ELI internship affirms students’ call to vocational ministry

August 20, 2020
Grace Olson preached her first sermon while interning at White Bear Lake UMC.

By: Christa Meland

Five college students recently completed their 10-week summer internship with The ELI Project—and all five are planning to pursue or seriously considering vocational ministry in The United Methodist Church.
“I didn’t realize how ready I am to consider myself a pastor and to be considered a pastor by others,” said Emily Hilderbrand, who attends Hamline University in St. Paul and interned at Champlin UMC. “Leaving Champlin, I feel so equipped to take on the world of ordained ministry in the UMC.”
Four first-time ELI interns spent the past two months taking a deep dive within a single host congregation and gained experience planning worship, preaching or leading a Bible study, and providing pastoral care. One ELI 2.0 intern—Ruthie Olson—explored ministry from a conference-wide perspective and mentored the first-time interns. All five interns had clergy mentors to guide them.
The ELI Project, now in its sixth year, is a major way in which the Minnesota Annual Conference is committing to raising up the next generation of passionate, Spirit-filled leaders.
A unique experience
The COVID-19 pandemic created a different ELI experience than in past years, when interns built relationships with members of their host congregations and other ELI interns through regular in-person interactions. But all say their virtual engagement still provided a meaningful learning opportunity and helped them affirm their call.
“Interning with The ELI Project and White Bear Lake UMC was a transformational experience,” said intern Grace Olson, who attends the University of Minnesota. “Through this internship, I tried on the role of pastor, designing small group curriculum, mentoring students in high school, creating weekly devotion videos, practicing pastoral care, and preaching my first sermon.”

Kelby Werner stands outside of First UMC (the Coppertop) in Duluth, where he interned.
Kelby Werner, who interned at First UMC (the Coppertop) in Duluth and attends the University of Minnesota, said one of his favorite parts of the internship was being connected to the other interns. “With this group, I was able to bounce ideas off them and gain new ideas through their experiences,” he said.
Jody Thone, the Minnesota Conference’s director of leadership development who oversees The ELI Project, had some nervousness about this year’s internship experience given the challenges related to the global pandemic. But the interns connected virtually or socially distanced in-person with their congregations and came together to share and reflect with each other over weekly Zoom meetings, and it worked.
“God showed up in creating this incredible sense of belonging as we journeyed together despite never meeting in-person,” Thone said. “Many of the interns are very social justice-oriented, and they want to see if the church can be the place that fits their call. I’m hopeful that it can be.”
Clergy mentors
A key component of the internship is learning from a designated clergy mentor within your host congregation, and this year’s interns said those relationships were deeply impactful.
“My mentors—Rev. Bill Eaves and Missie Aberle—struck an exceptional balance between autonomy and guidance, giving me both creative bandwidth to test my ideas, and offering thoughtful feedback,” said Grace Olson, who came from a Lutheran church but is now very interested in ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church.
Werner said his mentor, Rev. Jeanine Alexander, was supportive, kind, and knowledgeable while also challenging him in helpful ways.
“She is not afraid of taking the training wheels off and pushing me out of my comfort zone so that I will grow and gain skills to help me become a better pastor in the future,” he said.
Emily Hilderbrand interned at Champlin UMC.

Hilderbrand credits her mentor—Rev. Max Richter—for making her internship valuable even during the pandemic. She was concerned about not being able to connect with and get to know people, but that wasn’t the case.
“Max was so ready to welcome me to all parts of the church,” she said. “I felt important and valued, like I had things to offer. I remember one week, Max said I was like the second pastor here. I was not expecting that statement to have the emotional impact on me that it did.”
Ruthie Olson—who is passionate about addressing homelessness and housing insecurity— also learned a lot from her clergy mentor, Rev. Erica Koser, who leads a ministry that provides breakfast to homeless and food-insecure neighbors at Centenary UMC in Mankato.
“Our relationship was easy, and I felt like I was able to step into her work in Mankato seamlessly whenever I was able to travel down there,” said Olson. “Seeing a clergy person in ministry settings that set my heart on fire was incredible, and it was helpful to see that other clergy are working with their houseless neighbors, in both offering meals and safe shelter opportunities.”
Looking ahead
Kristen Hansen, who served Christ UMC in Rochester alongside Rev. Elizabeth Macaulay and attends Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, said she learned that discernment is a lifelong process and that coming into your call can happen at any time or phase of life.
During a virtual wrap-up retreat, each intern received an ELI Project T-shirt, sunglasses, a journal, a book, and other fun items.

“The ELI internship helped me to realize that my call towards justice and peace can be lived out through The United Methodist Church,” she said. “I learned so much about myself and about the awesome magnitude of God’s love.”
Werner, too, is confident that he is called to be an elder in The United Methodist Church, and he plans to attend seminary after completing one more semester of undergraduate work.
Meanwhile, Ruthie Olson is headed to seminary at Boston University this fall, where she’ll pursue a dual-degree master of divinity and master of social work program. She hopes to become a deacon.
“I am more confident now, after this internship, that my desire to work in housing alongside my love of the UMC and working with congregations is my call, and that I can be creative in how that plays out in my life and work to come,” she said.
Hilderbrand is also excited about pursuing candidacy in The United Methodist Church after she finishes her undergraduate degree.
“Champlin has given me a sample of what it’s like to be a pastor,” she said. “I think there’s a part of Champlin that will always be with me because of how much I’ve been impacted by this place. I’m really excited to take what I’ve learned here and bring it out to the world.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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