When you need more than a youth ministry volunteer can give, but you’re not looking for another you, an intern may be the answer.

“Can anyone help me with all these young people?” It’s a common cry heard from youth workers. Volunteers can do a great deal to enrich our programs, but there is one unalterable fact about volunteers: They can quit if they want to because they’re not held accountable by money or a church staff. Even with a large staff of dedicated volunteers, we often need someone who can give extra amounts of time to personal contact, administration and youth programming.

One strategy for extending youth ministry beyond volunteer capabilities is to use an intern. An intern is a person in process. One good example of the kind of person who works well in an internship is our first summer intern. Marty had grown up within the church, met Christ personally in her junior high years and continued to be a strong leader within her high school youth group. In her college years, she desired to work with the youth of the church, so she was added to our volunteer staff.

Consequently, when it was time for our internship to begin, Marty was the perfect choice. She was not a professional youth worker, but she had some skills and a teachable spirit. The church had approved the idea for a summer intern whose ministry would be directed primarily toward the teenage girls. We felt that the position was a good investment and would enhance the ministry. With Marty, our hopes were confirmed.

The Pros and Cons of Interns
Understandably, some people question the need for paid interns. You’ve heard the objections:

Why pay someone else when the church already has a paid youth worker? Paying someone else to do ministry seems to be contrary to a volunteer staff philosophy.

Why pay someone else when the volunteers already are doing the same work? Ideally, the volunteer is as trainable and open to learning new skills as the intern. If we have enough volunteers, won’t all the bases be covered?

Isn’t the intern just a glorified volunteer? In many ways, the intern seems to be a “paid volunteer,” with the one difference that money means accountability.
In light of these objections, we need to look at the benefits of an internship so we can judge intelligently whether it would be best for our situation. What are the advantages of an intern?

The intern fills in gaps left by the volunteers. The intern can go to the high school for lunch with the kids, for example, while most volunteers cannot or will not. Most volunteers contribute limited time in a limited sphere, but the intern can invest large amounts of quality time.

The intern frees up the youth pastor. Initially, I spent many hours directing our intern; but in time, the intern program released Marty to full-time ministry with girls, freeing me to focus in on the guys. Her internship helped us overcome the “let the pastor do everything” mentality. I’ve also seen situations of an intern with administrative skills really freeing up a youth pastor!

An internship gives higher visibility to the youth ministry. When the church sees a youth pastor and an intern, there’s a greater acknowledgment and awareness of the needs of the youth. The congregation realizes that it takes more than one person to run the program.

An internship can release workers into the community. An intern with evangelistic skills, for example, can be released to go out onto the campus. I’m the pastor of a college-town church. One of my strengths is helping leaders discover and use their gifts. I have one youth intern who majors in evangelism in the junior highs, working in the schools every week. Meanwhile, our college interns are using their gifts on the local college campus. As a result, new people have been brought into the church. I never could do what the interns are doing.

Kids have another significant adult to whom they can relate. Marty worked on staff more than two years ago, but she still has strong relationships with some of the youth she worked with. It’s fulfilling to see how fruit has grown in these relationships.

Interns raise up other leaders. Because of our interns’ investment in kids, some of the youth are now leaders within the church and will be there in years to come. Some want to go into missions, youth ministry and preaching because of our interns. Some even want to be interns! In this way, not only is the intern equipped to do ministry, but others also are equipped.

The intern can discover his or her vocational calling. Because the intern is being trained for a specific area of ministry, it’s obvious this person is open to ministry as a vocation. The internship offers the intern guidance. If he or she is not cut out for the work, it’s usually discovered during this time so other possibilities can be pursued.

Developing an Intern Program
If you’re considering an internship as a way to extend your youth ministry, here are some steps to take:

Go to your church board and pastor with a specific proposal. Be sure to think through your plan prior to your presentation, including details about these areas:
• Purpose: What kind of ministry do you want to develop?
• Time frame and cost: Be specific. “We would like ______________ to work for the summer as youth intern. Beginning June 15 and ending Aug. 15, the intern would be employed at a salary of _______________.” Some churches start with a paid summer intern and eventually move to a year-long commitment. You also can add a non-paid intern later.
• Requirements: Include such specifics as commitment to Christ, church affiliation, age, level of education and availability.
• Job description: The goal is not to have an intern tell you what he or she wants, but rather for the intern to fit into your designed program. So you must have identified your needs before the person is hired. If one need is to establish mission priorities, for example, then list “mission projects” as one of the intern’s responsibilities. A typical job description might look something like this:
o The intern will spend 5 to 6 hours per week with the youth pastor in devotions, programming, dialogue and prayer.
o The intern will work 40 hours a week and should take one full day off.
o The intern will lead the Wednesday night junior high meetings with the help of volunteer staff.
o The intern will disciple a group of high school freshmen.
o The intern is responsible to the youth pastor. The church board also requires the intern to be at the August meeting for an evaluation.
o The intern will read a specified list of books (provided by the youth pastor) about youth ministry, as well as present a paper by July 1 clarifying his or her strategy for reaching our goals.

