I've recently thought about the use of interns, which happens frequently today in many churches. I know why: it's a win-win. The intern gets experience, churches get more hands and (let's face it) cheap labor, and everybody benefits.
That is, except if we violate some of the most basic tenets of good people management.
In light of some things I've observed recently and over the years, here are five ways churches can commit to creating internships that work well for everybody:
1) Commit to mentoring them. When you accept an intern on your staff, don't just use the person to accomplish a task. An intern is not a traditional employee. Your commitment must include mentoring and coaching. It's a commitment to a process, not just a project. The goal is to shape this individual into a more effective, productive future employee, not just get something from him or her today. That happens through a relationship, which is what an internship is about.
2) Commit to a specific time period. Unless the intern is stealing, lying, or doing something else worthy of dismissal, stick with the person for the duration of the internship. Don't let someone go halfway in because they're not meeting your expectations. Coach the person toward your expectations. If it still doesn't go well, chalk it up to experience. Refuse to offer a recommendation. But don't cut the individual loose. That's desertion, not good management.
3) Commit to a clear road map. Begin the internship with 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 used, 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 that he or she cannot see.
4) Commit to ongoing and constructive feedback. Your time is an investment in someone's future, not simply a way to accomplish a task you would otherwise need to complete. Spend time with the intern talking about the environment, the career, the challenges, and the rewards. Talk with the intern about their performance, correct their mistakes, and most importantly, address any issues that would otherwise lead the intern into trouble when he or she gets into the real world. You're often the intern's last stop before he or she enters the workforce. Will this person leave your internship better prepared, more organizationally savvy, and more self-aware than when the internship started?
5) Commit to success. Set the intern up for this. Make sure this person has adequate training to do what is asked. Provide appropriate supervision, the right equipment, and all the information needed to accomplish the work. Stay close to the person. As I said, interns are not traditional employees. You might give other employees lots of rope or keep them at an arms-length, but interns, by definition, ask for—and require—a closer relationship than normal.
An internship that's properly structured and managed well 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 never would 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.
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