When someone asked me why personality matters in missions, I just remember thinking, “Why wouldn’t it? God is asking people to go, isn’t he?”
As a person who is called by Christ to be on mission every day, personality has to matter because personality is part of our DNA. Everything we do is affected by our personality. It is the way God has wired each one of us. Every person has their own unique way of looking at the world—formed by their history and their own story about where they come from, their parents, etc. All those things help form a person’s personality.
I’ve had the pleasure over the past few years to talk with many who have been sent out to various places across the globe. As missionaries being sent out, they had each taken a personality test in their development process.
A Helpful Personality Tool
The tool I use in helping people become self-aware is called the Enneagram*. The Enneagram is a personality diagram that has nine points. Each point has a number that is a unique style. Every human has a percentage of every style within them, but there is one core style that stands out above the rest.
A person can test “resourceful” or “non-resourceful” in their styles as well. Resourceful means they are healthy in their personality style—aware of themselves and others. When someone is non-resourceful, it’s an over-exaggeration of their style, and when out of balance they begin to lose awareness.
The core styles are divided on the diagram into triads, or three parts, that describe how each core style will perceive and project themselves to the world around them. Gut, head, and heart are the three triads, and each has a primitive emotion, or “a lens,” through which they operate. Those three primitive emotions are guilt, fear, and shame. Knowing which style you are and what core emotion drives you can make all the difference in how you project yourself to others and how they will receive you.
Now consider a missionary and the process of being sent out. The personality of that person and whether or not they are resourceful can dictate what will be a good experience or a bad one. A person who is aware of themselves and others can be a good team member and may be able to get through those first thirty days on the field without a meltdown easier than someone who is less resourceful.
How God Uses Us and Our Personalities
You may be thinking, “Well, what about Christ?” God doesn’t take away our personalities when we are called to him. Instead, he uses the sweet, hard-wired mess of a person inside us for his glory. I believe it is a way he keeps us growing and dependent upon him in our journeys.
God uses what is in our past, along with our failures and gifts. He starts to use our personalities even in the way that we come to know him. Our testimonies are all flavored with personality style traits.
I believe that God is a relational God and he sent his son to be a person of flesh and spirit to walk among us for this very reason—so that we could be fully known and fully loved. Curt Thompson writes, “Those parts of us that feel most broken and that we keep most hidden are the parts that most desperately need to be known by God, so as to be loved and healed…God came to find Eve and Adam to provide them the opportunity to be known as he knows anything else. For only in those instances when our shamed parts are known do they stand a chance to be redeemed. We can love God, love ourselves or love others only to the degree that we are known by God and known by others.”
God pays attention to who people are and develops relationships based on what his complete knowledge of them. When I go into deep thought about it, I thank God that he doesn’t take away our personalities. How boring it would be if we were suddenly all the same!
After being on the mission field for several months, a friend of mine found himself struggling with people who weren’t able to look at the big picture and see hope and move on quickly. He was battling with his own lack of patience. He is of the “head” triad and it’s especially hard for him to see outside the realm of his own way of processing. Being a strong enthusiast and an assertive personality makes it challenging for him to ”weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). But he’s learning that even though it’s hard to find that silver lining among so many in despair, it’s a necessary part of the way God works in him and through him.
Another missionary I know told me she is having trials through the process of being sent because her ”goodbyes” have proven to be emotionally draining. She is of the “heart” triad and, because she feels and processes through the lens of shame and needs deep connection in relationships, this part of the process has been a struggle. Months before leaving, she already feels the weight of being separated from her community and family.
And one other friend who is of the “gut” triad said she was very surprised by how much she needed structure on the field. Even though she usually sees the world as coming at her and is very reactionary by nature, she needed to have a plan for daily life and expectation to thrive in her environment. Seeing life through the lens of guilt caused her to feel like she wasn’t doing enough. Her focus on “this is what I should be doing” instead of “this is what it means to be faithful today” had thrown her off into procrastination, which only led to more guilt. This has the potential to become a vicious cycle if she doesn’t remain aware of how it affects her thinking patterns—and ultimately, her abiding in Christ.
Personality and the Mission Field
The personality style that you bring to the field can be the greatest asset or the biggest liability depending on the awareness and health you can show in that style. I would encourage anyone reading this to become more self-aware because it helps in all areas of life and relationships, especially in missions.
The Enneagram is just a useful tool and it cannot replace the transforming power of Christ in us. It can, however, help you see that there is more work to be done. As the Spirit is sanctifying us into the likeness of Christ, we can see that while we are all different in personality, we are the same in that we all need grace and want to be known. The hospitality that happens when you truly know and understand another person is a breeding ground for transformation to happen. It’s the invitation into another person’s story. This is why I believe the Father has given each of us a unique style with our own set of strengths and weaknesses. Where one falls short, the other can pick up the slack.
God knows we aren’t meant to labor alone, which is why Jesus sent out two by two (Luke 10:1). We know that where two or more are gathered together, he is in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20). We are all one body with many members (1 Corinthians 12:12). I could go on and on with examples of why were are called to be in community, but that also includes the uniqueness of each individual.
I’ve heard it said that when conflict arises or a team splits and goes home there’s usually a strong personality or two in play that just can’t get together on something. I believe it is vital that we delve into the hard stuff when developing missionaries. As Bradley Bell writes, “Only when candidates get real about their strengths and weaknesses can true assessment happen. And robust assessment opens the door for great development.”
Ignoring personality could prove to be detrimental in so many ways. In the sending process alone you will see that people use their personality in ways that can prove either helpful and affirming, or they can become detached and leave without a sense of connectedness. When you arrive in a new culture and experience the initial shock, you will definitely come to the end of yourself quickly if you are operating on an non-resourceful tank. Larry and Susan McCrary advise, “You cannot change the circumstances around you, but you can determine how you will respond.”
Why does personality matter in missions? Because people matter to God. I think since our Creator took the time to shape who we are with distinct personality traits, we must realize the importance of them. We were created to be reforming, helpful, achieving, creative, intellectual, loyal, enthusiastic, powerful, and peaceful people that we might fully embody and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
* To take the Enneagram personality test yourself, I recommend www.wepss.com. Another great resource for understanding the significance of how we are wired is The Relational Soul: Moving From False Self to Deep Connection by James Coflield and Richard Plass.
Tammy Stayton is a certified Enneagram coach, a photographer. a wife to Bill and a mom to four children. She is passionate about understanding people and helping them to become self aware when preparing to be sent. She is also a Deaconess of Youth and the Office Administrator of Antioch Church in Louisville, Kentucky.