Last week a youth ministry educator friend of mine started a discussion thread on Facebook because he was fed up with the following, all of which he heard in the span of one week:
- “Intern” has worked for five years at the church with continued promises of salary if they stay a couple more years.
- “Intern” has full time offer from another church, but church tells them to be loyal and stay just another year or two in unpaid capacity.
- “Intern” leads both the Jr. High and Sr. High groups with no salary or just a couple hundred a month.
- “Intern” is asked to put in 30-40 hours per week; church can’t afford to pay them.
One of the respondents in the Facebook discussion was labeled an intern for four years while the group grew to 70 students. (In this case he felt like the church acted with integrity, but I was horrified at the use of the label “intern” for such a position.)
I responded by encouraging people to read a book entitled Intern Nation by Ross Perlin (2011). As I read this book, I was plotting a major article to church leadership about internships in light of abuses in business and education. But then I got to an appendix where I read, “Nonprofit internships seem to be a gray area.” Gone were the grounds for my soapbox. Here is what businesses are to abide by, however, and what caused me to think that we need to change our way of thinking about and doing internships in the church.
According to Perlin (citing a 1947 Supreme Court ruling) an unpaid internship is considered legal if it meets all of the following criteria:
- The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
- The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
- The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
- The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
- The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training. (p. 242)
Perlin goes on to tell how these criteria are interpreted by “Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” issued by WHD in April 2010:
- Just because you agreed to an unpaid or underpaid internship does not mean you signed away your right to fair pay.
- Just because you received academic credit and the approval of your school does not mean you lost the right to be paid.
- Interns have won cases against their employers on numerous occasions and received “double damages” (double the amount of backpay owed) as well as the reimbursement of legal fees.
- Unless you are a paid intern, you may not have the right to challenge discrimination, harassment and other abuses in the work place.
- Several states have laws that make it even harder for organizations not to pay.
- Nonprofit internships seem to be a gray area. (p. 242)
Even though churches fall into this nonprofit gray area I would propose the following guidelines, from my understanding of the purposes of internships, the legal issues for business internships, and biblical guidelines for internships in the church:
- Do not call someone an intern if you are not going to provide them with an educational experience and the appropriate supervisory strategy to help them learn.
- Do not call someone an intern if you really mean that they are in fact a part-time pastor or ministry leader.
- If you are going to pay them, at least have the decency to pay them minimum wage and don’t expect them to work more than the agreed upon hours for which you have hired them. They are not salaried employees. “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”
- Especially if you are not going to pay the intern, only call it an internship for a short span of time and then determine if your church needs to pay them an appropriate wage and call them a part-time staff person.
We need to identify and equip ministry leaders for the next generation and they need ministry experience. Internships can be valuable learning experiences but let’s be mindful of doing right by our emerging leaders.
About Ron Marrs
Ron Marrs is presently a Professor of Youth and Pastoral Ministry and Chairman of the Center for Ministry and Leadership at Western Seminary, Portland, OR. Ron is the leader of the Portland Youth Workers Network. He served at Westwood Baptist Church, a Converge church, for 24.5 years primarily as the youth pastor and then as executive/worship pastor. He has been married to Becky for 35 years, has three children and three grandsons. He is an elder at Hinson Baptist Church. He recently completed doctoral research in which he interviewed 26 people about their rookie youth pastor experiences along with 24 of their supervisors.