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7 Mistakes Churches Make with Internships (or… How to Stop Harming Interns!)

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

Recently I was talking with our youth interns who had returned from a block course. At the course they had been discussing next year and what they each might do. They all expressed some sense of shock and dismay at the answer of one of their classmates: “I’m not sure what I’ll do next year but what I am sure of is that I won’t work for a church!”

For that person the internship had become a negative experience and they were looking forward to the year being over.

Sadly they are not alone.

True, some interns are the architect of their own problems, but in my experience more often than not the church is at fault, initially at least.

Let’s look at seven common mistakes:

1. Churches choose the wrong people

Interns need to go through a selection process – don’t just accept anyone who is interested. They should have a degree of spiritual maturity and emotional stability, along with proven leadership experience. They need to be someone who is well organised, can meet deadlines and work with minimal supervision. They must be teachable, humble and easy to get on with.

In selecting interns churches should have an application form to be filled in and an interview process to be gone through.

2. Churches have the wrong mindset

In order to run a successful internship programme you need to have the correct mindset. An internship is not a way to get people to work for the church for next to nothing. It is a way to build into the lives of people seeking to grow in their ability and usefulness in serving God.

The first mindset is church centred and all too frequently leads to a hurt and burned out young person.

The second mindset develops leaders.

3. Churches offer payment for ministry

With payment comes a sense of expectation and with expectation comes unrealistic pressure and even criticism. No matter how much you reinforce the correct mindset, when you start paying money the intern is seen as someone who is there to serve the church – not someone whom the church is serving.

That opens them to criticism by people who don’t believe they are doing all they should.

By all means meet their expenses. You might even contribute to their study costs. But don’t pay them for doing ministry.

Their “payment” is the time and insight experienced people put into them.

4. Churches don’t provide adequate mentoring

Interns need a high degree of mentoring if they are to get the most out of their internship. They need someone who is experienced in their area of ministry who works alongside them offering feedback and encouragement as they show how tasks are done and gradually hand them over.

Too many churches appoint a youth intern with no youth pastor to work under and only limited oversight from a busy minister/pastor.

5. Churches have the wrong balance of internship components

All internships need to have a balance between theological study and practical ministry opportunities. 50/50 is best for most people. The two components play off each other – theological and ministry studies inform the intern’s ministry experience, while practical ministry allows them to outwork what they learn.

6. Churches don’t encourage reflection

Real learning takes place as the intern takes time to reflect on what they are learning about God, ministry and themselves. They need someone who will ask good questions and can help them grow in understanding in each of these three areas.

Help them find someone with ministry experience and real depth. It’s best this person is not the intern’s mentor or immediate supervisor. They need someone who stands apart from their ministry.

7. Churches assign the wrong tasks

It’s essential that the intern has a significant role in deciding what ministry tasks they take on. In most instances they are told what they must do because the church is intent on filling staffing gaps.

Give the intern some options for ministry and allow them to seek God over what he wants them to do. Doing this creates a stronger sense of call and ownership of their ministry. In addition to regular ongoing commitments, give them experience in a range of programmes.

But don’t overburden them. It’s better to start with a light workload and add to it than to give them too much to do and have them burnout.

Be careful too that other people in the church don’t give them extra jobs. When looking for people to do a task, people can tend to say “Let’s get the intern to do it!” Often interns lack the confidence to say “No”, so insist that they not take on any new task without their mentor’s approval.

More Information

We run a consultancy service to help churches make good decisions around youth ministry. For more help and advice with internships, contact us.

Also, check our our Certificate in Youth Ministry - ideal for youth ministry interns. It teaches them many practical ministry insights.

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