My former blog post was about my experiences as an introvert in the American church. This one is about what it’s like to be something of a public figure as an introvert.
The rigors and demands of itineration are all ones which would seem to rely more on extraverted strengths than introverted ones. Hours most days are spent on the phone, trying to schedule services with pastors, and most introverts hate the phone. Every weekend entails a new church (or two), being the stranger in a large group of people, and standing about talking to people one has never met for an hour or more, another activity most introverts despise. Then the whole focus of the weekend, and ostensibly the whole focus of itineration, is the moment when the missionary must stand up in front of a group of people and be a public speaker—a cross between a preacher and a salesman. These three main aspects of itineration make the picture of itineration a nightmarish one for a classic introvert.
Thank God He is not constrained by stereotypes. I realized recently how thankful I am that itineration is very far from a nightmare for me, that I actually like it. Mostly. Yet I do everything I do as an introvert, not a pretend extravert. Mostly.
Telephone calls, I confess, are still the source of my greatest stress. I hate talking on the phone, to friends almost as much as to strangers. Every time I dial a number, there is a little shock of anxiety, or at least a discomfort, at the thought that someone may answer. This puts me in the conflicted state of hoping no one answers while desperately needing them to. I recently calculated that I have made nearly 3,000 phone calls in the last two years. Seriously, it’s the worst part of the job.
The second worst part is indeed meeting hundreds and thousands of strangers. Hey, now, you say with a stern frown at such an unloving attitude, these are your brothers and sisters in Christ. They are your supporters, in finances and in prayer. They are the lifeblood of the missionary. Yep. I agree with every word. That doesn’t make it one whit easier. I have always felt unbelievably awkward around strangers. Thankfully, I’ve been well-trained in the art of being polite and gracious, so I am desperately polite and gracious and let strangers hug me and tell me their stories of traveling in Germany in 1983, and all the while my poor brain is shrinking back against the walls of my skull and longing for someone to strike up a conversation about theology or Doctor Who.
Which sometimes someone does, and I want to keep him or her forever. That’s the other side of the coin, that in the midst of feeling unbelievably awkward and acting perfectly gracious, sometimes I meet someone whom I wish I could know better. Sometimes I meet someone who feels a connection to me, and then a perfect stranger chooses to support me with hard-won dollars and time taken to pray for me. Sometimes someone I will never see again says something to me that I will never forget. Sometimes hundreds of strangers combine into a complete church that encourages my socks off. The moments of awful, inward awkwardness are (usually) worth it.
And then there’s that great bugbear, that collective phobia, public speaking. Did you know that, supposedly, more people, introverts and extraverts alike, are afraid of public speaking than they are of death? (I am far more afraid of the dentist than I am of either public speaking or death…or at least I used to be, until I met my current dentist, but that’s another story.)
I’d done public speaking in 4-H (that was one of the worst experiences of my childhood…), taken speech and preaching classes in college, taken more preaching classes in seminary…and I hated every moment of every one of them until my very last sermon in my very last preaching class. That was when I realized I could put my creative writing skills into my sermon preparation and that I could put my acting skills into my sermon delivery and that I could infuse my learning and thinking and my own way of being into what I presented and how I presented it. And then I loved it.
My first two or three presentations as an itinerating missionary were very nerve-wracking, and then suddenly I settled into it and started loving it. In the first place, I’m getting to share God’s plan with God’s people. I’m getting to talk about something I’m passionate about. I’m getting to open people’s eyes to new and creative ways of being a missionary. I’m getting to offer them encouragement from my own experiences.
In the second place, I’m using all the skills I have developed over my life. I’ve always loved acting, and while I’m not acting a part when I speak in a church, I’m using what I learned about how to present myself on a stage, how to use my voice, how to address an audience. I’ve always loved theological and psychological depth, and I can put that into my presentations and use it to share my future with people who might not be used to thinking that way. I’ve always loved contextualization, and I find great enjoyment in altering my “usual” presentation to suit age groups and the cultural backgrounds of congregations and in incorporating things from the service I’ve learned about the group I’m speaking to. I’m using my introverted tendencies, in thinking and analyzing and studying, to add depth and enjoyment to what is a very extraverted activity. I am good at public speaking because I am an introvert, not because I’m faking being an extravert.
And then on the way home, I am deliciously alone. I have used up all my energy in the couple hours of church service, and then I get to go drive by myself for a couple of hours. I love traveling by myself. If you feel sorry for all the time I have to spend alone traveling around the country, you’re wasting your pity, because I relish it. I’ve seen so much of the country without having to consult another person or talk, and it’s terribly delicious, after all the talking I do on the phone and in church services.
Then also, because I’m single and live alone and don’t have an outside job, I spend loads of time alone at home, recovering from traveling and speaking, making phone calls (or dreading them), doing paperwork, cheerfully writing thank-you cards (I’ve written hundreds of thank-you cards, and it’s still one of the nicest parts of my job), and writing reams and reams of journal entries in order to reflect on, analyze, and incorporate into myself everything that has happened while I’ve been traveling and speaking and making phone calls. I am on my 11th journal since this whole journey started in 2013; I have written 2,124 journal pages in 2 1/2 years. I love being an introvert.
All in all, there are aspects of itineration that appeal to extraverted strengths and aspects that appeal to introverted strengths. I am glad I am doing it as me.