A whistle-stop tour through the history of internships and gap years tells us a lot. ‘Intern’ popped up as a word during World War I and referred to doctors who had finished their training but had not yet got their medical licenses. The term was adopted by businesses during the 1960s. Around that time the gap year became an attractive prospect for young people who were questioning whether the path their parents had taken was right for them.
The term ‘intern’ steadily became synonymous with exploitative labour in many industries. Today, many young people struggle to find work in their preferred sector without an internship, so they work for free, carrying out menial jobs and facing unbearably long hours. It’s one of the reasons many Christian organisations have removed the term ‘intern’ from their programmes, preferring ‘leadership development’, ‘training’ or ‘discipleship’ schemes.
Following the rise in study fees and other expenses, gap years are no longer an option for many. But do the young people who dedicate a year to serving really get the support they need? Here’s how we can guarantee they do.
General dogsbody at your service
“We were working 46-hour weeks; more than the full-time staff with reduced benefits. We were basically there to fill the church’s staff team with cheap labour. One of the things we had to do was paint a white wall white. It was so pointless they didn’t know we’d finished it.”
The young person who shared this story did so with a deep sense of (understandable) bitterness, having felt used and useless.
Another young person shared that they had to babysit their pastor’s children each week because “looking after their kids allowed the pastor to do mission for the church”. They still felt a call to youth ministry but said it had taken a long time to recover from that year.
Stories like this are rare, extreme and – thankfully – do not represent the majority of gap year or internship experiences. I share them only as a reminder that we need to intentionally avoid anything that comes close to these examples.
Chris Fox heads up the New Wine Discipleship Year and has worked hard to avoid this in his own church: “We all muck in to clean the church. It sets a culture of service. Although a young person is given a job, they need to feel it is not because they are there just to do others’ dirty work.”
Of course, we all need to learn humble service, as evangelist Glen Scrivener joked when I chatted to him about his own year out. “I scrubbed a thousand loos and listened to pretty much the entire sermon library while doing so,” he shared. “Both things were invaluable training for ministry!”
He pointed out that we cannot and should not protect young people from the tougher side of full-time ministry. Many charitable organisations run internships and gap years as part of a wider mission, whether that is international development or local ministry. Young people should expect to be stretched in their work and prepared for reality. However, they also need to feel that in doing so they are developing valuable life skills.
We need to ask ourselves whether the phrase “Can we get the intern to do it?” has come up in conversation unhelpfully. Is each task they are given genuinely supportive, teaching them service rather than slavery?
Let’s talk money
“Was I being used as nine months of free labour to form into someone they could give a minimum wage to? Or was I selflessly serving, recognising the call that was on my life? Can it be both?”
A year out costs money. Many such schemes are run by charities or churches whose reliance on donations means they cannot afford to cover all the expenses themselves. Someone has to foot the bill.
One person I spoke to did a few years of secular unpaid work as an intern after university. The only way he could afford to do so was through the generosity of his parents. He considered himself lucky but, of course, not everyone can do this. Others may need to balance a part-time job with volunteering and we need to be mindful of this reality when hosting a young person. This is also tricky if flexible part-time jobs are difficult to come by, or if the gap year programme is abroad.
The Methodist Church’s One internship challenges the norm by guaranteeing a living wage. The Methodist Church covers the costs and provides discipleship while the young person volunteers for organisations ranging from the House of Lords to Action for Children. This is part of the denomination’s stance for all who work for them, but George Dixon- Gough, who heads up the programme, explained: “We value work done.” However, this radical system is not always possible and there are other ways we can support young people financially.
Josh expected to pay for his year out with XLP. He said: “You can’t put a price on spiritual growth.” Mike Coates, who leads the XLP gap year, explained that Josh’s £4,000 fees are half invested in his training costs and half returned to him in a monthly budget, which enables him to be self sufficient..
Gary Morgan from YWAM’s Year for God programme explained how his organisation promotes a “biblical” model for financial support: “We encourage anyone joining us to partner with their church and see finance as part of a wider support network, along with prayer and community.”
Overseas charities like BMS World Mission, CAFOD and Josiah Venture explained that they provide ample guidance on how to fundraise. They see it as an important skill for anyone planning to go into mission or charity work.
Within Youth for Christ, most of the staff raise half of their own salaries, which means that interns can turn to anyone within the organisation for financial or fundraising advice.
Tower Hamlets City Church provides accommodation for its interns, with bills included. It proactively asks its interns how they are doing financially, as not all young people are comfortable asking for help even when they need it.
If we are running internship programmes we need to consider what support we can offer the young people taking part. If we are sending them from our own congregations, how can we financially invest in their future even if it’s not with us?
Beyond the finances
“I struggled with my mental health a lot. When I told my pastor he just told me to pray harder.”
For many young people this will be their first time away from home, without the support of their school, university, family or friends. We need to be aware of the mental and spiritual well-being of our young people as much as their financial health.
Paul Friend leads South West Youth Ministries (SWYM) and works with placement churches to support interns. He said: “Taking on interns without outside support is a big job that needs to be fully thought through.” Many churches link with national organisations to provide training and networks of support with other young people. Lifecentral Church in Halesowen partners with other organisations. Although this has been challenging in terms of communication and line management, effective partnership is always beneficial.
