Church interns

By Paul Clark

As we approach the budget for 2011, I am excited to be able to pursue some interns to work in several of our departments. We are fortunate to have a great Christian college: Cedarville University. I hope to be able to grab some excellent young people to serve in Worship & Fine Arts, our Video Arts department and our Next Generation ministries.

But as I work with our ministry leaders to identify and hire interns, I will have some concrete ideas in mind to help shape the intern experience—both for them and for us. I know it’s a win-win. They get experience; we get more hands – and let’s face it, cheap labor – and everybody benefits. However, this won’t work  if we violate some of the most basic tenets of good people management. In view of some things I’ve seen recently and over the years, I’d like to offer some generic suggestions on creating internships that work well for everybody:

1. When you accept an intern on your staff, you’re making a commitment to them to mentor them, not just use them to accomplish a task. They are not traditional employees. Your commitment must include mentoring and coaching. It’s a commitment to a process, not just a project. The goal is to shape them into a more effective, productive future employee, not just get something from them today. That happens through a relationship, which is what an internship is about.

2. Your commitment must be for the agreed-upon duration of the internship. In other words, unless they’re stealing, lying, or doing something else worthy of dismissal, you’re in it for the duration. Don’t let them go halfway in because they’re not meeting your expectations. Coach them toward your expectations. If it still doesn’t go well, chalk it up to experience. Refuse to offer a recommendation. But don’t cut them loose. That’s desertion, not good management.

3. Begin the process with a clear road map for the internship—something in writing. Take a lesson from academics. Our course syllabus included what we’d study and what we were expected to know when the course was over. An internship is no different. It’s a teaching-learning situation. State what the intern will be exposed to, how the intern will be utilized, what the intern is expected to produce, how the intern will be evaluated, and any other important behavioral boundaries. Without such a start, the intern will be aiming for a target they cannot see.

4. Provide ongoing and constructive feedback. Your time is an investment in someone’s future, not simply a way to accomplish a task you would otherwise be responsible for. Spend time with them talking about the environment, the career, the challenges and the rewards. Tell them how they’re doing, correct their mistakes and most importantly, address any issues that would otherwise lead them into trouble when they get into the real world. You’re often their last stop before entering the workforce. Will they leave your internship better prepared, more organizationally savvy, and more self-aware than when they started?

5. Set them up to succeed. Make sure they have adequate training to do what they are being asked, appropriate supervision, the right equipment, and all the information they will need to accomplish their work. Stay close to them. As I said, interns are not traditional employees. You might give other employees lots of rope or keep them at arms-length, but interns are by definition, asking for a closer relationship than normal.

An internship that’s properly structured and well-managed should seldom fail to produce at least some positive results. When we accept interns, we bear the greater responsibility to be sure it does. I’ve seen some great interns come through and seen a few that I’d never hire. But I remain friends with all of them because even if the technical transfer of experience and training wasn’t the best, my commitment to them as a person of potential was communicated throughout.

Paul Clark is executive pastor of operations for Fairhaven Church, Centerville, OH. [ ]


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