As an M.Div. student, Allyson Penny completed courses in church history, preaching, worship and spiritual formation.  Now she’s putting what she learned into practice — as a Perkins intern at FAM Houston, a United Methodist affiliated agency serving refugees, immigrants and others in Houston.

Penny leads a Bible study on Tuesday nights and a women’s empowerment group on Thursdays.  She spends most Wednesday mornings visiting the homes of Congolese women who live in the neighborhood. On Saturdays, you might find her working at the agency’s farm, Shamba Ya Amani (Swahili for “farm of peace.)

“The internship really gives you hands-on experience on how to use what you’ve learned at school out in the world,” Penny said.

Internships like Penny’s are a key part of the Perkins experience.  An internship is required for the Master of Divinity or Master of Arts in Ministry degree; most students complete the internship during their final year of study.

“The internship is the praxis of ministry,” said Chuck Aaron, director of the Intern Program. “It’s a chance to integrate the knowledge and theological reflection disciplines learned in the classroom with the practical demands of faithful leadership within a congregation or agency.”

While many students intern in churches, a significant number choose church-affiliated ministries and non-profit agencies. Wherever they are, student-interns learn ministry skills in a supervised setting, with guidance from trained Mentor Pastors and Lay Teaching Committees and support from mental health consultants. Internships run nine months, generally following the academic calendar. Students intern on a full or part time basis; M.A.M. students are required to work 20 hours a week; M.Div. students work 25-35. Interns take on responsibilities and test their preaching, teaching, pastoral care and community ministry skills, in preparation for eventual careers as pastors, chaplains or non-profit managers.

Students gain experience in the day-to-day aspects of ministry – from working with committees and learning how to budget to managing the interpersonal dynamics of working with colleagues, constituents and church members. “They’re seeing the humanity of the church – the instances when people argue, or when pastors get chewed out from time to time,” Aaron said.

Penny says that her internship has given her plenty of experience ministering face-to-face.

“I’m going into these women’s homes, sitting with them, listening to them,” Penny said. “Many have had trauma. From pastoral care classes, I’ve had some preparation for knowing how to react to moments of vulnerability and to respond appropriately.”

Learning about interpersonal dynamics is another key component of the internship experience. For Shunda Wilkin, a third-year M.Div. student, that includes discovering the finer points of working within a denominational structure. She’s interning in the office of the Presiding Bishop Prelate, Thomas L. Brown, Sr. of the 6th Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church in Atlanta.

“Having to work between the echelons of the organization is an art form that I’m learning, with guidance from my Mentor Pastor, the Rev. Pansy Washington,” she said. “I’m learning that it’s not just about getting information or getting things done; it’s about taking care of people – finding out how their world is going and advocating for whatever they’re doing. That’s what you don’t get in class.”

Wilkin also worked with a Lay Teaching Committee to create a learning covenant to determine which projects she’d focus on while interning. She’s helping complete a directory for the pastors and others serving in the district, with plans to ultimately put the directory online, and assisting with planning and preparations for the 2022 CME General Conference in Cincinnati. 

Practical Experience, Plus Reflection

The internship is a course with requirements and assignments, including the Internship Seminar, in-depth reflection papers, assignments to fulfill particular competencies, regular supervisory sessions with the Mentor Pastor, and feedback and evaluation conferences.

Reflection is an important part of the experience, Aaron noted. A Perkins grad himself, Aaron recalled his own internship as a chaplaincy intern at Timberlawn, a psychiatric hospital in Dallas. That confronted him with theological questions.

“At the time, I was wrestling with my understanding of human nature,” he said. “I met patients whose own brains worked against them. They had physiological problems keeping them from being themselves.  It pushed me in a new direction in my understanding of what it means to be a human.”

Students who opt to intern at church-affiliated ministries or non-profit agencies must make arrangements to preach at church at least four times over the course of the internship. While most internships are at churches or church-related organizations, not all are United Methodist, Aaron said.

“We are flexible,” he said. “We want to help the student any way that we can.”

Matt Schroeder, a fourth-year M.Div. student, is following his interests by interning at The Julian Way, a ministry to people with disabilities.

“It made a lot of sense because I wanted to serve the disability community,” he said. After getting to know Justin Hancock (Master of Church Ministries, 2008) and Lisa Hancock, the ministry’s founders, he added, “I hope to give back to the ministry, given everything they’ve done for me.”

At The Julian Way, Schroeder is organizing community events and helping write a curriculum aimed at helping congregations to become more welcoming and inclusive with people with disabilities.

“The internship gives us an opportunity to live those things out that we’ve learned in school,” said Schroeder. “Everyone’s experience with their disability is different. We all have different needs and gifts. Rather than project my own needs and desire onto the people I serve, this is an opportunity to meet them where they’re at and to see where my own misconceptions are.”

Aaron noted that the last three academic years have been particularly challenging for interns because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Interns learned how to do everything online,” he said. “They didn’t get many chances to meet people in person. They couldn’t visit in hospitals or nursing homes in person, only via FaceTime or phone.”

But internships have always confronted interns with tough situations that can challenge their ability to see God’s presence.

“When a young mother dies and leaves children behind, that’s hard, even for experienced pastors,” Aaron said. “Interns might meet an unsheltered person who comes to the church who is in pretty bad shape. They may ask, ‘Where is Jesus’ Good News in this?’ Sometimes the answer is that Jesus is in solidarity with those that suffer.”

Turning Point

Thirty-five years ago, a woman walked into First United Methodist Church in Allen, Texas, and asked to see the pastor. The only “pastor” on duty was an intern, so the woman was ushered into his office. She burst into tears as she shared that husband had just told her he didn’t love her anymore and wanted a divorce. He was leaving her with their three children. She hadn’t seen it coming. The intern simply listened and then prayed with the woman. She thanked him and said, “You’ll never know how much your presence meant to me.”

That moment was a turning point for the intern on duty – then a Perkins student, now the Rev. Matt Gaston, senior pastor of FUMC in Plano.

“I had taken just one pastoral care class by then, so I knew enough to be empathetic, to be present, and not talk,” he said.  Gaston never saw the woman again.

“I realized, I’d experienced a call to ministry, and I never looked back,” he said.

Before his internship, Gaston envisioned he’d ultimately end up in a business career; by the time he completed the internship, he decided to pursue ordination. Not only has he pastored half a dozen United Methodist churches since then, he has also served as a Mentor Pastor to about a dozen Perkins interns in the churches he served. It’s his way of paying it forward, to help create opportunities for other students to have the same transformative experience.

“The internship was life changing for me,” Gaston said. “Through my internship, I experienced God’s call, and it hit me over the head. I know firsthand how transformative experiential versus theoretical ministry can be.”

Gaston said he believes that no other seminary has an internship program as comprehensive as the program offered at Perkins.

“The unique part is the thoroughness of the process that holds interns accountable for reflecting theologically on their experiences,” he said. “Those theological reflection papers are reviewed by the Mentor Pastors. We raise questions, challenge their assumptions, and help them think more clearly as pastors-in-training.”

“Lay teaching committees and mentor pastors take their work very seriously,” Aaron said. “They feel a deep sense of connection with their interns, and they build a strong bond.”