The Youth Ministry Internship

Experiential Learning

In an age of cyberleaks and the ongoing “millennial” search for authenticity, I think it’s fitting to disclose a timeless youth ministry secret. Cue the lights.

YM Internship

Youth ministers make mistakes.

Yikes. I hate to say it, but most likely you already knew.

It could be because youth ministry tends to be the research and development wing of the church. It might be that we tend to throw some of our most inexperienced (mind you, enthusiastic) leaders into the fire to minister to our young people. It’s also 100% because we’re human, and messing up is kind of our thang (see: human history; every sitcom ever; old diary entries).

Thankfully, grace abounds, and failure leads to innovation. But the beauty is that youth ministry tends to be an area within the church which expects, allows, and sometimes even encourages mistakes to be made. One way this happens is through experiential learning.

Intentional Experiences Transform

Wait. What’s experiential learning? Put simply, it’s learning by doing. You do this instinctively when you engage youth in service and mission trips or when you introduce a topic or Scripture through a game.

At its best, experiential learning is transformational learning. It creates a fundamental change in learners and their worldviews. The ‘doing’ becomes part of the being, as it reorients learners’ sense of self and world.

Judy Steers notes, “At its best, experiential learning is transformational learning. It creates a fundamental change in learners and their worldviews. The ‘doing’ becomes part of the being, as it reorients learners’ sense of self and world.”

According to Steers, experiential learning is marked by the following components: compelling encounters, reflection, agency in response, and community. Although often neglected, Steers advocates the necessity of experiential learning as part of Christian formation since that’s how Jesus engaged his disciples:

The disciples had repeated encounters with the grand narrative of God’s grace and with the small narratives of Jesus’ parables and the lives of people he met. The disciples reflected together on Jesus’ questions, on their own mistakes, and on their life together. Jesus gave them agency, calling them to follow him and sending them out in his name, and he called them together into a community. These followers of the tradition of Jesus were experiential learners. When we engage in experiential education, we follow in their footsteps.

Experiential Learning and Interns

There are countless other ways to engage youth and young adults in experiential learning, but since summer is quickly approaching, and we are entering prime-summer-youth-intern season, let’s focus on Christian formation through youth ministry internships.

The intern-supervisor relationship is holy and powerful: an agreement of mutual benefit and investment.

As Christ-followers, we ought to keep in mind that there are two ways (at least) of viewing an intern. One way to view an intern is a task-driven assistant who makes your job easier (think: gets you coffee, teaches the class you don’t like to teach, etc.). The other way—the way I would advocate you view an intern—is to view them as a partner in ministry; someone who you welcome as a disciple, someone you intentionally form, love, and serve.

I’m not saying an intern shouldn’t do any tasks. Of course they will. But the intern-supervisor relationship is holy and powerful: an agreement of mutual benefit and investment. With that in mind, let’s consider these…

Top Ten Tips to Supervising a Youth Ministry Intern

1) Select wisely.

Develop a clear criteria for evaluation of candidates, and work with your team to find the balance between “how can we hire someone to enhance our ministry?” and “how might this intern grow through this experience?”

2) Commission and set apart.

One of the most meaningful gifts you can give as an intern supervisor is to mark the sacredness of the internship experience: for the intern, for the congregation, and for you. The first summer I spent as an intern in children’s ministry, a commissioning service transformed my summer job into a holy calling.

3) Set expectations.

Like any internship, clear expectations and defined roles help minimize conflict and develop mutual understanding. Make it clear. Put it in writing. Sign it, and refer back to it. (And don’t forget to keep your end of the deal too. If you say you’re going to meet to talk about their progress, meet and talk about their progress.)

4) Involve a team.

It’s tempting to do ministry as a lone wolf… or a lone wolf with a summer lackey. The more congregants that can connect to the intern in support, encouragement, and discipleship, the more you will resource and build the faith of the intern (and that’s the point).

5) Offer time for reflection along the way and at the end.

In Luke 10, when Jesus sends out the 70, the disciples engage in ministry and then return to Jesus who frames their experiences, offers feedback, and affirms their work in proclaiming the authority of God and their place in God’s kingdom. As an intern supervisor, you have the opportunity and the wisdom to frame their experience theologically. In other words, point out God in action through their ministry. Even if the intern isn’t ministry-bound in a vocational sense, all Christians are bound to ministry. Open the door to conversation about how they will serve Jesus in any potential vocation.

6) Play to their strengths.

If we’re not careful, it may be tempting to assign an intern the tasks that you’d rather not do. This is the difference between a good supervisor and a bad supervisor. If you’re a youth minister, you’re in the business of discipleship and formation. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to help someone identify and use their God-given gifts in a meaningful ministry setting just because you don’t feel like doing something for a summer.

7) Coach, encourage, and correct.

Along the way, your intern will need advice. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll give too much freedom or not enough. They’ll flop or under-prepare. The goal is to plant seeds and nurture growth, not demand the flower to bloom.

8) Provide closure and celebration.

Summer has a way of building relationships that stand outside of “real life.” Part of what you can do to prevent this disconnect for your intern and your youth is to mark the end of an era through some kind of celebration or service of blessing. You might ask your intern to preach, to write a closing reflection for the newsletter, or have a send-off party. Goodbyes matter, and supervisors hold the power to initiate some healthy farewells.

9) Pray.

For the months leading up to the internship period, encourage your congregation to pray for the future intern and the committee that will be supporting them. When your intern begins, make a habit of praying for and with them regularly. Praying with someone regularly teaches them how to pray for others.

10) Know that every intern will be different.

Interns do not come one-size-fits-all. Some interns will need different styles of coaching and maybe different responsibilities based upon their giftedness and goals for the future. An internship program should live, breathe, and change with each new intern.

And as always, learn from inevitable mistakes. Have you supervised an intern or been supervised as an intern? What worked for you? What didn’t? Comment below with any tips you have!

About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten is a third year M. Div student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a co-pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Mount Holly, New Jersey. He has served as a minister to children, youth, and adults in American Baptist, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.