I’ve reached the point in my ministry where I consider myself a seasoned veteran of pastoral internships. Although I start my first pastorate in a little less than a month, the path I’ve taken to get there has exposed me to many different churches across multiple denominations. See, I’ve served in four churches now in the same number of years – both in pseudo as well as formal internships. This has not been by choice. Intense church conflict and poor leadership – in combination with my own sin and prideful ambition – has led me through the revolving doors of many churches.
While it would be easy to wax cynical and bitter about the whole experience, there is something to be said about the lessons the Lord has taught me through it all. Sometimes the best lessons are learned from the hardest circumstances. As I’ve sat under the ministry of multiple pastors and served multiple congregations, I’ve been exposed to both the best and worst ways to handle pastoral interns. In the process, God has helped me capture a vision for pastoral internships that I now hope to employ in my future ministry.
Let me be clear about something from the start: a veteran pastoral intern I may be, but green to the whole of pastoral ministry I still am. The goal of this article is not to sound off pompously as if I have all the answers to a broken system. My goal is to share what has worked and what has not worked in my experience, as well as provide a voice into an often neglected area of ministry in our churches.
It has become evident to me that when it comes to pastoral internships we are facing a systemic crisis. Poorly trained pastoral interns leads to poorly trained pastors. I’ve seen it and experienced it firsthand. On the whole, young men are simply not being shepherded to become pastors today. And I can tell you this much – it would be difficult to find a Christian who is more discouraged than a young man in a bad pastoral internship. I regularly talk with other young men from the local seminary who have given up a career in order to be trained as a pastor. They’re trying to lead their families through financial strain, complete seminary, and find opportunity to serve others with their gifts. But rather than being blessed by the churches they serve, they’re forgotten. They’re given few – if any – opportunities. They’re uncared for by the church and its members. They receive the brunt of Christian cynicism from those who have been hurt by shepherds in the past. “You won’t be ready for a long time,” they’re told, not because of any flaw of their own but simply because these sheep harbor deep wounds. The result is a heap of young men who consistently doubt their calling, doubt their gifts, and are lost in a slough of despond.
I think there are a handful of reasons for the present crisis facing pastoral internships in churches today. First, this is a generational problem. Young men are not being shepherded to be shepherds because their shepherds were never shepherded to be shepherds (say that 10 times fast). Much like a family with generational sin, God gives us the opportunity to pursue a new direction of life and good fruit rather than living under the burden of failure and sin from our past. But such a change requires intentionality. This crisis will never be abated unless a generation of pastors becomes intentional about changing the course of pastoral internships in their churches (Gen-X and older millennial pastors, I’m looking at you). If we don’t do something now, this crisis will persist into the next generation.
Second, pastoral internships aren’t flashy. They’re not sexy. And we evangelicals love flash. We devote our best resources and time to the things we think are most important, and we do it with style. We write large checks to the best speakers to ensure high attendance at big events with the best musicians and modern stage décor. If we survey the bulk of these events that are tailored specifically for ministry training, what will we find? Plenty of conferences and seminars for church planting and missionaries to be sure. Both of which are extremely important, and I want that training to continue. But underneath the excitement of church planting and missionary work, pastoral interns are often forgotten. Yet there may be nothing more important to ensuring the fruitfulness of the church in the future than by investing today in the pastors of tomorrow. Where are the conferences for young pastoral interns? Where are the seminars training pastors to mentor and shepherd future pastors? They don’t exist, because we don’t think it is all that important of a work.
Third, many pastors are too busy trying to build their own platform. Let’s just be honest here for a second: every shepherd with a pulpit struggles with a temptation to make a name for himself. This is especially true in the age of celebrity pastors with blogs and podcasts. While I often talk to young men who have been told things like, “The church isn’t ready yet,” or “I’m not ready to train you yet,” or “There isn’t enough opportunity yet,” the reality is these pastors are more concerned with their platform and the success of their one church than the future of Christ’s church. A vision for pastoral internships is born out of a Kingdom vision that desires to see more healthy churches that are led by healthy shepherds. More healthy churches means more healthy church planters and missionaries. More healthy pastors means more healthy sheep with Kingdom values and virtues shaping the world around us.
