The Unpaid Master’s Commission Intern, Legal or Not?

Are Unpaid Master’s Commission Internships Legal or

Not? OR: How to Out Your Pastor for Not

Paying YOU!

A Little Pebble Can Make a Lot of Waves

I just read this in a fishing magazine of all places. My dad and mom love Alaska, so we have a lot of outdoor adventure magazines around the house.

What’s odd is that I always knew I’d wanted to make a difference in the world somehow, but I never thought my blog might make a big difference. What’s unique about this blog is that it’s the only place that I know of that openly speaks about the spiritual abuse people have faced in Master’s Commission.

When I was in Master’s Commission, people would come up to me and say, “You’re a great woman of God,” or “You’re going to change the world,” or “You’re going to be a voice for the voiceless.”

I honestly think that a lot of what people said was sweet, but just very generic and sometimes very hokey (you know the type of old women who come up and wave flags over your head and speak in tongues like they’re on drugs? yeah, that’s hokey to me). But, what is so ironic to me is the fact that my little pebble-self has made some big waves since July, 2010.

Waves Were Made

Not even five months have gone by and I’ve been contacted by Lloyd Zeigler, co-founder of the Master’s Commission International Network (MCIN) and director of my former Master’s Commission group in Phoenix (now Master’s Commission USA in Dallas, Texas). We discussed some very heavy issues for months and I prodded him to take action over a letter documenting spiritual abuse and slavery-like treatment of staff members. He did take action and the group I was part of, Master’s Commission Industries (now Elevate 3D–who operate in Pods out of Our Savior’s Churches in Louisiana), lost it’s affiliation from the MCIN because of the contacts I made with over twenty former students and staff members, and the encouragement I gave them to write to Lloyd Zeigler. They did.

The MCIN Agrees With Unpaid Internships

Lloyd and I disagreed and ended up parting ways over a variety of issues I continued to try to bring into dialogue. I found out we didn’t agree on a great many points and I was not going to stop until things were better for future students and staff members.

Now, I’m on my own and no one is here to advocate except for me. Lloyd argued with me when I told him that seven year long staff members can’t be treated as interns.

It’s unethical and illegal, even if they’re willing to stay!

I shared with him a New York Times article about how the Department of Labor has been cracking down (for several months now) on business who have interns. Trust me, they’ll catch up to Master’s Commission soon enough–even if it’s through my personal contact to them (which I have).

Lloyd Zeigler stated his case: He’s known doctors who interned for a year and weren’t paid. He knew a zoologist who interned unpaid for a year. It was ethical to him, because Master’s Commission was giving value to the students who interned (for more than a year…even for fifteen years).

I explained to him that there was a huge difference. A doctor goes into the field knowing that he will spend several years studying very demanding biology courses, and then will take a difficult MCAT exam and will spend some time training in the field so that he can make a six figure income (or more).

Additionally, I know teachers who have earned their teaching credential by spending one or two years (depending on the school they attend) taking credentialing courses and student teaching. Student teaching is unpaid, but you’re warned about it early on. You’re also qualified to teach after the student teaching, and can earn a great salary, benefits and three months off in the summer. Not a bad deal.

“Interning” in Master’s Commission is not at all like becoming a doctor or a teacher. If a Master’s Commission student or staff goes into ministry, they rarely become a senior pastor. Most, if not all, become a youth pastor and/or a Master’s Commission director. These youth pastor jobs aren’t always high paid, and Master’s Commission directors do have the luxury of getting compensated financially out of their MC budget.

Why Master’s Commission Staff Members Don’t File Complaints

Why don’t Master’s Commission staff members file complaints, speak up, or report their unpaid “internships?” In my case, I had a very difficult time finding out WHO was the proper person to report this violation to. I spent time as a staff member unpaid, and other years was severely underpaid at $50-$150 a month.

The New York Times reports that, “…It is unusually hard to mount a major enforcement effort because interns are often afraid to file complaints. Many fear they will become known as troublemakers in their chosen field, endangering their chances with a potential future employer.”

I know this to be true. Many of my peers who served as staff members in my own Master’s Commission, or close-by groups in Texas complained to me about not getting paid or getting severely underpaid. However, none of them wanted to be the whistle-blower.

For good reason.

Master’s Commission carries with it a “don’t criticize” and “don’t question the authority” unwritten rule. If you do speak up about something you’re unhappy about, you’re often accused of being “ungrateful” or your spiritual life is called into question.

No “intern” or staff member would want to speak up and risk the chances of being labeled a troublemaker or endangering their chances of networking with a pastor who knows of Master’s Commission and respects the group. If your ultimate goal was to be a pastor, you wouldn’t want to speak up either.

Where To File a Complaint

The other question is where do you speak up, if you want to?

I considered several places. The “Christian” thing to do, in my mind then, was to talk to the pastors themselves. The ones I had an issue with. So, I did. That went nowhere, which left me a bit helpless.

