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  • Hannah Williamson


How might church internships look different with Gen Z?

I was 18 when I decided to take a gap year and serve in my local church. Back then it was a fairly ‘popular’ thing to do within the church world. I opted to stay at home and serve in my local church while my sister went to a large church in Australia for a year. I worked hard during my last few years at school and during all the holidays to save up to be able to have enough money to do a year of serving my local church. The year was full on and consisted of a great deal of schools ministry and youth work. It was during this time that I really heard God call me into youth ministry and I gained such a heart for my local area. My internship wasn’t always a pleasant experience but that was more to do with what God was doing in me and me working out who I was than down to any pressures around me. I see the benefit of internships and throughout my time as a Youth Pastor, actively offered this in various different formats. Sometimes it worked, at other times it was difficult but that's how these things go eh?

Over the past few years there have been some themes coming through within the christian church world around how we handle volunteers and projects like internships ensuring we are treating people fairly, with respect and not overworking. There are some churches that have come under criticism due to their lack of care shown to young people and other volunteers that serve in an internship situation. How can we avoid this being the case, ensuring that we are raising a generation of young leaders who will lead well into the future?

My heart has always been for the raising and releasing of young people and I think internships do play a significant part in the journey of many. I do wonder, however if we have to think a little differently about how we do internships in light of the new generation coming through and the unique complexities in the world that they are facing, ensuring we are giving young people a positive experience that will set them up for life and ministry. I want to look at some of the uniqueness of Generation Z and how we can be aware of this in shaping what an internship may be like….

“Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you” Psalm 9:10

Forbes wrote an article back in 2021 entitled ‘GenZ : they crave stability and trust, so give it to them.’ In it, it says, “And while they are naturally used to instability, they will be drawn to stability. They look for places where they can place their trust.” I sat with a woman recently who was the head of the youth service in a London borough. She spoke of how an overriding problem was that youth workers did not ‘stick it out’ with young people and so those young people just didn’t trust those people seen to be in authority. We know there has been so much instability across the world within politics and then when we look at the local church and how so many people in positions of trust have failed people it is no wonder that GenZ struggle to trust.

How might this impact on what an internship could look like?

Taking a year out to serve your local church or a parachurch organisation takes a big faith step. I know for me, saving up enough money for the year required me to trust Jesus. This forced me to ask the question of who I was doing this internship for - was it for God or was it for the leaders within my church? We have observed a lot of ‘celebrity leaders’ in the church and I think it’s important that the motivation for doing a year out is not to please a leader but to serve God. Yes, we honour those that lead us but they are not the ones we are giving our lives for. Working with young people over the years I have seen things change from young people just accepting what they are told to being more questioning. This can be seen as a negative but the reality is that the disciples and Jesus asked a lot of questions. That is how they learnt. We need to create environments within our internship programmes that allow for question asking - and not just questions around the bible but also an open space for young leaders to question authority. That sounds a little bit too harsh, but done it the right way it is powerful. Leaders can often get defensive when someone younger asks why they are doing something the way they are - but this is how we learn. How can we foster environments for interns where they can ask questions that will help us as older leaders challenge our thinking?

Another response I think we should have to help with the ‘trust’ issues is to ensure that interns have trusted mentors outside of their direct context who they can go to with anything they are struggling with. Working with others day in and day out can cause tensions and challenges. Sometimes interns need someone else they can speak things through. And not someone they feel will just report back on what they are saying! They need a trusted voice to guide, challenge and just listen to them without judgement. Could you help them find this person from the get go so that they have a safe space? This may require you being secure in yourself as they may have to off-load about you!!!

“The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” Romans 8:6

It’s no great surprise that one of the challenges facing GenZ is mental health. GenZ have grown up in a world where tech, social media and gaming are the norm. Cancel culture is so a part of the culture that it again is the norm. Youthscape did some research in 2021 into GenZ and stated that “84% of 16-24s say their mental health has been negatively affected by the past 18 months, and 67% believe the pandemic will have a long-term impact on their mental health.” We are now in 2023 and I think we can confidently say that young people’s mental health has been affected. I have been working over the past 2 years consulting with churches and have noticed a common pattern which is that Pastors are not particularly good at taking care of their mental health - they work long hours, place high expectations on volunteers and rarely take a day off or a holiday. This does not paint a very good picture for the generations coming through - what feet are they following in?

How might this impact on what an internship could look like?

I remember it being a ‘joke’ that the interns got all of the jobs others didn’t want to do at church. Anything a leader couldn’t be bothered to do was passed down to the young leader. This was certainly not always the case and there were definitely elements where I needed to learn that ministry isn’t all glamorous but sometimes I think this culture has permeated too much of internships. I think we need to consider how we can give interns a positive, fulfilling and challenging experience of working within a church context. What does it mean to do ministry? I think this is why it is so important to plan strategically what an internship looks like so that their time is full and meaningful which means you don’t just end up scraping around for jobs to hand off but can give young people a well-rounded learning experience. This may mean you opt for a part time internship rather than full time so that the time they do give can be filled well and planned with intentionality.

