Our commitment to whole-person formation involves hands-on ministry in supervised internships that help students develop life-long practices of integrating knowledge, faith, and participation in God’s work in the world.
Discerning God’s call can be challenging! Western Theological Seminary recognizes that you might appreciate some guidance along the way. Through our internships, WTS provides:
A place to practice ministry
Space for ministerial reflection through accompanying coursework
Feedback and support from mentors and peers
In your internship, you will engage and explore your call with a mentor walking alongside you. WTS is committed to providing you with the right internship and space to nurture and discern your call to serve.
Ministry internship settings may include:
Care Facilities and nursing homes
Or another option you develop with the student life team
Matching students and ministry internship sites are essential to the WTS educational experience and your ongoing vocational discernment. We want to discern the best ministry context for each student’s learning and to connect that student with an internship at a supervised ministry. Students are encouraged to suggest internship sites with a mentor that interests them.
Student Internship Stories
Rev. Katie Alley ’19 - Pastoral Ministry
Like many of her peers, WTS alumna Katie Alley ‘19 had non-traditional ministry in mind when she started seminary. A recent article from Christianity Today cites a survey of 5,000+ seminary students in which almost 40% intend to serve in contexts outside the local church.
Western’s emphasis on formation, experiential learning, and internships sets it apart from other seminaries. She felt it would be a good place to learn while trying on different hats to see what type of ministry might best fit her gifts.
During her first year, Katie interned with a community development non-profit. Although she learned a lot, she decided to try hospital chaplaincy the next year, hoping it would suit her better. However, her second internship at Holland Hospital didn’t feel quite right either. Although she was gaining confidence in her work, she didn’t particularly enjoy it.
Meanwhile, she had begun taking a preaching class and leading chapel—and she realized that felt most natural, even though the thought of pastoral ministry intimidated her. Not having grown up with female pastors, she hadn’t considered becoming a pastor until now.
Faculty members like Travis West and Kyle Small recognized Katie’s gifts of pastoral leadership and encouraged her to find confidence in herself and push through questions she still had. Pam Bush, associate director of student care, came alongside Katie and helped her explore what intimidated her even as she continued developing her talents. Being an in-residence student gave her access to a group of classmates who were praying and rooting for her.
“At the beginning of seminary it felt like all my classmates knew what they wanted to do and were really confident,” Katie says. “I learned along the way that everyone was equally scared. Yet, it never felt like competition. We all wanted each other to be successful and discover what we were meant to do.”
After her second year of seminary and with the support of the community behind her, Katie felt ready to give pastoral ministry a try. She spent the summer at Second Reformed Church of Pella, IA under the direction of Pastors Steve & Sophie Mathonnet-VanderWell. There she got to preach, visit congregants, and see what it would be like to be on a team of pastors.
Youth Director Katie Alley talks to the children during the worship hour at Second Reformed Church of Pella, IA.
While the experience confirmed that she didn’t want to be a solo pastor, she knew she wanted to continue preaching—and when she found out the church’s youth minister took a different call, the opportunity opened to come back full-time after graduation.
As Katie settles into her calling, she realizes that the process of trying different things helped her feel more confident when she finally landed. She appreciates the formation for ministry process at WTS that allowed her to find the best fit for her gifts of ministry and then develop those abilities.
Jeff Hoos ’17 - Escape Ministry with At-Risk Youth
Ruth Estell ’18 - Chaplaincy
Senior M.Div. student Ruth Estell may be what’s called an “old soul,” but don’t be fooled by her mild manner.
Born to RCA missionary parents and raised in Taiwan, Ruth came to the States to earn her undergrad and graduate degrees from Wheaton College, and then returned to China to teach English.
After ten years, she heard about an opportunity to work and live in a home for children and adults with disabilities in Taiwan. She jumped at the chance to do more ministry and Bible teaching.
In Taiwan, Ruth volunteered to teach an English Bible study in a men’s maximum security prison—with no guards in the room.
“At first I wasn’t so sure,” she admits, “but I ended up loving it. The men were very respectful and appreciated that I was willing to come there.”
She saw God at work, even witnessing some men get baptized and grow in their faith.
Ruth planned to take over for the director of the group home in Taiwan, but after a year and a half, the woman grew inexplicably hostile toward her.
Ruth started to believe the negative things her teammate was saying about her, and for the first time in her life, she doubted if God really loved her. She found herself in a downward spiral emotionally, spiritually, and physically. After praying about what to do, she knew she had to leave the mission field.
She returned to the U.S. to live with her mother, who had retired to Zeeland, MI. Their family had spent many summers on furlough in the RCA mission houses in Holland, so Ruth knew a lot of people in the West Michigan area.
“When I came back, I thought I was done serving God forever,” Ruth admits.“I would have been content to do whatever just to pay the bills.”
However, many people who knew her story were praying for her, and many reached out with love and support. Some shared their own stories of being hurt by brothers and sisters in the church.
A lot of healing took place, and Ruth realized that she still had a deep desire to serve God in her work. As she began to feel a call to chaplaincy, she knew she would need a Master of Divinity, and that led her to Western Theological Seminary.
Two and a half years later, Ruth is on track to graduate this May. She hopes to work as a chaplain in a retirement home or hospital.
