By Ethan Magness
What is required to train the next generation of leaders for the church? How can you make a difference? Whom will you disciple for leadership? These are questions that drive the Semester in Ministry program partnership between Tennessee’s Milligan College and Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland.
Here is what we have seen:
• A college sophomore preaches for the very first time to 100 squirming middle school students. She is nervous but she is ready. She has practiced a half-dozen times on her own and twice in front of a team of staff who gave her advice and suggestions. Later she will sit down with her supervisor for feedback and reflection on the process.
• A college senior confesses his struggles to a mentor who has been praying with him all semester long. Finally he is able to get the help he needs. Years of hiding come to an end, and what was a disaster waiting to happen, now may be a story of grace and redemption that will inspire his ministry.
• A junior visits with church planters in New York and senses a call from God. His supervisor and his fellow interns confirm this new direction for his life. His career trajectory is changed.
• A nervous senior wonders if she is ready to get a job next year. She is given solo leadership of a major team preparing for an event. It isn’t perfect, but with a lot of coaching, she leads well through a great event. She leaves the program with confidence in her new ministry. She maintains a coaching relationship with her former supervisor through her first year of ministry.
• A child of ministers arrives wary, knowing what ministry life can do to people. He finds a staff team that is life-affirming and cares more about who he is in Christ than what he can get done. A new vision of what a staff culture could be inspires him to move forward in his ministry pursuits.
• A young man from a broken home stays with a host family equipped to care for him and provide an example of what a Christian family can be. He leaves the program with professional training, but more than that, he leaves with a new family that loves him and stays in touch for years to come as he marries and begins his life in ministry.
• A junior ministry major who has all the skills and has been a star in the church his whole life realizes his relationship with God is dry, empty, and unsustaining. On a spiritual retreat he is introduced to the practice of silence and hourly prayer. He meets God again and is renewed for the life of ministry for which he was already so gifted.
• A sophomore is surprised to discover he very much dislikes the internship assignment he had requested, and he looks on longingly at other areas of ministry in the church. After three weeks, we reassess and reassign him to a ministry he loves and that fits his gifts. It was a frustrating situation, but so much better it occurred as a sophomore during an internship than after graduation during a first job.
• After an internship, a junior returns to Milligan and earns better grades, is more engaged in the local church, and has a driving commitment to maximize his opportunity to prepare for ministry.
These stories and hundreds more are why Mountain Christian Church partners with Milligan College to offer the Semester in Ministry program. The need for trained church leaders is growing. Our culture is changing, and ministry must change in response to this reality. The church must marshal its best efforts and most creative ideas to raise up a new generation of church leaders who will reach the lost and disciple all.
Part of the Solution
As a larger church, we realized we could either be part of the problem by mostly hiring staff who are trained elsewhere, or we could be part of the solution by developing strategies to train up leaders. We have chosen the latter, and the Semester in Ministry program is one way we are doing that.
This is a full-immersion ministry training program. Students spend four months on Mountain’s campus as a full part of our staff team. Students attend the same meetings, work on the same tasks, and share many of the same responsibilities as staff members. They preach and teach and plan. They recruit and train new leaders. Every job description is tailored to each intern’s strengths and weaknesses. We strive to help them develop the skill and have the experiences they need to be ready to serve in full-time ministry. Students pray with us and work alongside us as colaborers for Christ.
This type of internship is possible because of our partnership with Milligan College. Interns are able to earn 15 hours of academic credit with us. This full semester of credit allows them to move forward toward their academic goals and to integrate their academic training with the realities of ministry life. While the interns are here, embedded in ministry and studying for finals, the integration is natural. Conversation about books and texts is naturally connected to conversation about pastoral care and leading meetings.
The Heart of the Program
This opportunity to gain real professional experience, sharpen ministry skills, and develop their academic knowledge is a major part of the Semester in Ministry program, but it is not the heart of the program. We believe the most important thing we offer is a context that invites people to attend to their character more than their skills, to their spiritual formation as much as their academic formation.
Our oft-repeated maxim is, “Character trumps skill set, every time.” We frequently point out the irony that in a minister’s life, those things that are most important—Christlike character and a deepening faith relationship with him—are hardest to develop and maintain. In comparison, developing the right skills is easy.
We address this reality in a multitude of ways. First, the entire internship takes place in a spiritual community. The interns arrive as cohorts and begin their time with attention to prayer and silence and worship before we even address their roles and assignments in ministry. Every intern has a work supervisor and a mentor. Mentors are staff members who are not in the same professional area as the intern, which allows the relationship to focus on the character and spiritual health of the intern. For many interns, this relationship is the key to their spiritual growth while they are with us.
Keys to Success
There are four structural keys to the effectiveness of this program: cohort education, a “teaching hospital” environment, layers of accountability, and the partnership with Milligan College.
All students in the Semester in Ministry program participate as part of a team of interns. While their specific ministry assignments are in different staff areas, their shared experiences create a catalytic learning environment. They have a common office and participate in field trips and spiritual retreats together. They meet together weekly with staff leaders to discuss case studies from their ministry and to receive coaching in common ministry skills and character development.
This all happens in a total staff environment that we describe using the metaphor of a teaching hospital. While only a few staff members are assigned as a supervisor or mentor in a given semester, our whole staff team shares the responsibility of giving the interns a chance to lead and serve, and helping them succeed in that service. This common vision of working together to be a place where new leaders have a chance in ministry is what makes the interns’ experience so enriching and effective.
This teaching hospital environment has several layers of accountability. Mountain’s senior leadership supports the program and reminds us of the vital importance of fully investing in these future leaders. Program leaders hold supervisors accountable to ensure they are providing the opportunities and support the interns need. And all of us remind one another that we are here for the interns and are ready to go out of our way to include them and give them a chance to try.
In all of this, the partnership with Milligan is essential. Milligan has continually demonstrated its commitment to creative new ways of training ministry leaders. It has invested in the program financially, of course. Beyond that, it invests in the program by sending professors to teach classes and encouraging students to find an internship where they will be challenged and inspired. We can imagine no better partner for this program, and are consistently impressed by the quality of the training our interns have received prior to their arrival.
Semester in Ministry started as an experiment. We did not do it because we knew it would work, but because we knew more needed to be done. We are so grateful for the program’s effectiveness and are proud of the track record of the interns who have come through the program.
But the work is not done. So many more Christian leaders are needed. All of us must give our best creativity and energy to the task. The fields are ripe for the harvest. Pray that the Lord will send workers, and do whatever you can to train, empower, and disciple those God calls.
Ethan Magness is pastor of spiritual formation at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland, where he founded and directs the Semester in Ministry program.