10 Steps for Doing Short Term Missions Trips Well
(yep, that’s me on a short term trip missions trip trying to hold babies–guilty as charged)
Needless to say, there has been a ton of debate around the topic of how to do short term missions trips well, and it’s a sensitive issue. I’ve read countless articles and heated debates on blogs, both lauding and criticizing short term missions/volunteer trips. There is everything out there from,
“It’s a total waste of resources that could be better spent, to “It opens the eyes of the world to the needs around them,” to “It’s self serving and paternalistic,” to “Where will my funding come from if I don’t let the teams come?” to “How will I ever find them a hotel with reliable AC?”
Having been on both ends of the spectrum as a short term volunteer bumbling along, carefully squirting hand sanitizer every five minutes and sampling street meat, and then eventually committing to become a long term missionary, living six years full time in Uganda and doing the hard work of building relationships and enduring the hilarious/not so funny moments when a family of mice took up residence in my oven, I think I can offer some perspective.
There is a widening disconnect between what churches and teams think are necessary or helpful, and what actually provides long term sustainable impact for missionaries and nations.
I do not claim to be an expert here, but recently, a friend asked if I would speak some truth to her team that will be taking a short-term trip to Thailand this summer to support a local organization that rescues women and girls out of sex trafficking. This is becoming more and more common.
After agreeing, and having only a slightly cynical version of “Please don’t go at all,” playing in my head, I decided to sit down to the task of doing some research. I have tons of personal experience, stories of well meaning groups coming over in packs and descending upon my town like a busload of Asian tourists, complete with cameras and face masks. They forgot their blast shield’s.
I also have equally positive stories of being truly encouraged by certain individuals and small teams I hosted who genuinely poured into my husband and me in times of need, and made lasting connections.
But I wanted to draw upon the wisdom and experience of others and see if I could pull out certain themes that emerged in a delicate snowflake pattern, truths that I could hold in the palm of my hand.
But honestly it was kind of a mess of people yelling really rude, ignorant things at each other and judgment flying in all directions on comment boards of well known bloggers (not that you nice people would ever do that!)
So where does that leave me? On the fence, I guess. I actually wrote about this tension in a blog on my first six month trip to Africa in 2006.
I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but strangely it is these mistakes, that have fueled a kind of purpose, one that has led me into deeper intimacy with God and myself, and into a journey of honesty and revelation that I am just scratching the surface of.
Knowledge that is born out of suffering, that is birthed in the secret place, is so precious, a thing of beauty to be turned in between your fingers.
Now that I am in the States, I am more interested in influencing how we can do missions with integrity. Both short term and long term. This is something I’m really passionate about and it’s time for me to pull my big girl pants on and finally address this issue.
Firstly, I have to be honest and say that I think the only reason that most missionaries invite or allow short term teams to come over is not to see your shiny faces, but because they secretly hope this will give your church or organization more ownership in what they are doing, that you will “buy in,” so to speak, and continue to support their ministry financially.
They think they will get some kind of stamp of approval and be legitimized to remain on the missions budget. (A bonus would to be to get a long-term volunteer out of the deal, but this rarely ever happens)
But that’s what it boils down to:
We need money and people. Missionaries and ministries need money to operate and they rely upon the generous donors in America and the rest of the developed world to provide it.
So a lot of time, and probably money, could be saved if we could find a more efficient way to make this happen. Maybe skype calls, or more video, maybe 1-2 leaders from a church travel over to visit the project. (kinda like how Jesus sent the 72 out 2 x 2; maybe there’s a model in there) I’m not sure I know the answer, I only know that it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
Ok, so let’s assume, you still want to do a short term missions trip. I’ll define “short term trip” to be anything between 1 week to 3 months, although most church trips are typically 7-10 days. Ok so now that you’ve assumed I half-way know what I’m talking about, let’s get to the brass tacks.
Careful, I’m about to drop some bombs on you.
In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton writes,
“Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work. By definition, short term missions have only a short time in which to “show profit”, to achieve pre-defined goals. This can accentuate our American idols of speed, quantification, compartmentalization, money, achievement, and success. Projects become more important than people. The wells dug. Fifty people converted. Got to give the church back home a good report. Got to prove the time and expense was well worth it. Individual drive becomes more important than respect for elders, for old courtesies, for taking time.”
