Dave Rohrer has been mentoring interns for 24 of his 30 years in pastoral ministry. He currently serves as Teaching Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, a congregation of 4,000 members, which sponsors about two dozen short- and long-term interns each year. His new book for pastors, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2012), explores in greater depth the theological reflections discussed here.
How did you begin working with interns?
I started when I was pastoring a small [Presbyterian] church in Pasadena. We were four miles from Fuller Seminary, so we had seminary students and interns every year. I also got very involved in working with the committees for ministry preparation, in both the San Gabriel presbytery in Pasadena and then later in the Seattle presbytery. That experience of working with pastors who are in seminary really taught me how to work with interns.
Why invest in interns?
I think about my own story: I graduated from seminary at age 24, was ordained three months after graduation, and had very little practical mentoring. Too many people get experience in ministry but miss the process of reflecting on that experience. So my primary work with interns has been to teach them the process of theological reflection in the work of ministry. We work with that basic question: "Why do we do what we do?" And what difference does it make when we think about what we do in those terms?
How do you encourage this type of reflection?
A couple of different ways. One is to simply ask the question, "Why do you do what you do?" I have also developed a series of biblical studies that help us to ask questions. Here at University Presbyterian, I started with a biblical study of 2 Corinthians, listening to Paul's reflection on the very same question. He struggles with the Corinthian congregation and tries to make sense of their conflict and lack of approval. That was a very important book to me in the years that I was pastoring in Pasadena. I've also developed studies on John the Baptist, the book of Philippians, and Elijah, which examines the whole issue of discerning the call.
Here's the key to these Bible studies: They get interns working with the question of their own formation as a disciple: "What's God doing in me, as I'm doing this work among these people?" Not just, "How do I do this work? Or, "What tools do I use?" Or, "What effect am I having?" But "What is God doing in me as I'm participating in his work in the life of this person?" An attentiveness to that type of question is probably more important than the evaluation of achievements. It makes the primary question: "How am I participating in what Jesus is inviting me into?" rather than "What do you want me to do, God?"
Could you elaborate on what you mean?
God is clear about what he wants us to do: He wants us to follow Jesus. Micah 6:8—he wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. What's not clear sometimes are the specifics. I think a lot of pastors get lost in [these types of questions]: Am I in the right church? Am I doing the right work? There's a need for faithfulness in the place where we are, in answering that primary calling; when we're doing that, we begin to participate in what God is doing in that place.
Why is theological reflection so important?
When I started working with interns here, I went to talk to Ray Anderson, a professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Seminary. I asked him, "Part of what I do with these interns is to help them think through what they believe and why they believe it. What's the best way to work with those questions?"
He said, "Oh that's easy. Just get them to think about a case study in ministry. Then ask them what questions about God that particular ministry situation raises. You will essentially deal with all of the major doctrinal issues in the context of those ministry situations."
He basically said, "All acts of ministry make a theological statement." In other words, they teach something about God.
Where do you come up with your case studies?
The interns come up with them. They draw on situations from their [own ministries]. I have a simple template that I ask them to follow: Talk about a ministry situation that you've encountered that raises a question about who God is, the nature of God.
Give me a couple of examples.
One of the interns had to manage our men's residence house, and relational issues had come up with a particular tenant who was not abiding by the covenant. So issues of Christian community and accountability—what is the nature of our responsibility to one another?—began to come out. Those issues are more ethical than theological, but they're certainly informed by God's call and invitation to a particular pathway of discipleship.
Other interns have been working with a student facing a life situation that raised some kind of theological question. One of the big issues is the sovereignty of God, of God's plan for my life. They are asking questions about what's next: What does God want me to do? It gives us the opportunity to ask what we mean when we say that God is sovereign. On the one hand, there is this whole blueprint theology that says everything's mapped out; on the other hand, [some say] God distances himself from day-to-day events.
This, in turn, gets them reflecting on prayer. Why do we pray? For what do we pray? That's what Ray Anderson meant when he said, "Talk about situations in ministry and you'll get at pretty much any theological issue."
How have your interns changed over the years?
As I've worked with interns here at University Presbyterian over the last 12 years, I've noticed that fewer of them are clear about wanting to go into church [work]. They're more interested in doing something significant, rather than specifically preparing for professional ministry in the church. So fewer of them are pursuing ordination or seminary. They may be headed for med school or law school, and some will pursue a career in finance or accounting. It's almost like a Peace Corps experience or a "gap year" experience between college and career, or college and graduate school. I like that, too, because irrespective of where these folks are going to be, they're going to be leaders in their church, so it's an important influence.
What would you tell pastors who want to train interns?
They need to value the intern for more than what her or she can do. Much of the time, especially if you're a solo pastor, you just need help. And you're lonely. So the intern can be a way of getting that help and salving your loneliness. I think, in order to do internships well, you have to see them as learning opportunities for these people. Yes, you're going to get some work out of them, but the primary goal is seeing yourself as someone who can provide a place of service for someone who's in the process of learning, and then reflecting with them on that learning.
Don't think you have to download a bunch of information into them. What you have to do is ask questions. Get them to reflect on why they're doing what they're doing. Most interns who get that opportunity to reflect on what they're learning are not so worried about gaining a bunch of experience that they can put on a resumé. They will gravitate toward an internship where they're valued relationally, where they can get a breadth of experience as well as the opportunity to reflect on that experience.
What does a pastor gain from having interns?
There are a number of benefits. For one, interns keep you in touch with aspects of culture that you wouldn't know anything about—especially if you're working with younger adults. And that's fun as well as informative.
Another thing: It creates an amazing network over time. I was just reflecting on this the other day—how many people I know, where they are in the country, how they're serving. It's been pretty amazing to get to check back in with them. I've ended up being a pastor to so many of them. It's very rewarding to have that longitudinal thread as a result of being involved in someone's life at that formative stage.
What about challenges?
In most cases, you need the intern to do something. They aren't necessarily very good at it, so they require oversight and direction. When I was working with interns in a smaller church, we would talk through preaching and worship leadership afterwards in order to develop an awareness: Here's what you said, is that what you meant? The biggest challenge is that these things take time. If you don't have the time, don't do internships. It's that simple.
Another thing that's very important: Make sure that they have something to do. Give them concrete tasks. They can't just be hanging out. They've got to engage the work in some way, so that you have a context to talk about what God is doing.
A pastor has got to let go of the need to have everything done in a particular way. You have to let this person bring their voice to [a situation], then reflect with them afterward.
—Bob Davies is ministry coordinator at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, WA; © 2012 Christianity Today/BuildingChurchLeaders.com.
share this page
Also of Interest
Adapting for Small or Start-up Ministries
Make transition a positive for your church.
Good Pastor, Lousy Leader
How I came to terms with my role in the church.
Parents: Stop Praying for Your Kids
Before passing along this advice to parents in your ministry, please read this article.
Join the BuildingChurchLeaders.com Facebook groupFollow us on TwitterSubscribe to the Building Church Leaders RSS feed
Meet Our Editorial Advisors
More from Christianity Today