Short Term Missions and a Church in Haiti

by Editor on February 27, 2013

Guest writer and missionary to Haiti, Shannon Kelley, shares a short term missions experience.


It’s a typical Sunday.  My family walks over dirt roads about a mile to a little cinder block church.  We are the only non-Haitian’s there.  We sit amongst our friends – people with hard lives that get down on their knees and pray prayers that make Jesus feel palpable in that room.  The kids sit mostly well-mannered in fear of being shushed by some of the elders in the church.  There is no fanfare. We sit in our usual seats. A couple guys bang on handmade instruments to worship.  It is beauty.

Several weeks later I sit within those same walls. This time a group is visiting on a short-term mission trip. Today there are plants and decorations lining the “stage” and the crackling of a mic with a short in it makes it impossible to understand much.  The pastor spent last week’s offering on gas for a little generator to power a mic and keyboard player just for today, for the group.  The handmade instruments I love sit unused in the corner.  The blan (white) pastor leading the team gets up and introduces his team by name, making them parade to the front.

As the service wears on, a few of the moms of the group motion for some kids to come sit with them. They proceed to chat and play with them while, unbeknownst to them, the congregants are praying.  The elders that typically shush the kids shake their heads and don’t say anything because they don’t want to insult the visitors. The kids know this and take full advantage of playing with cameras and phones and other gadgets, being generally disorderly in comparison to the usual way they’re expected they behave.  I sit there and wonder how we would feel if we were sitting in a church in the States and a group of people from another country came in and acted that way.

Church ends and the visitors go on to do their week of serving the community. I watch as the labor they do takes away jobs from the nationals, like construction and painting. The money from their airplane tickets could provide employment for Haitians which in turn feeds families.

Sometimes service from foreign groups can be fruitful and I can see the need for it. They leave the village better off by training pastors, educating Haitians, and supporting the long term missionaries. I wonder, though, if the risk of having a group who might do more damage than good is too great.

I’m struggling with the good of short term missions.  I see the side of it that is good because it shows people a different part of the world and challenges their faith. But are we searching for substance in our lives at the mercy of those we came to help?

I don’t know the answer. Let’s talk. What has your experience been with short-term teams? What methods effectively help all those involved, nationals and foreigners alike?

More on STMs: A Case for Short Term Missions  |  Is the Price Tag Worth It?  | Rice Christians and Fake Conversions


Shannon Kelley lives in a rural fishing village with her  family on the Southern tip of Haiti where they fight for families. Follow their journey here:

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  • I just finished reading When Helping Hurts. One thing we wanted for our family was to take a “family mission trip”. After reading that book though, I realized it was WAY more about us than the people we would be “ministering to”. I’ve started to see how I really do have a “god complex” as an American Christian. Like you said, how much further would the money go if sent to someone like you rather than spending thousands for my family to have such an experience. On the other hand, having been on many mission trips, I know how it changed my life…so, there is that struggle. I guess it comes down to really praying, seeking God, examining our hearts and motives, and seeking wisdom from people “on the field” who can help us to know how to really help. I do agree, though, that something really has to change in our thinking.

    • Jocie

      A great book I have found helpful lately is called We are NOT the Hero. Our mission is planning to make it mandatory for every staff/intern and especially short term team member visiting to read this book. Inductions prior to arriving should be mandatory. There are no simple answers but I agree fully with the sentiments of the first comment from Mandi. How frustrating for you Shannon to have had to sit through that. May people share your views. Great to keep the conversation going.

      • Shannon Kelley

        Oh, haven’t heard of that book, will check it out:) Thank you for the recommendation!

      • I haven’t heard of that book either. Will def check it out!

    • Dalaina May

      Love your heart here to think from both sides! As a missionary, that is huge to me. As a mom, I encourage you to find a way to bring that experience to your kids in a way that is helpful to the field as well. Is there a missionary family that you could go visit? Instead of going to do a project, could you go and encourage and minister to the field workers though your presence and simply observe their daily life for the sake of better understanding their ministry? I think it is a great way to still get your family overseas for exposure’s sake while providing something tangible (and rare!) for a missionary family and avoiding the pitfalls that WHH talks about. Just an idea…

      • Lynn P.

        I agree with Dalaina – I love your willingness to think on both sides of the issue. It could be that God wants to broaden the perspectives of your family in just this way. If you want to not hurt those you go to serve then be willing to listen to a missionary that lives there. Do what needs to be done even if it is just to encourage the field workers, to teach or to just go pray with people in their homes even if it has to be done through a translator. In that way you get to share the burdens. So often groups that want to come visit where I work want to build something. This way they have something they can photograph and a tangible thing to point to that they accomplished. They are disappointed when I tell them we don’t need that and some of them have decided not to come. They don’t send the money they would have spent for the trip and they don’t come.