Wow! What’s crazier is that through personal experience, I’ve found this all to be true. The only thing my experience dictates otherwise, is that a short term trip (mine was more like 6 months rather than 2 weeks) can lead to long term service, which in my case it did, but I’m also kinda weird that way.
I’ve since learned a lot of lessons that have made me question if we are even doing long term missions in a way that sustainably impacts nations for the better. But rather than “throw the baby out with the “I’ve had way too much African red dirt on my feet,” water,”
I’m trying to find a way to revolutionize the system from the unhealthy “saving the world,” paradigms to more authentic ministry that is rooted in excellence and wisdom. I’m not trying to steal your hope, but I love this quote:
“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naiveté.” -Maria Popova-
So if you are going to do/lead a short term missions trip or you have one coming that you’re not sure you want. Here are some ways to do a short term missions trip well:
1. Pour into the missionary, not “the children.”
The most effective form of short-term ministry is to pour into the local missionaries and their national staff rather than beneficiaries. (Yep, that might mean good-bye VBS with kids climbing all over you and braiding your hair.)
You will not be able to impact those beneficiaries on a day to day, but you can impact the missionary who will get to. That means you probably don’t need a team of 15 people, but rather a smaller, more intentional team.
It doesn’t look like we were ever really intended to do short-term missions the way that we do them.
The only “missions” in the gospel was relational and long term. Churches like Phillippi would often send 1-2 missionaries from their church to support and encourage the work of long-term missionaries like Paul, but the intention was always to serve the long term missionary so he could continue the work of serving people.
Philippians 2:25, 29–30 says:
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need … So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”
Paul, calls him “my brother and fellow-worker and fellow-soldier.” Those three words speak volumes. He isn’t there to fulfill a self-serving need of holding babies or to gain experience, he is there in the trenches with Paul to encourage him and co-labor with him.
“Epaphroditus, is a great model for short-term work. Epaphroditus served the church and the cause of missions by being a messenger of the church’s love for Paul, and by being a minister to his emotional and physical needs. His “short-term” efforts advanced the cause of missions by supporting the most effective means of missions — long-term missionaries.” (I stole that from this really smart guy.)
Most missionaries are having a tough time feeling like they are always failing because they live in a constant state where people are pulling on them with tons of needs.
They probably already feel pretty horrible and they don’t need you to make them feel worse or like they aren’t measuring up. They have lots of good ideas that rarely ever turn out as planned. They spend countless hours in uncomfortable situations loving on prostitutes in brothels or waiting in long lines at the hospital to get their locals medical care. They might be recovering from physical illness or be burned out because of the toll long term stress and trauma can take on the body. They have self-doubt and self-loathing. They miss creature comforts and their families. Their marriage might be going through a tough time because of all the stress and fatigue.
You don’t live there under those extreme conditions, so you might not get it, but be a SAFE PLACE for them to air things out without judgment or reproach.
Offer grace and encouragement that they are doing a good job and help them to see when they might want to take a break. Maybe bring them some funny TV shows, or Breaking Bad, or some good books, or downloaded sermons, or some chocolate. They could probably use a chocolate bar.
Develop a connection that will remain long after you leave. You might be the lifeline of support they need and you might learn a lot from them in the process.
2. Seek to serve, not self-glory
Don’t think about all the cool stories or photos you want to bring back so you can show people what you’ve done. These missionaries are the people who have a heart for this nation and have sacrificed everything to be there every day loving people and doing the hard stuff.
When you roll in and hand out a bunch of soccer balls and candy to kids, it undermines the bridges of trust built through partnering and instead sends the message of easy “Aid” and spreads dependency. It makes it much harder on them when you leave when they wonder why this friend who has been staying with them over years never “gives them stuff.” If you have gifts, only bring what they’ve asked and let them hand them out at a time they deem appropriate.
