Commentary: Churches have a lot to gain from internships
By Kevin Bumgarner
This commentary first appeared in the July 2017 print edition of the Florida Baptist Witness. Publication on this website is not an endorsement of religious denomination or encouragement of ministry involvement.
I graduated from college with a degree in communications and lots of hands-on experience about the same time a good friend of mine graduated with an accounting degree and not much exposure to what her career might look like.
She was excellent at math, and had been guided toward a career in accounting by any number of well-meaning people who knew her giftedness in the area. She completed all the necessary coursework without breaking a sweat, and soon after graduating was offered a well-paying job in the corporate offices of Texas Instruments.
On her first day, she was assigned to the internal auditing department and quickly came to know something else about herself and her career ambitions: She didn’t want to be the person in the building that everyone avoided. She actually liked people, and developing appropriate friendships with her co-workers was something that was important to her.
But, while in school, no one ever told her that people tried to avoid auditors like the plague because they were the people who were paid to catch errors and detect problems.
Needless to say, my friend didn’t last long at TI. The work wasn’t a problem, but the working environment for her department was miserable.
I tell her story to college students whenever I get the chance to help them see the value of internships. I’m sharing it in this space because I thought of my friend as FBW Reporter Nicole Kalil was doing her reporting for our July cover story on ministry internships.
One of the most important things an internship can help students discover is what they are not called to do. That is one of the first things I always tell the interns with whom I am working so it gives them the freedom to decide they do not like the job—and their time was not a wasted effort.
What other take-aways should there be in an effective church-run internship program?
Every church with an internship program must have a champion for the effort. That person does not need to be the one the intern or interns work with most closely or reports to, but without someone who sees the value—for both the church and the intern—the church staff will feel like they are doing too much babysitting, and the interns will feel like they are in the way.
The beauty of effective internship programs is that they can be a part of churches of all sizes. The person interviewing potential interns needs to make sure they understand what these students will be doing, and also needs to ask the intern or interns what they want to get out of the experience.
Which leads us to another take-away.
Internship programs can be set up to run in exchange for a modest wage, class credit or some combination of the two. Regardless of the option, it is incumbent upon the church to make sure the intern clearly understands how the program will be run so there is no confusion about hours, duties or payments. If the interns are in high school and the parents are active members of your church, it would probably be worth your time to pull the parents aside and share your plans at some point to be able to hear their expectations and clarify any potential misunderstandings.
Another take-away is the church must be ready to give interns real work to do, which means church staff must be willing to delegate responsibilities and authority, even while maintaining close oversight. It is also important for interns to be able to sit in on as many meetings and decision-making sessions as possible, even if you don’t think they are ready to contribute to the process.
Finally, any good internship program should have a defined start and stop date, with regular opportunities for two-way feedback: What did the intern learn and like? What did you think they did especially well, and what do they need to work on going forward?
If both your church and the intern had a rewarding experience, there is nothing saying you cannot re-instate the same intern for another semester or specified period of time. But you still need to sanction a start and stop date.
And this brings us back to my friend, the accounting major who didn’t want to be an auditor but didn’t know that until it was too late. She went back to school and got her teaching degree and has been happy to help students with math for many years now. And, she no doubt shares with them the importance of internships along the way.
Feel free to share this story with your interns, and let them know one of the most important things they could get out of their internship with your church is the knowledge that God is not leading them into XYZ ministry. That doesn’t mean they’re not being called into some kind of full-time vocational ministry, and God has used their experience with you to help clarify that call.