Fourth, church members haven’t been taught to know why this work is important. If pastors aren’t investing in future pastors, then the members certainly won’t either. One of the reasons I hear most often for why churches aren’t investing in interns is because they don’t have the resources for it. Now, I understand that there are exceptional circumstances with churches that are nearly closing their doors and are pinching every penny they can. But generally speaking, if pastors sold a robust vision for pastoral internships to the members, I think they would buy in. Remember, we devote our best resources and time to the things we think are most important. Or, in Augustine-speak, we devote our resources to what we love most. If your people love Christ’s church and want to see it grow into the future, they’ll invest in interns.
At the root of each of these reasons – and the several others not listed here – is the fact that we’ve simply forgotten the importance of pastoral internships. My pastor – who I believe has caught the vision – often reminds our church that if we don’t invest in young pastors now, then there won’t be any good pastors around to shepherd his grandchildren. Yet somehow we’ve forgotten that one day these young men in our care will be the undershepherds of God’s people. We’ve forgotten that they will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1), and that they must be able to rightly handle God’s word (2 Tim. 2:15). These young men need to grow and mature in such a way that all may see their progress (1 Tim. 4:15). This requires more than just a formal education, it also requires learning how to love people well. It requires learning how to be holy. This kind of training needs to come from pastors who know how to train young men to do all this well.
What we need is a big, robust vision of pastoral internships that is worthy of the high calling which Christ has given to his church. We need a vision that seeks to display the glory of God through the proclamation of the gospel and the building of the church into the next generation. I don’t know what that will look like for you and your church, nor do I want to pretend that I have all the answers. However, I do want to offer several pieces of advice for you and your church as you seek to invest in your interns. My hope is it will at least start a conversation for you, your elders and your members. Maybe it will even help you create a beautiful vision for interns in your congregation.
- Create an internship description. Nearly all of the problems I hear and see with interns involve miscommunication and expectations that don’t align. Treat the internship like a real vocation with real goals, objectives, expectations, and ways to be evaluated. This is going to save you and the intern a lot of heartache and stress in the future.
- Get excited about it. If you’re excited about what God might do through the training of future pastors, your people will feel it. They’ll get excited too. Talk about it at congregational meetings. In the weeks leading up to the intern starting at the church, use time in your announcements to talk about it with your people. Scheme and dream with your elders about the opportunities you could provide to a future pastor in Christ’s church.
- Get an intern. This sounds obvious, but it all starts here. And remember, there are a lot of teaching opportunities that present itself when a church brings on an intern. It serves as a chance for you to teach your people that Christ’s church is bigger than your congregation, and that it extends from generation to generation. It allows you to teach your people (and remind yourself) what exactly a pastor/elder is and how the church is supposed to function.
- Don’t take on more interns than you or the church can handle. I’ve seen many churches – with good intention – take on more interns than the church is ready for. Remember, it is your responsibility to invest in, mentor, and provide feedback for each intern. Don’t take on more interns than you’re able to invest in and observe. If you can’t provide personal feedback for much of the interns work, then you’re spread too thin. If your interns are only getting one or two opportunities to preach per year because the opportunities are spread across 5 interns, you might have too many – even though you have good intentions.
- Affirm the gifts and calling of the intern. For whatever reason, many pastors treat the pastoral calling as a high bar to be reached, rather than a gracious calling that Christ bestows on unqualified men. Rather than holding out affirmation from young men until they meet your personal standards, affirm them quickly and often. It is between them and the Lord to make their calling sure; it is on you to remind them of God’s grace in the midst of doubt, to affirm their gifts when they feel giftless, to remind them that the reason why they’re an intern at all is because you believe they’re called by God to the ministry. One of the best ways to do this is from the pulpit. When you affirm the gifts and calling of your intern(s), the members will start to do the same. It will also help create a church culture that isn’t focused on you alone as the pastor.
