Szarke at a drum circle in Asheville, NC.Students come to Candler for an outstanding theological education, but they shouldn’t expect to spend all of their time in the classroom. In fact, some of the most valuable learning happens off campus. Candler’s Contextual Education program requires that students spend two years in clinical, social service, and ecclesial settings. And for students who have completed their two years of Con Ed and still want an even deeper immersion in parish ministry, there’s Candler Advantage.

The Candler Advantage Advanced Summer Internship in Congregational Leadership offers rising third-year students the opportunity to work full-time in a parish of their choosing while participating in a reflection group with other students in the program. This summer, 14 Candler students are completing the 10-week internship, which offers a stipend and two academic credit hours. In return, they’re gaining hands-on knowledge of what parish ministry is really like, under the guidance of a pastor who serves as mentor. Some of the students are as far away as Kenya or Korea, and some are in Candler’s backyard. In this article, we’ll meet three students who have sought three very different paths, yet are united by their enthusiasm and gratitude for this program.

Before Christopher Szarke came to Candler, he worked with the homeless and with faith-based HIV/AIDS organizations. “These experiences put me in touch with incarnational theology, or the experience of Jesus being embodied through humanity,” Szarke says. “It reminds me that each person is a member of the body of Christ and drives my commitment to ministry with people who have been marginalized from faith communities, families, and through unjust societal and political structures.”

A commitment to this type of ministry led Szarke to the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, N.C., which offers regular meals to the town’s homeless population, followed by worship services where everyone is welcome. A typical service might include drug addicts and prostitutes sitting beside local businessmen.  At Haywood Street, Szarke has had the opportunity to play to many strengths: He has used his background in HIV/AIDS ministry to invite a local support group to meet at Haywood Street’s facilities. His background in monastic traditions has inspired a weekly centering prayer group at Haywood Street, and his writing background is being put to use in the creation of a Stations of the Cross through downtown Asheville, which will take visitors to places significant to the homeless community, complete with stories to honor those who have died on the streets.

For Szarke, pastoral care takes place at community meals and drum circles. At the halfway point of the internship, he says that he’s already grieving the idea of leaving. “I’m experiencing Jesus very deeply through daily encounters on these streets,” he says. “My challenge is to discover how to integrate these experiences and values into future ministry.”

While Szarke ponders how to create the kind of church he’s envisioning, Bonnie Buckley believes she’s working at hers: “I chose my church because they are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-generational congregation with a vital and inclusive ministry,” she says of Park Avenue UMC in Minneapolis, Minn., which is located in her home conference. “This congregation is my vision of the church of the future. When I am participating in one of its programs or standing in front of the congregation, I look out and say to myself, ‘Yes! THIS is the church!’”

Buckley will use images such as this one for her Buckley’s duties this summer have included helping with Vacation Bible School, visiting parishioners in the hospital, helping to lead morning prayer and evening prayer services, teaching Bible Study classes, learning about capital campaign projects, and working with a pilot literacy program. She also spends as much time as possible getting to know Park Avenue UMC’s congregation, which includes more than 800 members.

Buckley will also use the summer to implement a project she designed called “Who is Jesus?” She plans to discuss with her congregation various ways of thinking about Jesus, and then invite them to use visual art media such as painting, fiber arts, electronic media, and dance to create an image of Jesus.

In working with such a large congregation, Buckley has relied on her site mentor, Reverend Dennis Oglesby, for information about the people of the parish; she has also learned many leadership lessons from him. “Reverend Oglesby’s belief in working together, with everyone putting forth their gifts and talents in the best interest of the team, is exemplary for the vitality of the church as a whole,” she says. “Church vitality is an area of interest for me, and I didn’t realize that I would gain information about this aspect of ministry from my Candler Advantage experience.”

Across the country, Jonathan Harris is working in a much smaller congregational setting. He serves at University Heights UMC in Decatur, Ga., which is pastored by Reverend Donn Ann Weber 84T. Harris believes that a small neighborhood church like University Heights is what awaits him following his commissioning as a provisional elder next year.

Harris at University Heights UMC's Vacation Bible School.Harris is the second Candler Advantage student that Weber and University Heights have hosted; the church also works with Con Ed students during the school year. Weber drew on Candler’s “Real” theme when describing her work with students: “It is REAL when students come in contact with a congregation like University Heights that is receptive to a mutual teaching and learning experience. I tell the congregation, ‘we have one student and the rest of us are the teachers.’ Then, somewhere along the way, we end up being travelers together in the faith journey. My experience is that these students, and Jonathan in particular, are making a REAL difference in our little tucked-away-in-a-neighborhood church that helps members reach out beyond our own doors,” she says.

Not that there isn’t plenty of work to be done behind the church’s doors. By the time the summer is over, Harris will have preached six times, organized Vacation Bible School, and developed a church-wide recycling program, but he’ll also have spent 10 weeks restocking paper towels in the restrooms and watering plants. “I don’t assign anything that I do not or have not already done as pastor of a small membership church,” says Weber.

For his part, Harris says that immersion into these nitty-gritty, day-to-day duties has helped him appreciate the other parts of a pastor’s life even more. He calls Vacation Bible School his favorite part of the internship so far, because “moments when I am doing ministry with people make some of the more menial, but necessary, tasks behind the scenes worth it.”

Weber says she can trust her congregation with Harris. “The students who really ‘get it’ like Jonathan are invited to share in the community and the members open their hearts and are willing to share joys and concerns,” she says.

Noting that Candler didn’t have this type of program when she was a student, Weber says she worked in her home church, which also had a small membership. “I was fortunate to work with folks who loved and believed in me, and helped me move from the pew to the pulpit. That’s what we hope to do with the students God sends our way.”