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Internships: Churches Make Room for People to Serve and Learn in Ministry

Interns often add energy, joy, and new connections to a church. Does your congregation have what it takes to mentor and support an intern?

The idea often comes up in congregations, especially before summer or a new semester. The church needs something done but has no budget for extra staff. Then someone suggests getting an intern to do the work…

Whether internship makes sense in your setting depends on several issues, according to people who've effectively placed or mentored young adults in church internships. It starts with a culture that makes room for people to test God's call and their gifts, so that the whole church grows up in love "as each part does its work" (Ephesians 4:16).

"While the church will benefit from having extra help, it is important for the church to realize that they are responsible for serving the intern as well," explains Kary Bosma, who coordinates Jubilee Fellows, a Calvin College summer ministry internship program.

Before your church offers an internship, you'll want to consider ministry match, the kind of help you need, what you expect to give and receive, and who will mentor interns.

Ministry match

Begin by listing your church ministry programs and opportunities. What characteristics and skills would an intern need to help with these?

"Interns should work at least 10 hours per week for at least 10 weeks. The main complaint we get from interns is that there wasn't enough work," says Laurie Lemmen, the internship and job fair coordinator in Calvin College's career development office.

She knows most jobs have clerical tasks but advises that meaningful internships offer "a significant amount of higher level work." Lemmen suggests putting every intern in charge of a background project, such as developing a policy manual, organizing and running a fundraiser, starting a monthly newsletter, planning a senior retreat, or interviewing people in a target group. Having a main project means interns always have something to work on and can accomplish something concrete.

"If you can, pay your intern. You'll receive stronger candidates, and they may work harder for you. Plus, they have bills to pay and really need the income, even if it's only minimal. Require resumes and cover letters, and interview your candidates to be sure you have a good fit," Lemmen says.

Christy Carlin Knetsch always asks potential interns about their spiritual health and passions for service. "If someone wants an internship mainly to grow closer to God, that's a red flag. I'm not sure they're at a place in life where they can give back," Knetsch says. She directs youth ministry at Madison Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"Know what your congregation needs. Someone approached me about doing a youth ministry internship here after her summer plans fell through. I ask youth ministry interns to commit for a school year, because kids in our church have so much experience of people walking in and out of their lives," she says.

The young woman couldn't intern that long, so she and Knetsch agreed on a part-time administrative internship. She served the youth ministry by maintaining the database of attendance, birthdays, and permissions; inviting kids and parents to events; being a "right hand person"; and offering feedback on possible improvements.

Employee or intern?

Lemmen and Bosma say that evaluating the balance between what interns want and your church needs will help you decide whether to seek an intern or employee. If you simply need more help, then you should hire someone, not offer an internship.

Bosma explains that jobseekers expect to get and focus on a "to do" list and be evaluated by how well and efficiently they perform. "Students accepting an internship opportunity expect that, while they will be accomplishing tasks, the emphasis will be on learning how these tasks fit into the church's larger mission and vision," she says.

Interns expect to test and reflect on their gifts for ministry, to shadow those in professional ministry, and to grow personally, spiritually, and professionally. Rather than being evaluated only on skill and efficiency, they want others' views on their strengths and weaknesses.

Clear expectations

Clearly explaining your internship opportunity helps you attract good candidates. Clear expectations help your chosen interns to learn and serve in your church.

Lemmen recommends that interns and supervisors set goals at the beginning of the internship and revisit those goals midway and at the end.

"Set up a learning contract. Make everything clear and in writing so the intern knows what he or she is signing up for, whether that's to lead worship, speak, preach, or lead cross culturally," Knetsch says. The learning contract states what Madison Square expects the intern to do. It spells out characteristics the internship demands, such as motivation, desire, or personal responsibility, and it details starting and ending dates, weekly schedule, compensation, scheduled breaks, and dress code.

Knetsch's learning contracts include a measure for each goal as well as a rank (essential, important, desirable), so interns know how to prioritize.

One intern's essential goal was: "I will encourage middle and high school students to use their gifts to serve in their community through the Serve to Earn program. I will do so by modeling my own commitment to service by helping out with Serve to Earn. I will also provide positive feedback to students that participate in Serve to Earn for their hard work."

Here's how Knetsch and the intern measured the goal: "I will volunteer as a leader in the Serve to Earn program 5 Saturdays throughout the semester. When asked, other leaders and students who participate in Serve to Earn will acknowledge that I have encouraged them through positive words."