- Be generous with encouragement. Interns will make mistakes. They will doubt themselves. They will be discouraged. Strengthen their souls with your speech. Even if their first sermon is a train wreck, start your feedback with as much encouragement as you can muster. Just as a son wants nothing more than to hear his father say, “I’m proud of you,” so too does an intern want to hear the same from his mentor.
- Spare them your cynicism. After enough sheep attacks, messy pastoral counseling, personal failures, and being sinned against – pastors start to nurse a bitter bone in their spirit. Try to spare your intern from the bitterness of your wounds. They don’t need to be cynical before their first pastorate even starts. Instead, remind them of all the privileges of frontline pastoral ministry and what we get to witness: the joy of new birth, seeing nominal Christians take Jesus seriously for the first time in their life, sin defeated, wounds healed, relationships restored. This will create a steady reservoir for your intern to draw on when they start encountering the mess of ministry, and it will nourish your bitter soul as you are reminded of what the Lord has done through your ministry.
- Use their gifts – don’t leave them on the bench. If we take the Apostle Paul at his word, then the church is one body with many members. Each member has gifts and a unique role to play in the church (1 Cor. 12:12ff). Any ministry philosophy which says that the gifts of some members are less important (or unimportant) is defunct. And yet, so many pastoral interns are given excuses for why they can’t serve. They’re left on the bench. I was told repeatedly that I wasn’t needed because “the church doesn’t need interns.” Can the pastor say to the intern, “We have no need of you?” No, but by casting the intern to the side that is the message they’re being given. Take risks for the sake of building the intern. Let them stutter through a Call to Worship. Let them say something in a sermon that you might have to correct. Let them run with a new ministry idea and see what happens.
- Treat it like a teaching hospital. The best analogy I’ve ever heard for pastoral internships is that the church should be like a teaching hospital. A teaching hospital is a place where young medical students can observe professionals and be mentored under close supervision. The patient may get pricked a few extra times before the student finds the vein, but how else will we have well-trained doctors? The church should be a teaching hospital for pastors. This appears to be the biblical model, for every time Jesus or any of the Apostles rolled into town, they had their whole crew behind them. It was the expectation that when Paul showed up that Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Tertius, and the whole gang would be there. Why? Because they were apprenticing under Paul to eventually take up the work of a ministry leader. So, bring your intern everywhere that you can. Give your members the expectation that when you show up, the intern will probably be there too. Let them know they might get pricked a few extra times while the intern makes mistakes. Bring him to elders meetings and counseling sessions. Let him into your sermon writing process. As time goes on, let him begin to do the work. Let him speak up during counseling sessions while you observe him. Let him share his opinions in elders meetings. Provide him detailed feedback with his strengths and weaknesses.
- Pay them. I get it, money is tight. But as I’ve said repeatedly, our spending reflects what we believe is important. And if this is one of the most important tasks of the church, then we’ll back that up with finances. The intern may not be ordained yet, but they’re still doing the work of the ministry. In most cases, they’re working 20-40 hours for the church rather than working 20-40 hours for a different job. We should try to pay them as such. Being a 20- or 30-something intern is already humiliating enough, but being a 20- or 30-something unpaid intern that can’t provide for his family is even worse. And we can be (more) creative about this. Take up a special offering a few times a year, or set aside a special giving fund in the church. Even if 10 members gave an extra $25 a month toward the intern fund, that is still a few weeks of groceries for the intern and his family each month. Encourage your members to be on a weekly meal rotation for the intern. Help them find cheap housing from a member within the church. There are plenty of ways to provide for interns, even if a salary isn’t one of them.
- Send them. A successful internship ends by sending the intern out to their own pastorate. In rare circumstances the church will have the funds to bring on its intern, but this is rare and should not be the ultimate goal. If getting a job at your church is the ultimate goal, then the scope of the internship will be narrow and will by its very nature be inward focused (the needs of our church) rather than outward focused (the needs of Christ’s church).
Pastors, one of the most important tasks before you is to build a gospel legacy into the next generation. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by capturing a God-glorifying vision of pastoral internships for your people. If you don’t stand up now for the future generations of the church, who will?