When I was growing up, there was a lady in my church that I sometimes tried to avoid.
I’ll call her Mrs. S. Unlike many of the other women in her generation that I knew from church, she was blunt and assertive to the point of being sharp-tongued. She was not big on hugging and hello-ing and warm and cuddly platitudes. Nor was she particularly charismatic; if you worked with her on something you mostly obeyed while she barked commands. I remember that her smile was always brief and her manner always quite business-like, and if she thought you were lazing around or doing something wrong, she’d tell you.
I liked the cuddly older ladies who gave big hugs and handed out peppermints and asked me questions about school – the congregation members who were, you know, nice, and seemed to like me. Mrs. S, though she knew my name, was not forthcoming with either affection or interest. And you better believe childhood me made note of it.
“Mrs. S is mean,” I complained to my mom one day. In fairness, she wasn’t mean. But I interpreted her brusque manner at the time as unkindness. “I don’t like her.”
My mom paused and searched for words. “She’s definitely…tart,” she said, and to this day I have found no better word to describe the entirety of Mrs. S’s personality. “But part of that’s just how God made her. We’re all different.”
I didn’t think much of it then. But I did notice that Mrs. S always sent our family Christmas cards and, unlike a lot of people, always took the time to spell my name right. She never said I was too young or inexperienced to volunteer in the church, and I once saw her start laughing when my dad teased her at a church dinner. On the Sunday after I graduated college, she came up to me and clamped a firm hand on my shoulder. “Proud of you, girl,” she said. She didn’t so much as crack a smile. But I knew that she meant it.
I think of Mrs. S from time to time when I think about all of God’s children. My mom was right: we’re all different. Not just in experience and calling and circumstance, but in personality, too. Some believers are tart. Some believers are shy. Some believers are gregarious and warm. Some have silly senses of humor; some, like my husband, have a dry deadpan approach to jokes. Among believers, as in the world, we run the gamut from dramatic to no-nonsense to aloof to warm.
But we sometimes have a hard time recognizing that.
In college campus ministry, I often found myself surprised by how many people tried to be exactly the same: talkative, enthusiastic, extroverted, humor-this-side-of-silly. Personalities were almost interchangeable. I think at the time people felt pressure to be a certain type of personality in order to be a Christian, as though being a believer molded you into a very particular sort of human being. I was relieved when, after a time, I discovered that wasn’t the case.
Because variety is necessary. Mrs. S at my church was a fundamental presence: she got things done precisely because she didn’t have the time or the inclination to sit around making small talk. Her bluntness often cut right through to the heart of a matter. Congregations need a blend of introverts and extroverts, of detail-minded folks and big-picture people, of the silly and serious. In our variety, we enable multiple kinds of outreach and service. We represent the fullness of God’s gifts and callings. And, being made in His image, we’re a testament to the richness and complexity of who God is.
It’s true that Christ will grow us and change us. As believers, we’re often growing and changing in similar ways. But much of our personalities will remain as we grow and change, and that’s as it should be. God, who knew us before we were made, created us individually and uniquely. That’s a fact to be celebrated, not maligned – and it’s a great strength of the church, too.