So. I’m a churchgoer now. Have been for about a year and a half. I never would have expected this to happen. I went through a “born again” Christian phase when I was younger and thought I knew all the answers. I was pretty obnoxious, I’m sure. I was very worried about being “saved” and making sure everyone I knew was “saved.” But by the time I was in my twenties, I just didn’t believe the conservative, fundamentalist teachings of the church I was attending, and I left. When I did, I turned away from Christianity altogether. It took years for me to get comfortable saying, “I’m not a Christian.” I was very proud of myself when I was finally able to do it. So to be back in church now is strange yet wonderful.
My journey away from a very conservative Christianity to the progressive liturgical tradition I find myself in now could fill a book, and I may actually write that book one day, but the journey isn’t what I want to talk about right now. What I want to talk about is how difficult it can be, to be an introvert in church.
Speaking for myself, I enjoy a wonderful sense of belonging most of the time, in church. Actively participating in a liturgy that has a rich history is a powerful experience. Not only in the sense of being there in the church with other people who are all singing or chanting or reciting the same words, but in the sense of unity with those around the world who are doing the same thing, and all the ones who came before. It’s nourishing. I am often awed by it. The feeling of “belonging” is not one I’ve often been privileged to experience, and I cherish it when I find it. I am incredibly grateful for it.
Over the years, I managed to convince myself that I don’t need this “community” thing. That I don’t want it. But when I first felt it, at this church, during the services for Mabel, I loved it. It was like being given a cool refreshing drink, when I hadn’t even known I was thirsty. Cat and I were warmly embraced and accepted and helped by these people who only knew her through her mother, and didn’t know me at all. They took over everything. They provided a lovely service and a wonderful reception and took care of us in a way that I will never forget. They accepted me as Cat’s partner without batting an eye. One white-haired old lady took my hand and told me, “I’m so glad Cat has you.” It brought me to tears then and it still does even now. I got a sense, that day, of what community can be. It kept me coming back.
But I’m aware, and rightfully so, that it’s not something from which I can only take, when I need it, without giving something of myself in return. As we kept attending, Sunday after Sunday, getting to know people and sometimes joining them for social events, it became obvious how much work goes into things like the reception the church provided after Mabel’s service. The setup, the food preparation, the serving, the cleaning up afterward. All of it takes time and effort and many hands. If I want to be part of this community and enjoy these things, I have to be willing to help.
And therein lies the rub. Because no matter how good my intentions are, the fact still remains that I have limited energy for social interaction. I have limited free time. And I need a lot of downtime in order to function as a reasonably civilized and happy human being. I have to be “out in the world” eight hours a day, five days a week. During my off time, like everyone who works, I have to deal with all the “business” of life – the grocery shopping, the laundry, the yard work, balancing the checkbook, making sure car maintenance gets done, meeting obligations to family, etc. etc. ad exhaustionium. Somewhere in all that, I need to find time for myself, too. For quiet time. For time alone. For time in Nature. For time to read. For time to write. It isn’t easy to juggle all of this, and it was already tricky before we added church to our Sunday mornings. Now it’s even harder. In some ways, I’m still adjusting just to that. So it’s very difficult for me when our church membership leads to more invitations. More social opportunities. (Which, as an introvert, I tend not to see as opportunities at all) More requests for money, for time, for effort. There is always something happening for which people are needed.
We were talked into joining the ‘coffee hour hosting’ rotation months before we even formally joined the church. Cat was asked to join the choir, and did. I was asked, and politely declined. I was asked if I would consider becoming an acolyte, or joining the Altar Guild. No, no, no. no. Cat has gone all out with her involvement and serves as an occasional lector, and as the leader of the youth group, in addition to her choir membership. She and I jointly volunteered to help with the church website, but she pretty much took over that and I don’t do much with it. One a month, she helps prepare and serve food in the lunch program that ministers to the homeless and hungry. She attends Christian formation classes and she’s also doing Education for Ministry. I compare myself to her, and to the others who are so involved in the church, and I feel inadequate and guilty – and then I feel resentful.
I should make it clear that nobody at church is pushing me or pressuring me to do more than I do. I bake cookies when cookies are needed. It’s something I can do at home, in peace. I take photographs when asked. I try to be generous with money and food donations and the like. It really feels like all I can manage. It honestly feels like I can’t do more. There is one Sunday each month that Cat is basically at church all day – she gets there at 9am for choir practice, we attend worship at 10:30, she stays afterward to help with the lunch program, then has maybe an hour or two before she has to be in EfM class which runs until about 7:30pm. She thrives on it. She gets tired, but it’s a “good” tired.
If I tried to do that, I would be a basket case. I would be living one long introvert meltdown. I just can’t do it. I don’t even attend coffee hour most Sundays; unless we’re hosting, I am out of there after the service, and I usually try to get out for a few hours of solitary hiking or birding. I call it “church after church.” I need it. On weekends that I’m not able to do that, I find myself cranky and irritable.
I guess I’m not making a point. I’m just venting how I feel about all the activity, and how hard it can be to feel “okay” when comparing myself to the “doers,” the people who never say “no,” the people like Cat who love being front and center doing things. It’s a challenge. But it’s one I’m willing to stick with and figure out, because I need to. I love my church. I love worship. I will not let my own feelings of guilt and inadequacy drive me out. God made me the way I am for a reason – I try hard to believe that. He doesn’t need me to become an extrovert, or even to act like one. I do have a part to play, and I want to find out what it is.
I just know what it isn’t, and it isn’t serving on six committees or working with the youth or helping with the lunch program or attending every single party and meeting that happens or being on the Altar Guild or being in the choir or serving as an acolyte. I can’t afford to make church into another job. I already have a job and it’s hard enough to deal with that. I do want to give back and I do want to contribute but I can’t be like Cat. I just can’t.
Perhaps for some people, being in community means physically being with other people and doing things together – often. Perhaps some people need a lot of “face time” in order to really feel connected. I do not. And I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m not saying that the “doers” aren’t needed and important. Where would we be without them? We need them. And I appreciate them. I just can’t be one of them. But maybe what I can be is a voice for people like me. People who struggle with the message, sometimes spoken but often unspoken, that to be a truly good person one must be social, must be busy, must be productive. I want to raise my quiet voice against that. We get enough of that message out in the world. We should be able to find sanctuary and peace in our spiritual homes, whether we’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Wiccan or Buddhist or whatever. We quiet ones have our places in the communities we choose. We do.