“I am a third culture kid,” she says, “and Chinese culture respects the elderly, so perhaps that infiltrated my heart. I love the elderly.”
Two of Ruth’s internships have been at retirement homes, but she also completed a year of church ministry and one summer term of Clinical Pastoral Education at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, where she worked with children and adolescents and at a women’s addiction recovery residential house.
“My abilities and confidence have grown,” she shares. “Children and adolescents are very honest. I have dealt with a lot of anger but also some very honest questions. You don’t always have the answers, but you can be there and listen to them.”
This year, Ruth is interning at Holland Hospital, where God is growing a love for the stranger in her. Many times she can only have one or two conversations with patients before they leave the hospital.
Harp class, led by Dr. Carol Bechtel
Ruth is part of a group of musicians that WTS professor Dr. Carol Bechtel is teaching to play the harp. At the hospital, Ruth plays the harp therapeutically—a ministry that can touch some patients and families in a special way.
“One lady I visited was very formal when I went in as the chaplain. I could tell she highly respected the clergy,” recalls Ruth. “She thanked me for coming and asked me to pray but didn’t have much to say. Later I came in just to play the harp, and soon she started sharing about her diagnosis, how she was feeling, her family… More pastoral care was done when I wasn’t there as the ‘official’ chaplain.”
Other times, patients are unresponsive or restless, and the harp music puts a calm over the room and the family. Sometimes the music frees people to have a good cry.
“I can’t answer ‘Why would God let this happen?’ or ‘Why don’t I feel God’s presence?” but I can acknowledge feelings and encourage people to reach out to God,” Ruth says. “Sometimes I run out of words, and then the music lets them rest in that.”
If people come from a Christian background, hymns remind them of times God spoke into their lives. Recently a dying patient began singing along to the hymns Ruth was playing on her harp, creating a beautiful moment that touched the family deeply. Later they asked her to play at his funeral.
Being able to play the harp for people is a “tool in my tool box,” Ruth says. “It’s just another way to care for people.”
Ruth is also grateful for Dr. Suzanne McDonald’s classes on “Aging and Dementia” and eschatology. These classes have helped her to establish a theological foundation and to understand how to care for people at the end of life.
“What I like about Western is that it’s not all about heady, intellectual knowledge,” she shares. “The professors realize they’re preparing us for serving actual people. It has kept me humble.”
Thinking ahead to graduation, Ruth says, “I think chaplaincy will be a good fit for the passions and gifts God has given me. Retirement home, hospital, hospice…I’m open to wherever God might lead.”
There is an unfortunate misconception that CPE is only for those considering chaplaincy as a vocation; on the contrary, I wish the program were mandatory for all seminary students considering any vocation but especially those anticipating a pastorate. Every pastor must learn by doing, and every pastor needs to learn how to listen. It’s imperative for our future congregations that we be patient, empathic listeners. This summer gave me the opportunity to do just that.
The clinical method of learning lets students learn, put the learnings into practice, then debrief and reflect…then repeat. The experience was also invaluable for my formation as I continue to learn about myself and who I am as a minister. In addition to all of this, it allowed me to experience working with a particular demographic — those dealing with mental illness and addiction — which is marginalized in society but will be extremely prevalent in any church community.
I would recommend the experience not only for anyone but for everyone considering entering the ministry.
Ryan Donahoe, M.Div. graduate ’15
I entered into seminary firm in my belief that I wouldn’t want to work in a parish setting. Yet I found myself two years later seeking a call to a church in the PCUSA, and I can point clearly to my summer of CPE for making this 180-degree turn in my ministry. I had no idea that spending eleven weeks with Karl Van Harn and my fellow students at Pine Rest would so dramatically impact my life and call. I was fortunate to be a part of a new program Rev. Van Harn developed in which students complete their CPE work through a partnership with a local church. Through my work with Westminster Presbyterian Church, coordinated by Pine Rest, I was able to minister to parishioners at four different hospitals, Pine Rest’s facility and local retirement homes.
I vividly remember my first solo visit to a parishioner in a local hospital. I entered her room with great trepidation but was welcomed in as if I was a life-long friend. I don’t remember the words that I said, but will never forget the way that this woman that I was going to minister to instead ministered to me. As I walked to my car I felt tears streaming down my face as I wondered why I was so blessed to have this encounter with one of God’s saints.
Through the weekly meetings with my colleagues at Pine Rest and in-depth discussions about my ministry with Karl Van Harn I discovered my passion for pastoral care and now wonder why I would have considered anything else.
Though rewarding, CPE was also one of the most difficult summers of my life as I dove even deeper into my family history and sought to discover my own “metaphor for ministry” while also tending to parishioners in their time of need. There were days that I wondered how much more emotional turmoil I could handle, but then another saintly parishioner would welcome me into their lives as I sat and prayed with them at their bedside.
The amazing structure of CPE created space in which I could discuss my interactions with the parishioners so that I could examine ways to improve my pastoral care and hear stories from my colleagues who had been in similar situations. This level of introspection and support allowed my to extend outside of my comfort zone and develop in ways that I never thought possible.
There is not doubt that without CPE I would still be declaring that I would never work in a church. But with CPE, I have found where the deepest desires of my heart line up with God’s greatest needs.
(Ryan Donahoe became the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Petoskey, MI in June of 2015)