Almost every organisation or church I spoke to advocated a weekly meeting between the young person and a dedicated line manager. Many also had a separate spiritual mentor who met with them at least once a month to see how they were on a personal level. Young people also need a wider informal support network through peers or a home group. These support networks give them people to turn to in a crisis. If you can’t provide this support as a church, how can you help your young people access it elsewhere?
Simon Lewis, Dean of the St Anselm community at Lambeth Palace, commented on the need for spiritual support beyond good experiences. Although not a gap year or internship, the palace’s Year in God’s Time encourages young people to spend a year in prayer, study and service based on monastic principles. Simon said: “For a lot of people in their early 20s they are discovering a new order for their day and want to instil healthy priorities and rhythms.” Beyond keeping them happy and fulfilled, are the young people serving us being challenged in their personal faith journey?
We do, however, need to be wary of scheduling too many catchup meetings. One young person recalled the first few weeks of their internship involving an “unsustainable amount of dinner and lunch offers that I felt obligated to attend”. She found the lack of time off and personal space exhausting, and struggled to explain this to her mentor, with whom she had little personal connection. More introverted young people may struggle with the demand for interaction and need space to say no to certain invitations. This becomes all the more important when a host family is involved. Christian charity Pulse Ministries is careful to agree boundaries between the young people and the families they will be living with before the young person arrives.
Are you aware of the mental, emotional and spiritual needs of each young person, and can you offer the support they need? Bear in mind that their needs might be different from what you expect!
Knowing where we stand
“I saw it as a year out to serve. I arrived with years of ministry experience that weren’t really taken on board. I felt I had to prove myself and missed out on the chance to really serve.”
A key part of avoiding disappointment from either the organisation or the young person is setting up clear expectations from the start. Andy Hancock is the next generation pastor at Lifecentral Church. He makes sure each intern is treated the same way as staff, providing a written contract, holiday leave and regular line management meetings.
King’s Church in Durham carefully sets out expectations of the internship, broken down into leadership development, theological training, and mission and church-based ministry. Interns know exactly what they are signing up to from the outset.
Many organisations know that their programme will be emotionally and physically difficult. The recruitment process offers an important opportunity for discernment. XLP has adapted its approach to include a day for prospective candidates to see what they think.
Josiah Venture works in central and eastern Europe, partnering with local churches to equip them in discipleship and youth ministry. It actively looks for signs that might mean a young person would struggle: “If their answers aren’t what we hope they would be we work with them to establish our expectations. We might tell them we don’t think they are ready this year, but encourage them to reapply next summer. We always give ideas for areas they might improve in. As those working alongside young people, we should treat the application process as a growth opportunity in itself.
It is worth pointing out that the problem doesn’t always lie with the receiving organisation. Nick Klein from Northern Inter-schools Christian Union (NISCU) has had many years of experience running internships and gap years. He points out: “I have known some interns really struggle and, when explored, their reasons for being there are: ‘I had nothing else to do’ or ‘My mum thought it would be good for me.’”
As sending churches, we need to pray with our young people, encourage them to question why they are embarking on a gap year or internship, and establish what they hope to gain from it.
It’s worth it
Despite the handful of difficult stories, most of the young people I spoke to appreciated and celebrated their year out. Laura was surprised by how much she had been entrusted with. Llanzo said he learnt about the charismatic movement and other parts of the Church he had never interacted with before. Charlie established a calling into youth ministry. Jimmy spent a year with Rock UK learning outdoor instructor skills. He now heads up the Church of England’s youth evangelism. Kathryn knows she wants to go into counselling, having learnt pastoral skills through working with her church. Rod didn’t just learn practical skills during his year with CAFOD; his whole worldview was questioned and refined. Dean doesn’t think he would have been invited for the same job interviews had it not been for his internship.
So much needs to be kept in balance for these success stories to be achieved. Sending churches and receiving organisations must work together to make sure that all of these young people grow into the individuals God wants them to become.
IF YOU ARE SENDING A YOUNG PERSON ON A GAP YEAR
- Have you pointed them towards a range of possibilities?
- Have you prayed with them during the application process?
- Have you gathered a group to pray for your young people while they are away?
- Have you challenged your young people to consider why they are undertaking a gap year or internship, and what they hope to get from it?
- Could your church offer financial support?
IF YOU ARE RECEIVING A YOUNG PERSON
- What support can you offer, for example providing accommodation or a job, or checking in on how they are doing?
- Have you set out clear expectations for the year with each individual?
- Do they have a line manager, a spiritual mentor and a wider support network, including their own peers?
- Are they getting vocational and spiritual input, and learning to find rhythms of prayer and Bible study around their work?
OVERSEAS GAP YEAR PROJECTS
BMS Action Teams
CAFOD Step into the Gap
Tearfund Go Overseas
Josiah Venture summer internships
YWAM Year for God
ORGANISATIONS CONNECTED LOCALLY
New Wine Discipleship Year
Ministry Experience Scheme
South West Youth Ministries placements
Youth for Christ The Year Out
Pulse Ministries Summer of Service and internships
One Intern scheme
OFFERING SOMETHING DIFFERENT
St Anselm’s A Year in God’s Time
XLP Gap Year
The Message Trust Academy
Altitude Meribel skiing gap year