Where else was one to go?

I went to Lloyd Zeigler, and let him know that these things were happening, and he should address them. Turns out, it took a few years for anything to change, and even then, not much has changed within the Master’s Commission International Network and their treatment of staff. I learned during those months that Lloyd didn’t even pay his staff members a fair wage (severely less than minimum wage).

I also learned that the position a Master’s Commission staff member is in it is less likely to draw attention from the Department of Labor if laws are violated because the way the groups are set up. Often, the groups aren’t set up as ministries within the church, but sort of under an umbrella. Not to mention, churches often aren’t scrutinized by the government, since they non-profit groups. They typically have to be reported to the government, by the intern his or herself.

Seek out an Employment Lawyer–Immediately

Another option that would resolve issues is for the staff member to contact an employment lawyer in the state that he or she served in Master’s Commission. If the offense happened in Texas, then you must contact a Texas lawyer who handles Employment Law.

What is the offense? If you were a staff member in Master’s Commission, or on any church staff, and were unpaid or underpaid, you have the right to file a suit against that group for back wages. You can search online for wage comparisons for the type of work you did and find the minimum wages that you should have been paid. Any job worked should have been paid minimum wage, at the very least, but jobs such as Administration have a minimum yearly salary that is required to be paid (even by churches). To ensure winning your case, you should speak to a lawyer within two years of leaving your Master’s Commission group, or church. Some lawyers will attempt the case after three years, and there are some cases where a lawyer may take your case due to the cult-like behavior of a group like Master’s Commission. In this case, a lawyer will file against the Master’s Commission group up to several years after you’ve left, especially if you can prove that you required medical attention or therapy after your years within the group.

Another place to contact is the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU. In order to receive legal representation, you must find a local affiliate. You can do so here: http://www.aclu.org/affiliates.  I’ve reported my case to my local affiliate.

Find an Investigative Reporter

When Ted Haggard was outed for his sex scandal, Mike Jones (the callboy) turned to a news reporter, Paula Woodward, an investigative reporter at KUSA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Denver, Colorado. A news reporter, especially a local investigative journalist may be able to begin work on the story. (For more information, click here: http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/how_pastor_ted_got_outed.php)

I’ve contacted several investigative reporters, and have been emailing one in Lafayette, Louisiana.

I’ve also contacted Oprah, 60 minutes, CNN, Gloria Allred, and several lawyers in Texas and Louisiana.

Every local news station or news paper has an investigative reporter. You can google to find the official newsite and then look at their reporter’s profiles to find their email address. Most journalists respond to emails sent to them.

In addition, places like CNN, FOX News, or MSNBC are very interested in hearing these type of stories. They always have a contact page on their official website, with instructions to follow. You typically have to prepare a press release write-up, which can be a lot of effort, but you can always find sources online that can help you prepare a press release with your story. Include facts, such as how much you were paid (or not paid), how many hours you worked, what types of labor you did, and any other information that you think would be relevant to a media story.

How to Report to the Internal Revenue Service

Additionally, you can report financial indiscretions (such as political contributions, which are illegal or being underpaid as a church employee) to the IRS. On the IRS website, it talks about reporting a church to the IRS:

The IRS may only initiate a church tax inquiry if the Director, Exempt Organizations Examinations, reasonably believes, based on a written statement of the facts and circumstances, that the organization: (a) may not qualify for the exemption; or (b) may not be paying tax on unrelated business or other taxable activity. This reasonable belief must be based on facts and circumstances recorded in writing.

The IRS can obtain the information supporting a reasonable belief from many sources, including but not limited to:

  • Newspaper or magazine articles or ads,
  • Television and radio reports,
  • Internet web pages,
  • Voters guides created and/or distributed by the church,
  • Documents on file with the IRS (e.g. a Form 990-T filed by the church), and
  • Records concerning the church in the possession of third parties or informants.

The IRS must derive the facts and circumstances forming the basis for a reasonable belief from information lawfully obtained. If this information is obtained from informants, it must not be known to be unreliable.  Failure of the church to respond to repeated IRS routine requests for information is a factor in determining if there is reasonable cause for commencing a church tax inquiry.

You can find more information on the IRS auditing Churches here: http://www.irs.gov/charities/churches/article/0,,id=181365,00.html

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Lisa Kerr

Lisa is a writer, editor and humorist who has been featured on the Huffington Post, Philly.com, New York magazine, and BreakThru Radio. Find more of her at: thelisakerr.com.

15 Comments

  1. Did MC build an atmosphere of helplessness in the trainees or did they expound the virtues of self-sacrifice…both…or neither?

    Either way, it looks like they have found people who willingly get exploited.

    I hope some have the courage to look at these possible remedies of yours as good options Lisa.

