Proper Treatment of Church Interns

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:

  1.  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;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
  3.   The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
  4. 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;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. 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:

  1.  Just because you agreed to an unpaid or underpaid internship does not mean you signed away your right to fair pay.
  2. Just because you received academic credit and the approval of your school does not mean you lost the right to be paid.
  3. 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.
  4. Unless you are a paid intern, you may not have the right to challenge discrimination, harassment and other abuses in the work place.
  5. Several states have laws that make it even harder for organizations not to pay.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Do not call someone an intern if you really mean that they are in fact a part-time pastor or ministry leader.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.

3 thoughts on “Proper Treatment of Church Interns

  1. Excellent article and great thoughts Ron. The tension it seems is between a lack of volunteerism in many churches – the perennial plague of just a few doing all the work, and what you’ve highlighted here – the abuse (essentially) of interns / and it goes beyond that – the abuse of many well-meaning, serving saints – expecting so much from them, particularly in terms of time – but skills and abilities also, with, sometimes little given in return.

    As the Pastor of a small church we pay a musician to lead our worship in singing each week, and though we’re small it’s at least slightly more than the token $50/week that is common for the local Bible College intern that leads the singing in so many churches. The old adage applies here as well: part-time pastorst in actuality, usually, are full-time pastors for half-time pay.

    Another complicating factor is the delicacy with which these discussions need to even happen. So many take offense if they hear a pastor speaking about his salary or concerned about having health insurance, and certainly that “very worldly” concept of retirement investments. But, even though some take it wrong, the conversations still need to be had.

    Some have been burned, of course by hirelings and lazy people in the ministry. But when we have folks worth their salt, working hard and serving our churches, we ought to be a model to this world of what appreciative compensation looks like. Paul’s language of “double honor” for preaching elders in 1 Timothy 5 is born of the realization that we don’t men overburdened with necessary earthly concerns when they’re pouring their heart and soul into the ministry of the Word of God, Prayer and the tending of souls. Sensitive ones among God’s people get it; too often, the world seems to have weaseled in a foothold in other parts of the church – and made poverty the premium virtue for anyone sincerely serving Jesus. But Scripture says that people who don’t concern themselves with honorably, adequately providing for those in their care (including themselves) are “worse than unbelievers” (1 Tim. 5:8).

    Hats off to all the hard working interns, etc., and may an article like this be a timely word to some who need to “show their appreciation” a little more tangibly.


    1. Well-said, Bob. You bring out the important concern about volunteerism in the church. That is definitely the starting point challenge for church leadership and essential for the work of the ministry. It is understandable why church leaders view “interns” as potential help when volunteers are hard to come by. As I hope to have communicated and you have reinforced, the focus of this post is the treatment of those who have shown the potential for intense and long-lasting leadership in the church. Thanks for your input.

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