Actually, they’re better known as INTERNS, but we started calling them Jesus Elves after a hectic summer of ministry. “It’s like you’re Santa and we’re your elves” one of them said. Over the past sixteen years of ministry, I have had the privilege to work with over twenty interns, most of whom are still engaged in some form of ministry through a church or para-church organization. Working with interns has kept me young, kept our ministry vibrant, and created a multiplication process that allows our ministry to be bigger than the walls that contain it. Though you may not think that an internship program is the right fit for your ministry, you’ll discover the importance of interns, how to choose the right one and how to effectively use those Jesus Elves.

Get Yourself an Intern
“Our ministry is too small for an intern.”

I hear this frequently as I tell people about the importance of interns. In my mind, I am hearing them say “our ministry is too small to multiply into life-long leaders.” No matter how small your ministry (my first church had a whopping seven students), there is an opportunity for you to multiply yourself into someone who wants to be like you someday. I am actually surprised at the number of churches that do not have internship programs, especially in student ministry. For those of you who have always wondered how to start an internship program in your ministry, or can always use the convenient truth of insufficient funds, here are a few suggestions.

  • Use “Creative Funding”: If you cannot afford an intern with your current youth budget, think outside of the box and use some creative methods. You can enlist the funds of a few generous people in the church. Find people who have a heart for you and for your ministry. You can also host a ministry banquet in which all funds will go to the internship funds.
  • Cut Your Ministry Budget: I know this sounds drastic, but if someone were to take the internship funds from our budget, I would just cut the ministry budget and move those funds to interns. Student ministry can be heavily funded by student registrations. I would rather increase the cost of an event by $5 and keep my interns than keep costs low and build into no one.
  • Sell the Vision Now: If you are unable to fund interns, begin to sell the vision of an internship program to your church leaders now. When your next budget year rolls around, they will be unsurprised to see the funds you need for your internship program.
  • Help Them Raise Funds: If your church cannot support interns, help the intern prospect raise their own funds. This will help them see the importance of their position, and allow your budget to remain untouched by the cost.
  • Don’t Pay Them: Some people are so interested in taking their ministry experience to the next level that they will work for free. Capitalize on their financial stability to help your ministry. However, never expect less of these people just because they are unpaid.
    Whatever your financial strategy to support interns, they key is that you do it. Internships are the doorway for college students and key volunteer leaders to see behind the ministry curtain, to what full-time ministry is like.

Know Who to Get
“I don’t have anyone to choose from”

Once you know that you want interns, you will want to know who you should recruit. It may be easy to think of someone at first, but as your ministry and internship program grow, you will want to have some criterion in which to choose from. Here are my suggestions for that.

Start with the Quadrants
All good ministry strategies have quadrants—the same is true with intern programs. Envision a square with four squares in it—each representing a type of person you are looking for. Here is the hierarchy of importance we place on the people who apply to our program.

Quadrant #1: From Your Church/Pursuing a Ministry career
At first these people may be rare, but as you impart your students to consider living the life of full-time ministry, you will have more and more candidates in this quadrant. The important thing to remember is that you are letting your church “flap its wings” in leadership development. Churches are supposed to create Christian leaders who through internships will take up the ministry.

Quadrant #2: Not from your church/Pursuing a Ministry career
As your internship program grows, and people in it have positive experiences, people outside of your church will hear about it. Maybe you are fortunate to have a Christian college that feeds interns to you. If you do not have someone from your church that is pursuing a ministry career, then I believe this is your second-best option. This allows you to open your church’s influence beyond its own congregation.

Quadrant #3: From Your Church/Not pursuing a ministry career
In most cases, I have exposed interns in this quadrant to a world of ministry that impacted them and their life calling. One intern, Megan, came into our internship program as a pre-dental student. After two summer of serving with us, she spent an entire summer in Haiti working with children. She now works with Teach America in Dade County, Miami.

Quadrant #4: Not from your church/Not pursuing a ministry career
Stay away from this type of person. They probably just want to go on your Belize mission trip and play games.

