A Closer Look at Church Internship and Residency Programs
Examining the statistics behind a growing ministry phenomenon.
A Closer Look at Church Internship and Residency Programs

If you attend a relatively large church, then chances are you may be familiar with church internship or residency programs. In fact, 74 percent of churches with 2,000 members or more have such programs for those hoping to enter ministry.

Recently, Leadership Network conducted a survey (sponsored by Southeastern University) in order to gather more information about these programs.

“There are more of them that you’re going to be seeing in the coming years,” said Warren Bird, Leadership Network’s research director, during a webinar discussing the survey results. “This is only going to grow.”

And that’s not limited to megachurches: according to the survey report, internships and residencies at churches “are developing in churches large and small, denominational and not, urban and suburban” and “across all ethnicities and economic levels.”

The survey—in which 328 churches participated—highlighted the various trends at work in these programs, the majority of which are relatively new: five years old or younger.

Developing future ministry leaders seems to be a main reason churches offer these programs. According to the survey, leadership development was a key component in these churches’ decisions to offer internships or residencies, with another top priority being the chance to assist interns or residents in discovering their “vocational calling.” The most common way for churches to gauge their programs’ success was through a look at the “personal maturity in the life of the intern/resident,” with each church quantifying that maturity differently.

But who are these interns or residents, exactly? A majority of programs target recent graduates, with college graduates being the most common group to reach out to (followed by high school and seminary graduates). Churches often found their best interns in their own congregations—a trend Bird referred to as a “cherry-picking mentality”—but applicants also came through previous interns’ references, seminary partnerships, and more.

Upon completion of their programs, more than a third of interns join the staff of their sponsor church or begin working at another church. Another quarter pursued additional schooling, 22 percent began “a significant volunteer role” at the sponsoring church, and some went on to become missionaries or plant their own churches.

According to the statistics, many of those interns were likely working in a track for children and youth ministry: in churches that offered particular tracks or specialty programs (and 90 percent did), those for children and youth were the most popular, at 76 percent. The high number makes sense, Bird believes; without a successful and effective ministry for younger believers, a church is “not going very far,” he said. Tracks focusing on media, video, and worship arts as well as pastoral ministry, followed as the most successful specialty programs.

Connections to academia abound in church internship and residency programs; nearly half of the survey participants offer academic credit of some kind for their interns and residents. The programs also have a tendency to be “tied . . . to the academic year,” according to Bird: a trend that can be seen in the programs’ start times, which are “overwhelmingly” in the fall.

The survey also highlighted other aspects of these programs, including churches’ decisions on whether to name them “internships” or “residencies.” “Residency” is a growing term (borrowed from the medical field), but according to the data, 63 percent of the surveyed churches’ programs were called “internships.”

As prevalent as these programs may be, and as likely they are to continue to grow, churches must exercise caution in launching or developing them.

In order to avoid risks of illegal activity—however unintentional—involving unfair employment practices, churches should be fully aware of the distinctions between an intern or resident and an employee, taking advantage of the resources available to fully define those distinctions.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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