Here are some ideas of things that might be helpful, but you should specifically ask your organization or missionary what their needs are. Maybe they need I don’t know, CASH, more than they need you to fly over. It’s not sexy, but I promise it will be a thousand times more helpful than building a house they could have gotten locals to build better:
- Be a friend (offer counseling, support, encouragement to local staff; help them recharge)
- Pray and prophecy over them—bring fellowship to them because they miss that
- Offer counseling, Theophostic prayer, or Sozo (if qualified)
- Offer them a retreat, a date night, or a babysitter. Do their nails, or bring stuff over for them from America like food supplies and vitamins
- Offer to pray over their national staff’s homes or make them dinner
- Be willing to help around the office with admin/tech issues
- Host a teaching conference (women’s conference) something of lasting value (pay for it)-give away the training you’ve received at bethel-most don’t have access to these resources and materials
- Train staff in Vocational Education -something they can reuse or train their beneficiaries in
- Raise money for them-how can you help them long term?-Your greatest asset to them will be what you do with your time when you come back? Will you serve long term? volunteer? Spread the word?
- Listen to their guidance and don’t suggest programs they haven’t suggested—ask what their needs are and where you can best serve
- Develop long term relationships with the organization
Don’t judge them, they know they have holes—rather encourage them and see where you can volunteer to fill holes
Which leads me to….
3. Think about why you are going on this trip in the first place
Let God purify the motives of your heart. Is it for approval?
For man’s celebratory pat on the back? Is it because if you show you are some kind of savior you can prove your worth to the world and yourself?
Is it so you can have some cute African kids on your Facebook feed and show how unique you are?
Ask God to reveal to you why He wants you to go. Remember that good intentions are not enough.
4. Actually have a specific, needed skill to offer (nunchuck skills are not real skills)
The worst thing for the missionaries and for you, is for you to end up feeling useless. Before you plan a trip, really have an open conversation with the missionary/organization about what their actual needs are, (not ones they made up to keep you occupied) but the holes they truly need filled. Really press in and ask them to be truly honest, even if that means you don’t go. If you can’t find people to fill those specific needs then perhaps rethink the timing or intention of your trip.
Here are some helpful skills on the mission field:
- Counseling (Marriage & Family or Trauma)
- Parenting skills
- Marriage reconciliation/conflict resolution
- Computer/website genius
- Book keeping/Data entry
- Vocational (seamstress, T-shirt printing, jewelry designer, carpentry, crocheting, baking)
- Grant writing
- Graphic Design
Ask yourself, what will be your sustainable impact?
5. Be a learner, a disciple, not an imperialistic, paternalistic, A-hole (I mean that in the nicest way possible)
You’re not going to save the world in the 4.5 days you have on the ground, nor should you try.
You’re probably not going to come up with some genius solution to an incredibly complex problem like poverty.
You don’t have the same information or context as the missionaries on the ground, so don’t assume you know how to do it better than them.
What if you recognize and accept that if you are going, it might be more about what you will receive and how you will be changed by it, than it will be actually impactful to the people you are going to serve?
Don’t go with answers, but searching for answers and recognize there might not be any simple ones and there might not be a happy ending.
This is messy, challenging, work, but if you look close enough you just might find some grace and hope trickling through.
Don’t go in with HUGE expectations. Be humble and see how you can partner with what God’s spirit is already doing in that place, through the people already there.
Listen more and talk less, unless they’re good questions. Not, “When are we going to eat next?” or “Is it possible for us to get hot water?” But thoughtful, critical questions.
6. Ask about cultural and social norms before you go and respect them
Just because you are white or a Westerner doesn’t mean you are superior or you have all the answers. In fact you probably don’t. And the ones you think of will probably have been tried a hundred times already. Wear the long skirt. Eat the strange food. Learn a few words of their local language. Build relationships by not offending people. Follow the rules of your hosts even if you don’t understand them.
Don’t look down on them as “less educated” or not as knowledgeable if they don’t carry your same degree or accolades.
Remember the missionaries and locals are experts on their own nation. Please respect the national staff and follow their recommendations.
And please, for God sake, don’t run off with people of the opposite sex, I think that’s universally frowned upon in most cultures.
7. Be flexible and put your control-freak alter ego aside for a week
It’s going to be tough to travel to the developing world. Most things will not go according to schedule or plan, and you huffing and puffing around like Darth Vader, isn’t going to change anything.
Most other cultures move a lot slower than America and they are not on your time-table. Your organization you came to serve has probably been running around for the previous weeks just trying to get your accommodation and transportation sorted in a land where time might be a fluid thing, so give them a break.
Your agenda may not happen.
