As an avid baseball fan, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that successful major league teams invest heavily in their “farm” systems—that’s what you call the development pipeline (or the minor leagues) of teams in the majors. This is where young players are trained and hope for a shot at the pros.
In a sense, this is what church-planting internships and residencies can be—the “minor leagues” of pastoral ministry. And yet, as someone who has worked with lots of church planters over the years, my observation is that many neglect these opportunities. Some question the value and cost of building up interns and residents. In reality, they should be considering the cost of not doing so.
Most healthy church plants spend significant time and energy up front on their interns and residents.
In my experience, most healthy church plants—like successful major league ball clubs—spend significant time and energy up front on their interns and residents. Therefore, church-planting pastors should invest in building a good internship program. This has numerous benefits for the pastor, the intern, and the church as a whole.
For the Church Planter
1. Maintain clarity in gospel leadership, mission, and communication.
Even the simplest questions from an intern can keep church planters honest about things like doctrine, values, and practice. And during the early, pivotal years of a church plant’s life, staying sharp on such things is crucial. Providing a channel for clarifying questions and honest feedback from interns will inevitably challenge one’s leadership, which can help pastors to shepherd God’s people better.
2. Love in a costly way.
Think about what it takes to raise funds, develop relationships, and provide channels to learn, take ownership, and lead. All of these require time away from sermon prep and daily church needs. In this sense, interns are costly. And fruit from these investments may not even be realized in our own church plants, but we can trust that they are worthy investments in God’s economy.
I’ve seen churches in some of the most difficult-to-reach places—such as Camden, New Jersey—invest in interns who eventually became church leaders who went on to plant other healthy churches. This is a costly endeavor no matter where it’s done. But as church planters, we do this in service to our Savior, who came to us in humility, taking on the very nature of a servant for our sake (Phil. 2:6–8).
For the Intern
1. Provide a practical model of ministry with opportunities to mature.
Good internships enable future church planters to mature into biblical elders. As they engage in ministry alongside experienced pastors, they learn “how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household . . . the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Good internships enable future church planters to mature into biblical elders.
One way our church seeks to do this is by running monthly “sermon labs” with our residents. In these labs, they get an inside look at what goes into sermon prep, and in time, they get to use this opportunity as they prepare to preach God’s Word themselves.
2. Provide opportunities to experience gospel renewal, exercise teachability, and demonstrate faithfulness in service.
In both formal and informal gatherings, our pastors share their experiences and failures, and celebrate the gospel that underlies both. As interns witness this, they develop both the humility and also the confidence that stem from one’s identity in Christ. When interns can see elders modeling faithful, others-centered service to Christ, it helps them grow to do the same.
For the Church Member
1. Provide a vibrant, visible model of discipleship.
Discipleship is usually more organic than structured. So rather than going through a standard interview procedure, most of our interns engage in a three- to six-month candidacy process. During this time, our staff develops a relationship with each candidate, and we seek to share and demonstrate how our core values shape our culture.
Church members witness this relationship develop from the start—through means such as Sunday worship, leadership training, community groups, staff meetings, and one-on-ones. But they also see discipleship happen in the regular rhythms of life. For example, I rarely run errands, exercise, or have meals on my own. And when I’m in the office, someone is usually working alongside me.
As church members see this kind of discipleship modeled, they learn to practice it in their own lives.
While these are all “normal” life activities, they are precious opportunities for discipleship, for in these times I get to listen, pray with, and challenge younger brothers as I engage in their personal lives (and they in mine). As church members see this kind of discipleship modeled, they learn to practice it in their own lives.
2. Teach the church what’s really important in Christian leadership.
No matter how often I say I value gospel character, it’s easy to gravitate toward those with competence—sometimes even mistaking competence for character. Much like the prophet Samuel, we are drawn to “Eliabs” of the local church, and are tempted to quickly crown our more gifted prospects (1 Sam. 16:6).
But the book of Proverbs should caution us here, since it consistently refers to spiritual maturity as more of a walk than a sprint. Therefore, embedded in biblical discipleship is the need for step-by-step processing and practice in faith. As a result, the future of healthy church leadership is rooted in the daily spiritual journey of young leaders—assessing how they carry themselves, speak to others, and care for the flock—as opposed to the “big jump” moments of preaching, presentations, and programs.
Church-planter friends, how will we advance the gospel among skeptics and the “dechurched” without proactively training the very people called to lead the charge? Sure, it’s risky—not all internships end well. Some even result in difficult separations. That’s why it’s important to carefully evolve your model to enable the development of gifts and character in interns and residents.
Church plants effective in leadership development will successfully transfer their ethos and practice in a way that breeds mature future pastors, which will lead to more healthy churches planted for the glory of God.