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Replace Yourself

Keith Johnson

And who better to fill your shoes than a fully trained intern?

That's right! Replace yourself!

No, I'm not telling you to leave your position at your church; I'm just saying that excellent children's ministers train their replacements -- at all times. This kind of leadership development is wise for several reasons:

  1. As your ministry grows, it's crucial to add staff who are just as equipped as you are to maintain momentum.
  2. In the unexpected, though highly likely, development that you're called to another church or elsewhere, and your position suddenly becomes available, it's desirable not to have a long vacancy in your position.
  3. As you equip others, you inevitably come across that gem in your volunteer pool who can and should do more than one hour a week!

One leadership development avenue many churches have taken is hiring an intern. Interns can serve for just the summer or all year-round -- and interns can be all ages.

Life-Changing Experiences

Before you object to hiring an intern for the summer because your church may be in a hiring freeze or may be too small to add staff or even too isolated to attract a person for ministry, read these firsthand accounts of how an internship literally changed the course of these young people's lives.

• Molly Carr, youth pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church in The Woodlands, Texas -- For Molly, the chance to intern at her church was a chance to "see what youth ministry was like before I made a commitment to do it full-time and to see if I was really called."

Molly was an unpaid intern at her church, helping out where needed but focusing on the particular aspects of ministry related to children and youth.

"The thing I most benefited from in my internship was that I was around people who mentored me," Molly says. "There was someone who was walking the walk, and I could also walk this way. They would follow up the words they said with a lifestyle that mirrored it. Second, there were some practical things. The hours I put in -- it's definitely not a 9-to-5 job. There was paperwork involved. I had to keep a group of kids quiet while I wanted to talk. I realized, finally, that I did have a call to full-time ministry."

For Molly, her call to ministry came with practice, real responsibility, and real hands-on mentoring during an intentional program geared specifically for her. And it didn't cost the church a thing! Molly believes so much in the value of internships that she has internship opportunities in her church now.

• Sarah Warren, children's ministry intern at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Florida -- Sarah's a sophomore at Florida Southern College with a double major in religion and philosophy. First United Methodist Church, like many churches, recognizes that because of promising young people such as Sarah, valuable leaders are literally closer than one might think.

"I've worked at this church since I was in sixth grade and just moved up from there," Sarah explains. "In order to become an intern, I had to wait until I was 18, and I started in January of 2003."

For Sarah, the best thing about being an intern is "all the different experiences and programs I get to work in. I get to write curriculum for our children's worship every Sunday morning. I get to participate in activities like skate night and Bible-study sessions, and I get to go on fun trips. I just love the people I get to work with in the office."

For Sarah, her years of volunteering and now interning have whetted her appetite for more. "I want to be a pastor in a church or teach college.
This internship assists me in my future plans by helping me think on my feet and work out of my own jams. I've been taught great life lessons about when to hold my tongue. It has helped me with people; I am much more capable of striking up conversations with church volunteers and working in and out of every office at church."

Success Tips

Before you find an intern, think through all these issues.

• Integrate interns into all of church. Like most churches, the children's ministry department must work in cooperation with the other departments when they compete for space in the building or on the calendar, and Sarah gets to learn from all that negotiation.

When I was an intern at Quail Lakes Baptist Church, associate pastor Wayne Bibelheimer took me with him to a funeral for one of our church families. He was not my mentor or my supervisor, but he felt it would give me good exposure to the full workings of the church. I can honestly say that now, 20 years later, that memory stands out as one of the more formative moments of my decision to enter ministry.

By the way, one of the best training opportunities I had was attending at the weekly staff meeting led by the senior pastor. I was able to see how a church functions, why decisions are made, and what truly constitutes important issues facing a church.

• Empower interns. What's probably a vital component to preparation for real-life, full-time ministry is that Sarah isn't micro-managed by her children's director. Instead, she's is empowered to try things, take risks, and learn from her own mistakes, if necessary.

"Right now I'm working on Sunday school signage for the fall," Sarah says, "and this was assigned to me, but I am free to do what I want with follow-up evaluations and review."

• Delegate more than mundane tasks. There's a danger in recruiting and supervising an intern: It's tempting to jettison all the mundane or routine tasks to this person. Elevating their status to little more than an errand-runner doesn't equip them for a passion to minister. Of course, they should do some of the mundane tasks of ministry because, let's face it, how many of us ever get rid of the mundane tasks? As Sarah explains, the worst thing about being an intern is "the grunt work! Having to pick up what other people cannot or did not take care of."

My years as an intern confirmed my own calling to children's ministry; gave me valuable practical, hands-on experience; and exposed me to the inner workings of a church. I was able to sink or swim on my own, develop programs from start to finish, and recruit the volunteers needed to sustain a growing ministry to more and more children.

Molly says the ideal program for interns is to "serve Christ in a different way, to determine their call for ministry…We pull back the curtain of what ministry really is…it's not all programming, going to Six Flags, or being a big kid yourself. We don't just ask about what they did but where they are in their spiritual life. Are they being fed, are they doing what they need to do in order to be a Christian themselves, are they listening to God? I need to hear that, and it is the secret to staying in ministry!"

• Determine why you need interns. Before you find them, first know what you want to do with them. You may assign them specific programs such as day camps, Sunday school programming, vacation Bible school, or other events. You may even enlist their help to supervise some of your departments -- sort of a supercoordinator -- on a Sunday morning as you give your regular team time off to recruit for the fall.

By the way, go ahead and assign your intern the task of recruiting -- at least for part of your program. The bulk of training for any children's minister-in-training should include what we all know fills up the bulk of our day: recruiting!

Two other real-life experiences that are often overlooked in colleges and seminaries are budgets and interpersonal relationships. Make sure your intern is in an open area where phone conversations are fully exposed to good mentoring, accurate feedback, and genuine accountability.

• Budget how interns will live. Are you going to pay a salary? Sarah is paid part-time year-round for $8 per hour. Will you allow an intern to work part-time elsewhere? Will each intern have a place to stay -- either with a family or at your church in a spare room? Who's going to feed your interns?

Molly says she doesn't pay her interns. Instead, she says, "I will pay for them to do continuing education. We have a school for youth ministry in our diocese, and they can receive a certificate in youth ministry. We can't afford to pay them. They're part-time and need to work the other part of the time. So they need to live in the area and might live with someone in the church."

• Coordinate with other internship opportunities in your church. One church has four interns each summer who share a house on the church campus and who connect in ways that go beyond the prescribed program for that summer.

Coordinating with your entire church makes talk of budget much more comprehensive and compelling.

Finding Interns

So how do you find these interns who are eager to learn, inexpensive to keep, and just waiting to help your programming rise to the next level?

• Begin within your congregation. Advertise in early January (colleges say to begin advertising at least one semester before the internship will begin) within your denominational newsletter, monthly church newspaper, or weekly bulletin. You might be surprised to discover that there's a grandparent of a collegian who's looking for summer experience in your congregation.

• Advertise at local colleges or universities. Placement offices in most Bible colleges and universities are more than willing to assist you in writing an attractively worded position description.
Most colleges even have a room to loan you if you'd like to conduct on-campus interviews or simply set up an information display table. Don't forget specific departments such as education, religion, and children's ministry to list summer internship opportunities that will be promoted by the professors themselves.

Having interns can expand your vision for leadership development and at the same time increase your program's effectiveness.


Keith Johnson is the National Field Services Manager for Group Publishing, Inc. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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