We sat around the dining table: seven seminary interns from the past year, four new interns for the coming year, Calvin College chaplain Rev. Mary Hulst, and Nate and Aminah Bradford, co-associate chaplains at the college.
Coffee had been poured, eggs and waffles passed, and eating begun. It was the hand-off breakfast, where the team of seminary interns of the current year passed the baton, so to speak, to next year’s team.
The “old” interns talked about the best and the hardest parts of their year with their “Barnabas students”—a team of seven college student leaders in each residence hall. Then the new interns shared what they were looking forward to in the coming year.
This sharing of food and drink, communal reflection, prayer, and preparation was a foretaste of what being a Calvin Theological Seminary intern for Campus Ministries at Calvin College would be like.
The seminary intern program, in the words of program supervisor Nate Bradford, is “a wonderful opportunity for seven seminarians each year to gain experience in college ministry.”
Seven students from Calvin Seminary are selected to be interns in campus ministries for the following school year. Students often hear of or are prompted to apply for the program by word of mouth. Those with experience as seminary interns tell a peer or a friend, someone they think would be well-suited for the task of walking alongside college students for a year in their respective journeys.
At Calvin College, each of the seven residence halls has a team of seven students called Barnabas (Barnabi, plural; or Barns, for short). Each of the three women’s and men’s floors has one Barnabas student dedicated to leading Bible study and helping to facilitate community on his or her floor.
They are joined by a seventh student—a worship Barnabas—who leads in planning and implementing a weekly dorm worship event. Barnabas students are spiritual life facilitators on their floors and in their dorms.
The interns are appointed, one to each hall, to walk alongside the Barnabas students for the duration of the year. They help to ensure that each “Barn” grows spiritually and feels supported, and they guide the Barnabas students as they lead Bible study and dorm worship.
The seminary intern meets regularly with each individual Barnabas in a one-on-one mentoring meeting and with the Barnabas team. Interns also meet biweekly with Nate Bradford for one-on-one meetings and weekly as a seminary intern team.
The seminary intern and Barnabas programs form an interwoven fabric of collaborative care, formation, and leadership.
“I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit uses this time to shape and form these believers to be a faithful presence in whatever they do once they leave Calvin College,” said Michael McCarty, an intern from Confluence, Pennsylvania.
Bradford describes the essence of the Barnabas program as mentoring, with the purpose of answering the question “How can individual or small group meetings help shape people such that they become better, kingdom-aware disciples of Jesus?”
He added, “The hope for the Barnabas students is that we take them at whatever place they are in their faith life and move them further down the path of discipleship.”
As they partner with Barnabas students, the seminary interns join the students on their faith formation journeys.
“College is a critical time for faith formation because research shows that 18 to 24 are the years when a person most often establishes their religious pattern,” Bradford explained.
This year’s crop of seminary interns are in the midst of their seminary journey, most just a few years older than the students they serve. Some are discerning callings to chaplaincy, others to parish ministry, others to parachurch ministry. What they share is the desire and conviction to walk alongside college students in this critical time in their lives.
“I am particularly passionate about this age group because I believe that this is a time when they are forced to own their faith and answer questions for themselves,” Jon Kool from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said when asked what appealed to him about this job.
Another common theme among the seminary interns is how important their time in college was for their own faith and identity formation.
“Having learned and grown so much while I was in college, largely because of their [the chaplain and theology department at Dordt College] influences, made me really interested in chaplaincy in a college setting,” said Bailey Sarver, a Dordt alumna and former admissions counselor from Pella, Iowa. “When I heard about this internship, it seemed like a wonderful way to test the waters.”
Similarly, Michael Weller from Charlotte, North Carolina, said, “College was an important time and place in my own life that shaped me for ministry, and the chance to be that for someone else was extremely exciting for me.”
Benjamin McKnight from Grand Rapids, said, “I remembered how moldable I was, how much I wanted to be mentored and poured into.” For him this job became a way of paying forward, returning what was given, meeting a need that he had experienced not too many years earlier.
So what is it exactly that the interns do?
“If you asked my wife what I do for a living, she would say I drink coffee and talk to people,” said Corey VanHuizen from St. Catharines, Ontario.
“Now, that’s not completely untrue. But it’s more than that. I invite them informally into a discipling relationship. . . . I walk alongside [them with their] stress, baggage, joy, jokes, and sorrow. Everything from feelings of inadequacy in prayer to completely missing the point of the gospel; from sexual assault victims to [people with] addictions of many different kinds to the joys and ups and downs of dating relationships. I walk alongside college students.”
