Interning at a church is one of the best ways to prepare for pastoral ministry. Or to determine that pastoral ministry is not your calling (a distinction that is essential to know - and the sooner, the better.)
It’s also a wonderful opportunity for a church to expand its ministry outreach by participating in training the next generation of church leaders.
As I mentioned in a recent post, 7 Reasons to Consider a Small Church Internship, a small church may be one of the best places for a lot of students to do their internship.
Since that post, I’ve received several requests from pastors to share what we’ve learned about running an internship program in a small church.
I’m blessed to have a great youth pastor, Gary Garcia, who oversees our interns. So he and I sat down and reverse-engineered what we’ve learned in our 15 years of offering internships at Cornerstone. We broke it down into two sets of challenges, worthy of two separate blog posts.
The first challenge is starting your program. Specifically, how do you get your first intern? That’s the subject of today’s post. In an upcoming second post I’ll address how to run an effective internship once you have the intern(s).
1. Pray and Seek Wise Counsel
Not every church is meant to have interns.
Before casting your net, pray long and hard about whether-or-not your church should have interns.
Ask churches with interns what it will cost you in time, energy, money and more. You may be surprised.
2. Be Proactive
Interns won’t come looking for you. Especially if your church, like ours, is small. You’ll have to go and find them.
Without a track record and the trust that goes with it, finding a school, parents and a student who will give you that first try won’t be easy.
You have to work it. Hard.
3. Find Alternate Ways to Reach Students
Start by making the normal calls to typical places - your denominational leaders, Bible colleges, seminaries and so on.
But don’t stop there.
Bible colleges won’t be jumping at the chance to send students to a church without a track record. And you can’t get a track record until you get some interns. So what’s a small church to do?
Go outside the system. Find new ways to reach prospective interns directly.
I spent time grabbing lunch at a nearby Bible college every week for several years. It was awkward breaking through at first, but it worked in the long run.
My youth pastor leveraged his relationships with other youth pastors, his speaking engagements at youth camps, and more.
Very few of our interns have come through normal channels. We had to create new ones.
4. Be Patient and Persistent
Even after developing relationships with students, it took several years before we had our first official intern.
No church ever got an intern sent to them by sitting and waiting for it to happen. Or by sending one email or making one phone call to a denominational headquarters or Bible college.
You have to be like the widow in Jesus’ parable who drove the judge crazy in the middle of the night.
5. Connect with Local Students and Secular Schools
One of the challenges for students from out-of-state or -country is the cost of travel. Spend most of your energy pursuing students who live closer. They have one less hurdle to overcome.
If you’re in a rural area with no colleges around, find out how to get access to students at colleges in the cities nearest to you. And not just the Christian schools.
Less than half of our interns come from Bible colleges. The others have either not decided on a college yet, or are going to secular ones.
6. Leverage Social Media
Get the word out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatever new social media platform students are using.
But here’s an essential step in that. Have someone from or near your target age group help you design your promotional materials.
If you don’t have someone who can do that, ask for help from a Bible college or larger church with graphic design people. You’re better to stay off social media entirely than to do it with cheesy graphics.
7. Offer Them Something They Can’t Get Anywhere Else
Why should an intern come to your church?
If you don’t know, find out. Then tell that to prospective interns in the simplest, most compelling way you can.
What most small churches offer is plenty of opportunities to make an impact by getting involved in active ministry very quickly. Interns want to learn, but if they can do that while contributing to essential ministry, let them know that.
You can also use a link to my previous post, 7 Reasons to Consider a Small Church Internship, to help students and their parents understand why a small church internship is a good idea.
8. Decide What Kind of Internship You’re Doing
Will your internship be primarily hands-on experience, or balanced with classroom-type teaching? Will it be focused on a specific area of ministry, like youth, kids or worship? Or will it cover all areas of church life?
How much time can staff members spend mentoring students?
Know this in advance, then deliver as promised.
9. Guide them Through the Details
Teens and twenty-somethings think they can throw on a backpack, hitch a ride and be fine wherever they go.
But interns are inexperienced in almost every aspect of what they’re coming to do. If they weren’t, they’d be looking for paid staff positions, not internships.
Assume nothing. Be ready to help them with the most fundamental details.
Get confirmation that they have the basics, like medical insurance, a plane ticket, a driver’s license and a passport (if international). Will they bring a car? If not, how will they get where they need to go after they arrive?
10. Get Buy-In from the Church Leadership
Don’t sugar-coat what this will cost the church. Before we got our first intern, we went to our church leaders and laid everything out for them as best we could anticipate it. Warts and all.
Not only is it important for them to sign off on the idea. They need to be ready step up and help out, too.
Getting your first intern is like getting a family with kids to stay in a church that hasn’t seen a young family in decades.
You have to be patient, proactive, flexible, determined and ready.
Don’t think that details like costs and housing can wait until you finally have an intial contact. If everything isn’t ready when you get that prospective email or phone call, you’ll lose them.
As to what to do after hearing from your first prospect? That’s the subject of my follow-up post, 10 Essential Ingredients for Running an Effective Small Church Internship.
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