        If you are still worried about the money being spent, maybe you could take your ‘family mission trip’ in a different way. You could donate the money you would have spent to a mission and ask them to send you updates on how the money was used and maybe some pictures. Then your family could see how they have helped there. In the meantime, you could still take the time off and still do a ‘family mission trip’ in your home town or a city near you. I’m sure there are homeless shelters that would love to have the extra hands and your family would still get to see another perspective on suffering. It doesn’t have to be a homeless shelter. You could all go help in an ESL program, a youth program or many other things. I think the best part is just being willing to serve as a family. God will honor that and help you find exactly what will best suit your family.

        • lynn P

          sorry, I didn’t see my first response so wrote it again!

    • Lynn

      Short term trips often are more about those visiting than those they are visiting, but they don’t have to be. It could be that God wants to help your family broaden your perspectives. It can be more about both you and those you want to help if you are willing to do whatever needs to be done – even if it is just to go to a village and pray with the people. It might even be that God wants you to go just to minister to and encourage the missionaries. Many who want to come visit where I work want to do a project – build something. That way they have a tangible thing they can take pictures of and say they accomplished. They are disappointed when I say we don’t really need to have anything like that done and suggest that they just come to teach or visit with people and pray with them. It is less tangible, but the impact on the people serving and being served is in the heart and in my opinion is greater. You get to know each other and share some of the burden of the suffering.

      If you are concerned about the amount of money being spent for the trip that could be used in a better way, you could consider donating that amount to the mission of your choice. Then go ahead and take the ‘family mission trip’ to a mission in your own home town. There might be a homeless mission that could use your willing hands to serve. It will still give a whole new perspective on how others live and you could ask the mission that you send your money to for pictures and updates on how the money you sent was used so your family could share in that mission as well.

  • A very much needed article that raises questions that need to be asked. I’m with you, in that, I don’t know the answers. Maybe this is an area where my pessimism comes in handy?! I tend to see more of the the bad that comes from them, and wish I could see more of the good. A focal shift to more of a sustaining, rather than saving would be beneficial, I think. Which is exactly what I think you’re doing in Les Anglais. From a personal standpoint, it’s about my relationships. There are sweet people, whom I love up on those mountains – friends who I miss terribly. It’s definitely not a better way to view it, but for me, it’s not about a week of “what can I do or how can God use me”, it’s time with my friends. Not really a better way to view it, just being honest. Thankful for the honesty & willingness to be there, doing something- even if you don’t know all the answers. 🙂

    • Shannon Kelley

      Love you Bethany and your heart to pursue how God can use you and others on short term missions. Time with friends, think you are right, not a better way to view it:)

  • I keep seeing the same type of blog posts around the internet and I must admit, I am getting a little frustrated by it. We had a team come last year that acted similar to the team mentioned in the post, they also came with their ideas about what ministry they wanted to do and we were really left in the dark for much of their trip. But I don’t blame them. I blame us. We are the missionaries on the ground. We are the ones who approved their trip. We are the ones who saw the red flags but didn’t speak up. We cannot expect Americans who rarely go overseas to know how to act, what to do, what not to do, and what works best. It is our job to tell them. And if they don’t want to listen to the missionaries on the ground then it is our job to tell them they cannot come. Short term mission trips are very helpful. The best way to make sure they are done in a way the helps rather than hurts is for the long term missionaries to have good communication with the team long before they come. We set the ground rules, we put ourselves in leadership and if we come across problems the planning/prep time we must have the guts to tell them what they want to do will not work and we cannot allow them to come if they choose to not follow our leadership. We can’t expect them to just somehow “know” how to act in a different church, in a different country and with different people. If they weren’t supposed to be talking to the kids then why didn’t the host missionaries tell them, “Hey, it’s really important to the church if the kids sit quietly, you are causing disruption”… instead of sitting back and watching it play out. And who allowed them to do the work that took away from the jobs to the Haitians? Who approved it? The short term team doesn’t know any better, especially if no one tells them the work they do hurts the economy. As for the cost of the airline tickets… it’s easy for Americans to throw money into a country but to actually travel there, form relationships, pray and worship with the believers and be with the body of Christ… money can’t do that. I know there are issues with short term trips but I think long term missionaries (like my family) have to take some responsibility. We are the ones who allow the “bad” trips to happen after all.

    • That was my biggest question, as well, as I read through the experience. If there was already a big distraction it wouldn’t have made it any worse to scoot over there and put a stop to the disruptive behavior that the foreigners had caused. What or who are we afraid of that causes us to not speak up when we see something that we can adjust?

    • Mandi– GREAT POINT. There needs to be more ownership/leadership of the long term missionary for the short term team. There must be debriefing and cultural training days before we throw them to the culture to do ministry and engage. We must take a hard look at the ways WE are contributing to the issue, instead of casting all the blame on the short term team who can’t really be expected to know differently.

