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The Enneagram: Some Frequently Asked Questions

Posted on May 31, 2019 | By Sam Hawkins

Hello. This summer at Locust Grove, we’re preaching a series of sermons called Wonderfully Made: Finding Our Place in the Body of Christ.  We’ll be using the popular Enneagram of Personality to structure the outline of what we’ll be examining each week as we look at how persons from the Bible illustrate important truths about human nature and our need for God’s grace over our lives. Whether you are already familiar with the Enneagram, have only heard it mentioned, or it’s completely new to you, I believe this series will offer something to everyone who hears it.

I think this because in studying and working with the Enneagram, I have found it to be the best personality system I’ve ever encountered for starting conversations about: (1) what we are like as individuals, and (2) how our individual personalities affect how we relate with and understand one other. It’s a great tool for taking a look at ourselves and others and asking how we can better be who God wants us to be.

But, because the Enneagram is unknown to many, questions and concerns about its use can arise. In what follows, I’ve imagined some possible frequently asked questions about the Enneagram and provide a response that I hope will be helpful in understanding the Enneagram and what we hope to achieve by using it.

(1) What is a “personality system” anyway?

It’s best to begin by asking what we mean by “personality.” A personality is a person’s general style or pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Because we’re all unique individuals, you have to become familiar with someone’s typical patterns, or “traits,” to feel that you know them. That’s also a major part of knowing ourselves.

A good personality system is like a shortcut to that process of getting to know ourselves and others. Each system claims that they have identified a specific set of traits that, if you knew how someone was in that trait, would give us a good sense of them. By then looking at how each of us varies in those specific traits, we would better understand their personalities, and how they are alike and different from others.

(2) What does “Enneagram” even mean? 

The name is actually much less exotic than it sounds. The word sounds funny, but it’s a just a combination of two Greek words. Ennea means nine in Greek, and gram means to write something down. So the Enneagram of personality just means that in this system there are 9 main styles of personality that we see in people. The nine types are:

(1) Perfectionists, (2) Helpers, (3) Performers, (4) Individualists, (5) Investigators, (6) Loyalists, (7) Enthusiasts, (8) Challengers, (9) Peacemakers.

If you’d like a very brief overview of the nine types, click here.

(3) Are there other personality systems besides the Enneagram?

Oh yes, there are dozens. Tests like the 16 Personality Factors (16PF) have been commonly used in hiring decisions, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MTBI) and DISC are often used in businesses to help co-workers better understand one another. The “Big 5” (or OCEAN) and HEXACO models are widely used by personality psychologists for research, and tests like the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) are used in clinical psychology to identify personality disorders and other mental health concerns.

(4) So why pick the Enneagram to use?

One obvious answer is that the Enneagram has become very popular for use in Christian churches over the past few decades, and especially in the last five years. Its popularity among churches means that it frequently makes it way into Christian circles, and that there is a wealth of material on it written from a Christian perspective. Many of the folks at Locust Grove will have heard something about the Enneagram and want to learn more what it’s about.

But the deeper answer is that it is useful tool for one of our primary functions as a church. The best way to think of any personality system or test is that it is a tool. How good a tool it is depends largely on what it is that you want to do with it.

In church settings, what we don’t want is a tool to “diagnose” or define anyone. But we do look for tools that can help us in our Christian development.  The Enneagram is a tool that can help each of us look at ourselves and (1) better understand what we do and why we do it, and (2) think about how that affects our relationships with others. We believe that process helps us to develop more into who God intends us to be. In the personal experience of several of us at Locust Grove, the Enneagram is a tool that appears to do that well.

(5) How could people be fit into 9 types? Isn’t that just “putting them into a box?”

Actually, the Enneagram’s flexibility is one of the things I find most useful about it. First, it expects that everyone has some of each of the nine styles in what they think and feel and do. But we also have a primary type that is most recognizable in us, along with a “wing” that also greatly influences our behavior. The system also says that each type “moves to” or expresses specific other type patterns when we’re under a lot of stress or feeling especially secure. Now, I don’t believe those patterns hold up for each and every person. We are way too complicated for that to be true. But even those who don’t exactly fit those patterns can benefit by thinking about whether it is or isn’t true for them.

