The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation

I have been studying and teaching on the Enneagram for the past three and a half years. For me, it is a unique personality typing system. It’s also extremely fashionable these days, especially in the Christian church, I understand that—which can allow for it to be disparaged by some. Of course, there are many other personal and professional typing methods available—Myers-Briggs Type IndicatorStrengthsFinder, and DiSC profile, to name a few. Still, I’ve not yet found a tool as helpful in understanding not just the what or how of one’s personality, but also the why. It gets into the nitty-gritty of the motivation behind why we live and view life the way we do.

With this in mind, I was grateful to receive a review copy of A.J. Sherrill’s new work, The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation. Sherrill is formerly pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but has now moved into Enneagram and spiritual formation coaching. I am grateful to Brazos/Baker for a review copy.

As I’ve continued to study and teach about this personality typing system myself, I have been drawn more and more to see it as a spiritual formation tool. This has been highlighted in my reading of The Sacred Enneagram (I am aware of recent accusations against Chris Heuertz) and another work just published in 2019, Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram.

By noting how the Enneagram can be used as a helpful aid for our spiritual development does not mean I believe this is something that was, say, utilized by Jesus or the New Testament writers in their day. I don’t equivocate it with Scripture either. Sherrill himself has a brief section in his appendix, addressing the origins of the Enneagram (p145-146). But, when I note its helpfulness in Christian spiritual growth, I am simply acknowledging that, in light of the in-depth insights into who we are that the Enneagram offers, one can also think through spiritually formative practices to help spur us toward growth in Christ.

It’s not unlike utilizing any other tool in our world for growth and development. Think of anthropology (the study of people) and sociology (the study of society), and the theories that help us understand ourselves, both culturally and societally. Or learning about specific cultural theory and how we develop the beliefs, values, norms, and practices that shape who we are. There’s also psychology and counseling, both having been helpful in navigating mental health, behavioral, and trauma therapy.

The Enneagram is a tool, perhaps we could say a psychological aid. And I think it can be considered as a tool in Christian spiritual formation.

Sherrill begins the book with the topic of our identity, looking to ultimately root it in the Imago Dei (image of God) and Christ. He notes, “Self-understanding and transformation open to their fullest human capacity in Christ” (34). This is a great reminder for all, even as we look to utilize the gifts available to learn more about who we are, how we function, and why. We are not first and foremost an Enneatype. We are created by God and are in Christ.

His second chapter provides an introduction to the nine Enneatypes, giving the usual one-word definer terms (One = Perfectionist, Two = Helper, Three = Achiever, etc), along with four descriptor words for each type, plus the survival strategy attached to each number. Whenever I teach on the Enneagram, I always encourage people to first learn about the nine types and to think through what they believe best describes them. Then, and only then, do you take a particular test. This allows one to compare the test results with your own personal reflection of what type you felt best fits you. It can be a confirmation opportunity or a learning opportunity that you perceived one reality, but perhaps another is true. This chapter will be helpful to those unfamiliar with the Enneagram, laying the groundwork for an introduction to each type.

Chapter 3 is probably my favorite. In this section on discipleship, Sherrill offers spiritual practices for each Enneatype. He details both a downstream (“easier”) and upstream (“more difficult”) practice. For example, the downstream practice for the One is nature walks. The upstream practice is journaling. Interestingly enough, as a One, I engage in both of these. But I confirm that walks are much easier to engage in than journaling. It’s just that I have been journaling regularly for a few years now, and so have made it a spiritual practice of habit for my own growth. In all, I think it great to identify exercises—both easy and challenging—that can help shape us in the renewed image of Christ.

The next chapter was probably the most difficult for me to engage. In it, Sherrill links each particular Enneatype to a biblical character. The goal is “to make connections between your personality and the personalities of the people of God who have come before you” (84). From my perspective, I think it may be forcing the issue a bit too much. Yet, he does note, “While we cannot say we know with certainty the Enneatypes of the people in Scripture, we can nonetheless draw type themes from the different scriptural narratives” (84-85). In the end, I am sure Sherrill’s reflections here could be insightful for individual spiritual formation. But it didn’t necessarily connect with me.

Chapter 5 was interesting, in that I’ve not yet seen this offered in previous works, as authored by Christians. It specifically focuses in on how the Enneagram can be a helpful tool for evangelism. What he does not do is say a One evangelizes best in this way, a Two evangelizes best in that way, etc. I’m grateful that wasn’t the thrust. Sherrill states, “The Enneagram can help us rediscover evangelism and its biblical roots. It can give us a common language to be able to meet people where they are, to open the hearts of those around us who are in search of life’s deeper meaning” (114). Near the end of the chapter, he summarizes, “The Enneagram helps us identify our specific areas of brokenness, recognize our holdings, and open our minds to the glaring possibility that we are not whole on our own. As Christians this is a starting point to humble evangelism (122). In the end, what he offers is that the Enneagram can be a tool in our world today that opens conversation around life, spiritual things, and Christ himself as a healer of brokenness.

The final chapter of the book considers how to use the Enneagram to form deeper character, particularly through introduction of a rule of life in our walk. This is done through the development of aims (who we want to be), practices, and habits in our lives. Creating a personal rule of life has become a highlighted practice within current Christian thought on spiritual formation. Sherrill defines a rule of life as “a commitment to consistently live out a way of life that is rooted in an ultimate aim” (135). The aim he is referring to would consist of particular virtues that embody Christlikeness. From this, the practices and habits that we take up will assist in our transformation toward those virtues.

Sherrill’s The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation is another work I have found helpful in utilizing the Enneagram as a tool for Christlike spiritual development. The book is very accessible to anyone and everyone. Having just released last week, take a moment to check it out. You can also view the book trailer below.

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