Getting More Out of Your Ministry Internship

Updated!
 
Over twenty six years ago I was in the middle of my ministry internship as a part of my seminary education. There were highs, lows, good things, bad things and disappointments in that time.
 
Recently, I went through a personal re-evaluation of what had gone on then and what I learned in the years since then. Of course, any kind of internship is a strange blend of a job with a definite end point and a teaching and learning experience in conjunction with an educational institution. It simply isn’t a real and complete experience of what it means to be a pastor, either.  One of the lessons that I realized over the years was that I needed to have a more concrete set of goals and objectives as I went into the internship. Here are some lessons learned:
 
  • For the seminary: Though there are no perfect churches, a church with generally stable and healthy relationships, without major conflicts, among the pastoral and support staff is a safer place for a ministry internship than otherwise.
  • For the seminary: Because the ministry intern is new, different and vulnerable, make the supervising pastor aware that he is responsible to help shield the intern from malicious gossip, rumors and staff rivalries. It’s unfortunate that talkative people often turn superficial first impressions into misperceptions and misunderstandings.
  • For the supervising pastor and the hosting church: If a ministry intern receives housing with a host family at a church far from the intern’s home, the host family should generally be stable and not experiencing major conflicts among themselves. This will provide a safe home away from home for the intern. Participation in household chores is usually part of the housing situation, but the intern is not to be treated as a source of cheap household labor or child care.
  • For the seminary: Make sure that the hosting church and supervising pastor is in agreement with and follows the internship program and guidelines from the seminary.
  • For the intern: Work with the supervising pastor to provide an ongoing ministry responsibility in accord with your goal for the type of ministry that you are seeking after graduation. Make sure that it’s not just taking up a ministry responsibility which no one else wants, but rather something that works toward your ultimate goal and purpose for ministry after graduation.
  • For the seminary: Make sure that the supervising pastor and church understand that the seminary student is a graduate student, and the quality of the educational experience should reflect that in the depth of the instruction and responsibility. If the seminary student is working with a church that has accepted undergraduate interns, there needs to be an understanding that the seminary student is older and in a more academically rigorous program, and that the experience should reflect that.
  • For the seminary: Advise the supervising pastor and church staff to spend the time and effort to get to know the ministry intern on his or her own through actual conversations with the intern. Have the intern document previous ministry experience as well, and use that to help guide the direction of the internship.
  • For the seminary: Make sure that the supervising pastor and the intern have a regularly scheduled one on one time, preferably about an hour weekly, and make sure that this time is blocked out for privacy, without interruptions by the other church staff.
  • For the seminary and the supervising pastor: Make sure that the supervising pastor and church that the seminary student likewise has his or her own scriptural convictions and spiritual history, and is most likely the member or long time adherent of another church, perhaps even another denomination. The pastor and church need to give the same kind of respect to the student’s convictions and history as they would expect for their own, and understand that God has not given them any scriptural permission to try to change the intern to their own specifications (Romans 14:7-12). After all, the student is an adult who is responsible to God first of all. and his or her convictions and history and existing church membership need to be respected as such.
  • For the seminary: Advise the ministry intern to observe required hours, etc, as a professional, and treat attendance, sick time and vacation time with the same seriousness as if he or she were on a secular job. Make sure that the intern is informed about going to a pastoral supervisor for supervisory decisions such as time off, going home early for any reason, etc.
  • For the supervising pastor: Since a seminary student will usually be in his or her mid to late 20’s to 30’s, there will be matters on which he or she will demonstrate some immaturity. Definitely the student will not demonstrate the same level of responsibility and knowledge in all areas of life as someone in their forties or fifties. This kind of immaturity is not wrong; it is merely a matter of growth waiting to happen. Never scorn the intern because he or she has not yet learned the lessons of life and ministry that someone in his or her forties and fifties has.
  • For the seminary: Since a seminary student is coming from an academic environment where there may have been a lot of academic discussion and debate about many things such as scripture passages, spiritual life and disciplines, cross cultural missions, etc., understand that the student may well talk over the heads of many people for a while. It’s a good time to help guide the student on how to minister to people where they are and at the level of their understanding, and how to minister to people for the needs of their hearts.
  • For the seminary: Make sure that the supervising pastor is comfortable with working with someone who is younger and may have had a deeper educational experience. Generally a pastor who is a seminary graduate would be most suitable to be a supervising pastor.
  • For the intern: Develop your own written plan and goals for your internship before you go there, and define it in terms of what you want to accomplish. Document your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you want to do to develop your strengths and bolster your weaknesses. Ask the supervising pastor to develop a mutually agreeable set of goals, tasks and responsibilities for the internship. Make sure that you are not left having to scrounge from week to week for something to do, or to be given busywork or treated as cheap help!
  • For the intern: Keep a daily or weekly log of tasks, accomplishments, lessons learned and hours would have furnished documentation of what actually happened, what was actually accomplished and what progress was actually made. Use this as the basis for the final evaluation.
  • For the supervising pastor: Avoid sending the intern out on too many ministry tasks alone, or, conversely, keep the intern from working on any individual assignments. There needs to be a balance between individual and team assignments.
  • For the supervising pastor and hosting church: Allow the intern to develop his or her own social life and friendships within the congregation. It will take time if the intern has come from another part of the country to develop friendships and any kind of social life. Do not hover around the intern or attempt to monitor his or her social relationships closely.
  • For the supervising pastor: Do not involve the intern in dealing with situations where any member of the pastoral staff is trying to work out reconciliation with any member of the congregation on any matter. The mere presence of the intern may exacerbate an already incendiary situation.
  • For the supervising pastor: If there is more than one intern on staff, do allow one that has been on staff longer to acclimate another and participate in ministry tasks together. Do not allow one intern to have supervisory responsibilities or report on the performance of another intern.
  • For the supervising pastor: Be careful to make sure that the intern is informed that church secretaries or administrative assistants do not make supervisory decisions about an intern. Advise the church secretaries or administrative assistants to refer any questions which they are not qualified to answer back to the supervising pastor. Advise church secretaries or administrative assistants not to be a source of gossip or complaints about the intern, and do not allow church secretaries or administrative assistants to be a source for performance feedback on an intern, either.
  • For the supervising pastor and the intern: Since an internship is supposed to be a place where it’s possible to make mistakes safely, make sure that each and every mistake that may happen is treated as a learning experience. It’s not enough to know that a mistake has been made.  The intern needs to work with the supervising pastor to work out better alternatives to what was actually done and document what you learned from the experience. The supervising pastor also needs to be willing to talk things through. Note also that any mistake needs to be an exercise in Christian patience, forgiveness and humility for both pastor and intern.
  • For the supervising pastor: The final evaluation needs to be expressed in terms of things accomplished and lessons learned; it needs to be positive, professional, and specific. Make sure that both the intern and the relevant supervising pastor fill out their own evaluations. In addition, there should be no negative feedback on the evaluation which has not been discussed at length previous to the final evaluation with the intern. See my previous post on Recommendations, References, Evaluations and Slander on what should be avoided.
  • For the supervising pastor and the seminary: Avoid any specific career advice or direction based on what happens during an internship, since the purpose of an internship is to get ministry experience in a safe environment, not to determine the career direction of the intern. Often interns can learn, change and develop during their last years of seminary and in their first ministry positions. Some may even decide on their own not to seek a ministry position after graduation, even if they get rave reviews from an internship. Others may not get as strong an evaluation but may use the experience to develop their strengths and overcome their weaknesses in their first ministry positions. But, finally, the determination of the suitability of any person for a career as a pastor within a denomination is usually the licensing and ordination committee, not the supervising pastor of a ministry intern. And the career direction of the intern following the internship is ultimately the choice and responsibility of the intern as an adult responsible to God first. If the intern chooses a different career path than the supervising pastor envisioned, don’t complain about it to anyone.

