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A Complete Guide to Interns in Children’s Ministry

One of the most overlooked volunteer resources in children’s ministry is interns. Here’s a complete guide to best partner with these wonderful, all-too-often untapped resources!

My first experience as a church intern was the summer after my freshman year of college. The church was small and the staff consisted of the senior pastor, his wife (who served as the church secretary) and me. Within the first month of my internship, the pastor and his wife went away on a two-week vacation. As a 19-year-old intern, I was thrown into the deep end of ministry. During those two weeks, I served as the church receptionist and secretary, pastor of the day for every crisis, facilities manager, greeter, song leader, weekend service coordinator…you name it and I did it. I learned an important lesson that summer: Churches don’t always know what to do with interns.

The problem may be due to the fact that children’s ministers often simply don’t understand what sets an intern apart from a paid staff member. Often, churches recruit volunteer interns or pay them a small stipend because they need help in a certain area and, frankly, that’s all they can afford. They see interns as an avenue for free help or cheap labor. From this standpoint, the only difference between an intern and a paid staff member is the amount they’re paid. In fact, there are a lot more factors that set apart an intern from a staff member.

What Is an Intern?

By definition, an intern participates in a structured learning experience that provides on-the-job training, mentoring, and supervision, making it similar to an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships were first developed in the later Middle Ages. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labor in exchange for providing them with formal training in a craft. Apprentices were young, usually about 14 to 21, unmarried, and would live in the master craftsman’s household. Most apprentices aspired to become master craftsmen themselves on completion of their contract, which was usually a term of seven years.

Similarly, ministry interns are typically young college or seminary students who are pursuing a degree program in Christian ministry or some related field, and who ultimately aspire to pursue a career in vocational ministry. In essence, interns obtain theoretical training through an educational institution and practical training through in-the-field ministry experiences. The site supervisor is much like the master craftsman, providing the intern with opportunities to work alongside a seasoned veteran who’ll train, mentor, and supervise the intern.

Are You Ready for an Intern?

One common complaint exists among interns who’ve had poor internship experiences in the past: “My supervisor never had time for me.” If you’re considering taking on an intern, first ask yourself if you have time for one. There are seasons in our lives when ministry demands are high and energy levels are low, when the challenges of ministry are all-consuming and we barely have time to surface for a breath. And yet, there are seasons when as veteran leaders, we sense a deep desire to make an investment in the next generation of children’s ministry leaders.

Interns take time and effort. And while most ministry leaders believe that having an intern will reduce their workload, few find this to be the case. They forget that having an intern requires weekly mentoring, structured learning experiences, and ongoing supervision and feedback.

What season are you in? Are you energized or energy-depleted? Is your ministry overwhelmingly busy right now? Do you have time and energy to devote to a younger person who’s eager to learn? Taking on an intern is a worthwhile investment that comes with many rewards. Realistically assess your situation before you dive in.

Where Are Interns?

The best time to locate an intern is at the beginning of a school semester. Contact colleges, universities, and seminaries in your area, especially those who have degree programs in Christian ministry. Many degree programs require students to complete some type of fieldwork, practicum, or internship requirement, so they may be actively seeking placements. Provide the school or seminary with a one-page internship overview that briefly describes your church and ministry, outlines specific experiences available to the intern, includes the length of commitment you desire (summer, one semester, one to two years), and details what the intern will obtain (skills, pay, experiences). Many colleges and seminaries have specific expectations and requirements for the internship site and the supervisor. Before you take on an intern, have a clear understanding of these requirements and whether you can meet them.

Do You Pay or Not Pay an Intern?

An internship can be paid or non-paid. Some churches even allow interns to raise their own financial support, such as asking for their home congregation’s support or requesting scholarships from organizations or even businesses. Whatever you decide in regard to payment, remember that most interns are full-time students struggling to pay for rising education costs and often incurring mounting school debt. Many interns have to work their way through college, and when their work is also their internship, they gain more out of the internship and the ministry gains more out of the intern. So paying them fairly frees them up to focus on ministry instead of on survival.

