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Full-contact relating

Heiserman grant supports community-driven parish internship program

January 4, 2012

John Nelson, left, coordinator of the Parish Internship Program, and the Rev. Jin Kim, the program’s director

John Nelson, left, coordinator of the Parish Internship Program, and the Rev. Jin Kim, the program’s director, provide direction to an emotionally and relationally challenging program. —Duane Sweep

COLUMBIA HEIGHTS, Minn.

For those thinking about entering pastoral ministry, the Parish Resident Internship Program at the Church of All Nations here could provide some second thoughts.

The program is emotionally and relationally demanding, and entering interns don’t know when they will finish.

“We won’t accept an intern who has a specific timetable,” said the Rev. Jin S. Kim, pastor of Church of All Nations and director of the internship program, “because discerning together with a trustworthy Christian community with deep mutual knowledge is really our purpose.”

The internship program is supported by the congregation, but it is also benefiting from a partnership of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, and the Office of Multicultural Congregational Support of the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The synod applied for and received a $50,000 Heiserman Grant to support the program and the presbytery and GAMC are each contributing $10,000.

Funds for the Heiserman program came from a bequest made in 1966 by Geraldine Heiserman, who was the widow of a Yuma, Colo., farmer and landowner named Lemont Heiserman. The bulk of their estate was left in trust to the church. The GAMC divided more than $990,000 of that gift among 16 synods to encourage mission projects that reflect partnership between or among two or more synods and-or the GAMC.

Kim said the internship program will “test the call” to pastoral ministry and, once the call is discerned, provide “really strong character formation.”

Today, Kim said, the existing road to ministry is “so bureaucratized that the whole discernment process seems to get lost in the mix.” The current system, he said, rewards procedural stamina rather than other qualities ― including risk, creativity and vulnerability ― that he said are “being weeded out.”

Individuals sensing a call to parish ministry typically want to be the center of a congregation’s leadership. But the first step in the internship program takes any thoughts of leadership away.

Speaking of new program participants, Kim said, “We help them to realize that their gifts, however considerable, cannot be the basis of church leadership. Character forged through deep relating with others, penetrating introspection, and interpreting one’s own struggles through the lens of faith is what we aim for. Gifts are understood to be the natural fruit of Christian character, and that will be appreciated later.”

The process that temporarily devalues gifts and emphasizes character means that new interns do no formal ministry for at least six months. They live in a community housing arrangement that is rent free, receive a $300 monthly stipend and are invited to countless meals and other acts of kindness by congregants.

When new interns realize that they are more “a drain on our resources than helpful to our ministry,” Kim said, their orientation begins to shift from spiritual heroism to genuine humility.

That process instills an “incredible sense of gratitude,” Kim said, noting that interns typically have never received so freely from the church without the church expecting anything in return. When the congregation determines that an intern is ready to move from dependency to leadership, the intern serves with joy and gratitude, Kim said.

Using the practices of testimony and confession, the program pushes interns to personal discoveries of cultural context, identity, family of origin issues, and belief structures. It’s what Kim describes as “full-contact relating.”

That type of psychological and relational discovery was most frightening for John Nelson, coordinator of the internship program and a former intern.

For Nelson the internship program pushed well beyond the theology of seminary education into the reality of the congregation. “I had to become myself,” Nelson said, not his own image of himself or how he thought he was perceived.

To become himself, Nelson had to explore his call through personal introspection and relationship building with the congregation and his fellow interns.

It’s a matter of being relational, not professional.

“It was really painful for me,” Nelson said, “I didn’t know where that was going to lead me in my future.”

From that place of vulnerability, however, interns are called into a commitment that Kim described as “genuine faith and discipleship.”

Once past the dependency stage, interns are given full leadership responsibilities of a particular ministry within the congregation, such as youth, singles, couples, worship or outreach ministries.

Interns also participate fully in small group ministry and attend all staff, session and board of deacons meetings. They also actively participate in Sunday worship.

“At first,” Kim noted, “the reason we developed this internship program was to help plant and seed reconciling multicultural congregations. But we have since learned that character formation helps all candidates for pastoral ministry become more faithful in any ministry context.”

Kim knows a great deal about that. Church of All Nations is a healthy and growing congregation that draws at least 200 to worship. The membership is 30 percent Asian, 37 percent white, 22 percent black and 10 percent Latino, with 25 nations represented overall.

Kim believes a congregation provides a setting that seminaries can’t replicate. “Our goal is to couple intensive theological reflection with active mentoring in the context of a teaching congregation,” he said.

That’s a step back to the apprenticeship model of early pastoral education, but it’s a model, Kim said, that is needed for today’s church.

“Becoming a pastor is essentially life apprenticeship,” Kim said. “We try to drive the professionalism out of our interns. Ministry is not a profession. It’s a vocation.” 

Duane Sweep, associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, is a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

  1. I'm using an example of flowers. I see the new interns come to CAN as cute buds. I see them leave as beautiful flowers. The program waters them to become full and giving.

    by cindy skjeimeyer

    January 11, 2012

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