      Thanks for sharing this– good stuff.

    • Dalaina May

      Mandi, spot on! I think that we as the people on the field with deeper understanding of the culture and needs of the community have an obligation to say “no” to short-termers that wouldn’t be helpful or might even be harmful to ministry.

      • Shannon Kelley

        Yes Dalaina! That is a great point! We have to be willing to say no to some people. And totally agree with you on Mandi!

    • Lynn P.

      One of the things that my mission has been telling us for the past 5 – 10 years is that short term trips are a reality. They will happen, so it is our responsibility to channel the enthusiasm that people have so that good things are accomplished. Often times groups do not like it when I try to explain to them that we do not need a building or some other tangible project and put a lot of pressure on me to let them come do it anyway. When I suggest what we do need, most of them listen and are willing to still come and do what is really needed. A few have decided that if they can’t do something that they can take pictures of and say, “this is what we did.” then they don’t want to come. They don’t send the money anyway. They may go somewhere else or they may decide to stay home. So, in this sense it is also a reality that if we say no to short term groups, the money that would have been spent will not necessarily come our way or even make it to any other mission field.

      When we have groups coming, I do think it is our responsibility to help them understand as much as they can ahead of time about the culture they will be serving. We need to send information to them before they come. When they get there we need to repeat that information and help them as they interact with people. If our visitors are misbehaving in the eyes of the people we are serving we need to tell them. We may not have thought to tell them ahead of time because it has become second nature to us. I’m sure those visiting moms were bored and didn’t think about the spectacle they were making of themselves or the example they were setting for the children. They needed to be told in a diplomatic way so that the situation could be resolved quickly. At the same time, we also need to be aware that any group of visitors is going to disrupt the way things are normally done and not be disappointed when it does. I’m sure that congregation was happy to have the visitors and did the things they did because they wanted to also show the love of Jesus and help their visitors be comfortable. Do we deprive them of that opportunity because they are the ‘needy’ ones? Maybe they didn’t feel as disrupted as Shannon did? Or maybe they did?

    • Shannon Kelley

      Hey Mandi! I totally agree! I guess my question is one of more specifics….what have you found that works? I agree that everyone can talk and it gets frustrating but my hope is that we can start having dialogue about best practices and specifics that can help us all increase the really good stuff that short term missions has the potential to have. I think you mentioned some great ones in your thing…it is about education and maybe even more than we realize, it is about grace and realizing that it won’t always be perfect. If you have other concrete ideas on how else we can education, would love to hear them. Good stuff, thank you!!!

  • Nikole MacGregor

    Tricky subject. If it weren’t for a short term trip, I wouldn’t have spent the last 4 years in Kenya. That’s how I started. Although, during my first trip, I am sure that my life was changed more than the people I was coming to help. I don’t have all the answers either. But I did see one short term team that I really loved. THey were a group of college students who came to only hang out with Kenyan college students. They came for the soul purpose of building each other in faith. They didn’t come just to impact people but to be open to the people impacting them as well. They didn’t have a set agenda but just ‘hung out’ with college Christians. They would walk home with them from school and go to their houses to spend time with their families. They would eat meals with them and hang out in the court yard with them at lunch. They chatted not only biblical things but also about fashion and music and other things young people were interested. They ate at the road side bandas like all the other students. They joined in in everyday activities. It was really really cool.

    • Shannon Kelley

      very cook Nikole! I think that so often those relationship building times get pushed under the rug because you dont have tangible things to show for your actions but man do I think they are the most important! Love that example!

  • Lindsi Rian Photo

    I agree that short term missions can definitely do more ha than good. In 2005 I was that kid on a short term mission to Jamaica. We went to a local church, walked the streets and did community service projects. Years later when I think back on it, we were there for one reason. Numbers. The group I was with could care less about the actual people we were supposedly there to help. They just wanted us to report back on how many people SAID they accepted Christ at one of our street performances. When tragedy strikes, like the earthquake in Haiti or the hurricane that hit while I was in Jamaica, I can see the need for short term missions…when there is too much work to be done immediately and not enough hands. Besides that, and like you said, educating…I don’t see much else that people can do short term.

  • This brings to the forefront some of the frustrations I’ve had with churches right here in America. I was involved in one church which averaged $45,000 per month in tithes and $29,000 of that went to the mortgage! $150,000 was spent on a premium sound system and stage lighting. And all of this renovation was happening during some of the lowest points in the economic recession. There were families out of work and short on groceries. Many were in the throes of bankruptcy. And the church was, in fact, paying some bills and buying some food but only very little when compared to the massive pile of cash going to the mortgage every month. Many members of the church became convicted over this and some families left over it. How much good could we have done for the community: the homeless; the job-less; the hungry with that money?

