I’m an introvert. I’m also a missionary. According to a recently-popularized definition, an introvert is someone who is drained by being with other people, and who is energized by being alone. But missions is a rather people-intensive lifestyle, right? Is it possible for an introvert to be a missionary? For me, the short answer to this question is “yes,” introverts can be missionaries. But the story of how I arrived at this answer is not so short. . .
A few months into my life in Cambodia, I realized I was not like the rest of the ex-pats I met who seemed to have boundless energy to get together with other ex-pats on a regular basis. I did not possess that same energy. I enjoyed meeting new people and welcoming them into my home, but it made me tired. This tendency to be worn out by social events means I am an introvert (although I had never before considered myself to be one).
By all means, I am a very social introvert. I love people. I love getting to know them, and I love spending long periods of time with them. But I generally enjoy people one-on-one more than I enjoy large group settings (a typical introvert characteristic). Group settings where I am forced to meet several new people are especially difficult (and have been known to make me want to run away).
So how did I not know I was an introvert for the first three decades of my life? Especially after having been in ministry (something you do with people) for a third of that time?
I have two very sensible explanations for this. First: I was having babies. And as anyone who has ever had a baby in the house knows, being a mom makes you (very) tired. So if being with people ever wore me out, I would not have been able to distinguish it from the exhaustion I faced on a daily basis.
And second: we rejected social life entirely for several years, starting when Jonathan added a full-time hospital job to his part-time ministry job. His working hours each week totaled over 60, and there was so little time margin, that he devoted the rest of his time to our family. We didn’t really “do” social events. . . So I wouldn’t have known if they made me tired.
After we moved to Cambodia, we attempted to re-enter “social life.” We soon realized that a social meeting on a week night completely wiped us out for (at least) the rest of the week. We learned that having more than one social event per weekend ruined us for the entire next week. (I use the pronoun “we” because Jonathan, like me, is also an introvert.)
In our desperation, we instituted a personal rule: no weeknight meetings (with few exceptions), and a maximum of one social event per weekend. Sometimes we’ve turned down social invitations out of respect for our family’s introverted-ness. Other times we’ve broken our rule (for very good reasons), and we’ve paid the consequences of fatigue and general discouragement for the entire next week. Language learning and cross-cultural living are hard enough without adding that to the mix.
I may not be like the extrovert who thrives in large group settings. On the contrary, I thrive in close relationships. But not all mission or ministry work is done in large groups. Relationship-building is often done in small groups, or individually. And I happen to believe God has called me to that kind of ministry – loving other women, one-on-one, in the friendships He brings to me.
So, can a missionary be an introvert, and can an introvert be a missionary? Yes, if we avoid large gatherings (since we are drained by too many people). Yes, if we avoid too many gatherings (since we need sufficient time to recharge between events). Yes, if we plan enough solitary time.
I, though I am an introvert, am not anti-social. I want to enjoy my time with you. I believe you deserve to be enjoyed. So I choose to pace myself socially, to rest when I’m worn out, and to give you the best I am able to give.
But probably not this weekend.