what makes for an effective internship?

**This isn’t something I’d normally blog about, but we are entering into internship season so it’s timely. And to be honest this was turned down for publication recently, so there you go.

What comes first must be the recognition that what Jesus observed in Matthew 9 remains as true today as ever. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are, sadly, few. What is needed from the church is prayer and obedience – prayer that harvest workers would be sent and obedience when we hear our own names among those who are being sent. There have always been some who have answered this call within the context of a full-time vocation. We know there are many vocations that are worthwhile pursuits, and we should also know that ministry isn’t limited to the “professionals.” But to set aside other goals and ambitions and to give oneself over single-mindedly to kingdom service is certainly a decision worth celebrating and encouraging in others. Forgive us, Lord, for ever hesitating or forgetting to pray for more of these kingdom servants.

But how to train them? How do we best prepare workers to go into a rapidly changing world and effectively make disciples? I have spent the last twelve years working full time in Christian higher education, and this question plays like background music in virtually every activity of my day.

It seems to me that every effective worker needs preparation in two primary areas which I’ll call the formative and the practical. Formative preparation includes developing certain skills in areas like communication, critical thinking, and cultural appreciation. But it also must include biblical and theological training. Does a student know how to correctly handle God’s word? Has a student struggled with and submitted to a living and active word? Has a student developed and integrated a Christian worldview? Has a student learned and practiced principles for cultivating the Spirit-filled life? Natural talent and charisma are simply not enough for effective ministry. What Jesus said about individual lives in Matthew 7 also applies to an effective ministry. A wise man knows to build it upon the rock of his word. Practical preparation on the other hand includes the development of specific skills needed for success in the field. Practical skills in ministry might include everything from learning how to write a sermon or lesson, recruiting and training volunteers, creating a discipleship program, providing pastoral care, leading a worship team, and a host of other tasks big and small.

Educational institutions have typically specialized in formative preparation. I remain convinced that a college or seminary experience is uniquely suited to deliver a general education as well as the necessary biblical and theological training. Colleges and seminaries also spend a fair amount of time and resources training in practical skills, but there is only so much that a student can learn about doing ministry (or any skill for that matter) in a classroom. The best way to train vocational ministers is for educational institutions and churches to partner together so that students receive both formative and practical, on-the-job training. This most often takes the form of internship or residency programs.

It is difficult to overstate the value of an effective internship. Among other things, an effective internship accelerates learning, encourages maturity and personal growth, helps to connect information learned in the classroom to real life situations, exposes certain gaps in learning, and ideally provides additional motivation and inspiration to pursue ministry over a lifetime.  There’s no single formula for what makes an effective internship program. There are a number of different models of all shapes and sizes being used by churches and schools. They may range from a three month summer internship to a fifteen month full-time residency. They may or may not be for college credit. They may be paid or unpaid, foreign or domestic, or in churches of 250 to 25,000. An internship could be with a church being planted in an urban setting or a centuries-old church in a rural community, or they might be with a parachurch organization and not with a traditional ministry at all. Despite these differences, there are some common principles that every effective internship or residency has in common.

The best internships see the intern as an investment. This is the most important point I will make. Kevin Greer who is the director of the student ministry program at Ozark Christian College says that “the best youth ministry internships not only help equip a student for ministry, they inspire the student to do ministry. I know it’s been effective when a student returns from a summer youth ministry internship fired up about reaching and teaching teens with the gospel.” It is critical for churches to always remember that interns do not just support their ministry, interns are a part of your ministry. An intern is much more than just “summer help” or cheap labor. An intern is a sacred trust. They need training, instruction, and mentoring. They are there to be challenged and to grow. Churches have a basic choice. They can choose to simply use their interns to help with immediate programming needs. Or they can develop their interns in the process and thus expand the kingdom impact of the church many times over. To that end, a church must be able to dedicate an experienced minister to oversee and mentor the intern or resident. Internships done this way will have a certain cost for the church – in time and also in resources. I know a lot of churches do them, but I am generally not in favor of unpaid internships. I believe that “the worker deserves his wages” even if she is an intern and the wages are small. A paid internship may also be more effective in teaching important life skills like accountability and professionalism. Overall, it should be emphasized that the cost of an effective internship still pales in comparison to the value to the church and to the student.

The best internships are scalable. Christ’s Church of the Valley in Arizona is a remarkable church with a remarkable residency program. For 15 months they invest deeply in their residents exposing them to diverse ministries within the church. At the end of the program they even provide ministry placement assistance. One difficulty however is that CCV is an unusually large church. With attendance over 20,000 people at numerous campuses, there are very few churches like it. They have resources and programming that virtually no other church can even approach. The challenge for a resident in their program, or in any program for that matter, is to learn principles and strategies that are scalable across various church sizes and settings. The best internships do not get so caught up in teaching local techniques – the way that we have come to do things – that they neglect broad principles. If a student leaves her internship unable or unwilling to work in a setting different than the one she has just experienced, it may not have been an effective internship. Many students are choosing to take multiple internships during their college careers because they recognize the need to be exposed to different settings and contexts for ministry.

The best internships are general in their scope. We live in an age of hyper-specialization. This is true of virtually every discipline including ministry. But in ministry you don’t really get the luxury of saying “that’s not in my department.” It would help if the various ministries in our churches would put the accent on ministry and not on specialization. “I’m a minister who gets to lead God’s people in worship.” “I’m a minister who gets to work most days with preschoolers.” “I’m a minister who happens to preach.” At my school, we have specialized majors like student ministry, children’s ministry, and worship ministry, and our students are made to complete internships in those ministry areas. But the most effective internships are always the ones that give the student a general experience of service within the church. Kevin Greer again says, “The value a student gains is in the everyday experience of ministry. Listening and participating in pastoral counseling situations, planning events and lessons, teaching in a variety of situations, being challenged to participate in ministry they have never done before.” While in college, I was fortunate to have an internship like this that required me to visit folks in the nursing home and also teach second graders at VBS. I helped put together a worship service, and I also helped to lead a missions trip. It was the general exposure to ministry that helped to cultivate within me an attitude of flexibility and availability which is invaluable to anyone serving in a church.

The best internships are challenging in expectations and clear in feedback. Like all of us, interns need to be challenged to do hard things, uncomfortable things. Don’t just allow interns to serve in their sweet spot. If hospitals freak them out, take them on a hospital call. If they have no inclination to evangelize, require that they share the gospel with a non-Christian once every week. Trust them with a chance to plan and organize an event and recruit the volunteers. And don’t freak out when they fail. How many 20 year olds do you know that don’t fail at some point or another? They need to be given freedom to fail and coaching when they do. Part of every internship is the discovery of what we are capable of and what resources we have to succeed. In talking to our internship department, one of their consistent frustrations is that churches and mentors do not provide honest and clear feedback for the interns. They don’t help the students to discover their strengths, and they rarely force students to see the areas in which they need to grow. Honest and sometimes brutal feedback like this may be hard to give and receive, but it can often make all the difference.

Ultimately, when it comes to an effective internship program, the particular make-up of your church doesn’t matter. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the church is a larger or smaller, if it is hip and contemporary or established and traditional. What matters more than anything else is a commitment to invest in raising up and training servant-leaders for the kingdom. The fields indeed are ready for harvest. It should be the consistent prayer of every disciple that God would raise up workers and that churches and schools in their own distinct ways would do the best job possible to train them and release them for ministry.


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