Have a Job Description
Once you know the type of person you are looking for, have a job description containing the details of the internship. This will allow those applying to know exactly what you are looking for and exactly what they will be doing. Too often, interns think ministry is done in a certain way and soon find out that it is much different. They may want to drink lattes with troubled students, while you expect them to run the game section of your large-group program. Having clearly-stated expectations will help communicate what their role will be.

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Have an Application Process.
Maybe you are like me and things get so hectic that when someone says “Can I help?” you just throw them into the fray with you. When you are hiring an intern I would resist that temptation. Have a process that the intern must go through that involves an application, interviews, and reference checks. This will allow you to know that you are hiring the right type of person and that you have done due diligence of checking out who they really are. On a personal note, I would suggest that you make the application very difficult. A college professor in one of my Christian Ministries courses would stand up in front of his 8 a.m. class and say, “The reason that this course is offered at 8 a.m. is because they will not let me offer it at 7 a.m.” He correlated our desire to be in ministry with our desire to be at class. I believe the same can be said of your internship program. As you continue to develop the next generation of leaders, it will one day dawn on you that it is a privilege to hold the internship position in your ministry. Don’t let it be harder to apply at The Gap than to become your intern.

Have a Back Door
Make sure there are re-evaluation times to your internships, so that you can let a person go if they are not working out, or that they can leave and not feel like a failure. Of course, summer’s end is always a good time, or the end of a school year. This allows the intern to see the time constraints of their position. It is impossible to “do it all” in youth ministry. Having a back door will allow them to look back at their development, and also see how far there is to go.

Use Them
“I don’t know what I would do with interns”

Once you decide to get an intern, and have the right person on board, you need to use them. One of the saddest stories I ever heard was from one of my staff who told me that for his internship at a local church, the pastoral staff would send him to get sodas and candy bars for their staff meetings. We joke about it now, but it sent a real message to him about his worth, his role, and his abilities.

Make them Heroes
You don’t have to be in youth ministry for very long to know that it is not for those with a weak self-esteem. Parents criticizing on one side, church leadership analyzing on another—it can make anyone feel worthless. That is why an important part of an internship is making them feel like heroes. Whoever your intern is, you must use their giftedness. Oh sure, they will definitely have to do things that no one wants to do (make orange drink, set up chairs, etc.), but it is paramount that you create scenarios in which they will succeed. Some interns will love the behind-the-scenes aspects of the ministry, others will want to be up front. Find out their strengths and capitalize on them. It will create a deep reservoir of experience that they can rely on during the tough times of ministry.

Give it Away
“Stand here son, and watch Daddy shot a basket,” I said once to my son. Watch me do something awesome! I used to think this way about interns. That has changed. I have learned to give almost every aspect of my ministry away. Some things were easy to part with (leading worship), others were difficult (meeting with a troubled soul). When I gave those things away, I was able to take our ministry to the next level (like adding an internship program). It is usually pride that made me hold on to things. I wanted the students to laugh at the videos that I was in, I wanted them to think that I was greatest teacher, but interns cannot fully know what ministry is like until they take a big bite. We just have to be willing to give them the apple. How can a future leader know their strengths and weaknesses unless they are exposed? Giving away the ministry gives them the chance to walk hand-in-hand with you through their ministry experience. Ministry is a daunting task to do alone, so give aspects of it away.

Constantly Evaluate
It is the principle of The One-Minute Manager—quick praise, quick critique. Make sure they are constantly given feedback on how they are doing. If they do something awesome, make sure it is known publicly. If they do something wrong, make sure it is known privately. Be their ministry mirror. Every intern I have ever led has wanted to be the best that they could be. Without evaluation that could never happen.

Take for instance the story of Chad, a summer intern. Chad was much more introverted than the other two summer interns that year, yet all three were required to teach the high school ministry large group…twice. After Chad’s first teaching time it was clear that this was not his gift area. After he spoke he said, “I guess I will not have to speak a second time after tonight’s address, huh?” I assured him that he would speak again because now he already knows what he would do differently, and with some coaching I knew he could do better. The second time around Chad did great, more importantly he had the confidence to try again because of the evaluation that had taken place.

One thing about a good intern program is that it multiplies itself quickly. As you begin to invest in the next generation of youth ministry leaders you will have more and more people asking you to join your team. I am proud to say that my two current associates are previous interns. Both of them would love to know when they get interns…

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