By Dave Reardon, Youth Alive Victoria Academy Director @docreardon
Schools don’t teach you how to negotiate the best deal for 100 pizzas.
Or how to run a small group for a handful of hyperactive teenage boys.
Or how to plan a 3-week relationships series that keeps kids engaged.
Or how to set a massive bonfire alight by firing flaming arrows.
Okay that last one is probably for good reason … but it was still epic!
Youth leadership is, as the name suggests, all about LEADING young people into their God-given destiny. And one of the most powerful vehicles to do this is through a dedicated internship program.
The problem that most leaders hit when they think about interns, is that it’s a lot of WORK. And believe me, it is! But it’s absolutely worth the effort. In my time as a young adults pastor, we ran a program called One80 with 6 to 10 interns each year. It was intense … it was definitely hard work … but it was VERY rewarding.
Over the past decade, almost all of those (often shaggy-haired and barefooted) interns have gone on to greater things in God. A number are senior pastors, several took on youth ministry positions, some are engineers, others are successful professionals and loving parents. Most importantly, almost all of them are still active in their local church.
Those years in the trenches developed an interning strategy that we still use today in Youth Alive Academy – where students study leadership and theology at Bible College while also interning for 1 day per week in their local church.
Allow me to outline a few of the foundational principles that we teach students and youth pastors alike at Academy:
1. Interns are trainees, not coffee slaves
Ephesians 4:12 says leaders are appointed to: “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
Yes there’s a place for photocopying, coffee-runs and setting up chairs … but we’re robbing our interns if it never goes beyond that. I have seen too many cases where interns are used as glorified baby-sitters or gardeners. We have to do better than that. Interns are with us for a relatively short time and we must put in the effort to help them define their calling, gain experience and ‘see behind the curtain’ of ministry. Interning is about building their tomorrow, not making our today easier.
In fact, anyone who’s ever had an intern knows that it’s actually MORE work for you. Sometimes it feels that it would be easier to do a task yourself but that’s not the point. Leaders must lead. So be prepared to lead your interns – consciously and constantly.
2. Growth starts with a Blueprint
We set up interns for success with positive, clear and frequent communication. Initially, you’ll want to take time to discuss their strengths and their learning style. Be practical about their hours and office etiquette as well as lifestyle expectations. Ask about their dreams and expectations from an internship.
Over the next couple of months, you’ll want to focus on teaching your interns WHY you do what you do in youth ministry. Provide a short list of books/podcasts/videos for them to study and keep them accountable by checking in each week. Discuss what they are learning and help them ‘join the dots’ in your local setting.
Also take time each week to discuss the nuts-and-bolts of weekly services and programs. Get them involved in some easier tasks (eg. Ordering 100 pizzas for supper or running a game). Then, as they grow in confidence and experience, give them more challenging opportunities – such as taking more responsibility for an outreach event or even a camp. Over time, you can delegate more responsibility (not just tasks but authority to lead and make decisions).
TIP: Don’t overburden them with too much responsibility early, remember Luke 16:10 says – “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.”
3. Leaders inspect what you expect
A leader’s silence is seen as tacit approval. So plan to have regular meetings to debrief your interns (a slap on the back after youth service is NOT debriefing, you’ve got to be more intentional). If you’re not properly debriefing an intern’s performance then they’re probably not growing.
Again, don’t just throw them in the deep end. Take the time to walk alongside your interns because that is how we get fruit that lasts. Remember the old adage about delegation:
Step 1: watch me do it,
Step 2: let’s do it together,
Step 3: I’ll watch you do it and give you feedback.
TIP: Be patient. If an intern bombs with a public task during youth group, it’s unlikely that you need to correct them on the night (when everything is fresh and they might be defensive). Give it a couple of days until you’re both back in the office, grab coffee, then ask them how they could have improved. It’s likely the intern already knows where they went wrong and will be grateful to get it off their chest.
4. What is in your hand?
Sometimes youth pastors find it hard to see the potential right in front of their eyes. We can be jealous of an intern program in a church across town, and all the while, God is actually asking us the same question he asked of Moses in Exodus 4:12- what is in your hand?
Why not start praying and planning to run an internship program next year. Maybe like me, you’ll find there’s a mob of shaggy-haired, barefoot champions just waiting to be harnessed for the things of God.