“I need an intern! I have so much paperwork to get done before camp, I’ve got to get some help!”
“We need an intern! All of the volunteers are exhausted in that ministry, and an intern can fill in for them for a while!”
“We really need that ministry started. I’ve tried to find a volunteer to start it, but everyone I find will take too much work to get ready. Let’s get an intern and have them do it!”
“I want everyone on staff to take me seriously. I bet if I had an intern, they would see me as more of a leader!”
“I miss my students from my last church. Maybe I can get the church to bring one of them on as an intern.”
While you’ve never actually heard someone say any of those statements out loud (hopefully), I’ve seen all of them used as reasons for a church to bring on an intern for a season. I’ve been privileged to work with some AMAZING interns over the years, and actually started my years of ministry as an intern at a church for two years. I’ve seen good internship models, great internship models, and really bad internship models. Most of the difference between bad, good, and great is found in the “Slave Labor Ratio.” The higher the SLR, the worse the internship experience will be.
So, whether you’re a college student hoping to land an internship in a ministry, or a pastor considering bringing on an intern, here are a few pitfalls as you consider the SLR of an internship program:
1. “An intern will save me time at work” – Wrong. Slave labor saves you time. You give them the junk jobs, and punish them when they don’t perform. Punishing someone is always quicker than filing your own expense reports. But training an intern on why expense reports matter, what good stewardship in ministry looks like, how to fill one out, and how to apologize for going over budget again are skills that take time to master. You will spend far more time training interns to do the tasks you give them than you ever would spend just doing them yourself.
2. “An intern can do all the stuff I hate” – Wrong. Slave labor does all the menial, nasty jobs no one else wants to do (vacuuming the church van, setting up tables and chairs, listening to Chad the annoying 7th grader explain the intricacies of why Commander Grievous is a misunderstood character, etc.) An intern is brought on to grow in their ministry skills. This means, at times, they will have to do some of the bottom-of-the-joy-list tasks. But other times, you’ll have to give them a swing at your favorite pet projects and ministry items (like teaching, leading your favorite events, spending time with the cool volunteers, etc.)
3. “An intern can take the heat for all of the mistakes” – Wrong. An intern is not a disposable leader who you can throw under the bus when they do something wrong. That is a quick indicator of your SLR, if your first inclination is to blame the intern. When you take on an intern, you know they are going to make mistakes, they are brand new rookies. You are prepared to cash in some of the trust you’ve learned to protect them. It’s like a math problem: Intern Mistakes + You Take the Heat = Chance to Learn and Love Ministry
4. “At least they’ll understand ministry when they get here” – Wrong. An intern has an idea of what ministry is, and it’s usually only a fraction of reality. They understand the cool parts, the side of ministry that makes them want to be in ministry. They don’t often understand the challenges. This is NOT an excuse to make the suffer (again, a sign of a high SLR). Often, the challenges they DO know about are based on unhealthy ministries they grew up in. So, you will need to invest time, energy, and prayer in helping them experience ALL sides of ministry, help them unravel some unhealthy values, and leave still seeing the value God has placed on all of it.
So, with all this said, WHY in the WORLD would anyone agree to take on an intern? Because it’s one of the most powerful ways to pass on healthy ministry values and experience, and the Kingdom benefits in crazy ways when we do it. Jesus did this with the disciples so that they could become the foundation of the church. You and I do it to ensure tomorrow’s church has a healthy foundation as well. When it works, it’s pretty amazing!