As you present your proposal, be prepared to hear, “We don’t have the need right now.” In this regard, an observation by Gordon MacDonald is helpful: “A growing congregation has somehow made a decision that it will project a ministry to its people built not on the present, but the future. This means that it builds structures, hires pastoral staff and set in motion programs based on anticipated growth. To program on the basis of actual growth is always to be at least one to two years behind the momentum. Unfortunately, most churches wait, for example, to hire a minister to youth until the youth have arrived, perhaps growing up through the ranks of preschool and children’s department.” Building an intern program should be based on anticipated growth.

Find the intern. This admittedly is not an easy task. Some churches look all over the country for the “right” person. Our philosophy has been to raise someone from within the local church rather than search outside. We call it “grooming our own.” If this isn’t possible, then we advise looking for someone within the community. Here are some characteristics to look for:

• Faithfulness: Is this person committed to the cause and Person of Christ? Is he or she committed to live and model the Christian life? Is he or she faithful in small things? Is he or she committed to the local church? What about his or her commitment to youth? The church staff? Faithfulness is imperative for spiritual service (Luke 16:10-12).
• Availability: Is the person available to young people and their needs? Can they discern between the important and the urgent?
• Teachability: Most interns are “wet behind the ears” in ministry experience. Teachable people are successful in ministry. Is the candidate a “know it all”? If so, that person won’t work. The teachable intern is humble, open to change and willing to learn from failure.

Offer the intern freedom with responsibility and accountability. Once you’ve hired someone, allow the person to do the job! If he or she is given the area of contact work on the high school campus, allow the freedom to perform that task without constant scrutiny. Most interns are inexperienced and insecure. A pushy supervisor who hovers constantly will increase the intern’s anxiety. Establish boundaries to work within, then let him or her fly.

Once your intern knows the parameters, hold him or her responsible and accountable. If he or she is not meeting the expectations in the job description, meet to talk about areas of improvement.

Our present structure for accountability involves an evaluation after a designated period of time in the ministry (3 months, 6 months, one year). We ask the intern to write a paper with his or her own summary evaluation of the internship, and the supervisor evaluates the intern.

Look Out for the Pitfalls
From my own experience with interns, I’ve noticed two potential dangers. The first is picking the wrong person. I once chose a recent high school graduate who was zealous for the Lord, seemed interested in youth ministry and needed a job. It soon became evident the situation wasn’t working out; in fact, the junior high girls she was hired to work with didn’t even like to be around her. I mistakenly assumed her zest and youthfulness were sufficient qualifications for internship, and was forced to terminate the arrangement.

The second danger is how the congregation perceives the position. How does the church view the intern? As an assistant to the youth pastor? Is the intern “above” the volunteers? It’s important to determine what the role means to you and communicate that view from the start.

This problem of perception is illustrated by a phone a phone call I received one summer evening last year. One of the volunteers called to say she couldn’t go on the weekend retreat. When I asked why, she said, “Oh, well, you have the new intern; and she’ll do more than I could ever do.” During the next few weeks, I picked up signs of resentment from some of the other volunteers, as well.

They had come to see the intern as my right-hand person and concluded they no longer were needed. I finally sat down and explained to the volunteer staff how I perceived the internship. A new understanding came that day; since that time, the internship has continued in a more stable environment.

It’s Worth It
Despite the potential pitfalls, an intern program is one of the best ways to get people exposed to and involved in youth ministry. Its benefits have been evident not only in our own experience, but also in other churches. The youth, the parents and the entire congregation benefit from a solid intern program. I strongly recommend that you consider developing an internship to enrich your program, extend your outreach, and deepen your church’s commitment to an effective youth program. 

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About The Author

Dr. David Olshine is the director and professor of Youth Ministry, Family and Culture at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. He's the author of Studies on the Go: James, 1-2 Peter and 1-3 John (Zondervan/Youth Specialties) and the founder of Youth Ministry Coaches.