10 Steps for Doing Short Term Missions Trips Well
With summer missions trip season upon us, I decided to repost a very popular blog about short term missions.
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 changed my life,” to “It’s self serving ” to “Where will my funding come from if I don’t let the teams come?”
Having been on both ends of the spectrum as a short term volunteer bumbling along, carefully squirting hand sanitizer every five minutes and then eventually living six years full-time in Uganda hosting teams, I think I can offer a little 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.
Hosting teams can be an incredible amount of work and can be draining for missionaries and organizations on the ground. (We all have our horror stories of a group descending on our town like tourists.)
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.
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.
Now that I am in the States for this season, I am more interested in influencing how we can do missions healthily and with integrity. Both short term and long term.
Firstly, I have to be honest and say that I think the major reason most missionaries invite or allow short term teams to come over is not just to see your shiny faces, but because we 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 our ministry financially.
We think it will give us a stamp of approval to remain on the missions budget. (A bonus would to be to get a long-term volunteer out of the deal)
But that’s what it boils down to:
We need money and long term 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. We don’t always need teams. It should be up to the locals to carefully pray about and determine if they need a team at that particular time.
So a lot of time, and probably money, could be saved if we could have more open and honest conversations about what will truly help us and help our nation.
Maybe Skype calls, maybe 1-2 leaders from a church travel over to visit the project to scout out and encourage.
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. Think about this:
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.
So if you are going to do/lead a short term missions trip or hosting teams. 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, and local leaders rather than beneficiaries. (Yep, that might mean good-bye VBS with kids climbing all over you and braiding your hair.) Especially with children’s homes or orphanages ask what is appropriate. Some places have rules in place because they want to protect their children from attachment and abandonment issues that having short term visitors can bring.
You may not be able to impact those kids on a day to day, but you can impact the missionary or national staff who will get to. That means you probably don’t need a team of 15 people, but rather a smaller, more intentional team.
Teaching, training, and encouragement can go a long way.
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. 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.)
Remember you are bringing hope.
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.
It’s better to fit into something they are already doing than create a new routine or program. Don’t let the team set the precedent.
It’s not sexy, but I promise these 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
- Home maintenance or clean their house
- Handle something so they can have some self-care time
- 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
- Listen to their guidance and don’t suggest programs they haven’t suggested—ask what their needs are and where you can best serve
- Don’t judge them, they know they have holes—rather encourage them and see where you can volunteer to fill holes
3. Test your motives
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.
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?
If you decide to go on a short term missions trip then have an intention to commit to that place or people group for a period of time. Go to places where you can see yourself living long-term or visiting frequently. One off trips are not that helpful.
4. 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
- Technology/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 your sustainable impact be? Focus on things that will outlast you.
5. Be a learner & be relational
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. Don’t go with answers, but searching for answers and recognize there might not be any simple ones.
Learning a country takes time. Learn the context. Trust the locals’ perspective. Go not as a leader but as a learner.
The Gospel is not a one time event, it is lived and breathed through relationship, through acts of love. @saritahartz
Crusades are great (kinda) but without long term follow through on the ground, I’m not sure how valuable they are. We’re not here to make converts, we’re here to make disciples. People will often raise their hands to “get saved” simply because you’re a white guy. Sorry, it’s true.
Preaching, prophesying, praying for the sick, and encouraging are all wonderful gifts to give if your local contact feels it’s appropriate. (I’ve often found this to be of the most encouragement)
Be relational and be an encourager. Being relational means you’re sharing some of your true stuff too, your weaknesses and struggles. Be authentic.
You don’t need to have all the answers. You might just sit and listen to someone’s story. That also involves being vulnerable.
This is messy, challenging, work, but if you look close enough you just might find some grace and hope trickling through the resilience of the people.
6. Ask about cultural and social norms before you go and respect them
Just because you are a Westerner doesn’t mean you’re superior and can solve all their problems. Try to understand the why behind how the culture is versus judging it. 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.
7. Be flexible and put your 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.
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.
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, 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. They have a vision and a focus for a reason.
Jesus didn’t meet every need and we shouldn’t try to either. You also shouldn’t expect the organization you are visiting to be able to fulfill every need of their beneficiaries. 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 and use wisdom.
Don’t tell a kid you’re going to “sponsor” them. 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)
Helpful follow up reading:
Would love to hear your comments on how we can do short term missions better!