Partners or Employers? Internship Sites, Money, and Education

This post is my mini-manifesto against funding internships through direct pay by sites.  But I want to begin with a story.

I fell into my position as a field educator when I was still technically a graduate student at the same university, completing my dissertation for a doctorate.  As a graduate student I had been heavily involved in a campaign to unionize Teaching Assistants across the university.  I had become quite familiar with the arguments leveled against unionization:  “You are students, not workers.”  “Teaching assistantships are part of your education.”  Yet we paid no tuition for the experience, received no credit for it, and no one ever suggested that it was required for the degree.  Some graduate students avoided serving as TAs altogether because they did not need the money and/or preferred to devote their time to research and writing.  Simply put, the work was not part of the curriculum, and if we did not work at our TA positions, we did not get paid.

So when I became a field educator while still a graduate student, I naturally asked myself: Could my interns unionize?  Could they get together and demand that I recognize them as workers who deserved better pay and benefits?  What were the differences between internships in theological education and teaching assistantships in graduate education?  I attended my first ATFE biennial conference, and learned the history of field education.  It had started as “field work,” I was told, with seminarians financing their degrees by serving as part-time pastors, until a few educators realized what a great learning experience the work was and pushed to incorporate it into the theological curriculum. That was 1946.

I became motivated, then, not to copy what I perceived to be the hypocrisy built into teaching assistantships.  My internships were going to be genuinely educational, even if they also involved work.  Because, if truth be told, I had learned so much from the work I’d done as a TA.  I’d valued the experience and never would have wished to get through graduate school without it.  I’d learned how to run a good discussion section, how to grade, how to weather complaints about my grading, how to deliver a lecture to an auditorium full of students, how I might have changed aspects of the professors’ syllabi.  I leaned on my TA colleagues as we taught each other how to teach.  In short, I found out what the teaching vocation was like from the inside. But I had felt that the university neither valued my labor nor supported me enough in my training to be a teacher.

So as a field educator I took several steps.  First, I lobbied the faculty to make field education into a credit-bearing course in the curriculum.  To register for the course was to take the whole package: work in the field plus supervision plus a weekly peer group for theological reflection.  Second, I changed the financial structure of internships.  Interns would no longer be paid directly by their sites but, rather, would receive extra financial aid from the school during the semesters they were enrolled in field education (to compensate for the extra time they might otherwise spend working a job).  Eventually the dean even figured out how to fund internships without my having to ask sites for any contribution.  It became possible for me to create interesting internships in sites that never otherwise would have been able to afford interns.  It allowed us to eliminate favoritism and treat all internships equally. The association of field education with paid labor was broken.

Some say that we should model the reality that ministry is work and deserving of just compensation that ministers-in-training need to learn to negotiate for.  Others argue that financially strapped theological schools cannot afford to support interns and must ask sites to pitch in.  I am sympathetic.  Just as I experienced my teaching assistantships as equal parts learning and labor, I acknowledge that ministry internships are both.  But I am less persuaded by the second argument.  Is it really more effective for schools to ask ministry sites to pay for internships during certain years than it is to cultivate sites as long-term donors to the institution, partners in the enterprise of theological education?  There are many different ways to fund theological education and to support students, and I just wonder how crucial ad hoc pay-for-work internships are to the overall equation.

They may be.  But I think it’s worth continuing to ask, as did those first ATFE educators in 1946, whether it’s field work or field education. For me, it was stepping in with the experience of labor organizing fresh on my mind.  For others now, it is the coronavirus pandemic revealing cracks in the economic structure of their programs.  Interns across the country whose positions came to an end through no fault of their own were suddenly in financial risk.  Should this be, if their work was a required part of the curriculum?  It is time that we reevaluate how money fits in to the big picture of learning for ministry.

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