Secondly, what I find most valuable of all about the Enneagram is how it emphasizes that each type has both good and bad that comes with it. Unlike some other personality systems, Enneagram authors hold that each type can be expressed in average, healthy, or unhealthy ways. Most of the time we’re expressing what’s average for our type, but when we’re in a spiritually unhealthy place, our behavior tends to come out in some negative or destructive ways that are distinctive for our type. Likewise, as we become more healthy spiritually, each type will not only express that in some distinctive healthy ways, but we also pick up some of the healthy behaviors that are more easily seen in other types.

Let me give one example. Nines are the Peacemakers. Being a peacemaker is a great thing. We need people in this world who really don’t like conflict, people who can see all the sides of an argument, and who want to find the middle ground that can help us come together. Nines ease the friction in relationships, and that is a gift for communities.

But…Peacemakers can also express that gift in an unhealthy way. Because they really, really dislike conflict, they are also prone to, well, sort of, “check out” on life. Often, they so dislike the idea of conflict that they start stepping back from human interactions and avoiding the tough but necessary conversations we all encounter. When this is taken to an extreme, they may keep stepping back so far that their desire for peace causes them to become disconnected from others and their own desires, and missing out on their opportunities to contribute to the world. Taken to its unhealthier extremes, their Peacemaking can turn into something that causes them to “sleepwalk” through life in an attempt to make no waves that would upset anything or anybody.

But when they are moving towards spiritual health, they become able to act in ways that might be more associated with the Challenger type (Eights). Maybe they find a cause that calls them to stand up for an underdog. Maybe they have the courage to wade into others’ conflicts and help them find a resolution. In either case, it doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their deep internal motivation for peace, but have balanced it out with other types. I believe that in spiritual growth we all become better able to do what we are called to do in the world. In Enneagram terms, that means we are integrating the primary type God gives us with healthy characteristics from other types.

(6) So, is it complicated?

Well, it can be. There are hundreds of books on it available, and some of them slice the nine types up in ways that produce literally hundreds of sub-types. A person could spend several years digging into all that.

Fortunately, it’s not necessary to do that to benefit from the Enneagram. Even just hearing about the nine types can start us thinking about our own style and how that interacts with the styles of our family and friends.

(7) How do I determine my type?

There are two methods. The one that is by far the most recommended by Enneagram practitioners is to hear the descriptions of the types, read a few books about them, maybe listen to some podcasts, and think about it for several weeks or months. The reason this is preferred is that by going through this process, you are doing the work of self-examination that is really a lot more important than being able to assign a particular number to yourself. This is where the growth begins.

As you do this, most people will find that the descriptions of at least one type “ring true” for them. Still, it is not uncommon to identify with more than one type. However, over time, people generally come to feel that one or two are a best fit. One tip that can be helpful is to think of how you were in your early 20’s. At that age, you had likely matured into your type but not yet made some of the adjustments that life puts us through, and this gives you something of an idea of how you “naturally” were.

The second method is to take a test. Both free and paid ones are available online. I took the paid one from the Enneagram Institute, but did that only after several months of studying the Enneagram. In my case, the results from the test lined up very well with what I’d already perceived about myself.

(8) Does the Enneagram have something to do with the occult? Is it evil?

No, it’s not. There is nothing evil about trying to understand the different ways that people think and feel and respond. The worry that the Enneagram is connected to sinister uses arises for three reasons.

The first is that some people who teach the system do so in a way that can come across as “New Agey.” They use terms like “energy” or “being in that space” that can sound esoteric. However, that language isn’t part of the Enneagram system itself, but instead is just a way that some people choose to describe it.

A second and related reason is that some who use it imply or emphasize that it comes from ancient sources. The truth is that while it has some similarities in both ancient Christian and non-Christian writings, the system was put together in the mid-Twentieth Century by a man named Oscar Ichazo, and then further developed by Claudio Naranjo. No doubt they were influenced by different historical sources, but we shouldn’t overstate the relationship. People from very different traditions have been talking about human nature for thousands of years, so we should not be surprised that many different kinds of people have all noticed some basic fundamentals about us.

The third reason is the visual symbol commonly used to depict the Enneagram.

