ELI Project helps students discern call, clergy refresh call (apply now!)

February 02, 2023
Kelby Werner and Rev. Jeanine Alexander

By: Christa Meland

Kelby Werner experienced a call to ministry at age 6, but it became clearer during high school when he went to coffee with his pastor, Rev. Jeanine Alexander, to talk about his interest in ministry.

“We had a several-hour conversation about ministry, my call, the UMC, and inclusivity, and it was at that moment where I said, ‘God has moved me to The United Methodist Church; this is what I want to do,’” said Werner, who will graduate next year with a master of divinity from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

Since that meeting, his call has been nurtured and deepened through internships—including two through the Minnesota Conference’s ELI Project, a program for college students exploring vocational ministry. That internship, now in its ninth year, is a major way in which the Minnesota Annual Conference is committing to raising up the next generation of passionate, Spirit-filled leaders. ELI interns spend two summer months in a hands-on learning experience within a single host congregation. (Apply by March 15 to be an intern or host congregation in 2023.)

Werner interned at the First UMC in Duluth (the Coppertop) in 2020 and then returned for an “ELI 2.0 internship” last summer to explore ministry from a conference-wide perspective and mentor first-time interns.

Alongside Alexander, Werner’s clergy mentor, he was involved in every facet of church life at the Coppertop. He helped plan and lead Sunday worship, preached, assisted leaders in determining COVID protocols, planned and staffed special events—like youth group trips and outdoor concerts, attended pastoral care visits, did some administrative work, and co-led a virtual pastoral care group for those seeking community amid isolation at the height of the pandemic.

Kelby Werner and Rev. Jeanine Alexander catch up after Werner's first year of seminary.

One of the most impactful parts of the experience for Werner was learning from other ELI interns. They met once a week to share challenges and discoveries, support each other, and discern God’s call on their lives. Something else Werner deeply appreciated: having Alexander as a clergy mentor.

“Meeting Jeanine has been fantastic,” he said. “Gaining her as a friend and a mentor for my faith journey—it’s been amazing to have somebody that I know that I can rely on for support, who can answer questions about ministry and the ordination process.”

Alexander has employed interns during most of her 29 years in ministry. Mentoring them has been deeply meaningful for her as well.
“Sometimes I need my call refreshed,” she said. “Working with the interns has really done that for me and reminds me why I do what I do.”
Initially, Alexander’s impetus in working with interns was simple: She loved being a pastor and wanted to invite young people with gifts for ministry to consider this role that brought her joy and fulfillment. As time went on, she realized the importance of building a culture of call and raising up the next generation of church leaders.

What does she most hope to convey to interns she works with? “I want them to leave knowing that they can make a difference and that there’s room for them to change the way things are done,” she said.
Rev. Jeanine Alexander and Kelby Werner stand in the sanctuary after Werner preached a sermon at the Coppertop.

She chuckled as she gave an example of Werner doing just that: He convinced her, despite her initially strong resistance, to use Google Drive because he knew it would help church staff to collaborate on documents and share files. “I always trust you, you have to trust me,” he remembers telling her. She did—and she’s now a frequent user and huge proponent of this storage and file-sharing platform.

Last summer, in Werner’s 2.0 internship, he focused on networking with clergy, learning about the intricacies of the Minnesota Conference, and creating content for the conference’s new MNsource platform, which contains crowdsourced and conference-produced resources to equip leaders and fuel ministry. He also spent time at White Bear Lake UMC with clergy mentors, Revs. Bill Eaves and Christine Ford—from whom he also learned a great deal.

Werner said The ELI Project internship prepared him for seminary by “laying a framework into which I can fit my education.”

What does he want other students to know about the internship? “Do it. If you feel a call to ministry, there is no reason to say no to an ELI internship. It will help you discern exactly where God wants you. When I was still in high school, I knew I wanted to do ministry but I had no idea where to start. The ELI Project is where to start.”

Werner is currently serving a small Black church in Illinois as part of a field placement and will return this summer to intern at the Coppertop. He hopes to become an elder in the Minnesota Conference upon graduating from seminary.

When asked why he wants to become a pastor, he said: “I think that the church has an amazing ability to do great things in the world and I think that is God-enabled work…I want to go into a church, figure out the passions of the congregation, and with those passions, empower the church to make systematic change in the world. I also want to make sure everybody knows that they are loved by God.”

Apply for The ELI Project’s 2023 program as an intern or host congregation by March 15!

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

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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