Monday, February 22, 2010

Lent 02: Alone in the wilderness

I'm mostly alone in the wilderness, and I like it that way.

I have never been naturally gregarious. I was a shy child who hid behind his mother or father's leg at social gatherings. I was afraid to ask for ketchup at fast food restaurants. I spoke out in environments I deemed safe: classrooms, the company of close friends or family, the comfort of my own home. By contrast, I never feared being onstage. I remember playing "Jesus Loves Me" on a toy guitar in front of the church when I was 4 or 5. Couple this with often being the teacher's pet, and school became a safe zone for me - in my desk, or at the front of the class. So while I'm naturally introverted, I'm extroverted on a stage of any kind.

To put it bluntly, I like people when I'm standing in front of them, talking at them. I'm less comfortable being close, and talking with them. I became professionally gregarious and agreeable to work in paid ministry. When that ended, I realized how much I dislike getting to know people. How much I don't want to meet any new people. I used to try hard to meet people. Now I just avoid new relationships. I still prefer the safety of a small circle of friends and my family.

Along with our kids, we recently attended a community league celebration: families standing around, people being friendly. When I was a minister, I felt the need to meet and greet at these events. It was my Christian duty. Growing up Baptist exacerbated this. As a branch of evangelical Christianity, Baptists are expected to "be a witness, shine the light, share their faith, etc." So when I attended social functions, I saw being sociable as part of my religious identity. Problem was, I didn't always like the people I was talking to. I smiled and laughed and got to know them anyhow, which was exhausting.

There were days as a pastor that I felt like a spiritual hooker. I was paid to go for coffee or lunch or whatever and listen to people's problems. I didn't like all of these people. Some of them drove me nuts. And yet I smiled, and nodded, and was everyone's good friend. Some of it was genuine, but mostly it was a professional persona I adopted. That might offend some of you, but it's the truth. It's true for a lot of ministers. I know this from late nights at conferences and camps, speaking with other people in ministry.

In the years since leaving paid ministry, I've reverted to introversion. I'm still professionally outgoing with my students, but that's a different thing. They don't expect me to love them, or pray for them, or be a spiritual exemplar for them. I just teach them how to use commas, and read Dracula, and think critically. There's less of a burden on me (I'll try and remember to talk about what my friend George calls the "God burden" in an upcoming post), because we have a professional, not necessarily emotional or spiritual relationship. Sometimes I become friends with students after they're done being my students. But I don't feel any pressure to do that. It just happens naturally. Like friendships should.

I don't want to proselytize. I don't think it helps, really. I think the biggest impact of people on my life were people who were just being genuine friends with me.

For the time being, whatever the reasons might be, I'm focusing on my family first, and a few close friends second. I don't have time to be the friend to everyone I used to have to be. It's one of the reasons I left ministry. I was great onstage, but terrible once I stepped down. I could fake it, but that's not right, and I knew it. This is where the church has it wrong. They hire great speakers, great facemen, when they should be hiring great shepherds, people who really, genuinely care.

I know at one time I really did care, but I lost most of that somewhere along the way. And I'm not terribly sad about that right now. And maybe that's another post, for another day. The fact that I'm really not ignoring you, I'm just trying to pay better attention to the circle I'm in.


  1. Strangely enough, I find your post rather comforting, both because it opens up your life and because it reconfirms my inclination towards the professorate and not the pastorate.

    You certainly sound and seem happier these days, which makes us glad. And being 14 hours away, I haven't resented or even really noticed the excess of introversion you claim. :)

  2. If you were here, you still wouldn't have reason to resent or notice it Michael! I miss our talks.