of the Four Humours: Choleric, Melancholic, Phlegmatic, and Sanguine. In recent years Myers-Briggs has became all the rage and one hears comments like ‘He’s such an INTJ!’(it is now seen as a bit last-century, except in evangelical Christian circles!). Several other measurements of personality or temperament are used in staff recruitment or development and can be readily tracked down on the internet.

My purpose is not to explain or argue for the use of any of these more formal tools but is rather more modest. It may be expressed in two propositions:

  • Knowing what kind of person I am is important to doing ministry well.
  • Recognizing the different kinds of people in front of me as I preach or pastor is important to doing ministry well.

This was brought home to me when, in my early years as a pastor, I was preparing a sermon on Psalm 51. I mentioned this to a senior colleague. He advised me to think carefully about the application. He said something like this: ‘The more neurotic and highly sensitive ones will know all too well that they are sinners. If you blast them they will wilt. They need careful application of the reality of forgiveness and the total cleansing of their consciences. On the other hand, though, there are some who have little felt sense of their own failure. For them, you need to explain their sinfulness carefully and warn them that they may not instinctively get it.’ I saw what he meant but asked how I could do this with both groups in the same congregation. ‘Identify them and say you are particularly addressing that particular group.’

Smart Application

This was so long ago I can’t remember how the sermon went, though I have a guilty feeling it went on too long. But the point has stuck with me. We could call it, aping the modern idiom, ‘Smart Application’, a homiletical version of “Smart Nanoparticles’ which are able to target specific blood clots or growths and deliver the right drugs to them.

Without Smart Application the opposite happens to the hearers of a sermon like that. Their listening biases may well leave the more fragile folk in bigger pieces and the more robust folk more self-sufficient.

An understanding of what kind of person I am is also important in thinking about how I do ministry and its effect on me. One generally recognized dimension of personality is that of introversion and extroversion. This is not a measure of chattiness but of whether it is being with others or being alone that drains or energises you. Because ministry requires both being with others and being alone, our natural temperament will make some parts of our responsibilities more difficult than others.

  • For an introvert, lots of time with people drains us. We find ourselves secretly wishing for space and privacy. We go to the door after preaching and wish we could do anything other than shake hands and be warm to dozens of people. We end Sunday shattered and the thought of having to visit a new couple on Tuesday evening is not a happy one. 
  • For an extravert, being with people is one of the great privileges. But what an effort it is to spend time alone praying and preparing sermons. We shy away from even an hour of prayer alone. We know we should spend more time praying and preparing (let alone more general reading) but we find any excuse to do something else. 

What can be done?

First of all, we need to recognise the issue in ourselves. We are who we are and God has made us that way. Then we need to see how we can play to our strengths: an introvert pastor should have the mornings of prayer that so nourish him. Let the extrovert meet with others for a prayer breakfast twice a week.

Then we need to be on our guard against our personality type so that it does not mean we neglect core tasks of our ministry, whether with people or without them. Then I think we need to seek the Lord for help: if I am an introvert and a bit shy, how does Christ want to help me grow through that into a more loving person? If I thrive on noise and feel lost in quiet, why is that? What is it about being alone that worries me? As I study or pray, what difference does it make to think of Christ being with me?

There are of course many other possible dimensions to explore: Openness-Cautiousness; Inner-referencing and External referencing; Team-players and Individualists. The internet is awash with tools to help us here.

Based on my own experience of chasing two or three of these at length, there are two main dangers.

  • First, absolutising any system as if it gives a total account of a human being: none of them can.
  • The second danger is seeing such descriptions as fixed as if nothing can change. Introverts can become less shy and wary of company, and can pastor people and give good leadership to groups and churches; extroverts can overcome their aversion to solitude and silence, and put in the hours required to preach fine sermons and pray properly for their people. That is what Christ is about in all of us who serve him.

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