Mentoring and modeling

Before your church offers an internship opportunity, make sure there's a person on staff or in ministry leadership who will mentor the intern. The mentor should be someone who:

  • values what a younger person can contribute to God's kingdom
  • has time to supervise day-to-day tasks, give feedback on performance, and answer questions
  • has time to meet weekly for one-on-one or small group mentoring
  • wants to help interns think through how God has gifted them and can use their gifts in ministry
  • provides opportunities for interns to pursue interests and prods them to accept challenges

"Don't expect the intern to be an expert. Interns are there to learn from you," Lemmen tells mentors.

Knetsch takes college interns through one-on-one training so they learn the process of leadership. "I tell them what I want. I model it. They model it and get feedback. Then they lead it on their own," she says.

Her interns fill out weekly self-evaluation forms. One summer she had a team of college and high school interns who worked together to do lawn care with kids in the juvenile justice system. To assess themselves as role models, interns considered whether they'd kept their own social media profiles "appropriate and at a higher standard" and listed specific ways they'd encouraged their mentees.

"Set them up to succeed. If you expect interns to do a service project, then you need to inspect it to see it's going well and that they have what they need. Introduce interns to the right people, partner them with someone who has experience, and let parents and the congregation know what the intern's in charge of," she adds.

"At the end of the internship, you'll know it's been a success if the intern has a clearer sense of what vocational ministry could look like, knows more about his or her own areas of strength and weakness, has a deeper love for the church, and, perhaps, can better discern a sense God's calling toward ministry in the church," Bosma says.

Learn More

  • Do you wonder how to describe your church’s internship opening? Many Christian colleges, seminaries, denominations, and churches list internship opportunities online, as do Church Staffing and Youth Ministry Architects. Some internships listed on Youth Pastor require only a high school education.
  • Muncie Alliance Church (Muncie, Indiana) and Sanctuary Christian Reformed Church (Seattle, Washington) are among several churches that combine church internship with working in a coffee business.
  • Dave Lindner, pastor of Bridge of Life Church in Sacramento, recommends reading Praying like Jesus: the Lord’s Prayer in a Culture of Prosperity by James Mulholland and Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor by Robert Lupton.
  • Brandon Haan says the book most relevant to his internship was Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Integrity by Eugene Peterson.
  • Kary Bosma, who coordinates Jubilee Fellows, offers this advice to people seeking a church internship: “Communicate which areas of ministry in which you would like to gain experience. Be open to new challenges, which may lead to growth and further discernment of your calling. Work diligently and cheerfully, even when doing menial tasks. Colossians 3:23 says, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men...’ Be humble as you contribute new suggestions and ideas (1 Peter 5:5 and Philippians 2:3). Take time to listen and reflect upon what God is teaching you throughout your internship. Each experience, good or bad, is a learning opportunity. And don't forget to have fun!”
  • Serving as a worship arts intern for two summers during college led Vinh Luu to supplement his music training with a seminary degree. He is now associate pastor/worship ministries at Hacienda Heights Baptist Church in Los Angeles County, California. Interning with a middle school youth ministry while attending seminary confirmed Daniel Levi’s calling. He is now the youth pastor at Old Cutler Presbyterian Church in Miami, Florida.

Start a Discussion

For churches

  • Share an experience of how a leader invested in you or how you tried to mentor someone.
  • What ministries does your church do especially well? In which congregational ministries do you have someone who would make a wise mentor?
  • How does your church identify, train, and mentor leaders? Which kinds of people or ministry areas aren’t included? What do these inclusions or exclusions communicate?
  • How do internships and mentoring fit with your congregation’s biblical and theological views on what it means to be the body of Christ?
  • Can you recommend a training resource, book, website, conference, classification tool, or program that helped your congregation reach out in the ministry of teaching and receiving?
  • Will you share templates, internship descriptions, self evaluations, mentor checklists, or other materials that congregations can use in setting up successful internships?

For interns:

  • Why do you want to find a church internship? What do you hope to learn and do?
  • If you have had a church internship or talked in depth with other church interns, what advice can you share with each other?
  • What kind and amount of face time would you expect to receive from your mentor in a church internship? How will you handle a mismatch between what you hope and what actually happens with your mentor?
  • Can you recommend an online forum, list serve, book, or other resource that helped you connect with or learn from other church interns?
  • Will you share tips and sources on how to find a church internship?