    I’m really glad that you bring up the point about taking jobs away from nationals. To be candid, I never thought about that when I have considered short term missions. I don’t know why, either. It seems so obvious now that you mention it. Perhaps that topic needs to be advertised among the greater missions community. Going to a poor country and building a church or a house is, often, portrayed as the quintessential short term mission. And, ironically, those who want to help people can only envision that which they have seen a need for. If American Christians, in general, had the real needs of a people impressed on them as well as a better understanding of what doesn’t actually help, I bet all missions would look different.

    Furthermore, I can honestly say that I have really struggled, especially in recent years, with the feeling that I have melted into the everyday American culture and am less of a servant to the Lord as I go to work, take out the trash, give my son a bath, and pay my tithe each paycheck. And, like most middle class Americans, what I’ve found to be much harder to find is “time”. It’s basic supply & demand: that which is more rare is valued more highly. And when time is more valuable, giving money seems like the cheap and easy way out. I don’t think I know a single person who sees writing a check as more sacrificial than giving up their own time IN ORDER to be there in-person and, you know…”do something that counts”.

    What I really think needs to happen is to have all those congregation members in your community come witness in American churches! I don’t want to seem lighthearted about the struggles and needs of the people of Les Anglais but the picture you paint in my mind is delightful in one sense — It glows of genuine faith! God bless you and your work, sister. =)

    • Shannon Kelley

      Thank you Jeremy:) Ps…you aren’t less of a servant to the Lord;) Pps…money means more than you know. Money means that I could employ a single mom to work at the community center, she could feed her kid, and we could reach more people. I know it seems more glamourous to go and do, but those that give, man do they make a difference. It’s just harder for them to see it right up front and up to us, those on the ground, to tell them how much it is making a difference.

  • Dalaina May

    My personal opinion is that long term missionaries need to grow some guts and learn to say “no, thanks.”

    On one hand it is hard because we so desperately want the involvement of our churches and supporters from home, and turning them away doesn’t exactly encourage participation. On the other, how often do we give them alternatives?

    My husband and I are VERY convicted about the kind of short term teams we host. The first time our church offered to send a team to come do a project, we told them, “Honestly, those are things better left to the locals to do. What if you sent a small team down to just BE with us? We could use some encouragement and refreshment. We would love it if you met our friends and neighbors and just participated in our regular activities.” It was a really weird idea for them initially because they really wanted something tangible that they could present to the congregation (this is what your money paid for), but in the end agreed. They sent 3 men who did nothing all week but love on us, feed us news from home, and encourage us. (They did build a swing set for my boys, but that was part of the loving on us.) It was incredible, and our church was really encouraged to hear a first hand report of what it was really like for us on the field. Just this week they asked us if we would like to have another couple come this summer with the same goal. YES! And I am so, so glad that we put the idea out there instead of just agreeing to the same old short term tune.

    By the way, the book When Helping Hurts has a fabulous section about short term missions. Highly recommend!

    • Love this idea– of using the short-term teams to encourage the long termer. This is good, not as “sexy” but maybe more helpful in many ways. I know for us during our first year of trauma on the field, we had two guys from our church fly out to be with us/encourage us and it was one of the absolute highlights of our time on the field.

      SO valuable to our family and our ability to not quit . . .

    • Shannon Kelley

      So good Dalaina! Yes, do you know how amazing it would be for a team to pour into long termers. I know our family struggles largely because we don’t have that alot mainly due to our location and being too far out but YES, awesome idea and love that you went for the weird idea:)

    • we, too, have learned to be selective about both teams and individuals we host – and it took some hard lessons before we arrived at that place. but our last several experiences have been wonderful… and we do have short term groups that come to work at the expat school where i minister as well. having a ministry like that does make it a little easier to encourage those short visits.

  • I am a missionary in Haiti as well and host a minimum of one short-term team a month. I can say that this is a picture perfect description of how our churches worship during the weeks we have teams versus the weeks we don’t. In one way you know the local church is just trying to look their best when teams are in, but in another way it is sad that teams have put them in the position to make them feel as though they need to do so. I think re-teaching needs to be done with both short term teams and the local church being visited. Both seem to be missing the bigger picture when they are together. And Mandi, I agree, that “re-teaching” needs to be primarily done by long-term missionaries.

    • Shannon Kelley

      Yes! I have seen it happen in so many churches. A beautiful example of how it could be: One time a group was in and the church still did their thing with some decor but there wasn’t any big introduction and parading of “the missionaries”, instead the pastor told the congregation that they were here to serve the Lord and asked the congregation to pray for their week. The whole church circled this group and prayed for them and it was just beautiful. I think that is such a cool way to maybe reteach because it empowers the locals, blesses everyone, and takes the individual fan fare out of it, you know?

