Most guys who finish seminary either intern or land their first ministry position in pastoral ministry; that or they continue cleaning pools, painting, or selling insurance. Either way there is this natural progression forward in pastoral ministry: seminary graduate, intern, youth pastor, associate pastor, then senior pastor. Sure enough, some people fill multiple roles at the same time—like seminary student and pastor. But for the most part this is the progression.
Not for me. I’m a non-conventional intern. I graduated with my Th.M. from Dallas Seminary in 2009, then entered my first pastorate in Tulsa as a High School Pastor. After four years, I departed as an associate pastor and have been a church planting intern with Joe Thorn at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois for the past year.
I remember one of the first times I shared this story with another pastor. They asked: “Aren’t you taking a step back?” Well, yes, and at the same time, no.
I’m kind of a trendsetter—a trend that no doubt others will adopt as well and already are adopting. Still, I imagine many probably wonder what’s wrong with me. Could you not get another position in pastoral ministry? Actually, I did. I had a number of churches asking me to candidate, some of them pretty notable too. I almost accepted an offer from one to be an associate pastor, but God drew us to Chicago, and we’re still discerning exactly why.
Many pastors will discover that if they wish to get involved in church planting then they will likely step back and serve in an internship and/or a residency first. It’s becoming a normal expectation for guys, wishing to church plant. This is wise, as I’m discovering, because it helps assess fit for this unique ministry.
Why should an experienced pastor be willing to intern? What should an experienced pastor expect from an internship? And how does an experienced pastor handle this transition? Let’s take these questions head on.
Why should an experienced pastor be willing to intern?
The benefits are numerous, beyond what I’m giving here, but here are three of the most significant benefits.
First, accepting an internship role builds in much needed rest. Every experienced pastor needs a sabbatical. And too few have ever experienced one. An internship is a great way for you to get a quasi-sabbatical. Let me tell you: being an intern is a breeze compared to being a pastor. I devote about twenty to twenty-five hours a week to my “official” responsibilities. The rest of my time is devoted to study, writing, and prayer. If need be, I would work, but the Lord keeps providing other avenues for our family’s provision. Because of this, I do what I can to honor that provision and serve the church “unofficially” as well. But still, an internship is like a part-time sabbatical, and you need one of those if you’ve never had one. If you’re like me, you were putting in sixty and sometimes eighty-hour weeks. You might also have been managing major anxiety issues like I was. This is a great way to get the rest your body and soul need.
Second, it offers you time for healing. Not everyone needs this, but I did. I experienced some amount of pain coming out of my last pastorate. It has taken time to rebuild confidence and process some of my feelings, expectations, and to learn more about my weaknesses that needed sharpening and skills that needed developing. My internship has offered time to rebuild that confidence, get fresh perspective from new friends and colleagues, and learn more about myself.
Third, it offers you time for personal development. You need fresh eyes on you telling you how you need to grow and what you need to learn. An internship gives you the opportunity to have godly men you respect and love sharpen you. At least that’s been the outcome for me. It’s given me ample time to study. I’ve been pushed to read a systematic theology and numerous other books on prayer, preaching, shepherding, and more. In turn, I’m given more time to pray, opportunities to preach, and people to shepherd. All of this will profit you.
What Should An Experienced Pastor Expect From An Internship?
I’m learning more and more that much of life is managing expectations, and my expectations need to match others’ expectations for me.
If you’re someone who preached every week in a pastorate, well, that’s just not going to happen in an internship. I’ve had half a dozen preaching opportunities during the last year. Of course, for others this may seem like a windfall. Nonetheless, you have to be ready and willing to accept that you won’t be filling the pulpit as much. That takes humility and patience, especially if you are set on fire by God to preach the Word.
People will also look at you different than when you were a pastor. Some of that has to do with your own public relations campaign at church. My elders haven’t broadcasted my pastoral experience. That’s actually a good thing for me, because being a pastoral staff member at a mega church is more like being a program director than a shepherd. Yes, I sure did shepherd a lot, but, tragically, most of my time was devoted to administration and events. Ask me how to manage thirty small group leaders and put together an event, and I have you covered. Ask me to counsel an addict or a marriage on the cusp of divorce, and you’ll find me hemming and hawing—all the more reason to be an intern.
If you think an internship is going to be one extensive hangout with the pastor—in my case a smoke—or that you are going to get to do everything with that pastor, then you may be disappointed. That’s not to say that I don’t spend a good chunk of time being coached by Joe. I do, but there will also be times where I won’t see him much because we have different rhythms and responsibilities in ministry.
There are couples that need to meet privately with him. He also needs private study time. At times I study parallel with Joe or do research for him, but I don’t expect him to hold my hand. That’s part of the benefit he gets from having an intern; he has someone to share the ministry load.
Furthermore, the lead pastor is not the only person you’ll learn from. I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed spending time with our associate pastor as much as I have cherished time with Joe. Likewise, one of our lay pastors/elders has been a constant source of encouragement and learning.
How Should An Experienced Pastor Handle This Transition?
First, you should handle the transition with humility (Ph. 2:5-8). A pastor who is willing to step back and put himself in such a teachable position must possess an attitude that says, “I care about protecting the reputation of Christ.” Having local eldership functioning as covering and accountability is a necessary precaution for testing, training, and affirming a church planter. The last thing we need is puffed up entrepreneurs creating the next big public relations nightmare for Jesus and the church.
Second, you must keep in mind the priority of providing for your family. Internships don’t pay a lot. I’ve got a wife and three kids, so I can only keep this up as long as the Lord provides the funds to do so. Likewise, there is an end in sight. You can’t be a perpetual intern like Ryan on The Office. There’s been times where I’ve stepped back and examined whether I need to work part-time or pursue full-time employment during my internship. So far I am 2/3s through and God has faithfully provided along the way, with a little help from freelance writing and editing here and there. Regardless, a man’s first priority is to care for his family. If you’re not managing your household, then you shouldn’t be managing God’s (1Tim. 3:4).
Third, remain teachable (Pr. 19:20). Your covering will call you to repent of sin, or at least you better hope they do. You’re not going to commit to a year of intern ministry without revealing a little bit of the indwelling sin you wrestle with. You’ll also need to ask lots of questions and earnestly ask for feedback. Being teachable means being tactical. As you receive instruction, you need to determine how to best deploy it so it bears fruit in your future ministry.
Being a church planting intern is a rewarding experience. If you’re someone who feels called to church planting, but you’re hesitant because being an intern or resident might be “taking a step back,” I encourage you to check your heart. It may say more about you than the role.
Joey Cochran, a ThM graduate of Dallas Seminary, is the church planting intern at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois under the supervision of pastor Joe Thorn. You can follow him at jtcochran.com or @joeycochran.