  2. This is a bit insane I was in masters comission and I can understand where your comming from but I don’t agree with it at all and I doubt most interns would agree. People serve ministrys for years and never get paid… its called being a volenteer. masters comission is a school, “interns” don’t pay tuition and they can still atend class seems like a good deal honestly. As far as abuse goes id say when a bunch of people who are not perfect get together bad stuff can and has happend, I persanaly apolagise on behalf of MC and christians everywhere if you were hurt while at masters, people are ugly things and we hurt each other that’s not ok at all and being through kind of what you have been through (not abuse but MC) I am deeply sorry you were wronged. It may be healthyer to continue to fight for a beter masters comission rather than slander it and call it a cult. I can say honestly that does more harm than good… for you, for MC, and even for people who love MC like myself.

    • Brandon,
      Volunteering is a great thing. I believe everyone should volunteer every once in awhile, or perform some kind of service. It’s a great thing to do.

      What I’m bringing up is the abuse of young adults who pay $5500 or more for tuition for 9 months and become “servants” to the church. It’s a known fact that first year students clean toilets, mop floors, etc. more than they actually do ministry in most MC programs.

      Also, when you become an Intern in college, you’re attending a University and it goes toward college credit. Let’s say you enter an internship at a newspaper or magazine. You may do grunt work: get coffee, run errands, read through emails, etc. But at the end of the day, you’re allowed to go home. You may intern 15 HOURS A WEEK and that’s it! A professional intern (in the secular world) is NOT a live-in, on call grunt worker for their pastor or director.

      MC is becoming just that–unprofessional and abusive of young “interns” rights and lives.

      • I just want to clear up again that no one in MCUSA cleans toilets or mops floors. Occasionally, when Master’s uses a room or hosts an event they might have to set a room up and vacuum or sweep. But no one is treated like a slave or forced to act as a live-in intern. In fact, most nights student are home by 8 PM. With multiple food breaks throughout the day.

        • I am an alumni of MC Phoenix which is now MCUSA. Not much has changed.

          I’m aware of what they’re required to do and not do. As to cleaning toilets specifically, that’s something MC Austin and Elevate 3D required of us.

          But you just stated that MCUSA students are required to do janitorial duties, such as setting a room up and vacuuming and sweeping.

          What I want to make clear is that the use of the term “intern” for MC students and staff is wholly incorrect, misleading and the usage of those students and staff for the work they do is ILLEGAL. Internship laws are changing and what is required of MC staff is now considered illegal. They can be prosecuted for that, whether the student or staff member CONSENTS or not. Whether you like doing it or not, it’s still wrong.

    • Brandon,
      To correct you, Master’s is NOT a school. It’s not even partnered with an accredited university. Your degree through their partnership school has no basis with the US Department of Education.

  3. Always love it :( when somebody includes “This is a bit insane” and “I’m sorry” in the same paragraph directed to the same person.

    Big difference between identifying what a program is or is becoming and handling things as a once occurring sin.

    Handling an abusive system in terms of once occurring sin is not sound, it only enables the abuse. “not sane”

    Handling once occurring sin as a systematic issue will likewise lead to things being improperly handled. FYI, this is what hurting people sometimes do, show some compassion! NO compassion = “not sane”

    Loveless & forced servitude = abuse IMO

    • Again, good point Jeff. One of the best things I gained upon being hurt was compassion. It’s such a lovely thing. Like I read on the Cult Help website last night, you gain some really great things AFTER leaving a cult: namely compassion for others without an air of superiority.

  4. Not sure I can agree with the blog but I can tell you that my director would feed to us the line once masters always masters, but in reality its once you leave masters then you don’t exist anymore. Its amazing how quick people change

    • Thanks for the comment John. I’m certain no one is going to agree with this blog in it’s entirety, since I’m a pretty outspoken kind of person.

      But, from my experience and talking to others, that’s the one major complaint I hear that’s universal from every MC group. When you leave, you’re not “family.” In fact, they rarely talk to you. It sends a bad message to those of us who are alumni. No matter what we’re doing, they’re ‘too busy’ or some other reason to communicate with us.

  5. Some how I just stumbled on this blog. It sounds man like you got hurt and that you are now very bitter at Master’s Commission. I would encourage you to deal with this. I know this will probably make you angry, but strive to let it be a wake up call. There is NO REASON whatsoever to be bitter with Master’s Commission in general. As far as cleaning goes, a huge thing Master’s teaches is servant leadership. I remember my director cleaning and serving side by side with us. For a guy that wouldn’t clean up after anyone else beside myself because I was better than them, that was huge.

    Two years in Master’s Commission, two of the hardest and best years of my life.

  6. by the way, most internships are unpaid… so get over it.

  7. sorry for your abuse, but bitterness is all over this page… though I agree with some points I cant help but think how bitter you are!

  8. I’m sorry you had a bad experience. Not all programs are ran exactly the same. I came through masters and yes now I am a youth pastor/associate pastor. My wife, kids and family are taken care of. I also have many friends that are now senior pastors at churches after going through masters commission. Once again I’m sorry things happened the way they did for you, but not all programs are ran the way your stating.

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