      • Jennifer Bast

        The article gives the impression, as does Jillian’s comment, that the team puts the church in that position or that the white pastor “parades” his team by name for the “individual fan fare”. I know in the case of our team that they would never want to impose additional expense on the church or call attention to themselves or disrupt the service in any way. On the contrary they were uncomfortable being paraded in front of the church, but were doing as the Haitian pastor asked, not wanting to be disrespectful of their wishes.

  • Dear Shannon,

    I lived in Haiti for 25 years working with short-term mission teams, my own as well as seeing many other’s teams come and go. Our agency has had to deal with all the negatives that are associated with short term teams, and I believe we have come up with some operating principles that enable the teams to go beyond the negatives and turn the trips into awesome positives for all involved.

    As a result of our experiences over many years, we have developed a program we call C3 Partnerships. These are “Connected Church to Church Partnerships” or Sister Churches. We believe that as Christians we are “One in the Body of Christ”. We are to be in relationship with one another,not just in our local body, but as Cod gives opportunity with Christians around the world. Thus, we believe that we need to enable long-term, spiritual, culturally relevant, and practical relationships revolving around two churches from different cultures coming together and experiencing the oneness we have in Christ despite the walls of culture, race, language, economics, education, etc. Christ has torn down those things that normally divide us. And so we highly recommend that churches not just “send a team” but that they develop long term relationships that are geared to being culturally relevant to one another.

    How does this happen? To be done well, we had to decide to become what we call a “3rd Party Facilitator”. Our agency is the “go-between” for both churches. We make sure that what a US church wants to do is what is needed by the Haitian church, desired by the Haitian church, and done in a culturally relevant way. Because it is a relationship, they sit together, share together, dream and envision together so that the Haitian church owns what is happening and it is not just the American “thing”. In turn the Haitian church listens to the American church, prays for them, engages with them as possible, and receives the teams in a way that will make them feel as at home as possible. Having good translators and those who can lead the team in what is culturally acceptable is essential. But also giving the Haitian church the opportunity to adjust to the US team while there is a part of the process of oneness and relationship as well. There is also the need to make sure that the team is not a financial burden to the Haitian church as they are with them. The needs of the church for gas, cost of food, etc. is something we always make sure are covered. We make sure every US team goes through a 6 week training program before they arrive in Haiti so as to make sure they have had good orientation on many aspects of Haiti, the culture, missions, and many do’s and don’t culturally. Some of the things you observed such as the kids interacting with the team are things we cover in our orientation as well as look for during the stay. Most of the time it is very desired by both sides. But there are instances where it is not appropriate. Our team facilitators keep an eye on the team to make sure as much as possible things are done “right”. We make sure that all the teams sit with the church leaders to be able to hear their heart and vision for their church. Together – the 2 churches-with us – set goals together for the future that will end in edification for the church and ministry into the community. This way it is done in partnership together, each offering the other their strengths and helping to challenge each others weaknesses. Projects are accomplished together, hand in hand when a team is there. This is not taking a job away, but together building the relationships that Christ wants us to have. It is a demonstration of the love of Christ in a way that is easy for the world to see. It is the Church-white and black-coming together in oneness to demonstrate the love of Christ. In our sister church relationships, many projects are accomplished, through our agencies facilitation, through out the year often providing many jobs in the community.

    The problem is that many teams do not have this type of guidance nor want the restrains that it contains. When done right, teams are extensions of the hands and feet of Christ. But often it is not done in that way. Often there is little control by the receiving missionary or they don’t take as much as they should. Our teams know that when they arrive in Haiti, our team facilitators are in control. What they say goes. We work hand in hand with the team leader, but ultimately we are in control. This is very important. We also work hand in hand with the Haitian church leadership to make sure all is well.

    Even with all the controls put forth, things will happen. People don’t listen. At times they do what they think best which usually is “not best”. This happens both with the Americans as well as the Haitians. So yes, some of our teams struggle, but because they are in a long-term relationship they are able to learn, grow, and change over time. Both churches learn acceptance, patience, faith, and demonstrate love to one another.

    So don’t give up on short term teams! If you know the Haitian pastor, offer to help them while the team is there, that way you can help with some of the culture issues. Maybe you can help the team as well. If you have a team coming, have them work through our work book available on Kindle at Amazon. It is called, “Team Training Manual for Sister Church Partnerships”. You might want to get one as well to see what it says and to give a hand out to the team about specifics to your area. Make sure they know that you are in charge when they are there and will give them the cultural guidance they need even if they don’t want it!

    Also, link up with our base of operations in Les Cayes. There is a large missionary body there at Cite Lumiere, a mission center on the outskirts of Les Cayes. There are several guest houses that are reasonable as well as a number of families with kids that would love a new playmate from time to time. It would be good fellowship with you as well. My Haiti field director is Rob Thompson. His email is He and his wife have 3 kids there and are very hospitable. There are also a number of activities that are done for ex-pats from all over the south that you could be a part of from time to time. There is a Wed evening English prayer meeting that many missionaries attend and would be a great place for you to get to know a variety of missionaries there. I believe many of them come by your area all the time. Our missionaries do and it would be great for them to know you so they could stop in for a visit or bring you things from Cayes when they are heading your way that you need, etc. My staff is out in your area often as well. Our ministry encompasses the entire end of the peninsula.

