How to Create an Awesome Internship Program

Best practices for training up the next generation of church leaders

Internships are great ways to find and develop your future church staff. When done right, you can have a lasting impact on the kingdom by the way you develop and mentor the up-and-coming church leaders of tomorrow. Let’s learn some best practices and how your church can train up the next generation of leaders.

1. Write a Job Description. This might seem obvious but I still have to state it. Job descriptions benefit staff, volunteers and interns. They also benefit the organization. Job descriptions give all parties clarity about how the partnership looks and what is expected. There is nothing worse then coming to the end of an internship and everyone being disappointed with the experience—with everyone feeling it wasn’t worth their time.

Writing the job description before you bring on an intern forces you to conceptualize what will happen before it happens. It forces you to proactively craft the experience—which is a good thing.

2. Lay Out Their Experience. This one took me a while to learn through trial and error. We would get our interns working right away, even though they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. Not a recipe for success. So we started to chronologically lay out their experience from start to finish: train, practice, then produce. It can be tempting to jump to the last phase of asking your interns to produce for you right away. If you do, it will be a train wreck. I know from experience.

In the end, the internship will be more productive for everyone if you chronologically lay out their experience with training, practicing and then producing.

3. Recruit, Recruit, Recruit. Some organizations and churches struggle to maintain or start an internship program. If this is you, then I would encourage you to recruit. You’ll want to recruit from inside and outside.

Recruiting from inside through your church communications allows you to find candidates who know your culture and DNA. Recruiting from outside through partnerships with local universities, colleges and seminaries allows you to find candidates with a fresh and unique perspective. Recruiting from inside and outside are both vital for a robust program. And make sure to recruit year-round, even if you don’t have interns year-round. This will enable you to have a successful program come the summer—the peak internship season.

The best way we’ve recruited is through the interns themselves. Ask them to start recruiting for the program and replace themselves once they start. Here’s a pro tip: If you want to grow, and not just maintain, your internship then ask your interns to find not one, but two replacements. Don’t just replace your interns, multiply them through recruitment.

4. Get Two. Try to get two interns, or more, at the same time. If you have two it allows them to aid and assist each other. This will decrease your management time and increase their productivity. I also believe that natural and healthy competition—your are awesome, I want to be awesome too—brings out the best in us. So having more than one intern creates that sense of healthy competition to spur people forward.

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Also, some departments within the church can really benefit from having more than one intern at a time. The student department might have two trips the same week—good thing they have two interns. The video department might have two shoots the same day—good thing they have two interns. The finance department might have a bigger project—good thing they have two interns.

5. Life Lessons Over Accomplished Assignments. Design your internship to have more life lessons than accomplished assignments, because interns take the lessons with them but leave the assignments with you. The lessons they learn from your organization can be applied in their next organization.

Now hear me out, I’m not saying all lessons and no assignments. I’m just saying there needs to be more lessons than assignments. Interns still need to complete assignments to bring value to your organization. Accomplished assignments also look good on their résumé and help them land their next job. I usually tell the interns they will walk away with six lessons learned and four assignments accomplished.

6. Take the Training Wheels Off. Manage your interns the way you would manage your staff. Take the training wheels off the bike. People often mistakenly think they need to baby their interns along through their experience. This is not the case. If you have vetted and selected a competent candidate with initiative and have a system in place for them, then they will not need you to lead them by the hand throughout the whole experience.

Now, they will need to you react and adapt to unforeseen difficulties, but that doesn’t mean you need to mitigate unforeseen difficulties through an overprotective spirit. I like to tell our interns we won’t prevent you from falling, but we will pick you up after you fall. So take the training wheels off.

7. Offer Academic Credit. Even if your church is not in a position to compensate the interns, there are still other ways to make it more enticing beyond personal development. One key way to make your programing appealing for a student is to partner with schools and offer academic credit.

Offering this credit drives up the value for all parties involved. Offering college credit adds more value for the participants and opens a greater range of applicants for the church to consider. Whatever cost you experience in time by securing credits, you will get back, and more, in productivity from your interns. So cut through the red tape, offer academic credit and see where it leads you.

8. Try To Compensate. Most nonprofits, like a church, will have a difficult time trying to fully compensate an intern at market value. And this is understandable. They’re a nonprofit. But try to compensate your interns to a degree with a lump sum stipend or honorarium at the end of the program.

Most interns are forgoing a summer job, so trying to compensate them helps you financially meet them in the middle. I wouldn’t encourage you to lead with the compensation, because it isn’t the main value of the internship, and you don’t want to frame it that way. But be ready to tell any would-be applicants how much the stipend is. And if the intern never asks, then they will be pleasantly surprised when you hand then a check on their last day. Either way it is a win-win.

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9. Develop Your Own. The best people to develop are right in front of you. When churches were asked where their best interns came from, they said from within the church. If you are just starting an internship program or are having trouble finding the right people for it, make sure to look inside first. Follow the pattern of Jesus here. He told his disciples to look for would-be interns (disciples) in Jerusalem, Judea and then Samaria.

Jesus said to look for people to partner with first in Jerusalem (your church), then Judea (your community), then in Samaria (your region). Let’s follow this example by developing our own people first. So put the word out to your own people through announcements, your website and social media, and start developing your own. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the level of interest you receive.

10. Develop Their Leadership. Regardless of the particular internship focus—student, administration, communications—leadership development should be a part of it. And there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. grab videos from the Global Leadership Summit, TED Talks, wherever, and help your interns develop as leaders. You grab these videos one time and you now have leadership training to be used with future interns and even staff.

One of the reasons why leadership development is important is because today’s interns may become tomorrow’s staff. So start developing their leadership now and hopefully they will become a leader who can lead leaders.

11. Start Now. Every church should start developing their internship program now. Many people falsely associate internships with larger churches. But no church is too small, because life-changing internships are not restricted to large churches.

I like to say that you don’t have to be a mega-sized church to have a mega-awesome internship. You just have to have an experience that will add value. Churches as small as 100 all over North America have great internships. Don’t wait for interest to be expressed before you grow a program. Communicate the program and watch the level of interest grow. Don’t be left out in the cold. Start your mega-awesome internship today.

12. Conduct Exit Interviews. This is a chance for your intern to give honest feedback about the program. This feedback helps the church grow in three main ways. One, it gives insight into the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of your management style. Two, it fosters innovation by soliciting ideas for improving the church at large. And three, it creates lifelong advocates for the church.

Treating departing interns with respect and gratitude encourages them to leave as ambassadors for your church and, more importantly, for Christ. The exit interview is also one last time for you to reinforce and celebrate what the intern did well, so make sure to conduct it.

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