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Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Why I hate coffee hour

For introverts, going to church can be a minefield of forced sociability. But strong, silent types have gifts to offer too.

By Jillian Bell

I used to start putting on my coat as church was ending so I could leave the minute the service came to a close. As the people seated around me began chatting and making their way to coffee hour, I was darting out the door, safe in the knowledge that I had dodged my nemesis: small talk. I don’t hate people. I enjoy spending time with family or entering into a deep conversation with a new friend. It’s just that those awkward moments of shaking hands and endless how-are-yous can feel exhausting for me. And I’m not alone.

Experts estimate that anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the population is made up of introverts like me. And no, being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean being shy or socially awkward.

“The way I would define it in the work I do is a preference to be energized by having time on your own, time to reflect,” says Donna Dunning, a personality-type expert based in Victoria. In other words, while extroverts get a charge from going to parties or meeting new people, introverts can be exhausted by too many of these types of activities. We’re more likely to get our energy from reading a book or taking a walk alone.

And lately, we introverts have been getting more attention than ever. Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was a New York Times bestseller, and big corporations have begun hiring consultants to help them cater to the introverts in their office. Google “introverts” and you’ll find love advice for quiet types, introvert-specific career tips and even celebrities who identify as introverts. But there’s one place where many introverts still don’t feel comfortable: the church.

Between calls to volunteer, chatty coffee hours and pressure to join yet another Bible study, church can be a minefield for introverted types. Introverts may even feel they aren’t good Christians because they’re not outgoing enough. Adam McHugh, author of the book Introverts in the Church, says some churches associate Godliness with extroversion.

McHugh, whose background is in the American evangelical church, describes a survey from a few years ago where 100 Christian college students were asked to rate Jesus’ personality based on the Myers-Briggs index for personality types. Ninety-seven percent of them said Jesus was an extrovert. “And so if the model of our faith is interpreted to be extremely extroverted,” he says, “then those of us who are not inclined toward that side of the spectrum are going to end up feeling like something is seriously inadequate with our faith.”

Since the publication of McHugh’s book in 2009, hundreds of Christians have written to him saying they want to participate in church, but the church experience has left them feeling alienated, sometimes to the point that they’ve left church behind completely. “There are a lot of people who are feeling left out or excluded or inadequate,” he says.

The United Church of Canada has not always been an introvert-friendly place for David McKay, who attends St. Stephen’s United in Oshawa, Ont. One occasion stands out for him. At the end of a service, he closed his eyes to focus on the postlude, when someone nudged him and said, “The service is over. Time to wake up!” Though he knew it was a joke, “My initial [thought] was, ‘If you aren’t allowed to meditate in church, where can you meditate?’”

McHugh says it’s important that the church make room for introverts — and not just because we make up so much of the population. “It shouldn’t be our role in the church to get people to subscribe to a particular temperamental mould, but we should be helping people to encounter God, to live out their faith in ways that are true to who they are,” he says.

And introverts bring a lot of strengths to the church. “I think introverts, because we think and feel first before speaking, can be particularly helpful in situations where we are considering changes,” says McKay.

Dunning agrees that introverts can be sage decision-makers. “That reflective component is very powerful for making sure you’re not taking an impulsive action that might get you into trouble.”

McHugh thinks introverts may also “have a bit of a head start in terms of listening.”

These characteristics and more mean introverts have the potential to be great leaders within the church, argues McHugh. “If we view leadership as just telling people what to do, getting people to move from a standing position to a moving position, then you’re going to be more likely to have a lot of extroverted leaders,” he says. “But if we view leadership as listening to where people are, helping them to discover what’s true about them, what’s true about their faith, what they’re passionate about, and then helping them find ways to express that, I think introverts can make excellent leaders.”

McKay believes the time he spends reflecting has made him a more insightful leader within his church. “I think my church values the insights I bring to committee work, board work, Bible study and the like. And those insights arise from my quiet and reflection time.”

Even the founder of our faith had an introverted side. McHugh argues that in the Gospels, “we constantly see Jesus trying to escape from crowds.” When Jesus was surrounded by people wanting to experience his power, “we see him withdrawing with his disciples, we see him speaking from a boat in order to get a little bit of separation from the crowds, we see him going to the mountains to pray.”

So how can churches make introverts feel more welcome? Turns out, it’s pretty simple. “Once churches recognize what introversion is — that it’s actually a God-given thing, that it’s something that’s deep, that’s actually part of our DNA, part of the way our brains work — and then once that is communicated, then introverts have a way of finding their own place . . . without feeling this pressure to be another kind of person,” says McHugh.

The easiest way for introverts to feel at home at church is to find a niche, he adds. In a mass of potential social obligations, carving out a particular role can give one a sense of purpose. Says Dunning, “Often [introverts] like to work behind the scenes; they often like to work one-on-one.”

But socially confident introverts might enjoy playing a more outgoing part, as long as they have a defined role. In his book, McHugh suggests becoming a greeter at church. “Some people would be absolutely aghast at that idea, but it’s actually a very convenient way to meet different people. When you’re understood as playing a role, there’s something very empowering that gives you permission to meet new people in that way.”

A similar strategy worked for introvert Kate Jones, who attends Knox Shuniah United in Thunder Bay, Ont. She generally finds the coffee time after services to be uncomfortable. “I’m not anti-social, and I have learned to ‘pass’ as being less introverted than I actually am, but I much prefer deeper conversations, or conversations with a purpose, than random chit-chat.”

She found solace in co-ordinating the library cart after each service. “Each week, I stack it with books from the church library and then push it around and encourage people to borrow books. This gives me a way to start conversations, as well as a chance to talk about books,” a topic she loves.

And after months of dodging small talk after the service, I finally found my niche at church. Attending a small group for new members allowed me to meet people in a less overwhelming setting and get to know them on a slightly deeper level. Now when I look around at church, I see a few friendly faces in a sea of strangers.

But sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly averse to chit-chat, I’ll still make a dash for the door the moment the service is over. Blame it on my personality type.

Jillian Bell is a newspaper copy editor and freelance writer who attends FreeChurch, a post-denominational church in Toronto.

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