“I’ve just got nothing left to give.”
With that one statement, I summed up all the emptiness and turmoil, the bad decisions and the broken relationships of the past few months. It was early in 2005, and I was sitting in my parent’s lounge with two of my pastors, reflecting on the way my life had just collapsed under the weight of expectations and busyness halfway through a two year internship in a mainstream evangelical church. I was a burnt out mess, and about to begin a long and slow journey from brokenness to wholeness.
During the next two years, my life was like a roller coaster as I worked through my burnout experience and had to challenge many of my core beliefs about who I was as a Christian. In the decade since my burnout experience, I’ve met many others who have faced the same feelings of exhaustion and isolation. Many of these individuals have been young people who have been involved in mainstream evangelical church internships. Often these young people had started their internships without a strong support network, with little life experience and with high expectations of how God was going to use them in service to the Church. Invariably these young people would tell me stories of high-pressure work situations, with long hours during the week trawling administrative databases, setting up auditoriums and writing essays, followed by five or six church services over the weekend. The end result for these young people was often the same: they dropped out of their internship, they hurt people around them, and in a number of cases, they turned their back on their faith. These young people had lost sight of the earnest reasons that had bought with them into the internship program under the weight of reality.
The reality of ministry had hit me hard before I burnt out. The pressures I faced during the long hours I spent at the church were never mitigated by a strong support network or a church system that was looking out for my welfare. I never opened up to people, and people never asked me to. Like so many interns, however, I was emotionally drained and in desperate need of someone to step in alongside me and help me through. I never said no to an opportunity, and never took a decent break – I was at risk for a long time without anyone picking up the signals. It wasn’t until everything took a dive that people started to ask the right questions.
My situation and the heartbreaking situations of so many young interns who have burnt out bring up some uncomfortable questions: Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are putting talented and enthusiastic young people into a situation that places them at such high risk of failure? A lot of this of the behaviour these busy young people are exhibiting is based on a performance-oriented, hierarchical evangelical church culture, that values numbers and high quality production values more than it values the wellbeing of individuals. In this church culture, the worst tasks flow to those trying to get a start in ministry, which is handy, since these tasks (apparently) help grow character. We place the demands of the now (A slick service, good turnouts, a great experience for the visiting leadership we’re hosting) before the necessities of the future (spiritual growth, solid relationships and a manageable workload).
And the future is uncertain for young people wanting to break into full time Christian ministry in a mainstream evangelical church. Ministry is often portrayed at big youth events as a glamorous lifestyle, and for those in the highest tiers of leadership it most certainly is – involving travel, money, prestige and influence. From the outside it looks highly enticing. But for young people entering into internships, the reality is different – to land a full time ministry role in the inner circle of a leadership team is a highly relational and opaque process. This means young interns are often out to impress, to not put anyone offside, and to get close to those that can make these ministry opportunities a reality. In practicality this means long hours of volunteering, never saying no, and certainly not speaking up when times get tough.
Considering all these challenges, there has to be a better way for us to care for the young people who want to get involved in Christian Ministry through internships. We need church leaders to guide the way through leading balanced lives that have sustainable workloads. We need to set a culture that allows people to fail, and values times of refreshing, just as Jesus did. In many ways, the church internship culture simply reflects the busy world around us – but we’re called to be a light of hope, a point of difference in a world that needs to see the light of Christ. We need to value sustainable, stable lifestyle choices by our young people above talent and performance. What if we actually made a strong support network a mandatory part of an internship application? What if we told interns to go home when they were working too much? What if we gave interns regular Sundays off to recover, acknowledging the huge amount of work they put in to keep the church running smoothly?
It’s time to rethink the way we interact and value young people interning in our churches. At the heart of it all, we need to let our young people know that we value them first and foremost as people far more than we value what they can do.
Here’s to a church internship culture that raises up a generation of passionate, grounded young people who are equipped for the long haul.