Unknotting a dilemma about interns

I think having interns — but not paying them — is exploitative and all but guarantees that young people from poor families cannot accept good placements that lead to better positions. It also devalues staff labor and undercuts intern time, when it should be treasured as a way of instilling skills and a work culture in a rising professional, and not simply a professional network. (If that.)

But times are hard, and I can imagine where an unpaid internship — not an endless one, and even for someone not in college — can provide a hiring advantage that can mean better pay later, or even just a boost of morale and that networking opportunity in a low period. In this sense, as occupational volunteerism, I can cope with (if not like) unpaid internships. (But if there’s money, there should be compensation.)

This has limited applicability to Unitarian Universalists, who as far as I know have paid ministerial internships, if often poorly paid. But they are also too few. With these caveats, I look with appreciation at a blog post by Abigail Collazo at Left Standing Up that suggests value that can be added to unpaid internships. Something to keep in mind, too, with dedicated, regular volunteers. And perhaps, too, for short pre-seminary internships that may be useful for someone discerning a vocation.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scott, the new Meadville Lombard Educational Model (MLEM, for short) is designed to include half-time, unpaid internship in a congregation integrated into the second and third years of the three-year M.Div. program. This is possible because MLTS has gone to week-long intensives in January, July, and some other times almost exclusively as their vehicle for classroom classes. Of course this model only affects those who get their education from MLTS, and, for now at least, our future ministers going to other seminaries continue as before.

  2. @Paul: I would be concerned about a model that involves two years of half-time, unpaid internship work. Distributed modes of education still involve substantial study time between sessions (eg. before the Jan. intensive read books x, y, z and prepare a series of presentations to be conducted the first 3 days of class). Additionally, half-time for two years is a substantial time commitment for an unpaid intern. I wonder about how an appropriate balance is achieved for the full-time student.

    Also, to me there is a bit of whiff of exploitation when interns are asked for a substantial time commitment, but are paid nothing. It will often mean that professional development is really only affordable to those with substatial savings, or who are willing to go into substantial debt, or who have a partner who earns enough money to support the entire household. As somebody who has lived a substantial part of his life in lower income circumstances, the phenomenon distresses me.

  3. Ugh. I’d say the real reason unpaid internships are possible is that there’s a chronic shortage of them — a shortage that there’s no incentive to increase or now make funding for.

  4. One of the concerns that presents with unpaid internships is that it undermines ministry in general. It gives the congregation the impression that it might receive clergy support without paying for it. Thereafter the congregation can rationalize not raising the minister’s salary or providing financial support for continuing education by saying that some parts of vocational ministry are in the nature of the minister’s sacrifice for being a minister. It sets a bad, bad precedent for the well-being of the minister and the congregation.

  5. It is a bad situation in which seminary students are expected to do half-time work without getting paid, if that’s Meadville’s new model (I had heard of the change, but didn’t realize it was completely unpaid).

    I will start a half-time, two-year internship this fall that pays slightly better than UUA guidelines. And interestingly, Scott, this year may be a little different. I have heard there are more internships than prospective interns (for once). So rather than pay being the top issue, it may be whether one is willing to head off for a year to a strange city and congregation. That having been said, what internships pay isn’t enough to live on if you don’t have some other income or assets.

  6. A couple of thoughts:

    (1) It’s good to pay an intern. At the same time, let’s be honest — a ministerial intern is there to learn, and unless that intern is truly exceptional, they are going to place an added workload on their supervisor. At the very least, their supervisor should attend some kind of intern supervisor training; beyond that, there should be weekly meetings for supervision. There are also required meetings with an internship committee, which is tapping into the limited resource of skilled volunteer hours.

    I bring this point up, because my home congregation once had an intern who was far from ready, and required a lot of extra time and attention from the ministers and the lay leadership, and who also had an impact on the rest of the congregation. So yes we should pay interns, but we should also recognize that a ministerial intern can represent a net loss to the congregation.

