Creating a Culture of Internship in the Church
There are many factors that contribute to who we are and what we are about. Whether people, circumstances, or books, God can bring various experiences along our paths that shape us and our ministry. For me, 1991 was a one-year experience that served as the profoundly formative experience of my life.
Growing up at church, my understanding of ministry was either by sheer observation (usually what not to do) or just learning by doing (usually being told what to do). There was very little guidance.
After finishing at two seminaries with two Master’s degrees, I was as one person remarked, “educated beyond my intelligence.” I had all the theory without practice, until a friend told me about an internship at a large church in Fullerton, California. It was pastored by one of my preaching heroes, Chuck Swindoll. Just an opportunity to be trained under this gifted leader was one of my dreams.
When I applied, I had very little hope that I would be selected. Each year, they would select two full-time interns who would not only work with Pastor Chuck but would also be the interns with the church. This radically changed my understanding of ministry. The internship became the most valuable, formative experience for me. I call this year the seminary learning I never got from seminary, or simply the missing year of seminary.
In our internship year, the church was dealing with an elder convicted of child molestation. We saw how the church dealt with crises and how sin was confronted. We saw how the staff supported each other through the day-to-day grind of ministry rather than creating silos. We saw the key element of trust fostered and nurtured among the church board and staff. We saw worship joyfully experienced and God’s Word faithfully taught. We were also given opportunities to teach, lead and learn from all the staff.
I look back at that year as the most foundational and formational year of my life. It was an internship that was personal and practical. It focused on exposure and experience. It gave full access to learning.
Because of the value of internships in my life, I wanted to make this a part of our culture when we planted a church in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. The church plant began with five interns from Talbot Seminary and their spouses as the core group. It became a laboratory for these interns to learn how to do ministry. While nothing was set up, they established ministries like small groups, worship, young adult, outreach and assimilation. From our core group of six families we grew to about 60 adults and launched our church.
From this experience, I have learned some principles of developing a culture of internships or residencies. In my doctoral thesis, I examined two case studies of churches who had well-developed “internship” or “residency” programs. For the sake of this article, I will use the terms synonymously. While some have called an internship “slave labor” or “free work no one else wants to do,” the goal of an internship is to “provide supervised practical training.” The focus is more on the intern rather than the job. It is an investment for the long-term rather than for short-term ministry gain. While churches and ministries may gain from interns, it really serves to invest in building up workers for God’s kingdom.
So how does a church, regardless of size, develop a culture of internships? Here are some practical questions and principles to consider.
Do you have a vision for investing in younger leaders? It begins with the senior leader or leaders. If internship is truly to be a value, then it has to be a value with the person steering the bus. Leaders provide the access points for internships and should lead the church to value the process.
Are you willing to make financial investments? It takes more than a willingness to bring on interns. It takes resources. Will the church structure or restructure resources to invest in interns? The great news about interns is that it doesn’t take a lot.
Is there someone who can personally oversee the interns? Whether the senior pastor or a staff member, churches of all sizes can offer practical learning if time, direction, and guidance is given.
Are you willing to give a realistic assessment of the interns? Feedback is important during an internship process. Whether they are serving, teaching, or leading, there must be an assessment process.
Is there a training process in place? Some of my early internship experience was just about doing. I was a hired gun for a particular need like youth ministry, but there was no training. Training involves both classroom and on-the-job training. It also has to fit with the unique background and personality of the intern.
As I reflect on my days as a pastoral intern, it was one of the most important years of my life. All five principles were integral in the internship. The church was completely on board with this internship. It was celebrated from the senior pastor to the person sitting in the pew. They paid me a full-time salary. The senior associate pastor personally oversaw the process and met with us weekly to go over what we learned. To this day, he is still one of my personal mentors. We had consistent times of reflection and assessment. From the personal interviews at the beginning to internships to feedback through the year, we were constantly challenged to look at how God wired us as leaders. And, the training was both the reading of books and the studying of Scripture together (Pastoral Epistles) as well as on-the-job training. All of this contributed to developing me into a better pastor and leader.
For the sake of the kingdom, we can help the next generation become better pastors and leaders as well.