Alison Marie Smith

Life, Leadership & Spiritual Formation in Lonely Places

The Worst (and Best) Thing About Working for InterVarsity

This year I completed 5 years of ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I wish I could say I feel like a million bucks. But honestly, I feel like a dish towel that’s been wrung out after washing a particularly grungy set of dishes. Working in ministry is fun, rewarding, surprising, and rarely ever dull. But I love the way that Ruth Haley Barton describes it in her book “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.”  She describes leadership, particularly in ministry, as a crucible:

Crucible: A place or set of circumstances where people or things are subjected to forces that test them and often make them change.

I couldn’t agree more with this image. I used crucibles in high school chemistry class. Do you remember what element was used to force change in the chemicals in the crucible? Fire. Fire is a common image that God uses throughout the Bible. In many circumstances, it is used as a purifying agent. But obviously, fire burns. Never in my life have I been placed in so many situations where I have been forced to change or adapt, where God has used situations as metaphorical fire, burning away false parts of myself and leaving behind the purist parts of who he created me to be.

This is the worst and best thing about working for InterVarsity. It is a life inside a crucible. Through InterVarsity, God is constantly plopping me into the middle of situations that expose a part of me that requires development, healing, affirmation, or total removal.

It’s like God is constantly asking me to look at my life through a magnifying glass. This helps me to see the beautiful parts of myself that might not be in plain site. I grow to understand God more deeply. I learn more about myself, how God created me, what I am good at, what I love, what causes me to thrive. I become a more free, more alive person. But it also causes me to see the hairs I forgot to pluck, the gunk in my teeth that need flossing, the blemishes that are normally hidden. It is the worst because it brings to light unhealthy coping patterns that no longer serve me but feel comfortable. It exposes behaviors and thought patterns I’m clinging to that hurt my relationship with God and others.

It is rarely a pleasant experience to discover hidden brokenness but it always ends with freedom and life.

I experienced this poignantly when my husband and I moved to Utah. We had no family or friend connections in the state. Every relationship we made was new, this was exciting. Part of my personality is that I love dreaming of new possibilities. But I had no idea how long building deep and meaningful relationships could take. Within the first few months of the move, I experienced deep loneliness and I felt distant from God in a way I hadn’t felt before. In college, I was used to experiencing God almost exclusively through community- communal prayer, musical worship at church, leading Bible studies with a sorority sister. When friendships didn’t come quickly, I thought something was wrong with me. I had no basis for spiritual development without strong friendships; I didn’t know how to connect with God anymore.

It wasn’t until a Christian Life Coach posed the question, “What if God is intentionally making it hard for you to develop friendships? What if the problem isn’t you?” that I started paying attention to what God might be doing. God used the isolation I felt as a crucible. My situation of isolation and loneliness was a place that forced me to engage with spiritual disciplines that I had little exposure to during college. God led me into a time of discovery- learning about solitude, centering prayer, and silence. It was incredibly painful but it forced me to discover spiritual rhythms that brought life and renewal. It freed me from shame- Is there something wrong with me?- to seeing the situation as an opportunity, a crucible from God to develop into a more whole person.

Through this experience, God has helped me identify a passion for spiritual formation- helping college students become more like Jesus for the sake of othersI’ve discovered that I love hearing their stories, what they love, what brings them joy. And what sucks the life out of them. I love helping them connect the dots of where God has been present and what it looks like tangibly to experience a relationship with him. I love helping people engage with God in new ways, helping them to look beyond the shame and see God’s invitation to them. Without the crucible of leadership, I’m not sure if I would have discovered this about myself.

There are many days where I want to quit and do something that doesn’t require so much self-examination. Maybe I could work at Petco? Or the running store I love to shop at? Retail isn’t that bad, right? At least I’d have a steady pay check! But God reminds me that this, in the heart of ministry through InterVarsity, is where he has called me. Ruth Haley Barton aptly describes it this way:

Some people seem to make it through life without ever having to wrestle with the fatal question [of calling]. They seem to move through life with ease- making a living, enjoying the fruits of their labor, taking what seems to be an easy or at least a rather clearly marked path to security and success- while others seem to be called to make commitments that require us to do strange things and orient our lives toward realities that others do not even see.  It’s hard to be this kind of person… It’s hard to keep answering a calling that continually takes us right out to the edge of our faith and our human limitations… But a true leader is one who has heard the fatal question… For better and for worse, we say yes to meaning. We say yes to God.

So I’ll keep saying yes to God, because I know that provides freedom, meaning, intimacy with him and others, and ultimately life. I’ll keep peering through the magnifying glass with him, trusting that beauty comes with brokenness. I’ll follow him into the crucible, sometimes at a sprint, sometimes walking with my eyes closed, sometimes crawling.

For better or for worse, I’m sticking with him.


  1. Such an encouraging post for my own seasons of feeling “in the fire” with God. Thanks for sharing your vulnerabilities!

  2. So glad you shared this, Alison! Very helpful perspective.

  3. Totally relate to how you felt when you moved to Utah! And even had a similar revelation about God wanting me to find full sufficiency in him rather than in others… so good!

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