The Enneagram Issue: Reactive or Reflective?

September 18, 2019

This is such an Enneagram 5 thing for In All Things to do—a series to resource the church on the Enneagram. Classic 5 move!

Actually, this is really quite Enneagram 3-ish, a strategic issue at an opportune moment. In All Things for the win!

No, it’s a 9 thing—In All Things is serving as a bridge-builder when many are polarized about this spiritual tool.

By now, maybe you’ve begun to get my ironic foray into the Enneagram, a now popular tool for self-understanding. Brought to the United States five decades ago from South America by a handful of teachers, the Enneagram isn’t the invention of some self-help guru. It was rightly embraced as a serious tool, introduced within the church in small pockets for the sake of intentional spiritual formation. Its nine types (which I regularly call “habits” or “energies” to distinguish this from personality tests) represent windows into how we relationally navigate a broken world.

Where we are today with the Enneagram, however, might be hardly recognizable and highly regrettable to the Bolivian born teacher Oscar Ichazo,1 who is widely regarded as one of the first to pass this wisdom tool off to those who’d bring it to the United States. Only six years ago, a Christian publisher wouldn’t include a chapter I wrote on the Enneagram for fear of its reception by evangelicals. Today, you’re apt to find Enneagram discussions in many evangelical churches. You’ll find podcasts up-and-down your podcast dial. The internet offers dozens of free tests. And people on social media debate about the Enneagram types of their favorite characters from Friends or Star Trek or contemporary politics. In fact, on Twitter you can follow the EnneaDog. What we’ve done with it is so classically…American.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve transitioned from enthusiastic to cautious.

Who am I?

Curiosity about oneself is good and important. After telling his own story in sometimes lurid detail, St Augustine begins chapter 10 of his Confessions with the cry, “Let me know myself. Let me know Thee!” Self-knowledge is urged by Calvin and Teresa of Avila, by Richard Baxter and John Owen. In her Interior Castle, St Teresa of Avila writes, “self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more than humility.”

But self-knowledge serves best as a doorway to humility. I once knew a pastor who loved personality tests. Everyone he knew was categorized—phlegmatic, extroverted, dominant, ESTP, idealist. He drew upon a range of different inventories and popular assessments. But it served a suspect agenda—with categories, he had power. In an instant, he could cut people down to size: “She’s such a melancholic…let’s keep her working behind the scenes or she’ll just depress everyone.”

Now, the difference between some of the major personality tests we know and the Enneagram is this: the Enneagram is concerned less about describing your personality and more concerned about naming what drives you and motivates you. This takes a bit more work. If I meet you at a social gathering, I might note that you’re a bit introverted, but I’ll have little clue as it what motivates you. And this is why so many of us have found the Enneagram to be a useful, albeit fallible, tool. We can gain real insight into ourselves by exploring what drives us.

Mike worked in sales, and his boss constantly pushed him to achieve more. But Mike loved building relationships with clients. Often times, his best sales came after an unhurried meeting where his customer felt heard. But Mike’s boss chastised him for not having “fire in his belly,” and sometimes hurled emasculating insults. Mike withered under his boss’s criticism.

In my work with Mike, we discovered that he manifested the Enneagram energy and habits of a “9,” one motivated to build bridges and make peace, though often likely to avoid conflict. Discovering this, Mike recognized the early roots of his disposition, acknowledging his rather passive and peace-making role in a fiery Italian family. Indeed, Mike longed to engage more, but was scared, and his boss wasn’t helping the cause. In time, Mike grew and matured, in no small part because of his Enneagram insights. It’s the growth and maturation of people like Mike that I find promising, and which generates enthusiasm for this tool.

Wisdom Tool or Fad?

Because each of the nine habits or types are linked to a “deadly sin,” people like me appreciate that this tool offers something more than a positive spin on one’s personality. Indeed, as one who teaches pastoral care and Christian spirituality, it intrigues me that the vices and virtues you can discover in yourself provide wisdom that transcends the merely therapeutic. I enjoy connecting Enneagram conversations to teachings from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, from St. John of the Cross, and the Beatitudes. A host of important works by Christian authors over the past 30 years connect the Enneagram to ancient spiritual practices valuable for developing deeper union with God. Some of my favorite one-on-one conversations with my students happen when they discover deeper aspects of their own being and behavior which lead to new and more faithful ways of living.

But I’ve also witnessed another phenomenon. I’ve stumbled into conversations among students recently introduced to the Enneagram who try to peg their pastoral mentors, parents, and professors. I’ve witnessed lengthy and unhelpful online discussions about Donald Trump’s Enneagram type. I’ve also seen the Enneagram used as an excuse for immature and unwise engagement.

I believe there is a significant difference between reactive and reflective engagement with others. I see the Enneagram as a helpful tool to better understand why we react and how we can slow down in order to engage more compassionately. However, during the 2016 election cycle, I witnessed some of the worst Enneagram engagement I’ve seen. Rageful outbursts were justified “because I’m an 8 and my 8 energy needs to vent.” Someone relatively new to the Enneagram who identifies with the energy and habits of a “1” defended their need to be right saying, “It’s just a 1 thing.” A tool developed to invite us out of hiding and into the light to experience Christ’s healing can be used as a tool to self-protect, defend, and hide even deeper. Thus, my caution these days.

Sadly, I’ve seen people I respect – pastors and theologians – dismiss the Enneagram because of how it’s being used. The faddish use of a tool like this is concerning, but I’m not ready to abandon it. Indeed, its best days may be ahead.

Fads come and go. Just the other day a student sent a link for a test to determine which “spirit animal” I am. While I don’t think the spirit animal personality quiz will out-pace the Enneagram, I do think that its bandwagon consumers will grow weary of it. We’ll likely see fewer books and podcast engagement. In time, some will forget about it altogether.

I’m looking forward to that. The Enneagram isn’t a personality test. There is no quiz that can tell you who you are. It’s a wisdom tool. And thus, it’s best used by wise teachers who know it, who are slow to categorize or label, and who are most interested in the deeper issues of the heart—what we long for, what motivates us, how we cope with the brokenness of the world. Christ calls us all out of hiding and into light and love, and at its best the Enneagram can help with this. Until then, I’m cautious, yet hopeful.

About the Author
  • Chuck DeGroat has enjoyed a fluid combination of pastoral work, clinical counseling, and teaching over the past 16 years. He founded City Church Counseling Center (San Francisco) and co-founded Newbigin House of Studies, a seminary and church planter training center. He is an associate professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, and has authored three books: Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self, Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places and Toughest People to Love.


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