Student singers rehearse before an evening service of the Episcopal Church at Princeton, their voices echoing through the Princeton University Chapel, which was completed in 1928. 

Credit: Jay Blossom

It’s not many ministry interns who work in a setting as grand as Princeton University Chapel. But if your parishioners are Princeton students, then the spectacular Gothic Revival cathedral is your home church.

Peter French, chaplain to the Episcopal students at Princeton, wishes that more seminarians had this experience — not necessarily praying under stone vaults that rise 76 feet above the floor, but ministering to the college students that he sees every day. Within the iconic ivy-covered buildings that surround French’s office, bright young adults are figuring out their beliefs, grappling with new knowledge, and preparing to become leaders. Serving as their chaplain is both a daunting challenge and a rare privilege.

French was ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia in 1999 and served as a parish priest and university chaplain in Australia before moving to the United States in 2006. He became chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Princeton (ECP) in 2008. At Princeton he is also a founding director of the Christian-Muslim Dialogue, a senior associate in the Program of Religion, Diplomacy, and International Relations, a fellow of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, and a fellow of Butler College.

French has supervised five interns at ECP — all from Princeton Theological Seminary —and is a strong proponent of campus ministry internships for seminarians. He recently talked with In Trust about his work and why it should be on the minds of seminary leaders.

Q Why should seminary trustees and administrators be thinking about campus ministry?

The standard mode of operation for many seminaries is training students for work in a parish or congregational setting. Considering campus ministry or college chaplaincy gets us out of that way of thinking, which is important for two reasons. 

First, focusing on parish work can sometimes cause us to lose sight of the significance of chaplaincies — not just to universities, but to the military, to primary and secondary schools, to prison populations, and in hospital settings. 

Second, the communication of the Gospel to young people is an ever-present challenge for the church. The manner in which young people communicate changes rapidly, of course. But in addition to that, in a college setting one is forced to consider, “What are the needs of 18-to-22-year-olds now?” The answer is usually slightly different from what it was five years ago, and it’s often radically different from 10 years ago. 

Q How is a campus ministry internship different from other ministry internships, such as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at a hospital, for instance? 

All church internships combine academic knowledge and the practice of ministry. But just as one learns a specific set of skills in a hospital setting, one learns specific skills in a campus setting. In particular, a campus ministry or university chaplaincy internship should help a student learn how to communicate clearly, effectively, and with some intellectual rigor to students outside of seminary.

These students that interns will work with are in a generation of people for whom the church may have had little or nothing to do with their lives. They may include individuals who have been somehow hurt by the church. 

College or university is often a time for individuals to claim their own faith and religious practice. Time and again, I’ve encountered students who, after arriving on campus, suddenly become aware of a whole range of religious beliefs and practices, and that awareness frequently challenges what they believe. 

As a priest, one of my real concerns is the declining number of opportunities for newly ordained clergy to work in an assistant or associate position under the direction and leadership of an experienced priest. There’s a whole raft of practical knowledge that needs to be learned on the job in order to function effectively in this work. Internships play an important role in filling that gap, and a campus ministry internship helps students discern whether they feel called to continue in this particular type of environment.

Q You talk about campus ministry and university chaplaincy as two distinct things. Can you explain what you mean?

A campus ministry model aims to make disciples, to make converts. It’s more like mission work. That’s very much the model for some groups, and you see it in job titles such as campus evangelist or campus missionary. 

In a college or university chaplaincy model, the church provides an ordained minister to the university for the care and nurture of that place. The Episcopal Church at Princeton (ECP) was founded deliberately as a university chaplaincy in 1876 by the Rev. Alfred Baker, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church here in Princeton, New Jersey.  Trinity is within walking distance of the university, but even back then they realized that students will not walk any more than they absolutely need to!

 As university chaplain, I function as a priest in the specific community of ECP, but also I understand myself as being a priest to the whole university community, regardless of whether someone is or wants to be Episcopalian or even Christian. I attend public events, and I’m there to show the love of God made known in Christ to the university community.

I think there’s a significant difference between those two understandings. There is overlap, of course, and both campus ministry and university chaplaincy are vital to the life of the church. 

Chaplain Peter French, at the right rear, with some of his student parishioners.

Episcopal Church at Princeton

Q What are the job duties of interns who work with you?

We have one student intern each academic year. He or she works between 12 and 15 hours a week, including attendance and involvement in Sunday night worship, Tuesday afternoon worship, and Wednesday evening fellowship. Interns meet with me for a 90-minute supervisory session each week. They are expected to have prepared a theological reflection which we discuss for roughly an hour. 

Interns here have a strong liturgical role. We’re a fairly traditional congregation — at every Sunday liturgy we have two acolytes, a crucifer, a thurifer, a Gospel bearer, musicians, and a choir, so there’s plenty of opportunity for interns to function in any of those roles. They’re expected to preach at least twice each semester. 

Interns have other duties too — they’re in charge of our website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page, and they maintain our listserv and email databases. They attend meetings and retreats, and there’s opportunity to teach. Each week we see about 100 students at various services. Interns meet with one member of the community each week as a means to get to know the community, and also to start establishing pastoral skills beyond their own personal skills. It’s a pretty comprehensive internship. 

Q What does it take to build a successful internship experience?

It really depends on the quality of cooperating clergy and the quality of the student’s seminary training. If clergy aren’t well prepared to supervise interns, if there isn’t a good structure in place, if there aren’t easily identifiable goals and strategies by which to achieve them, then interns can end up just doing a lot of photocopying. 

Q What are some of the challenges and benefits you’ve found in working with interns? 
The Episcopal service is held in the chapel's lofty chancel, where music is accompanied by a student choir and the chapel's Mander-Skinner organ.

Source: Jay Blossom

In terms of challenges — well, seminary students face similar difficulties as other students. There’s a lot of pressure on students to work hard, to put as much as they can on their CV so they have the strongest possibility of getting a job when they graduate. Sometimes that means working with overcommitted, overstressed interns. 

But one of the great joys for me is working with people who want to discern their vocation in a very real, practical, and serious fashion. Additionally, as a church leader, it’s a privilege to be part of the formation of future church leaders. And students keep you young. They keep you in touch with what’s going on in an important segment of the community, and that’s refreshing. 

Q What’s the most important reason seminaries should encourage students to get involved in campus ministry?

I think the church — in particular, I’m speaking about Episcopal and other mainline denominations — risks so much in overlooking ministry to colleges and universities. 

There are religious groups that are absolutely deliberate about increasing their presence on college campuses. These organizations understand that the formation of Christians and Christian leaders is best done in North America’s colleges, and the work they do there is going to be of enormous influence in the future. It doesn’t take a genius to work that out. If your denomination is really interested in reaching out to young people and forming the next generation of Christians, then it simply must dedicate resources, staff, and funding for campus ministry.      

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