Get over it and see what God’s agenda is. You might not hold lots of babies, or save a girl out of the Red light district. You might not have running water or electricity or regular meals. You might have to stand in church for four hours praying for people and sweating and wishing you’d brought a bottle of water. These things happen. Anything can be endured for a short time, so buck up, and try not to complain. Or worse, try not to take over.
You’re not in charge this time, whether you’re a pastor or the Pope himself, you should follow the lead of your point person on the ground.
I’ve had friends who were completely railroaded by their teams and spent the entire time trying to please them and make them happy instead of focusing on their very important work. Don’t be that person!
If you are, they might have to taze you, and that would be seriously annoying. So take a breather, if you need to. Get some personal time, go for a walk, or do some yoga, but try not to make extra demands on the ministry because you are outside of your comfort zone.
8. Be generous with your time, your talents, and your patience (but not your mini-Ipod)
Ok, so this is one of my pet peeves. The issue of imbalances of power due to wealth are serious. In very little time you can create unhealthy patterns of dependency or even resentment. You can do more harm to the local ministry than good. This ranges from the White Savior complex who places everyone else as a victim to be rescued, to the belittling of leaders in developing nations, to the over indulgence of resources without accountability, to the handing out of mini-ipods, cash, or soccer balls out of guilt and the desire to feel good about one’s self.
You should not give money to anyone other than the organization or missionary you have built a trusted relationship with who has an accountability system in place. That means, you do not direct where those funds go, but trust them to attribute the funds to the areas of most need. If you do not have a trusted relationship with accountability, then do not give money, period.
I’ve seen well meaning people destroy locals with handouts. I’ve also seen good hearted Westerners get taken for a ride, only to lose a lot of money on an “orphanage” that was never built.
Dependency is defined as “Anything you regularly do for someone that they can do for themselves.” That is unhealthy and detrimental to relationships of equality.
Build authentic relationships that seek to minimize imbalances of power through mutual learning, understanding, and trust.
9. Be compassionate, and kind, but don’t be led by needs. Be led by the Holy Spirit.
It is not your responsibility or the missionary’s responsibility to meet all the needs of every single person.
Jesus didn’t do it, and we shouldn’t try either. You also shouldn’t expect the organization you are visiting to be able to fulfill every need of their beneficiaries. Focus on one’s vision is the most difficult, but most essential thing to maintain on the mission field when there are so many needs surrounding you. But effective ministries have clear focus and they stick to it.
Your emotions will be stirred up, but during your time, try to decipher between your heart strings and God’s actual voice and be obedient. When in doubt, check with your team leader to see what is appropriate.
Don’t try to “adopt” a kid or smuggle them in your suitcase, or hand out your email and address to “sponsor” someone. Don’t make promises you can’t keep and don’t put the missionary in the position to pick up your mess.
That’s not what you are there for. The reality is, that in a few months you will go back to your normal life and most likely forget about the promises you made, or the people you met, while that missionary will still be there day in and day out with them. Make sure you run everything through them.
Remember that success is not defined by numbers, or even outcomes, but by whether or not you’ve been obedient to what Father asked you to do.
10. Follow through
Ideally, you would have a plan in place before you go of how your impact will help the missionary/organization long term.
Most people don’t. So think about how you can make this trip actually change your life, not for five minutes, but for a lifetime.
Also spend time discussing with the missionary while you are there things that would be helpful for you to do once you return.
The biggest impact you might have may very well be after you leave when you can be an advocate for their cause.
- Fundraise for them (Run a 5k and give them the profits; Shave your head)
- Film and edit an artistic video or photo collage they can use in support raising
- Speak with your church/friends about them – begin an intentional dialogue about missionary care
- Sponsor the missionary monthly- stay in touch with them- offer support from a distance
- Sponsor a child/woman/staff member monthly (only through the organization; not as an individual)
- If they have products they sell–help them find a market for it (Host jewelry parties, etc)
- Volunteer from home (website design, grant writing, financial book keeping)
- Make a commitment to volunteer long-term with them overseas (Ideally 6 months or longer; 1-2 year commitment preferred)
- Send over gifts for the missionary or needed items (especially around the holidays)
- Stay updated on when they will furlough and offer your home, your car, your babysitting skills and talk to your church about them speaking (most missionaries are usually broke- find fun ways to bless them)
So, what are your thoughts on how we can do short term missions better?