    (2) A recent situation of which I’m aware — an intern whose internship fell apart (for reasons totally out of the intern’s control or influence), who didn’t need money but did need an internship, and who is now interning for free at a congregation that had given up on having interns due to financial problems. Here’s an example of an unpaid internship that looks like it will be a win-win situation for everyone. So yes we should pay interns, but there are always exceptions to every rule.

  7. @Dan

    I am not opposed to all forms of unpaid internships. For example, the seminary I attended had an internship requirement and most of the interns were not paid. The time commitment, however, was 8 hours of service per week (not including supervisory sessions). The service was paired with a weekly seminar. And the combined service + seminar constituted a class carrying 1.5 units per semester across 2 semesters. This seemed far more equitable, with the course credit being the “compensation” for the 8 hours per week of ministerial service.

  8. @ Derek – By way of comparison, the new MLEM structure requires 20 hours of service each week for two academic years. The 20 hours include an hour-long meeting with the supervising Teaching Pastor each week and a meeting with the Student Ministry Committee (made up of lay members of the Teaching Congregation) each month.

    In addition to the 20 hours (which realistically is more like 25 or even more in some Teaching Congregations), there are weekly assignments based in assigned readings on various things, such as multicultural worship, family systems, and other issues affecting the life of a contemporary congregation. Then each week groups of three student ministers have phone conferences of about an hour-and-a-half, followed by producing a group memo summarizing our “findings” in our assigned readings, assigned reflections, and discussions, usually accomplished through ongoing e-mail exchange.

    Then once each month we have an assignment for which the entire group of student ministers at the same stage in the process have a phone conference to work on an assignment and check in with each other. Each year begins with a 2.5 day orientation with workshops, and there is a 2.5 day mid-year convocation with workshops.

    This yields 2 units of academic credit in each semester over 2 academic years. Thus the unpaid internship costs the student the tuition and fees for 8 credits, cash cost, plus any loss of income that results from the demands of the internship, plus the costs of commuting to the teaching congregation multiple times through the week. Some of my colleagues commute farther and/or longer than I, but my round-trip commute is 120 miles, and I drive it 4 or 5 times a week (no public transportation or car pooling is available).

    Everyone has to enter with their eyes wide open. There is no question but that this entails really significant sacrifice and that our denomination does not begin to adequately support the process so as to level the playing field very well and bring in people who would make magnificent ministers but cannot afford it. It requires privilege or luck or a mountain of debt to cover the expenses required to become a UU minister.

  9. I know a lot of interns or those who have recently been interns. I’m under no allusion that there aren’t interns who are woefully unprepared (though how did that not show up in the interview process to get the internship?!), but most interns aren’t a drag on congregations. Quite the opposite. Interns provide huge amounts of time and ability, and are not well compensated for it. A little time from the minister and from a committee (we’re talking about once a month meetings and some time writing assessments here — not a giant volunteer commitment) are worth far less than the work and contributions most interns provide to congregations.

    Not to mention the payoff of having well-trained clergy down the road.

  10. As a current intern, I’m surprised to hear that there are more internships than prospective interns. It was the exact opposite last year when I was looking.

    I think that Meadville’s program is too new to judge, so I’ll make no comment; but I will voice my distress at the seemingly growing UU practice of the 2-year part-time internship, which I think just widens the class divisions in the UUA…as those who can afford to take two years out of their life at the pay of most part-time internships give is small. So where does that leave the rest of us?

  11. Paul Oakley has already explained the Meadville Lombard model in previous posts. I will be entering my internship this fall. It is quite a lot of work for no pay, but we do get considerable course credit for it, the equivalent of 24 hours of class credit (or 8 units using the Meadville Lombard system). It is a very difficult way to do seminary if you don’t live near multiple UU congregations, since you aren’t supposed to intern at your home congregation. Since the internship is an integral part of seminary, there is no way to get an MDiv degree without interning, so getting the MDiv and THEN doing a paid internship is not possible. It is not an easy road, and is not only harder based on economics, but can be impossible based on simple geography. Of course, we know this going in, but it does rule out many candidates, who will need to go somewhere else for seminary.