    Feel free to email me for more discussion together. When you come through Florida, give me a call. I would love to hear of your ministry there and see if we can partner in any way. RMI has lots of contacts that could be helpful to you and probably vice versa!

    May the Lord richly bless your ministry for Him in a tough area!

    Dan Shoemaker
    Reciprocal Ministries International, 239-368-8390

    • Shannon Kelley

      Oh Dan! Thank you so much for this! Good stuff, good ideas that hopefully alot of people can soak in. Love that you do 6 weeks of training! I actually know the Thompsons but need to make a point to get together with them more and dive into a little community. We are a little far from Les Cayes so we aren’t in too much but anytime you all are out our way we would LOVE to say hi and connect:)

  • Kris Thede

    We live in Northern Haiti and tell our teams that at least 1/2 the time or more we want them talking and interacting with the nationals so they can learn about the people and this country. Why? So they can pray better as well as learn about the faith of those we work with! Yes they still do some projects but side by side with Haitian help and often on a project that they help pay for-not taking the job away from Haitians but helping to buy the supplies for a project that would not get done or would be put off for a long time because of a lack of funds. Have special skills-then teach! As we explain to teams-while projects can be encouraging and helpful we’d seen how buildings can be destroyed in seconds by an earthquake. Putting the time and energy into relationships in many ways is more important and what we want to see happening with teams. Share your life stories with people. Learn their names. Pray together. Make lasting lifelong memories.

  • My family has been serving overseas for only 5 months but we’ve already had to say no to some short term mission teams because their vision didn’t align with the work God called us to do or because we didn’t feel the leaders were qualified to train and lead a team. We are very protective of the people we live among and are aware that our duty is to serve God not man. I admit it can be tough when it’s those very men/women who are financially supporting your family and the ministry, but I have to trust that the One who brought us here will sustain and equip us as we partner with Him, and not the other way around. I hope I don’t lose sight of this when it gets hard.

    We are hosting a team right now and they have been a huge encouragement and blessing to us, the local believers, and to the people we are striving in the Lord to serve. I think it’s good that they are getting up close and personal with us and the people we work with. I hate to admit it, but a lot of manipulation and outright deception goes on in the name of gaining financial support so I always encourage people to go, if possible, and see the work being done before sending a check based on a well written letter, website, or church performance. So my vote is for short term missions done well.

    • Shannon Kelley

      agree! That is my vote too! I do believe in short term missions but I also think we can do better than what it is now. It’s a work in progress but conversations like these, even though hard sometimes, are so helpful. Thank you for the ideas and sharing your experience, love it!

  • Leslie

    I love this conversation! I was a youth pastor in Canada before moving to Haiti. It was during that time that I helped lead two teams of high school students and can see the value of short trips from that perspective. Now that I’m living here full time and working for the same organization that we visited I see things from the other side. When I brought my teams in I had no idea what was involved in hosting us. I had no idea how much work it was for the staff here to just find enough stuff to keep 15 people buys. How do you co-ordinate meals? What about the extra worry and stress on the part of your hosts because they’re constantly thinking about everyones needs (safety, comfort etc) on top of their regular daily activities, personal needs and the needs of their family. After my husband and I got married we took a year off from hosting visitors other than family and completely restructured the way we host people/groups. These are the core things that we do:

    1) We choose the weeks and have a registration process for people to sign up with. This way we can work things around our ministry calendar and plan for things. If we have a group (not individuals) that can’t come during those weeks we’re willing to discuss other options. What’s fun about this is that we often get a mix of people from all over Canada and the US in the same group so not only are they connecting with us, but they meet people from other places too. It’s fun for everyone!

    2) We cap our groups at 6 people – no exceptions. We’ve found that even with a couple more people it completely changes the dynamics. Rather than having the time to sit and really get to know our guests it becomes more about logistics and moving people from point A to B and keeping everyone busy and fed. I love that we can sit around our kitchen table and have those heart to heart conversations where people can ask good questions and we have the time and energy to give them good, honest answers – like talking about why “short term” missions needs to change so it’s not damaging, etc.

    3) We don’t call our trips “missions” trips. We actually started calling them Vision Trips back in 2007 (before When Helping Hurts was written :)) and it has completely changed the mindset that people have when coming in. We’re able to explain that we love that they want to come, but that our expectation is that they come as a learner in an immersion experience. We’ll show them what we do every day, and they can be as involved in that as they’re comfortable with, but we have zero expectation of them doing anything productive. We tell them the biggest benefit that they can be to us is to come, learn and go home and tell others about what we’re doing so we can keep doing it. We lay all of this out ahead of time so the expectations all line up on both sides.