Here are some areas where I would suggest that ministry internships should provide definite experience:

  • Ministering to people who have lost loved ones and conducting funerals. I suggest that the intern be given a definite part, such as reading scripture or offering prayer. Assign the intern to go over the relevant sections in a pastor’s manual first.
  • Preaching a sermon at least once during the internship. After the sermon the supervising pastor and the intern should go over a video or audio recording of the sermon and look for lessons to be carried forward on sermon preparation and delivery.
  • Setting up and leading a small group Bible study for a period of some weeks. If the intern has never done this, the supervising pastor should guide the intern but let all the invitation and leading be done by the intern. If the church already has a small group ministry, let the intern start a small group as a part of the larger ministry,
  • Follow up of church visitors by phone and personal visit. Guide the intern on how to get to know visitors without being threatening, pray with them and even share the gospel with them if the opportunity arises.
  • Sitting in on pastoral counseling sessions. Make sure that the intern understands what confidentiality guidelines are.
  • Participating in premarital counseling and wedding planning. Make sure that the intern is allowed to come to the actual wedding! It would be preferable to have the intern accompany the officiating pastor except when the actual ceremony is underway.
  • Team teaching a Sunday school class, and interviewing or following around a Sunday School Superintendent in the performance of his or her duties.
  • Regular attendance at Governing Board and committee meetings, and writing the agenda and taking the minutes for at least one committee meeting.
  • Writing content for the church’s web site and newsletter.
  • Helping the church to develop a presence on the Internet and in social media, perhaps even putting tweets on Twitter about what’s happening at the church, etc.
  • Participating in the church’s music ministry as a choir member or worship team member.
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