How to Make Room for Introverts in an Extroverted Church

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Proudly framed in glossy sheet protectors in my closet are two camp certificates from the bygone days of snipe hunting and fireside testimony meetings. One is the “Nature Lover Award,” earned for being quick to explore and for chasing a skunk out of a tent of sleeping girls. The other is the “Eager Beaver Award,” earned because I was wide awake and dressed by five o’ dark in the morning every day, to my leaders’ bewilderment. From these awards, you might think that I was super disciplined as a child or that I was one of those granola kids who ate, slept, and breathed pine needles and birdsong. To an extent, that was definitely me. What few people know, however, is that cramming inside a tent with at least five other girls gave me major anxiety. I felt claustrophobic almost every night at Girls Camp, so I would wake up early and escape to the woods whenever I could. In the woods, free of an itinerary, I could breathe and be myself.

I used to think I was broken or weird, and I know some of the other girls thought so. I didn’t get my thrills from tentmate Truth or Dare like they did. Making small talk around a campfire made me feel panicky, and the one year we were stuck in a cabin during a downpour, I went completely unhinged. I was quiet and valued my privacy, and I felt like a canned sardine at church activities more often than not.

I was (and am) an introvert, and in a Gospel all about people, it’s been quite the adventure to fit in.

Me on another camping trip.

Chances are, there are a lot of us introverts in your congregations. Some of us are chameleons, extremely good at faking social butterflyness because we’ve been taught to. Others of us aren’t good at faking at all. We’re the ones shifting uncomfortably during testimony meeting for fear that we’ll feel the need to get up, the ones taking thorough notes in Sunday School without contributing one word to the discussion, and the ones who zip out of church like there’s a fire when all three blocks are done. Social interaction and attention are like exercise for us — rewarding, but exhausting — and we need a lot of downtime.   

Just imagine, then, being an introvert in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the most social church in the world! I’d be lying if I said it was easy. It’s pretty hard. Rarely do I feel entirely in my element or that I make the perfect member. Missionary work and teaching are particularly difficult, but because I know the Lord asks hard things of me, I do them the best way that I can.

I like to think Heavenly Father created introverts the way we are as a kind of symbol of the temple. We already know that all of our bodies represent the temple, and, interestingly enough, what goes on inside mine can be quite sacred and refined, something I don’t just hand out to other people. When other people turn outward for their needs to be addressed, I turn inward and heavenward. My mind is a colorful and beautiful place where I can retreat for peace and renewal, and sometimes, all I need is alone time to be my perky self. It’s very much like the temple for me.

I get my introversion, and I’ve gotten to the point where it’s pretty endearing to me. Most of the difficulties I have arise when other people misunderstand my introversion. They think it’s ugly and abnormal, when in reality, it’s perfectly normal for a lot of people. It’s the way Heavenly Father made us. Ignorant to that knowledge, the social culture of the church can be hard to navigate in for an introvert, and sometimes, unintentionally, ward members make it harder. We’ve made a habit of certain things because we tend to assume that everyone is the same. But we aren’t. We’re vastly different.

It may be impossible to make a Gospel all about “opening our mouths” 100% comfortable for introverted members, but we can rethink our activities, habits, and methods to show we care for them.

At this point, you’re asking, “Get on with it. How do you make room for introverts in an extroverted church?” Well, here are a few ideas:

1. Give them time and opportunity to share their testimonies in their own way.
For a lot of introverts, bearing a testimony can be overwhelming. It puts you right at center stage and asks you to speak when you’re maybe not prepared to. Most of us deeply believe in and love the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but some of us struggle to vocalize it in such a public way. Rather than making assumptions about the strength of a person’s testimony, all of us must be patient. Some testimonies are shared over the pulpit. Others are shared quietly, in the strokes of a painting or the words of a poem. Realize that just because someone doesn’t bear a testimony doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

2. Diversify your participation methods when you teach. 
A classroom setting is a great place to share ideas and learn from each other, but if you’re like me, a lot of your participation happens internally, not externally. It can take a whole two hours for me to vocalize a thought that I’ve been mulling over from a previous meeting, because my mouth just doesn’t function as quickly as my brain does. Often, I have more to say than there is time to say it in. Here’s one fix for that: instead of giving all of the Q&A time over to rhetorical/basic questions like “What is the first principle of the Gospel?” and skimping on time for deep, personal questions, mold your classroom into a place where the discussions are more meaningful and silence isn’t awkward, but conducive to the spirit. You’ll be surprised at what answers will come when you simply wait. Furthermore, instead of creating an environment that only demands vocal and time sensitive participation, make your classroom extend past four walls and two lips. Continue classroom discussion on your ward’s Facebook page or your own. Encourage and guide continuous study from student manuals. Incorporate technology like polleverywhere.com, where students can actually text their thoughts and they’ll appear on the screen. You might be surprised at the depth of focus and insight that can come from allowing members to write their thoughts out instead of just speaking them.

