Five Tips for First-Time Ministry Interns

Dauernheim, Germany. A group of six interns and two leaders gathers around the wooden table in a quaint farmhouse, sharing stories from their time in England, Kosovo, and Italy: some funny, some frustrating, some exultant, some full of disappointment. 

While each intern’s experience was unique, we had similar questions, frustrations, and struggles during our year in Europe with Greater Europe Mission. And while there’s much GEM does to prepare interns for what’s to come, each experience will always have its own challenges. These are five things I wish I had known before I left for my gap year with GEM. 

1. It will be hard, so give yourself grace. 

Five Tips for Ministry Interns

When people ask where I live and I respond “Rome,” their responses make me laugh: “How romantic!” “How amazing!” 

While Rome is a captivating city, it is also a challenging place to live. In fact, this year in Rome has been one of the hardest in my life. The spiritual darkness, dirtiness, and exhausting chaos of the city make it challenging at times to remember why I’m here. 

As you begin your internship, be prepared: it will be hard in ways you never would have imagined. 

There will be spiritual warfare, so be alert. 

There may be unexpected physical problems, like an emergency foot surgery (when you’ve never broken a bone in your life). 

You will face challenges with bureaucracy, and—even if you have lived in many different places and are very adaptable—there will be things about your host culture that surprise and unsettle you. 

You may have periods of depression, purposelessness, anger, and loneliness. 

Prepare yourself in advance for the emotional, physical, and spiritual difficulties and be honest with how you’re doing in the ups and downs of the internship.  

2. Be proactive in seeking support. 

While GEM is passionate about pairing interns with long-term workers, no person can fully know your needs but yourself. Be intentional to seek the support you need from your GEM team locally and the GEM family globally. 

Five Tips for Ministry Interns

When I had last-minute foot surgery and couldn’t get out of bed to go grocery shopping or cook, and no one volunteered to bring me a meal, I learned an important lesson: sometimes you have to be proactive in making others aware of your needs and asking for help.  

Are you the only single person on your team? Express to your teammates that once in a while, it would be nice to eat dinner with a family instead of alone. 

Are you going through a period of grief due to an unexpected loss? Help your team understand how they can best care for you. 

Maybe you live far away from your teammates, so you need to find others with whom to build community outside of your ministry commitments. 

Living on mission isn’t a solo effort. But sometimes, you may have to adjust your expectations and seek support when your needs aren’t being met. 

3. Familiarize yourself with GEM’s resources. 

When I first got onto the field, I felt disoriented. I was given a rough schedule for language school and volunteering and a metro card. Still, I quickly realized that ministry is often not the structured, cohesive experience I expected it to be. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. 

In the coming months, I slowly began to make discoveries about the many resources that are available to interns through GEM: spiritual directors, therapists, intern support people, impact zones, intern coordinators, and insurance experts. 

As I tapped into these resources and became more comfortable in voicing my concerns and questions, I received guidance. I created a support network within GEM that extended far beyond my local team. 

Ask your leader early on for a list of these resources. If you have a particular need, find a solution! GEM probably has one. 

4. Get connected locally early on. 

About five months into my internship, I finally found a church that felt like family. Connecting to a local body of believers was an important turning point in my time in Italy—I was no longer alone. 

Another turning point came almost at the end of the year when I took on a summer job to pay for my physical therapy bill. Even though it seemed outside the scope of my ministry to find a job at a summer camp, working with Italians and having a professional community allowed me to make important connections I would never have had otherwise. 

Five Tips for Ministry Interns

Be proactive in getting connected locally, including random hobbies you enjoy or skills you’ve always wanted to learn. Take salsa classes. Go to a literature festival or a sports game. Frequent the same bars and restaurants in your neighbourhood. Explore your city! 

5. Set boundaries. 

A difficult thing about ministry as a full-time vocation is that there is little separation between work and private life. 

Be proactive about setting boundaries between your personal life and your internship responsibilities. Remember that you are first and foremost a human—not an intern—and it’s vital to maintain healthy boundaries in order to avoid burnout and be able to pour out of a full cup. 

Five Tips for Ministry Interns

It is up to you to set boundaries between you and your team/ministry. Establish early on what rhythms and boundaries you need and work hard to hold on to them. 

This also applies to expectations that others may have of you. During my internship, I sometimes felt that certain expectations were placed on me, which, given the resources I had, would have been difficult for me to fulfil.  

Setting boundaries means separating external expectations from what you sense is your calling. Be attentive to the Spirit! 

Serving short-term on mission is both a challenge and a joy. GEM is eager to assist you as you partner with our workers and discover God’s call on your life. Are you interested in pursuing a year-long internship with GEM? Click here to get connected to a GEM mobilized. 


About the author: Kara Barlow is a GEM intern in Rome, Italy working with migrants and serving as a storyteller.