The Enneagram + Christian Community

Today's post comes from Josh Shepherd - site director of QuadW Kansas City.  Josh and his wife, Tricia live in the KC Mission House w/ the QuadW interns as well as those who live there on a more long-term basis.  You can find out more about the KC Mission House HERE.  In today's post Josh shares about an ancient tool called the Enneagram and how they make use of it to help open up to God's transforming work in themselves and to live generously and gracefully with one another.  We are so grateful who Josh is and for the work he is engaged in, in KC.  Enjoy! 

Here at Mission House in Kansas City, Kansas, we live in permanent Christian community. Our work with QuadW means we also have a steady influx of short-term guests. These guests — sometimes also called “interns” — come from diverse backgrounds. I’d be hard-pressed to name a demographic we haven’t had the honor of sharing life with. What they all have in common, though, is a professed desire for formation in the missionary ways of Christ and His people.

This is a broad goal, and we are constantly tweaking not only the resources we use, but even the categories of skills and capacities we are seeking to develop. One of the constants from the beginning, though, has been the facilitation of a greater understanding of both one’s self and one’s neighbors. One of the most helpful tools towards this end has been the Enneagram. 

Doing the Enneagram in community is an inherently vulnerable experience because it seeks to point out the often-hidden motivations behind our false self, what the Christian tradition simply calls “sin”. Based on the idea that all sin emerges from three fundamental distortions — anger, shame, and fear — Enneagram breaks these down into 9 root sins and assigns a number type one through nine (with additional nuance that I will not get into here for the sake of brevity). These root sins are: anger, pride, deceit, envy, greed, fear, gluttony, lust, and laziness. While we are all affected by each of these sins, the Enneagram is based on the notion that we each face a particular stronghold in one of the nine areas. This stronghold is the particular area of sin that constantly seems to plague us, is resistant to breakthrough despite much effort, and is our secret motivation behind much of what we do — even when we think we are doing good.

But the Enneagram is not just about revelation. It is also about transformation. This dynamic aspect of the Enneagram is what makes it different from most other typologies. It is not just self-awareness we are after, but a pathway to growth. Each Enneagram type contains both arrows of growth/integration and arrows of regression/disintegration. These arrows help us know which types to learn from and imitate on our way to transcending our current strongholds, as well as which directions we tend to go when we are at our worst.

We ask our long-term participants and guests to go deeper than simply seeking to understand their own types. We want everyone to have a grasp of the entire system in order to better understand the people around them. The reason for this is that we are often frankly too judgmental and dismissive of others when we don’t take time to understand the possible underlying reasons or personal values that motivate them to do what they do. Understanding goes a long way towards the creation of community, and it is very hard to be dismissive of the false self next to you when your own false self is being revealed in the process.

Of course, there are possible dangers. For one, we don’t do this for purposes of condemnation or shame at all. Sufficient Gospel groundwork should be in place, and reminders of the all-encompassing grace of God are important for even experienced Christians. But this is not a grace that leaves us where we are. God’s grace fuels transformation, and the Enneagram is simply a tool we can choose to use to uncover areas where this transformative grace is needed.

Another caution is that some younger adults are still very early in the process of understanding their identities at all. When I look back on all the masks and disguises of my late teens and early 20s, I see how difficult it would have been to deal with my false self when I had so little clue as to my real self. Once I saw sin as a stain on my sure identity in Christ, I was freer to deal with my own hidden motivations without being completely confused and lost as to who I am. Practically, we use other typologies (such as Myers-Briggs) that are more about what we are good at and what our preferences are. When used in conjunction with gift-based typologies, the Enneagram helps give a fuller picture of all the good, the bad, and the ugly that comprises our human personality both in light of the inherent goodness of creation as well as the devastating disruption of the fall. 

Lastly, mature Christians will understand that a typology is simply a tool and in no way describes the sum total of who any of us is. That said, younger Christians are rightly concerned about being labeled and “put into boxes”. I take time to clarify the reasonable limitations of typologies, and keep a fairly open-handed posture about what we are hoping to accomplish with any typology we use. If someone still has serious reservations about the Enneagram, I wouldn’t see any point in pushing it on them. That’s yet to occur, but I have had to be careful about not making young adults feel as though any typology is deterministic or fatalistic about who they are or who they are becoming. The good news is that the Enneagram is one tool clearly designed to help us grow into a fuller humanity in Christ, rather than simply leaving us where we are.