    4) We send out a visitors guide to every person coming in and require that they read it before arriving. In it we explain what we do and why. We lay out our guidelines very clearly and specifically address the most important things and what will happen if people cannot respect those. We point out the fact that while we appreciate people being interested in visiting, their actions while with us can impact the long term relationships we have in the community after they leave. We provide them with a list of things to bring, and things to leave at home. We have kids so I even mention where we stand as a family and people wanting to give gifts to us or our staff. We tell them what to expect with their accommodations. There’s some history on Haiti in there and some language assistance stuff that they can use to work on learning some basic Creole before they arrive. We also walk them through the process of arriving in country, going through the airport etc. Our visitors have all commented on how much they appreciate the guide because they know what to expect when they get here and it’s a helpful tool for them – and for us. We find because we lay everything out ahead of time they know which questions they still need to ask, and when they arrive we can continue the conversations in a deeper way that allows us to educate. I think this has been one of the best things we’ve done in how we host visitors.

    I completely agree that we, as hosts, have a huge responsibility to educate. God has put us in this place and we need to speak truth in love to people in order to be obedient to what he has called us into. We are not here to protect our visitors from the hard things or the things that might be different or challenging. We are here to protect the people we have been called to serve, and to draw others along side us to accomplish that. Sometimes people aren’t ready to hear what you have to say, and that’s their own stuff. If you communicate respectfully and lovingly, then the decision lies in their hands.

    I do also think there is a HUGE responsibility for boards or heads of organizations to be actively listening to and seeking the wisdom of their people in the field. Far too often I see or hear of situations where the in-country people have very little input in how or who is hosted by their organizations. The expectation is that they smile and nod and let the group do as they please because this is where the financial support comes from. To me, that’s an organization that needs to re-evaluate their original calling and see what the Bible says on how they are to treat and interact with the people they have been called to serve.

    • Shannon Kelley

      oh Leslie! Thank you for this! This is good solid stuff that people can do to make missions better! LOVE LOVE the idea of the visitors guide!

  • D Anthony

    I totally agree and do understand that short-term missions are sometimes a necessary evil. I’ve been on several short-term missions and I’ve seen both the good and bad sides to those trips. My first trip was right after the earthquake and I came in wide eyed and was a little shell shocked during the whole trip. Where we stayed there are no long term missionaries and we dealt directly with the locals. Because of our trip, we did employ several Haitians during that week and they probably made more money in that week than in several months doing anything else. Our trip was mainly a trip to see what was needed for that area due to the earthquake. It was a very small group and we were able to meet the people on a more personal level and I really felt that the local church was really glad to see us (btw the church building was totally destroyed by the earthquake and we were having church outside under a tarp) and we were very respectful while being a guest. I was asked to preach. I didn’t really want to because I wanted to sit back and experience their worship and didn’t want them to feel like they had to include us but they insisted. I preached with a interpreter and I felt good about it. Actually we do the same things here in the US when special guests come to visit our churches, especially in the smaller churches. We’ll wear our suit instead of just slacks and dress shirt, we’ll have special singers, we’ll have a meal, etc. So I understand why they act differently when we’re there to visit. I have been to several churches while on the trail and have been able to experience true and genuine Haitian worship without all the pomp and circumstance of trying to impress the “blan” visitors. And those times were truly special.

