False Narratives for Interns

Mary Catherine Montgomery, Trinity University  |  September 06, 2019

Everyone has stories they tell themselves. It’s how we’re wired. It’s how we make sense of the world. Everyone lives according to narratives they have adopted or designed, narratives that help us interpret who we are, who God is, how life works, etc. 
Stories are powerful, and they form us in deep ways. 

The problem is, not all the narratives we tell ourselves are true. But if the stories we assume actually mold us to such a profound extent, then it matters which stories we harbor, and it matters whether or not they are true. 
During the first year of the internship, the Lord exposed several false narratives I had been telling myself. His tender uprooting and replanting was both relieving and deeply needed. 

Here are a few of the ones I’d been assuming:

1. You must have all your stuff together
I find myself continually needing to re-learn the persistence of grace, that is not merely the genesis of the Christian life but its very lifeblood.

As it turns out, I needed to learn this afresh as an intern too. Settling into campus life, I felt anxious, unqualified, and unequipped, especially on the days when sin felt all-pervasive. And there were a lot of those days. I questioned whether—struggling as I still do—I should even be an intern. I felt like a phony. Amidst this silent scuffle, I was forced to pause and reconsider my role. I had been trying to impress students so that they would accept me and want to hang out with me. I wanted to prove my spiritual maturity so they would trust me with their questions and with their stories. This began to break down as I saw it was only cultivating pride in me instead of love for students and dependence upon Christ.

As I increasingly recognized, my qualification as an RUF intern is not that I have arrived spiritually (I haven’t) or that I no longer struggle with anxiety or pride or jealousy or idolatry (I definitely haven’t). Being exempt from these was not in the job description and it is not my confidence before students. It can’t be. If I believe that I cannot minister to students unless I am relatively cleaned up, I’ll never get out the door in the morning. It just won’t happen. My only qualification in all of life is that Christ is holding me, despite myself--that He has covered me. From first to last, the Christian life is not about my merit, but an expanding awareness of my lack thereof. And an expanding awareness of the sufficiency and thoroughness of His grace. It swallows us whole.  

This growing awareness causes me to point students to Christ and only Christ. The most helpful thing I can do for my students is to recognize my gnawing need and therefore—with sincerity and consistency—point them to Him.

2. You must be the life of the party
One of the most freeing things and biggest paradigm shifters for me this year was growing in the understanding of what my job is and is not. As I learned, being an intern does not mean always being the life of the party. It does not require being the biggest, coolest personality in the room, which I initially thought was imperative to make sure everyone was having fun and kept coming back. That approach can actually stunt relational growth with students.

This hit home while listening to a recent episode of The Local Youth Worker podcast. Joe Deegan notes, “I felt like I always had to impress the students to get them to [show up]...But sometimes students are intimidated by ‘cool’ and impressive people, and the last thing you want to do is intimidate your students. Often times in our attempts to be cool and impressive, we can actually push them further away. And so our willingness to be somebody who is low and humble and maybe not always the center of attention— our willingness to do that— can sometimes help our students open up and be more themselves”

What is more inviting and more Christ-like is to get low and serve—being present with the students to our left and right, and loving them particularly….as individuals …where they are. Me being seen as “cool” by our students is not what compels them to feel safe enough to share their weaknesses and doubts with me.

But when students see their campus staff as people who care about and know them, as those who can identify with their weakness, that breeds depth of relationship; consequently, the sharing of struggles. Being cool and funny only goes so far, and will often encourage the culture of ‘needing to perform’.  So I can take comfort, knowing that my job is not to be the coolest person in the room or the center of attention. It is neither good for my soul nor the souls of my students. But if RUF feels like an environment safe enough to share struggles and doubts, that’s a huge win!

3. You must know all the things
Being an RUF intern on a college campus can be intimidating. The students are very smart and often know far more than I do about any given political, social, or scientific topic. One well-meaning woman at church warned me that I needed to be the smartest person in the room at all times if I was going attempt ministry at Trinity. I started ordering books from Amazon on the car ride home.

So, at the beginning of the year, I shouldered a self-imposed pressure to be well informed about any and everything. The result: I couldn’t turn off. Rest fell by the wayside because there was so much I still didn’t know or understand. The problem is, it’s impossible to know all the things. And I had begun trusting in my knowledge rather than in the power of the gospel and of the Spirit.  

I need to be reminded that what I am proclaiming to students is not intellectual idolatry, but Christ and His Word. As my CM reminded me before I started at Trinity, “We want to be able to converse with students, but most students aren’t walking away for intellectual reasons (most people don’t!). They are walking away because their hearts are worshiping something else. And you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to get at their heart—you just have to care about them and help them know that you do”.

 Covenant Seminary professor Mark Ryan says, “Omniscience is an attribute of God, not a pre-requisite for engaging in apologetics”.  Therefore I can praise Him for His infinite understanding and rest in my finitude. I can pursue knowledge without idolizing it. I can enjoy learning without trusting in it more than I trust God to work through His Word and Spirit. In Acts 4, Jewish rulers and elders stagger at Peter and John’s witness. Knowing they were “uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” Two thousand years later, He has the same effect.

Students are attracted to people who have been with Jesus, who have tasted His goodness and been softened by His grace.
Lord, increase our love for you. And make us the aroma of Christ on our campuses.