As part of the instruction in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, fourth-year students are sent to one of the Protestant Reformed churches for a six-month internship. The minister of the church serves as the student’s mentor, overseeing his work and giving him guidance in the different aspects of the ministry. The goal of this internship is to give the seminary student firsthand experience in all aspects of the work of a minister of the Word. Under the oversight of his mentor the student makes and delivers sermons, teaches some catechism classes, goes on pastoral visits, leads some Bible studies, attends consistory meetings, and observes a meeting of classis. For my internship I was assigned to First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, under Rev. James Slopsema. From July 1 through December 31, 2005, my wife, our two children, and I worshiped with and participated in the congregational life of the saints at First PRC. We did not know many people when we arrived, but as the weeks passed, we came not only to know but also to love and appreciate First Church.
There are many things that could be said about the value of the internship. Through observing the pastor, elders, and deacons in their work, I came to appreciate more the wisdom that God gives to the officebearers in His church. I learned much from and enjoyed greatly the Monday afternoon meetings with Rev. Slopsema, in which we would go over the work that I was doing. These meetings were also an opportunity for me to learn from his experiences in the church as he told me about difficult issues he had faced in the past and how he had dealt with them. But of all that could be said about the value of the internship, especially three things stand out.
The first thing that stood out was how much the making and preaching of sermons dominates all of the other tasks in the work of the ministry. The internship exposed me to most of the work that the minister must do. He is required carefully to prepare for and teach catechism; he must bring the Word to the sick and the shut-ins; he must counsel those who need or seek his help privately; he is asked to prepare for and lead some of the societies in the church; and he must prepare for and lead the consistory and council meetings. But the work of the minister that dominates all of these other tasks is the work of expounding the Word of God in sermons that he makes and preaches.
That the main work of the minister is preaching comes as no surprise to us. We expect of the minister that he put his energy and time into his sermons first of all. We are familiar with Paul’s charge to Timothy to “preach the word.” As Paul nears the end of his life, and as he gives his final instructions to young pastor Timothy, his main charge to Timothy “before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ” is that Timothy must preach (II Tim. 4:1, 2). We are also familiar with the Holy Spirit’s description of ministers as “ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us,” a description that points to the minister’s main work as that of speaking on Christ’s behalf, just as an ambassador speaks on behalf of his sovereign (II Cor. 5:20). We are aware that the Form of Ordination of the Ministers of God’s Word lists as the very first work that belongs to the office of minister “that they faithfully explain to their flock the Word of the Lord, revealed by the writings of the prophets and the apostles.” Therefore it comes as no surprise that preaching is the main work.
Nevertheless, this truth was driven home to me on the internship. Even though I was required to make and deliver a word of edification only once every other week, it was that work that dominated all of the other work of the internship. Not only was most of my time spent making and preparing to deliver the words of edification, but much of the Monday afternoon meeting with Rev. Slopsema was spent reviewing those sermons, both before and after I delivered them. This is one way that my six months in First PRC were valuable. I saw firsthand that the thing for the minister is his preaching. His time and his energy must go into his sermons first of all, so that he is a faithful ambassador of Christ who preaches the Word.
The second thing that stood out was that God uses His Word to build up His people in spite of the weaknesses of the men who bring it. The power of God’s Word does not depend on the power of the man who brings it, but on the fact that it is God’s Word that is brought. Again, this comes as no surprise. God tells us that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). It is not the man, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or any other minister, that makes the Word powerful, but Christ crucified is the “power of God, and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:12, 23, 24).
This was driven home to me on one particular shut-in visit that I made with Rev. Slopsema. As part of the internship, Rev. Slopsema asked me to lead this visit. For various reasons, I did not think that the visit went well at all. After reading Psalm 23, explaining it, and applying it briefly, I ran out of things to say after only a few minutes. The widow with whom we were visiting expressed concerns for which I did not have an answer. I did not feel as if the visit could have been profitable to this saint in any way. But the next day I heard from the widow’s children that she really appreciated the visit and that she was even helped by it. The only conclusion that I could come to was that God used His Word for good for His child in spite of the inexperience of the one who brought it. Whether I felt as if the visit had been profitable for this child of God or not, God’s Word was powerful for her. Painful as this experience was, it also made the internship valuable. What a source of encouragement to a young seminary student that although he is inexperienced, if he will bring the Word, God will bless it! What a reminder to me to be sure that I brings God’s Word and not my own in all of my work! It also was encouragement to me to believe that, in spite of how I feel about a particular visit or sermon, God uses His Word to build up and to feed His sheep.
One final thing of note was the unique bond of love that develops between a pastor and his flock. Once again, this close relationship comes as no surprise when we remember the bond that Paul had with the churches he served. For example, we see him calling the Philippians “my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown.” On the other hand, we see the love that the Philippians had for Paul, which they showed by their care of him throughout his ministry (Phil. 4:1, 10, 15, 16).
I saw this close bond firsthand during the internship. Not only did I witness this bond between Rev. Slopsema and the congregation of First PRC, but I got a taste of it myself. Even though the internship lasted only six brief months, and even though I was only an intern and not the pastor, I myself experienced the bond that develops between a pastor and the flock. In worshiping with the congregation and leading in worship, in teaching the lambs and the young people in catechism, in wrestling with God’s Word with the saints in society, in visiting with the people in their homes, I got a taste of the deep joy that a pastor has in living with the flock and feeding them. Experiencing this was one more way that the internship was valuable.
Overall, my internship was an excellent part of my training in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Not only did I learn much about the work of the ministry, but it whet my appetite for that work. Thanks be to God that He has given us a faithful seminary that prepares men, also through the internship, for the ministry of His Word.