Using the Enneagram to help understand ourselves and others

Who are we? Who am I? These are questions that we wrestle with from time to time, perhaps never more than in this time of pandemic. We seek ways understand our behavior and motivation because in all of creation there is little more fascinating than the human. We desire deeply to know what makes people tick, what makes us tick. Why can some people easily solve a complex problem, and others are paralyzed by decision-making? Why can some people access their feelings so quickly, and others seem to not show emotions?

Recently, the Enneagram has had a resurgence in popularity. The Enneagram is an ancient tool, thought to have been around since the desert fathers. It is a model for understanding the variety of motivations and fears of the human soul. Unlike other personality-typing systems, the Enneagram’s focus is less on behavior and more on the desires and motivations that compel behavior. Some in Christian circles have been skeptical of the Enneagram. Perhaps some dismiss it as vanity, or maybe it hits too close to home. After all, it is a system that affirms our sin and brokenness. These are not messages that many Americans (or prosperity gospel preachers) want to hear. But those of us from the Reformed tradition resonate deeply with this understanding that we are broken people. As Western Seminary professor Chuck DeGroat tweeted: “The Enneagram has people of all stripes talking about besetting sin patterns. … It takes sin far more seriously than any contemporary psychological tool, perhaps so seriously that it’s shattering behavioral sin paradigms that give people a false sense of control.”

Its popularity in Christian subculture is due in part to the writings of Richard Rohr, Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile. The philosophy of the Enneagram is that there are nine basic types (“numbers”) of personality, represented in a circle, with lines depicting how the different types are connected. Each number is defined by a passion or sin. In “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective,” Rohr writes: “Sins are fixations that prevent the energy of life, God’s love, from flowing freely. They are self-erected blockades that cut us off from God and hence from our own authentic potential.” The primary sin of each number is like an addictive, involuntary repeated behavior that we can only be free of when we recognize how often we give it the keys to drive. When we live our life unaware of our sin and the way it lurks in our actions and thoughts, we remain asleep to the transformative life of grace that is offered to us in Jesus Christ. Finding your place in the Enneagram can be a quick process or a lengthy one. My husband knew instantly that he was a 1 (“the achiever”), yet it took a year for me to admit I was a 3 (“the performer”).

A brief overview of Enneagram types

The numbers are organized as triads that are based on three kinds of intelligence: thinking (head), feeling (heart) and doing (gut). Each number in the Enneagram is connected to a triad that reflects how people encounter and interpret the world, and how they habitually take in, process and respond to life. When we find balance in using all three triads, we begin to experience transformation in our faith and in our lives. The Enneagram does expose vulnerabilities and patterns of behavior that are uncomfortable, however the intention is to expose those things so that we might be transformed more into the image of Christ in us, rather than to dwell on our own shortcomings. There is great depth in the Enneagram, so fully understanding it takes years. But all things must begin somewhere, so here is a very brief description of each number, and a little more about how those numbers function, so that you might begin to understand some of what the Enneagram has to teach us.

Heart triad

The numbers 2, 3 and 4 on the Enneagram fall in the “heart triad.” Those who identify with these numbers prefer feeling, so they are first going to react with what they feel about a situation.

Enneagram type 2s are called “the helper” — they are warm, caring and giving, and they are motivated by a need to be loved and to avoid acknowledging their own needs. Their secret beliefs that they alone know what’s best for others and that they are indispensable reveal a primary sin of pride. In congregations, 2s will typically be the last person cleaning up after the fellowship hour long after everyone else has gone home or the person who always cooks a meal for a member who’s had surgery.

Enneagram 3s are called “the performer.” They are success-oriented, image-conscious and wired for productivity. They are motivated by a need to be (or appear) successful and avoid failure. They value appearance over substance and abandon their true selves to project a false, crowd-pleasing image, which reveals their primary sin of deceit. Enneagram 3s deceive themselves into believing they are their performance. In a congregation, they might be the ones keeping unofficial attendance and are acutely aware when numbers are lower than other churches — so they make sure the pastor and worship committee know, and they’ll offer a creative solution to fix it.

Enneagram 4s are called “the romantic” or “the individualist.” They are creative, sensitive and moody. They’re motivated by a need to be understood, experience their oversized feelings and avoid being ordinary. They believe they are missing something essential without which they will never be complete. They long for what they perceive to be the wholeness and happiness of others, which reveals their sin of envy. It is thought there is the least amount of 4s in the world. In church, 4s might be the ones who give the murals in the children’s area a facelift without being asked and cry weekly in worship.

Head triad

Numbers 5, 6 and 7 are known as “the head triad.” These Enneagram types are driven by fear. They take in and relate to the world through the mind, they respond first by considering what they think about a situation.

Fives are called “the investigator” or “the observer.” They are analytical, detached and private. Enneagram 5s are motivated by a need to gain knowledge, conserve energy and avoid relying on others, which reveals their sin of greed. They hoard things they believe will ensure they can live an independent, self-sustaining existence. Fives arrive at church late, sit in the back row and leave immediately so they are barely noticed. However, they engage fully in a sermon series, read all the suggested books on the subject and could rival the pastor’s knowledge on the subject if asked.

