A common ailment encountered by spiritual directors is a directee attempting to practice a spiritual discipline that is not suited to their temperament. This affliction is usually caused by a well-meaning discipler in their past teaching them a set of devotional exercises that worked for them personally, but that are not a good fit for the directee. The sad result is that the person either toughs it out, and comes to see their devotional life as a chore, or (more likely) simply gives up – often with the lingering conviction that they are too carnal to connect with God. Therefore, one of the most important things a discipler or director can do for a believer is to suggest spiritual disciplines that are a good fit for him or her.
Extraverted and Introverted Spirituality
The first preference pair relate to how people are energized. Extraverts (Es) are energized through interactions with others and engaging in ‘external’ activities, while introverts (Is) derive their energy from withdrawing into their private world for reflection.While both enjoy social contact with other people, the preferred form of that contact differs. The E enjoys large gatherings with lots of people – all the more new friends to meet! – and will spend his time flitting from one conversation to another. The I, on the other hand, prefers pulling up in a corner with a few friends she already knows well and enjoying a deep conversation that runs for hours. The real test comes at the end of the gathering; the E – fuel tanks full after hours of socializing – is energized, while the I – who enjoyed every minute – is exhausted and needs some quiet time alone to recharge. However, not all Es are the life of the party. Some ‘timid extraverts’ have all the hallmarks of an E, only without the big personality that dominates the room.
Es and Is also differ in the arena where they process their thoughts. The I will want to go over everything privately in their own mind before vocalizing their conclusions. This often results in coming up with the perfect verbal rejoinder hours after the conversation ended! The E, on the other hand, does their processing out loud – which can be overwhelming and even confusing for the audience if they don’t understand what is happening. Consequently, Is come across as guarded and private, while Es wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Both preferences face challenges in the spiritual life. The E can feel ‘unspiritual’ because traditional devotional exercises, such as silent, solitary Bible reading and prayer, do not come easily to them. Some mistake this disinclination for spiritual resistance and falsely conclude that the E is immature or sinful. Es also face temptations unique to their preference. Their conversation can spill over into unfocused chatter when they feel threatened or uncomfortable. Their high tolerance level for stimulation can turn into a grasping need for anything new and intense, leading to serious struggles with distraction. Of course, Is have their own problems. They can feel ‘unspiritual’ because maturity is often measured by one’s participation in group activities at church – the more the better, but each one drains the Is energy reserves. The church ideal for leaders is extraversion, as evidenced by 97% of survey respondents identifying Jesus’s own preference as E. When irritated or under stress, the I is tempted to withdraw from community – often at the very time they need its support the most.
In light of these facts, which spiritual disciplines are best suited for Es and Is? Many forms of engaging with Scripture are inappropriate for Es as they are primarily quiet and individualistic. In order to harness the energy they derive from contact with others, the E should seek out opportunities to read and reflect upon Scripture with a group of other people. In particular, they should seek venues where there is opportunity for give-and take – as opposed to a lecture or sermon, where the interaction is unidirectional. However, meeting with such a group is not always possible, so the E can fallback to reading their Bibles silently, but in a crowd (like at a café, library or public park). This provides the energy of being with others without the needing to assemble a Bible study group. Finally, when the E must read Scripture alone, they can always read it aloud. This eliminates the quiet in the room, slows reading to a more meditative pace, reduces distractions, and emulates the original practice of reading alone (reading silently to oneself was a medieval development). Writing in a journal to process the reading can help the E when there is no one around to speak to. Similarly, Es should pray in a group, in a crowd, or out loud by themselves accompanied by journaling. Praying while walking would also be a profitable exercise for the E, as it involves them in the outside world. Worship is often a group activity, so Es should feel right at home with the typical practice, although styles of worship that are more participatory and demonstrative would be beneficial. Similarly, many forms of fellowship would resonate with the E, such as small groups, celebratory or social gatherings, and ministry teams.
For Is, the common forms of scripture engagement are usually a good fit. Scriptural meditation of various types, study, memorization, and reading plans are all potentially agreeable for the I, depending on their other preferences. In the same way, practices of individual silent prayer are also well suited to the I. In particular, the practices of solitude and silence – such as a silent retreat – are adopted easily by the I. The I should beware, however: silence and solitude are the ‘power tools’ of spiritual formation, and can be as rigorous for the I as the E.The only difference is that Is enter more readily into the silence as it is their natural milieu. Journaling can be as helpful to the I as the E, only instead of a venue for working out their thoughts, the journal for the I acts like a familiar friend who really understands and patiently listens. Worship in large gatherings can be a bit overwhelming for an I, so celebrating in a smaller congregation or in a more contemplative key – such as Taizé, a liturgical service, or in an introverted charismatic community such as the Quakers or Plymouth Brethren – would be advisable. As mentioned above, fellowship can be a challenge for Is, so they must be careful to adopt practices that favour smaller groups of people they can get to know well. Spiritual direction (whether hierarchical or with a peer group), triads and permanent small groups all provide the sort of social interaction that Is need while minimizing the energy drain.