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Opinion >

Church interns: a new injustice

Young volunteers are being exploited by congregations, writes an intern

Internships in churches are now regarded as something of a rite of passage for young Christians. While peers are applying for graduate schemes and postgraduate opportunities, Christians are reminded frequently of the benefits of committing a year to their church or Christian Union (CU).

This is one brief but brilliant year, we are assured, when our time will be dedicated entirely to spiritual growth, when we will be surrounded by those who are mature in faith, and will benefit from their support. Eventually, we should emerge butterfly-like from our church cocoon, having been honed into a faithful adult, ready to tackle the world. It is an appealing prospect for any young Christian, and, with youth unemployment at an all-time high, it is an option that many take.

As only limited money is available, interns are often funded by church bursaries or private sponsors. I was sustained by financial gifts and a babysitting job, which made me one of the lucky ones; my church was prepared to budget for me, and I was allowed enough time to take a second job.

Despite this, I was still living well below the UK poverty line. Typing it now still leaves me in shock: a young, able graduate, employed by a loving, well-to-do church, was living below the poverty line.

I never put it like this because, to my mind, "poverty" is homelessness, swollen African bellies, and soup kitchens. And I will not belittle the pain of those truly suffering; I thanked God that I had a roof over my head, and in reality knew nothing of misery.

What "poverty" looked like for me was struggling to pay rent for my cheap and grotty lodgings, limiting meals to bready basics, and frequently walking more than an hour each way to attend appointments because the £2 bus fare was £2 too much.

I was, however, hugely grateful that I was financed directly through my church; the majority of my friends in similar schemes sought sponsors. The process, as one friend crudely but fairly termed it, of "begging for charity" was embarrassing for both parties.

I was buoyed along, reminded continually by a well-meaning congregation that "God will provide," and that this was a year to be a "dedicated servant". By far my greatest support during that year, however, was fellow interns, at other churches and CUs.

What had originally been designated as prayer mornings ended up as snatches of time between our exhausting schedules (it is an unspoken requirement of interns that they may not turn down any call for assistance, on any rota). Here, we bemoaned our lack of rest, lack of mentoring, and lack of money. Somewhere along the way, we had got being servant-hearted confused with slavery.

Unregulated, unpaid internships are now common in the secular workplace, but they are an abuse of young people, and an insult to their abilities. The Church should not be falling in line with this practice, but instead challenging the norm, and championing employment and fair pay. It is ironic that many food banks are run on the labour of unpaid interns, young people desperate to work, and keen to serve.

I know people who have benefited hugely from their internships, which provided them with breathing space between university and employment, where they were nurtured and challenged by their church families. Most of these people, however, were blessed enough to be able to live with their parents, where the basics of rent and food were met. Even time is less of a worry when someone else is doing your laundry.

Volunteers have always been the lifeblood of church work, and I am by no means arguing that this should not be the case. But there is a significant difference between the retired gentleman helping with the tea rota, or the husband-supported wife running the crèche, and the young person who dedicates up to 100 per cent of his or her potential earning hours to the service of the church.

This is not voluntary service. It is work; and refusing payment for it pushes the boundaries of legality. It is also is an insult to God's laws for it robs young people of basic dignities.

If these people are contributing significantly to the running of the church, then that contribution should be fairly acknowledged with a reasonable wage; for "the labourer is worthy of his reward" (1 Timothy 5.18).

The bitter finale of my year as an intern was discovering that, despite my having taken on varied tasks and management positions, church work is quickly dismissed by secular employers. Far from preparing me for the world of work, I was in the same position as the newly graduated, only poorer.

When I finally secured another post, having relied on my overdraft facility throughout the year, I had no way of paying the deposit required to relocate to a new area. I felt spiritually battered, and financially stunted.

I am writing anonymously because I know that my church loved me, and was committed to my well-being. The congregation endeavoured to support me, and every individual aimed to provide me with encouragement and opportunity. They would be deeply hurt to realise the reality of my situation.

That is why I am writing this, because interns around the country are in the same situation, but they will not speak out; they will not give voice to their struggles or the impact of these, because they are fearful of the pain this would cause the congregations whom they love.

So, if you are part of a church that employs interns, please consider whether these harsh truths could be their words. Then ask yourself, as when faced with any injustice: what are you going to do about it?

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