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The Ingredients of a Meaningful and Successful Internship Program

Nathan T. Trice

It has become my fervently held conviction that a pastoral internship should be considered indispensable to a man's preparation for the ministry, a rule that has, I believe, few exceptions. I hold this strong opinion as one who has just recently completed the first year of his first pastorate, and who can attest to the immeasurable benefit received from a well-placed internship in a local church. If my own experience gained as an intern could be likened to a well, then I could say that the bucket over it has rarely been still, as I've dipped innumerable times into it for assistance in adjusting to new pastoral responsibilities. As every minister will attest, the first year of ministry is filled with unique challenges, perhaps chief among them simply being the number of routine responsibilities assumed for the first time. I've called these the endless "first timers" that confronted me at the beginning of my pastorate: the first time to administer the Lord's supper, the first time to teach a membership class, the first time to moderate a congregational meeting, and so on, all of which require that extra thought and effort to perform, and which, when in quick succession, can be somewhat overwhelming to a new pastor. An internship is at the very least an effective way to reduce the harrying number of "first timers" that a new pastor encounters in his first pastorate.

However, I'm convinced that an internship provides even more than this. Though I could write here as many words in support of the traditional structure of seminary education in which men undergo rigorous academic training for the ministry (I am not a critic of the seminary model!), I would yet insist that no formal educational program should be considered the sole means by which men are rendered "prepared" for the ministry. Such a program is invaluable for the equipping of men with many of the tools needed for the ministry, but it should not be assumed (or even expected, I would suggest) to fully prepare men for the pastorate. That, it seems to me, falls to the work of the local church, to the oversight and instruction that can be best provided through the attention given to a candidate for the ministry in an internship program. Only through such an internship that specializes in the day-to-day applications of the tools and methods learned in seminary do I believe a man can be fully prepared for the day-to-day responsibilities of the ministry.

So what are the ingredients of a meaningful, successful internship? It has become clear to me, through my awareness of the experience of many of my colleagues in their pursuit of the ministry, that not all of the church programs that bear the name "ministerial internship" prove to be either meaningful or successful. Based on the happy experience I have had in a solid internship program—still somewhat fresh in my memory—and the further insight I've gleaned in my first year of becoming acclimated to the pastorate, I'd like to submit what I would consider to be eight essential ingredients to a meaningful and successful internship program.

1. Concerted time and attention from a mentoring elder. For an internship to have a meaningful role in a man's preparation for the ministry, it must be more than the typical staff position in a local church. The greatest need of a candidate for the ministry is to be "taken under the wing" of the minister himself (or one of the teaching elders), who can provide him the instruction and feedback that is vital to the assessment and improvement of his gifts. The ministerial candidate needs a mentor! For this reason, though in many ways the addition of an intern to the staff of the church can lessen the load of a minister, in other ways it should be expected to increase it. A mentoring minister or elder should schedule weekly blocks of time with the intern to, among other things: (a) review the sermons preached and provide encouragement and critique, (b) consider the sermons being prepared and provide direction, (c) review and discuss other designated responsibilities, and (what I found highly profitable) (d) conduct a course of study and discussion on a topic relating to the ministry (For example: study together Charles Bridges's The Christian Ministry, or a similar work). An alert and inquisitive intern will be brimming with "How do you?" and "What about?" questions, and this would naturally furnish opportunity for the mentor to "download" invaluable experience to his disciple. Any and all such opportunities to converse on the responsibilities of the pastorate will prove invaluable for the intern.

2. Consistent preaching and teaching responsibilities. Not only is this at the heart of the gospel ministry itself, but for many (certainly for me) it is also the most daunting of responsibilities to assume at the start of the pastorate. Even the best practical theology department in seminary cannot provide the consistency of preaching experience necessary to the steady improvement of a man's gifts. Preaching at least once a week should be the goal, in my opinion, for it provides that critical opportunity for weekly assessment and progress. Here it is vital for the intern to receive a straightforward critique of the clarity and exegetical integrity of his sermons, as well as practical pointers concerning delivery and pulpit demeanor. Strengths should be warmly reinforced and weaknesses gently corrected. If preaching is to be at the center of the ministry, it should also be central to an internship, and the greatest energy of the mentor should be focused on the further development and refinement of the intern's preaching gifts.

3. Frequent leadership in worship. Since a certain ease and presence of mind before people is necessary for most any form of leadership in the church, an intern will benefit from all responsibilities that put him "on the platform." However, it is of special importance, I would suggest, for an intern to cultivate an effective manner of leading in worship. As much as possible, the intern should be given responsibility for leading the congregation in worship, including the so-called "pastoral prayer." (If one is licensed to preach, presumably that includes the license to lead in the pastoral prayer!) The principles of Samuel Miller's book Thoughts on Public Prayer, as well as Spurgeon's remarks on the subject in Lectures to My Students would be helpful to underscore at this point, along with the regular doing of it.