Sixes are called “the loyalist” or “the guardian.” They are committed, practical and witty. Enneagram 6s are worst-case scenario thinkers who are motivated by the sin of fear and the need for security. They are forever imagining worst-case scenarios and questioning their ability to handle life on their own. They turn to authority figures and belief systems rather than God to provide them with the support and security they yearn for. It is believed there are more 6s in the world than any other number. At church, 6s organize first aid/CPR training for volunteers, develop contingency plans for a disaster and slow down meetings by asking the “well, have you thought about…?” questions.

Sevens are called “the enthusiast” or “the dreamer.” They are fun, spontaneous and adventurous. They are motivated by the need to be happy and avoid pain, and spend time planning stimulating experiences. To avoid painful feelings, 7s gorge themselves on positive experiences, planning and anticipating new adventures and entertaining interesting ideas, which reveals their sin of gluttony. Sevens at church show up at every event with friends in tow and invite everyone sitting nearby to lunch after church — each Sunday a new group and different restaurant.

Gut triad

Finally, “the gut triad” numbers are 8, 9 and 1, who are driven by anger. They take in and respond to life instinctually — at the gut level. They will first think about what they do in
a situation.

Eights are called “the challenger” or “the confronter.” They are commanding, intense and confrontational. They are motivated by the need to be strong and avoid feeling weak or vulnerable. Their sin of lust can be seen in the excessiveness they evidence in every area of life. Domineering and confrontational, they present a hard, intimidating exterior to mask vulnerability. These people usually find their way onto the mission or outreach committee and are the first to sign the church up to march in a protest.

Nines are called “the peacemaker.” They are pleasant, laid-back and accommodating. They are motivated by a need to keep the peace, merge with others and avoid conflict, which reveals their sin of sloth. For 9s, this refers not to physical but spiritual laziness. They fall asleep to their own priorities, personal development and responsibility for becoming their own person. Nines at church attend all the meetings, but stay quiet 90% of the time. When they speak up, it is to offer the obvious solution to the problem that everyone will ultimately agree to.

Ones are “the perfectionist” or “the achiever” (and fall last on our list because they are grouped with the third triad). They are ethical, dedicated and reliable, and are motivated by a desire to live the right way, improve the world and avoid fault and blame. They feel a compulsive need to perfect the world. They are usually keenly aware that no one can live up to their standards, even themselves, and so they experience their sin of anger in the form of smoldering resentment. Ones at church compulsively straighten the hymnals in the pews before worship and let the pastor know when there is a typo in the bulletin.

A spiritual tool

Churches are now living in a unique time. During the pandemic and social isolation, we are experiencing loneliness, fear, anxiety and anger at new levels. The more these things overwhelm us, the more disconnected from each other and from our own souls we become, and we grow more disconnected from the God who created us and called us into being and community. We allow our unconscious motivations to rule and drive our lives, which leads to dysfunctional behavior and a dysfunctional culture. As church people, pastor and elders, preachers and teachers, leaders and volunteers, we know what it is like when dysfunctional behavior becomes the norm rather than the exception, and yet we desire the opposite. Relational poverty, lack of understanding and connection is a real threat currently. Using the Enneagram to understand different perceptions of the world helps us expand empathy for the people in our lives. We can begin to react to people with less anger and fear and more grace. When we listen to people, we can hear their comments and questions as manifestations of their perceptions, and filter our own responses by understanding when our sin is driving our behavior.

Scripture tells us to put off our old self and put on the new self created after the likeness of God. The Enneagram can help us by encouraging people to name and recognize their own behaviors, practice vulnerability and learn a path to a clearer image of God in ourselves and others. The nine numbers show us different ways that God loves the world. The Enneagram, in concert with Bible study, worship, community and other spiritual practices, is a useful tool to help us end relational poverty, and to find connection with people even when we cannot be with them in person. For the better we know ourselves, the better we know the God who created us. John Calvin told us “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” When we study and practice the Enneagram, we see the places where we are prone to fall short, but we also see the path to full life. When each number is moving in a healthy direction, they begin to see a clearer picture of the kingdom of God. And we are able to love God with our heart and minds and spirits and our neighbor as ourselves, rather than as a rival.

The only person who could hold all nine numbers was Jesus Christ. His life is the perfect incarnation of the image of God. In ways we continue to struggle to fully understand, he overcame the sinful nature in us and by the power of the Holy Spirit, gave us the ability to live more fully into the strength of our identity as God’s children. The Enneagram will not magically instill in us the mind of Christ. It will not magically fix all our problems and restore broken relationships. Tools like the Enneagram are only one way we can look into the mirror and see ourselves more clearly and learn to love our neighbors better.

Learn your number and talk with people you love about your motivation and behaviors. This is solitary work that cannot be done alone. Step into a piece of the transformation Christ has for us.

Sarah Dennis is a covenant pastor at Tuckahoe Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she pastors with her husband and they parent three amazing kids. She loves talking about the Enneagram, faith and all the podcasts she loves.