  12. Leaving aside the particularities and perhaps peculiarities of a single educational model, I do see one advantage to unpaid internships. More specifically, I see one significant advantage to teaching congregations not paying the interns they invite to learn with, among, and in service to them. Viz., freedom from this economic responsibility means that congregations who otherwise could never participate in the training of the next generation of ministers can now do so. This simple fact provides for a greater self-conception of congregations being participating members in the larger UU community rather than being mostly alone. And it means that interns are exposed to only a certain subset of churches that may well not reflect the reality of the congregations they will serve.

    So I do think it is not, per se, a bad thing that the congregation not pay its interns. However, the hardship for many interns is very real. But, in reality, it shouldn’t matter who is experiencing the hardship and who is doing just fine. If you go that route, then each and every case has to be handled as a thing unto itself, which it is not, really.

    If the training of ministers is primarily for the good of Unitarian Universalism overall and for the whole community of member congregations of the Association, then the whole community, represented in the Association, should be fully funding this training. Otherwise, our movement is trying to eat a free lunch, forcing the individual candidates for ministry to pay the Association’s costs.

  13. While not quite the same thing, please note this article from 2009.
    I confess that i took an unpaid internship when i was working on my Masters (in counseling) – it was not that unusual – and was one semester that I paid the University the usual tuition fees to do (as I joked: I was paying to work there). I had previously done free work as a therapist a previous semester (as part of course work). Of course there is a vast difference between one semester and two years.But if the 2 year internship and classes equal 2 years full time at another program, then it would seem to be – (I add disclaimers) semi-fair.

  14. Upfront: I have profound reservations about unpaid internships. I think that they are, by their nature, exploitative.

    The biblical admonition is that “the workman is worthy of his wages,” and half-time, or full-time, work is… work. I grant (and appreciate) that there is learning, and that an intern is benefiting by that learning. But so is a congregation (granted, there are horror stories of hideously unprepared interns who implode… — but likewise there are entirely prepared interns who balance out such horror stories).

    Unpaid internships empower our congregations to remain (by and large) irresponsible consumers of ministry. Someone else will provide the training–or someone will provide a year’s free labor.

    In the past, apprentices were taken in and fostered in their trade or profession–but they were given room and board, and learned their skill. Journeymen (which I think is a classification closer to where we view interns) were also paid. Still learning, but paid appropriately.

    I chose to take on a woefully underfunded (full-time) internship instead of seeking one that paid more, because it allowed me to continue to live at home with my family, which both saves some costs and has other real-world advantages for us. But that’s a peculiarity, and I went and largely created the opportunity. The internship would not have been offered otherwise, and it being funded (such as it is) creatively. But we can, painfully, make this work.

    It’s not a model, it’s an exception.

    As a Meadville Lombard student still completing the former distance learning program, I’ve got a lot of appreciation of the new program. But I’ve criticized the programmatic unpaid internship element, and will continue to do so. I think it diminishes the value of internship to a congregation (we don’t have to pay for it, it’s free, it’s not really worth much, is a commonplace human psychological reaction). It devalues ministry, and the ministry being done. (And could have some very toxic side effects; Heck, instead of seeking the associate minister our growing congregation ought to have, and stretching to make it work with our budget, let’s just have an intern every year. Far cheaper).

    And I echo Kim’s objection; this practice shoves our ministry in the direction of being accessible only by those who are privileged and well off enough to afford it, or those privileged enough to be able to go deeply into debt to do this (which is a highly questionable practice…). It means that at the very time that we are mouthing the words of seeking greater diversity, we are filtering out those who are economically unable to afford to give free ministry for a year (or two years, half time…) in order to meet requirements and train. That looks suspiciously, to me, like a bit of institutionalized racism and classism, once we look at who the folks are who can (most likely–not always, of course) pass that requirement.

    And *that* is bitterly ironic, at best, if not actual hypocrisy.

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