I also think in light of the mental health crisis in our world we have to teach and model good emotional health. Firstly, you as the leader must model what it is to take a day off and respect the day off of the intern. That may mean you do not text or email the intern on their day off. Secondly, we have to teach this. Plan into your programme a section on self-leadership and emotional health. If you need to, get someone in to speak about this. Ensure the intern has a healthy support structure. Imagine what things could be like for the future generation if we modelled and taught on this now - maybe there would be less burnout in ministry down the line?

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20

GenZ have been known as the ‘Justice or Activist’ generation. A generation impassioned about various issues facing our world today. I love this about this generation although it can have its challenges. I wonder if this could have an impact on mental health because of young people facing compassion fatigue as they fight matters of justice? Maybe that’s another thought for another day. If we focus on the positive aspect of this however, we can see that this generation want to fight for a cause. As Jesus followers there is a great cause to follow - that of winning a world for Jesus. How can we as churches raise and empower a generation of young people who make a difference in our world and how can internships assist in that?

How might this impact on what an internship could look like?

This is why I believe it is so important to have a strategic plan for interns rather than them just coming to church each morning and doing odd jobs around the building. ‘Odd jobs’ have to be done but mix it with causes that make a difference in your community. Paint a picture to your interns of what making a difference could look like. Help them think through how they could bring change to your community and let them try out some ideas. Maybe you could think through ways to expose your interns to people both in your community, nation and around the world who are making a difference, bringing the gospel to people and influencing society. Sending interns on a mission trip can really open up the eyes of young people to other making a difference in other parts of the world. Are there local charities working with people in your community that the interns could meet, ask questions of and have an experience serving? Finally consider how you explain the ‘why’ behind what you are asking an intern to do. For example, maybe an intern spends a day in your church foodbank. Explain how this is making an impact in your area and how they are part of this - help them to reflect on what they are learning through this experience and encourage them to think through new ideas to make a difference.

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” 2 Timothy 4:3

Throughout history there has always been moral issues to contend with - 2 Timothy clearly states that this was a problem in the early church and it is now. The truth is that some of the moral issues facing the generation coming through are complex and church leaders and trying to navigate their way through how to answer the tough questions out there. I sense in my work with young people and young leaders that there is a hunger for understanding. Young people sit in schools, colleges and universities often afraid to stand up for what they believe in, in case they are misunderstood for their views. I think there is a need to offer sound teaching that is understandable to the generation coming through. They need to be confident on what the bible teaches and how to relay that to those around them.

How might this impact on what an internship could look like?

I think there is a need with internships to offer good teaching as part of the programme as well as practical outworking. I think in years gone by this has sometimes swung one way or the other - teaching but no practical outworking so that young people come out of bible colleges with no understanding of how to do ministry in the real world or it has all been practical outworking with very little depth of understanding into moral issues. What could it look like to offer a balanced approach to internships which teaches on some of the complex moral issues whilst allowing young people to outwork what they are learning through conversations with people in the world? There may of course be internships that are a year out before a young person goes onto bible college - if this is the case, how can you ‘wet their appetite’ for spiritual understanding and study in the gap year you offer? Who could you get in to speak to interns? How can you create learning environments to dig into some of the challenging topics?

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Acts 8: 30-31

I was recently listening to a podcast ( and the title was ‘the emerging evangelistic opportunity in a time of upheaval.’ It was saying how we are living in a time where people are open to the things of God and so this is a great opportunity for us to share the gospel - some of this may be due to the turmoil in our world. It can be easy when it comes to interns, to get them serving within the confines of the church building but what could it be like it we helped them and equipped them to be able to sit with people and share Jesus? I love the story above where Philip is giving an easy way in to share the gospel. Young people are often sharing things about themselves online in snapshots - how can we help them not only talk about themselves but share Jesus?

How might this impact on what an internship could look like?

When it comes to internships, I think its vital to help young leaders by the power of the Holy Spirit, go out into the world sharing the gospel. How can we create challenging environments where they have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them? My experience of an internship definitely did this for me. I was often in a school RE lesson or an assembly having to learn how to share my faith in a way that was easy to understand but also wouldn’t get us kicked out of the school! This is a skill to learn! It’s far easier inside the confines of your youth ministry but in a more secular setting you have to learn to be tactful whilst also following the lead of the Holy Spirit - great skills to learn when a young person may go onto university or into the world of work! I have been questioning recently what it would look like for a group of interns to be part of planting a church - I feel like already I can hear the cries of ‘they are too young and inexperienced’! But we must not forget Jesus used young people to plant churches. Of course we need leaders inputting and guiding but imagine if your young people started loving an estate during their internship that opened up doors for you as a church to plant a church there? And what kind of experience would that give the young person which may impact their future either as a church planter or someone who is part of church planting?

There are so many different ways of doing internships but I think at the heart of it we have to ensure that offering an internship to a young person is not about churches building their volunteer base but is about the intentional development of young leaders and future rocks in our churches. It is about us finding ways to develop them in their walk with Jesus and their leadership, to expose them to ministry and to draw out of them the calling upon their lives. However you do internships, ensure that is at the heart. As I close I will leave you with a few questions to consider when thinking about taking on internships.

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