4. Regular participation in the session's business. It may be of concern to some to allow an intern to be privy to all the deliberations of a session, but there is undoubtedly no better way to prepare a man to be a member and moderator of a session than to give him prior exposure to the inner workings of one. As a recent intern, I was granted privilege of the floor as a matter of routine, presented monthly reports along with the pastor, and entered fully into the discussions (and occasional debates) of the elders. Such a setting provides the intern with invaluable insight into the rudimentary elements of parliamentary procedure, as well as allows him to gain a "feel" for the leadership role of the moderator. On countless occasions in my own internship it was in the session meetings that I learned about those duties of church leadership "that they never teach you in seminary"—as we used to say with humor.

5. Regular exposure to the deacons' business. I do not say "participation" in the deacons' business only out of recognition of the differences in office, and the fact that a pastoral intern is one who "aspires to the office of an overseer," not a deacon. However, I'm quite strongly inclined to think that an intern will benefit greatly from at least being exposed on a regular basis to the work of the deacons. Attendance at their stated business meetings should be a minimal goal. But further direct exposure to the diaconal ministries themselves, along with the deliberations and decision-making that accompanies them, will stand the future minister in good stead, especially as he begins to interact with a diaconal board within his own congregation.

6. Assistance in counseling and pastoral oversight. This is an area in which a measure of discernment is necessary, of course, but which ought not be excluded in a normal internship. While there are some counseling situations in which it will be inadvisable to include an intern, there are certainly a number in which his presence would be welcomed by all involved. In such situations, the intern will inevitably learn a great deal about how to address pastoral issues in a more personal setting, as he observes and perhaps even participates in a minister's or elder's work. A particularly good opportunity for this kind of experience is in the pastoral visits of the elders. A practical suggestion would be that the overseeing elders as a matter of routine, while scheduling a visit, ask something to the effect: "Would you mind if I came with John, our ministerial intern?" This practice of including the intern in such pastoral situations will, if nothing else, serve to give him even more of a "pastor's heart."

7. Responsibility for administrative duties. If an intern has preaching and teaching gifts, but weakness in administrative duties, he might as well be confronted with this, and begin to account for it in an internship program! Otherwise, in countless ways he will be ill-equipped for the work of a pastor. An excellent way to develop the organizational and administrative gifts of an intern is to build into his job description a certain project or task. My intern experience included the organization and supervision of a new Vacation Bible School program for the church: a project that tested and strengthened my ability to supervise and motivate other people in a working relationship. The development of a specific evangelistic program, or small group ministry, or the like, could be similar ways to develop the administrative gifts of an intern. However, a note of caution is in order: some such projects can become all consuming, and should not be allowed to distract the intern from what are even more central duties of the ministry, as his preaching and prayer.

8. Attendance at meetings of the regional church. For reasons similar to those given regarding participation with the session, the intern will benefit greatly from being exposed to the work of the presbytery, and even of the General Assembly. It should be a priority of the mentoring session to provide for the attendance of the intern to all such meetings, if possible. He will hopefully thereby get a valuable head start on his growth as a functioning member of the regional church.

These, I would propose, are the main ingredients of a meaningful internship. But there is one further element needed to make an internship truly successful. At times it may prove to be the most difficult part of the role of mentoring minister or session; for it will require serious deliberation and sometimes very sensitive dealing with an intern. I'm referring to the honest, summary assessment of an intern's character and gifts that ought to come at some point during the internship program. Whether an internship is pursued before, during, or after the completion of a man's seminary education, the church and its leaders who provide such oversight and assistance ought to have this question as their fundamental concern: "Can we see in this man, by virtue of his character and gifts manifested among us, evidence of God's call upon him to the gospel ministry?" In a day in which the call to the ministry is all too often seen as a merely private matter between God and a man's heart, churches who provide internship programs should take to themselves the difficult responsibility of providing either outward confirmation, or, when necessary, a disapproval, of his call to the ministry. In the latter case, the session, after careful deliberation, and informed by the judgment of the church as a whole, will need to submit their serious reservations as to whether the one serving as an intern is truly called to the ministry or not. In the former, more pleasant case, the session will be able to offer a ringing affirmation of his sense of the call. But it is here, in the context of the local church, and specifically a local church that has received a well-rounded representation of the man's character and gifts, that a man's desire and personal sense of call to the ministry can be given its needed external counterpart: the recognition and affirmation of the church. It is particularly for this reason that I remain convinced that an internship program is indispensable in the preparation for the ministry.

Nathan T. Trice is pastor of Matthews Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Matthews, North Carolina. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 6.2, April 1997.

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