What Nobody Tells You Before You Start Seminary, Part 3: Field Education and Internships

Field ed: the best and worst part of the seminary experience. I completed three field education placements while I was in divinity school — Clinical Pastoral Education at a big hospital, a very traditional seminarian internship at a church, and a not-so-traditional case management internship at a teen health clinic. Here’s what I learned, or in some cases watched my classmates learn, in the process.

Field education is like a real job.

This will not surprise you if you’ve ever had one. However, it did surprise some (not all) of my classmates who had come to seminary directly from undergrad. So, at the risk of insulting your intelligence, I am here to tell you:

Treat your field ed placement like a real job. Dress professionally. Show up on time. Work hard at the tasks to which you are assigned, and accept that there will be parts that are boring or difficult, because that is how having a job works.

And yet …

Field education is not like a real job.

Not only because you get paid basically nothing, although that is one depressing reason. But the more important reason is that, unlike the primary function of a real job, the primary function of field education is to educate you.

Yes, if you are any good, the organization you serve will benefit from your presence. However, in exchange for your almost-free labor, you are owed constructive supervision, adequate support, and a portfolio of tasks that will teach you something.

This is not to say you won’t have to take your turn making coffee and emptying out the paper shredder bin. But if you find that ALL you’re doing are mindless office tasks, or conversely that you’re being asked to do work for which you are underqualified and untrained, bring this up with your supervisor. That’s not what you’re there for.

After you’ve completed your required placements, get creative if you’re in the mood.

The ordination process in my denomination required me to complete CPE and a church internship, but I had room for one more field ed placement after that. I wanted to get some experience with case management, and I found a match at an LGBTQ teen health clinic. My year there taught me so many skills that have come in handy in my life as a priest — everything from how to schedule a free consult with an immigration attorney (spoiler alert: it is a huge pain in the neck and you will have to wait months) to how to accompany a scared patient to a doctor’s visit (spoiler alert: just be a calm presence and discreetly offer to take notes, especially if the doctor is delivering bad news).

Is there some local organization doing the work of your dreams? Reach out during the spring prior to the academic year when you want to intern for them, and ask if they’d consider taking on a seminarian. The worst they can say is no.

If you intern at a federal work-study site but are not federal work-study eligible, you may not get paid at all.

Religious organizations (churches and some church-run nonprofits) CANNOT be federal work-study sites, which is good news for you if you’re not eligible for work-study. Health care facilities and secular nonprofits can usually pay interns with work-study funds, and may decline to pay you if you’re not work-study eligible.

If this is confusing to you, make an appointment with your school’s financial aid officer to talk about it. Just trust me.

Choose your field education site based on the quality of the supervisor.

Sure, every site is unique. But let’s be real: the way you will experience your site as an intern is not that unique. At a church, your tasks will involve liturgy, preaching, maybe education or outreach. At a hospital, you will visit sick people. At a nonprofit, you will sit under fluorescent lights and try to print reports from a computer that is running Windows 3.1.

What will make or break your experience is your supervisor. A great one can make even a tough experience positive; a bad one can make an otherwise great experience miserable. Before signing any contracts, always meet with your prospective supervisor in person and see if you click.

If your supervisor is inexperienced, you will need to work harder to get the most out of your time in field education.

Your new supervisor might be a truly excellent pastor/chaplain/executive who has never supervised a seminarian before. The odds are good that this person also has the potential to become a truly excellent supervisor. But it won’t happen automatically. Someone has to be the guinea pig. Oh boy, is it you?!?! Lucky you!

Here are a few examples of things you may need to communicate — gently — to a brand-new field education supervisor:

  • Your school expects you to commit X number of hours per week to field education, including travel time to and from the site. This means that your (e.g.) 15 hours are actually more like 12.
  • If your supervisor is late with certain items of necessary paperwork, they can really screw up your life (for example, you find you cannot apply to graduate because your seminary has not received your final evaluation for field ed). *
  • Weekly supervision meetings are, in most cases, not negotiable. You must have them, and they must last an hour. If your supervisor has to cancel a meeting, they need to find a time to reschedule.
  • You are a seminary intern, which means that supervision is a time for theological reflection. If your new supervisor is not a religious professional (or sometimes even if they are), they might be uncomfortable talking about the spiritual dimensions of your work. If you would like supervision sessions to open with a prayer, or if you want to talk about how God is using you in your field education work, you may have to bring that up yourself.

* Should you find that your supervisor is a little spacey, suggest that you devote an hour of supervision time to sitting there with your laptops and completing your respective evaluation forms. That way, you can make sure everything gets done.

If you find that things are a bit rocky with your supervisor, or at your site generally, go to someone in your seminary’s field education office. Because …

Your field education office is there to help you.

Anyone at your school who’s ever had a bad field ed experience is bound to smack-talk the field ed office, which means that field ed offices are subject to a lot of smack talk. Don’t take it all at face value. In that office, there is almost definitely someone who will listen to your concerns and help you solve your field ed problems.

Some examples of good times to get the field ed office involved include:

  • Your supervisor is laid off or goes on an unexpected medical leave.
  • Your supervisor has no-showed three supervision meetings in a row.
  • You spend a lot of time at your field ed site sitting around the office with nothing to do.
  • You were promised that your placement would include preaching opportunities, but it’s the end of March and no such opportunities have materialized.
  • A parishioner/client/staff member at the site touched you in a creepy way, and your supervisor blew you off when you brought it up.
  • Your paycheck has been “in the mail” for two months now and you’re starting to get suspicious.
  • You’re being pressured to work way more than your contracted number of hours per week.
  • You’re being pressured to ignore standard safety precautions (e.g., always having two adults in a room where children are present, or wearing gloves and a face mask while visiting contagiously ill patients), which I wish I could tell you never happens.

This bears restating in bold font:

When you have a problem at your field ed site, get the field ed office involved BEFORE you reach a crisis point.

Not after you’ve gone four months without a supervision meeting. Not after you’ve contracted TB because “it scares patients when we wear face masks.” Not after your grades have started to suffer because you’re spending 30 hours per week at your site instead of the contracted twelve.

BEFORE. Reach out to the field ed office BEFORE you’re in crisis. If you don’t get a good response from the first staff member you speak to, make an appointment with a different one. If you truly have bad luck with every single person in the office, talk to your academic advisor or (when applicable) your Title IX officer. Rally those troops. These kinds of problems are not made for you to solve alone.

But take heart, because …

Field education can be the most transformative part of your seminary experience.

I’ve already forgotten a lot of what I studied in seminary, including everything I read by Gregory the Great and most of the timeline of the authorship of the letters of Paul. But I have not forgotten how to plan a worship service, or help someone apply for a bus pass, or sit quietly with a person as they die. All these things are things I learned from field education.

Field ed is all about real people and real problems, which makes it sometimes frustrating, but also infinitely valuable to your formation for ministry. I hope your experience of it is wonderful. If not, drop me a line, and we can commiserate.

Or, really, talk to someone in your field ed office. I swear they know what’s up.

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