Youth Interns: Is Your Church Following the Law?

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By Rev. Thad Austin, Editor of Seedbed’s Upcoming Church Leader Collective

This article is not intended to be legal advice, but rather risk management best practices.

In every church I have served, there has been at least one youth who has worked for the church as an intern. Unfortunately, many churches do not understand the dynamics of this relationship or the legal obligations it brings. The consequences of not following the law are substantial; so, listen up!

In 1938, congress passed the The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This law established federal regulations like the forty-hour workweek, minimum wage, and overtime. The law seeks to ensure that employees are not mistreated and that employees are appropriately compensated for their time. The Department of Labor (DOL) recognizes an exception from the FLSA “for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation for religious” purposes.

Here are a few basic suggestions for internships adapted from the DOL’s guidance:

  • Internships should be educational—like the training received in a learning environment.
  • Internships are for the benefit of the intern, not the church.
  • Don’t take advantage of the intern in any way.
  • Be sure that both parties understand the nature of intern’s duties.
  • Clearly establish expectations regarding compensation and work hours.  
  • If engaging in an unpaid internship, ensure that the intern meets all of the DOL’s criteria and appropriately document the agreement.
  • If you compensate your intern for his/her time, be sure that you are meeting or exceeding minimum wage requirements, are not surpassing legally established work hours, and are withholding taxes that may be due.
  • An intern cannot “displace regular employees.” The intern can be supervised by church staff, but the intern can’t take any of their jobs.
  • There should be no guarantee of employment at the end of the internship.  If there is, the law says you should hire the intern from the outset.

Be sure to follow all federal, state, and local laws. And always, be sure to consult an attorney to ensure your employment practices are legally compliant.

Rev. Thad Austin is an elder in the Tennessee Conference of the UMC, a Ph.D. student at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and the Graduate Assistant at The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving.  

In early 2016, Seedbed will launch a new Church Leader Collective that will focus on church administration, finance, HR, stewardship, volunteers, budgets, committee management, facilities management, capital campaigns.  If you are interested in learning more, contact Rev. Thad Austin.  

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Thad Austin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and William and Edie Enright Fellow at The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. Thad also serves as Editor of the Church Leader Collective for Seedbed. Thad served as Executive Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In his free time, Thad loves to travel (41 countries and all 50 states, thus far), hike (has hiked the 1,100 miles between Pennsylvania and Georgia), sail, and spend time with friends.

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