3. Plan individual-focused activities, not just group-focused activities. 
One thing we’re quite excellent at as a church is planning social activities. Think about it. What did you do for your last YSA home evening or RS/Elders Quorum activity? Did it involve talking and working and playing with lots of people? Chances are, it did. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — in fact, it’s a really good thing — but having so many social activities on the calendar can be daunting for an introvert. Try to spice it up a little bit! Find out what all of your group members like doing, and accommodate those interests. Plan a trip to an art museum or a play. Book some time to explore your local library and what resources it has to offer, or have a night where ward members can purchase canvas and just paint. Not only do these types of activities offer a comfortable setting for those who are more introverted, but they spark interests and refine our tastes, as Elder Douglas L. Callister might say. They help us grow as individuals as well as brothers and sisters.

4. Know their limits and don’t spring things on them. 
My favorite moment of mortification (if such a thing existed) is that moment when I’m sitting in a class and the teacher, desperate for input, says, “Arianna, do you have an experience to share?” Cue mental flatlining. It’s as though my brain’s a pond filled with curious thought fish schooling together, and suddenly, someone drops a massive rock in and all of the thought fish scatter. This is not a comfortable moment for an introvert. We’re usually willing to contribute, but we need time and preparation. Pull us aside and ask us if we’ll share or volunteer, visit with us one on one to find out what we think, and most importantly, get to know us and what we’re comfortable with so that our classroom experience is not one of embarrassment, but fulfillment.

5. Be sensitive when considering the time, frequency, and size of your meetings. 
There’s a saying within the church that Mormons love meetings so much, they plan meetings to discuss when to have meetings. Realize that so many meetings can be kind of tiring for an introvert, especially when they’re back to back and paired with the three hour church block. I’m very guilty of holding meetings after church for convenience’s sake, but even when I plan them, it’s exhausting. Try to keep your meetings on a tight, effective schedule, and when possible, have them during the week. As a caveat, hold mini meetings with your members to find out what they’re really thinking. Sometimes we hold back in group settings. Make sure that you use tips from number four when trying to plan an activity that everyone can take ownership in.

6. Respect their need for alone time and get yourself alone with them. 
Sometimes, introverts just need their space. Period. It’s not weird, it’s not creepy, it’s just how they are. Allow them to be themselves and keep loving them. Talk to them face to face when you get the chance, instead of in a big group setting. For me, getting to know someone on a one to one basis is just as fulfilling as being on my own, and it’s much easier for other people to get to know me.

7. Temple trips, temple trips, temple trips. 
The place we call “Heaven on Earth” is also quite heavenly for introverts. Nothing beats sitting silently in the temple and just thinking or reading scriptures. In many ways, the temple gives back all of the energy I sometimes lose during the three hour church block. It equalizes me. My advice would be to make temple attendance a priority in your life and in your wards. There are so many obvious benefits to going, and one is that it will give your introverted brothers and sisters a beautiful, peaceful break.

8. Finally, recognize that sometimes they will say no. Don’t hold that against them. 
This is a conflicting point for me. I will likely never say no to a calling, because I understand that the Lord asks me to do hard things. Does that make it less hard? No. Saying yes can be really uncomfortable. Sometimes, you might ask someone if you can visit them or if they’d be willing to help with an event or if they’d speak in church, and they’ll say no. Maybe they’re just not quite comfortable with that yet. Don’t negatively pressure them and don’t judge them harshly for it. Introversion, like most things, comes in different degrees and stages. Some are more comfortable doing things that others are not. Have patience with them and keep loving them. Always keep loving them.

Being an introvert in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve done in my life. I know that the Lord is tender with me — He knows where I struggle and brings me peace. A lot of times, I’ll give everything I have and still come home thinking, “Wow, Ari. If only you were more outgoing. That could have gone better.” The Lord doesn’t berate me. He loves me. He made me this way, and there’s a reason for it, just as there’s a reason that every one of our brothers and sisters are the way that they are. If He’s okay with me, then who am I to not be okay with me? I’m different, but good different, the salt to someone else’s pepper, the stillness to someone else’s roar.

In three weeks’ time, I will again be camping in a group setting with my YSA ward. There will be tents and close quarters and campfires. There might even be a game of Truth or Dare. Whatever the case, I plan on sleeping in a hammock under the stars and just enjoying everybody else’s company in my own, quirky way. All I can do is be myself, and all we can do for others is to allow them to do the same.

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4 comments

  1. Yes! Girl's Camp was a nightmare for me. I'd try to bring my own tent so I could get some space, but would be berated by leaders and forced to be constantly be with people. I never got through camp without becoming a nervous wreck at the end. Thanks for writing this! Introverts (even loud introverts like myself) just need a little space is all!

  2. Ari, you inspire me! I can relate to so many of these experiences. Social anxiety has haunted me many times–especially at church activities. But I also feel that I have grown in wonderful ways because I forced myself to step out of my comfort zone. I am looking forward to that same camp out you spoke of… and in a similar way, I will enjoy others' company–probably by visiting one-on-one and skipping the truth or dare portion. (I hope they don't think I'm stand-offish.) And by the way, I totally get your "thought fish" metaphor above. That happens to me ALL the time!!! Thank you for your thoughts. You truly have a way with words.