And yep, that has a sinister enough look to it that it’s understandable that someone would be wary. BUT, it’s not in any way a pentagram or any other sort of mystical symbol. To show this, we just need to remove the interior lines, and will see that it’s just the nine types arranged a lot like the numbers on a clock:

As mentioned in the response to Question 4, part of the Enneagram system is the notion that each type takes on some of the characteristics of a specific different type when the person is Stressed, and another different type when they’re feeling Secure. The lines are just meant to show which other types each type moves to when feeling Stressed or Secure. So, yes, it would have very been nice if they hadn’t added up to look so scary, but there is absolutely nothing dark or mysterious about these connections. Each person may or may not find that those patterns hold true for them, but there’s nothing sinister about the lines.

(9) This isn’t in the Bible. Should a church use it?

It’s definitely not in the Bible. But, to be fair, neither are many of the other tools that we as a church (and as individuals) use to pursue our calling to serve God and love others. Pianos, Life Group literature, podcasts, indoor plumbing, the word “Trinity,” and the casserole are just a few examples of the hundreds of things that we use in and around church that are not in the Bible. While Christians of course have to be careful about what we pick up from other sources, making good use of the resources God makes available is part of both Christian mission and wisdom.

(10) So…how exactly is using this Christian?

The short answer is that it’s all in the way that you use it. A slightly longer answer is that God made us humans, and that part of what we’re called to do is to be humans who are becoming more consistent in acting in ways that honor God and serve His purposes. The Enneagram can provide valuable insight into humans that we can use in meeting that mission.

Think of it this way: suppose the Genie from Aladdin appeared to you and gave you three wishes. As the recent movie shows, you could use your wishes for selfish purposes, or to sacrificially do good and help  others. Now, suppose that instead of giving you three wishes, the Genie could only offer to give you two books. The first book is about you. It describes you in a way that makes you go, “Oh, yeah, that is me. Including some things about me that I hadn’t quite realized before.”

The second book is about the people in your life. This book isn’t quite as detailed, but it still describes those you interact with in ways that help you understand – maybe for the first time – why they do a lot of the things that they do, and why you sometimes see and respond to things so differently.

It’s a fair question as to whether you should take the books. For various reasons, some folks may feel that they’d really rather not know any more than they already do about themselves, or others.

Or, some might say that we shouldn’t take the books because we might misuse them. After all, knowing more about others could just be a way to manipulate them into giving me what I want.  And knowing more about myself could just be a way to develop better excuses. We might more easily say things like, “Well, I was selfish there because that’s just the way I am” and then draw a conclusion like, “So everyone else just needs to put up with it.”

But, we wouldn’t have to misuse that information. We could use it in constructive ways. I think not only would it be right to take the information, but that God wants us to develop this kind of insight as part of our development as Christians. We are all called to live lives that bless those with whom we interact, and, let’s face it, that’s not always easy. The Enneagram won’t perfectly reveal your inner workings, much less those of others. But it can help us to know more about ourselves. And with that knowledge, we can be better friends, better parents, better husbands and wives, and better church members.

Above all, we can be better disciples of Christ. If the Enneagram can help with that, it is worth some time and attention from Christians.

(11) What are some good resources for learning more about the Enneagram?

Probably the easiest place to begin is The Enneagram Institute. It has a lot of basic information and some tests. Their website is https://www.enneagraminstitute.com.

For books, I recommend The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. The book is written from a Christian perspective. Cron is an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist who lives up the road in Nashville. Stabile is a Christian writer and former collegiate basketball coach, and is married to a United Methodist pastor with whom she co-founded Life in the Trinity Ministry. She has also written The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships, which focuses on how different types do and don’t relate well with each other.

Another good book written from a Christian perspective is Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram. It was written by Alice Fryling, a spiritual director and author of nine books. And one of the earliest and still most prominent names in Enneagram circles is Richard Rohr, whose book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, was highly influential in introducing Christians to the Enneagram in the 1990s.

There are a ton of podcasts on the Ennegram. In particular, Episode 37 of The Liturgists, the hosts Science Mike and Michael Gunger were joined by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile to introduce the Enneagram and discuss each type. It’s a good, two-hour listen.

And for something more unusual, the musician Ryan O’Neal has written and recorded a song specifically for each of the nine types. The final one (for the Nines) will be released soon. They can be found on Spotify at  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/52Fjyz27C5MHq69cDWOpzR, and lyrics are available at https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/sleepingatlast/one.html.

 

 

 

 

 

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