What’s the Ministry Plan?

Once you’ve committed to taking on an intern, create a plan. Realize that most interns will eventually serve in smaller churches that require a broad range of experiences, so make every effort to rotate them throughout your ministry department rather than concentrating on one narrow area of ministry. This includes major areas of ministry such as nursery, preschool, and elementary.

Start by helping interns identify their areas of ministry competency. Then consider the competencies required to become a children’s minister and build the internship experiences around those competencies.

Use your list of competencies as a checklist to develop a semester-long ministry plan. Build in valuable experiences to help your intern develop weak areas or needed competencies. Include in your ministry plan each competency interns will obtain and the experience or experiences that’ll help them obtain the competency.

Supervisors who don’t know what to do with interns once they have them find themselves keeping interns busy with mindless tasks that simply need to get done. Interns can quickly learn how to run a copy machine, but they’ll end the internship ill-prepared to take on a ministry. By creating a ministry plan, you’ll ensure that an intern’s tasks are intentionally designed to build needed competencies for effective ministry in the future.

What’s a Supervisor to Do?

Good supervisors have one thing in common: They look for opportunities to spend time with their interns. Just as the disciples lived life with Jesus — eating with him, traveling with him, observing him in ministry — interns learn best by living life and ministry with their leaders. Invite interns into your home; take them with you to conferences; involve them in every aspect of your ministry; let them observe you as you deal with a difficult parent, confront a volunteer, or attend a pastoral staff meeting. Let them see when you’re excited about ministry and when you’re frustrated with it. The more your interns are with you, the greater opportunity they have to understand what ministry is really going to be like for them.

Intentionally set aside an hour per week to formally meet with your intern. Make this time a regular appointment, and do everything in your power to protect it. Include the following four elements in every meeting.

1. Ministry plan review and feedback

Review your intern’s Ministry Plan, discussing questions, issues, or concerns regarding the intern’s present ministry responsibilities. This is a good time to discuss the intern’s reactions, insights, frustrations, failures, joys, and successes. Ministry can be messy; realize that interns are dealing with the tension of balancing their own perceptions of ministry and the reality they’re experiencing. Take time to explore this tension and their resulting feelings. This is also a good time to give feedback and ongoing evaluation to your intern. Where is the intern excelling? What are some potential blind spots that the intern should be aware of?

2. Mentoring

Intentionally use this time to share your knowledge and resources with the intern. Show him or her something you’re working on, share an article or podcast that’s been helpful to you in the past week, or tell about an experience you’ve had in the last week that’ll change how you approach ministry.

3. Exploring ministry

Talk about other ministry-related issues, such as volunteerism, staff relationships, budgeting, time management, and leadership challenges. Teach your intern how to balance life and ministry, personal development, and pastoral care and counseling.

Encourage your intern to come to each meeting with two or three written questions to discuss. These questions should relate to issues your intern wants to know more about — perhaps items the intern is reading about, learning, and discussing in the course of study at school.

4. Prayer and encouragement

Nothing is more encouraging for an intern than knowing that you care about and are praying for the details of his or her life. Pray for the intern’s family, school life, internship, personal challenges, and future. Encourage your intern with a Scripture or passage that’s meaningful to you. And allow your intern to pray for you.

• • •

Taking a leadership course, reading a book, or even completing a skills inventory doesn’t make a person a leader. God uses the powerful combination of theory and practice to prepare a student to become an effective ministry leader.

Luke 6:40 says, “Students are not greater than their teacher. But the student who is fully trained will become like the teacher.” There’s no greater joy in ministry than knowing you’ve reproduced yourself in someone else. Your ministry influence spreads farther than you can imagine in and through the lives of every future children’s ministry leader you have had the privilege of calling an intern.

Jane Carr has a doctorate in Christian education, is professor of Christian ministries at Biola University/Talbot School of Theology. 

Looking for more leader tips? Check out these posts!

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