When they meet one-on-one, each Barnabas student sits with a seminary intern, and together they plumb the depths of whatever the student feels pressing upon him or her: exploring and practicing spiritual disciplines; sharing deep pains and deep joys; sharing questions, doubts, and convictions; delving into a text from James for the campus-wide Bible study each Barnabas student leads.
During the rest of the week, the seminary interns witness the Barnabas students at work in their campus communities. The interns lead retreats with the Barnabas students, cook meals with them, and have them over to their homes to listen to their stories, dreams, and future plans.
It isn’t about the intern bestowing hard-won wisdom on a younger college student. Rather, it’s a case of exploring together.
As Weller said, “I really love getting to ask questions that I don’t have answers to. I’m pretty sure at least half of my sentences begin with ‘Why do you think . . . ?’ and end with me not knowing what to expect as a response.”
The principles of pastoral care learned in the Foundations of Pastoral Care course in the semester that precedes beginning this position becomes a well from which interns draw to cultivate their pastoral care and mentoring skills. It’s also a chance to further round out one’s identity and discern God’s call.
“I think that God is actually shaping some of my calling through this . . . this job has been shaping and smoothing out my pastoral identity through pastoral care, active listening, leadership, and mentoring,” McKnight explained.
The downside to this work? “Seeing my students struggle and hurt [and realizing] that I can’t fix or change those things,” answered Sarver.
“I only get a year with the students . . . it will be a tearful departure at the end of this school year,” answered McKnight.
“The end is hard,” says McCarty. The interns journey with the students for a year, then entrust them fully to the Lord as they separate and continue on in their respective journeys to wherever God leads.
Meet Joella Ranaivoson
I stumbled upon Calvin College six weeks before my high school graduation from Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya.
I’m Malagasy—from Madagascar—but grew up in Papua New Guinea and the United States, then Kenya, with my missionary family.
When my carefully wrought college plans came undone, I didn’t have a place to go. My older sister, who was in college in the U.S. at the time, told me to look up Calvin College, as she had a high school classmate attending there.
It was quite disarming walking into the Calvinist, Dutch Reformed world from the international Lutheran world I was raised in.
During my time at Calvin, I was stubborn, determined, and thought I knew very much. But I dipped my hand in some places and plunged head-first into others, trying to suck the marrow out of the college experience. Four years later I was rich from it, but also utterly exhausted.
In my junior year I was part of the Jubilee Fellows program, a regenerative gift during my time at Calvin. In this program, 14 of us students learned about ministry, pastoral identity, calling, and serving the church, the bride of Christ.
Then, in the summer, we embarked on a 10-week internship to a church somewhere in the country. My internship took me to New York City to serve with Dwell Church, a CRC church plant in the Bowery neighborhood, and to be mentored by pastor Peter Armstrong.
During those 10 weeks in New York I learned many things. Among those that have stuck: I am called to the city; international and global cultures, concerns, and people are and always will be in my blood and heart; and I am compelled by the church.
In a series of events during my senior year at Calvin it became clear to me that God was prompting me toward seminary. I finally heeded that call and applied to Calvin Theological Seminary.
I’m the type to get restless from being in one place for too long, yet there was relief at not having to uproot and plant again just yet by staying in Grand Rapids, staying in the Calvin community.
I’m currently in my second of three years in the M.Div. program and serving this year as a seminary intern. It’s interesting to interact with, listen to, and mentor students whose shoes I was in not four years ago.
Seminary is challenging—for your whole person, not just your mind—but it’s well worth it. I am still stubborn and determined, but it’s focused in specific directions, with a purpose. We’ll see what God has in store for the future.
—by Joella Ranaivoson
Calvin College was birthed from Calvin Theological Seminary, and for most of their shared history, the two were one institution. That changed in 1991. But there is still much that binds the schools together, including a robust theological heritage, a shared library, and the same geographical location.
Another remarkable intersection is that of the seminary internship program with the undergraduate Barnabas program offered in the residence halls and overseen by the college’s Campus Ministries Office. This feature was written by one of the interns whose own faith formation journey of young adulthood was lived out in the college and now the seminary.
—by Jinny De Jong, Calvin Theological Seminary
Please pray . . .
- for the Barnabas students weaving spiritual practices and activities into the community life of the residence halls.
- for the Calvin College students navigating the challenges and experiencing the joys of life together in the dorms.
- for the Calvin Seminary interns who work among and learn from the Campus Ministries team of the college.
- for the formation of dynamic and durable faith among college students and seminarians alike as they seek discernment of their callings.
About the Author
Joella Ranaivoson is an associate chaplain at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.