    On my other trips, I’ve oftentimes found myself feeling a little disgusted by the behavior of some of the people on the trip and also by many of the Haitian people that we encountered. I’ve seen many people get the “great white savior” complex. Once they get to Haiti, they are treated like rockstars and then they buy into this feeling of greatness and blessedness and then they start acting like they can fix anything with a visit, a touch, a prayer, a toy car, a flashlight, and so on. Then they go home without really ever doing anything except having a inflated ego about their own importance. I’ve also seen Haitian pastors, leaders in the communities, orphanage directors, etc., use their knowledge of previous experiences with short termers to try to con the present group of missionaries for their own benefit. That’s the bad. I’ve also seen people spend money for a ticket and other expenses (around $1,000) to come on a short term trip and they are deeply moved and changed forever. That $1000 investment which yeah could have been given to other things to help improve a home, a church, a whatever from afar but because they came, they saw, they experienced, they then fell in love and that small investment has been multiplied 10 fold, 20 fold, 50 fold and even 100 fold in some cases. If they had never came, they would have never discovered that they had a passion for the people of Haiti. They come home on fire and they actually do something once they get back and it makes a deep impact on them and then they spread that passion here. I’ve also seen Haitian pastors and leaders truly desire our help without wanting to use us or con us. They have a passion for their neighbors and their community and they are the ones that know best how we should serve. That’s the key.
    On my last trip, we brought stuff to give out which I was against. It was the first place that I had visited that had long term missionaries. And I was excited to see what could be done differently because the previous trip that I had come on, really left a bad taste in my mouth. It was a week long trip filled with, “give me, give me” all week. And Americans obliging by giving junk away to make themselves feel better and to put a temporary smile on the person that was just encountered. I didn’t really feel like we accomplished anything at all except to make it a little harder for the next group that would come in after we left because I know they would be pestered to death for more junk. Now back to my latest trip. I really didn’t want to go but it was an opportunity to bring my teenage son. So we went. Let me just say the trip to get to where we were going was total “hell”. Took 26 hours from start to finish. The location was amazing and the people were different. They didn’t want, or wasn’t always saying “give me, give me” because they had not been tainted by other groups. It was refreshing. First day out in the field, we had a big pre-meeting and we were told to pack our backs with “stuff” for that day’s outing. I, and several others was not too happy about this. It was like, here we go again. We’re going to taint the water. I felt like we had a opportunity to do something different. I honestly wish the long termers had been there for that meeting and would have interjected and gave their two cents on the subject but no one was there. So there we went in virgin territory with a bunch of “stuff” to hand out. My stomach was queasy. Like when you know you’re fixing to do something wrong. We left, we hiked, we prayed with people, we smiled, we laughed, we interjected ourselves into people’s homes to help them “be better”, and we gave them junk. I and several others gave all of our stuff to the local pastor so they the church could use the stuff in whatever way they saw fit (sunday school, bible school gifts, raise money, whatever). We then came back and talked about our experiences and then met with the long termers the next evening to talk about our trip. And they did tell us that they were frustrated with short termers coming in and giving stuff away because it made it hard on them after the group was long gone. I understood. Next day, we got up and was asked to get our supplies ready for the day and to pack more “junk”. What?. We had these pre-trip meetings every morning and I honestly do wish that the long termers had been more present, more visible and more vocal. I wish they had went with us on our outings to teach us, to fuss at us, if need be, to direct us, but that didn’t happen. I wanted to see the community through their eyes, to see the struggles they faced but that just didn’t manifest itself. Now, we did do a walk through the community, a tour, but it lasted less than a hour and other than breakfast and dinner, I didn’t get to interact with the long termers. I believe it was a huge opportunity missed for us to be schooled. I understand that the long termers had duties and chores to complete but I believe there was a huge disconnect between the two entities (short termers and long termers). I guess my point is this and it’s cliche but communication with cooperation is the key. Without short termers, Americans will not be exposed to Haiti’s problems, needs, and beauty and without long termers, connections and life changing relationships built with the people of Haiti will not take place. Both are needed for change to take place. Oh btw, as a result of our short term trip, my son now wants to be a long term missionary and is pursuing that goal and I do believe that by the end of the trip, most on the trip began to understand that how the trips were conducted needed to change. Hopefully no more “junk”. I have huge admiration and respect for the long termers and I do believe things are a changing for the better. God Bless

    • Shannon Kelley

      so key D Anthony: communication! You are exactly right that there needs to be a bridge between the long and short termers and I truly think when that happens and as we strive to that, missions will be an even more beautiful thing! Thanks for sharing your story! Love that about your son:)

  • Becky

    I grew up as an MK, and as an adult have been on many short term missions. Some of those trips went really well, at least from what I could see, in that we were taught by the in the field folks what we could and could not do. Some of the most productive times were when worshiping with believers from a different culture and language, sewing together, praying for one another and playing games. You all are right, it was relationship, of course, bearing one another’s burdens. But the context of shared work and goals seemed to matter. We needed a focus. The hosting church asked us to help with ESL classes, which helped invite their neighbors into the church. They did “parade us” in front of the neighborhood, intentionally. We were the sideshow. They felt that curiosity would drive their neighbors into the church in order to see and hear the whites. These folks and their families then became the churches’ outreach focus after we left. .The elders of the church then went and visited every family that showed up.

    I have seen short term trips go badly as well, very badly. Despite asking to be pared with nationals on the ground, with the idea that we would only do what they felt was helpful, we were thrown into the “do a field clinic for a day ” or “just put up that wall” scenario which did nothing but alienate the national professionals. I do not know why this happened, but I suspect it was easier to just keep the team busy, and make us feel relevant.

    The impact of the short term missions teams at home, however, has been huge. As mentioned by some of the other commentators, it has been the means God has used to call several people into long term service. But mostly has been a relationship builder, a way for us to give money to the long term folks, and KNOW and trust how it is being spent. It is nearly impossible to be a good steward with our money, and just send it off to a mission board to be spent on who knows what, without those relationships having been established.

  • Sheryl

    I think it’s disgraceful and rude to broach a sensitive topic like this on a blog. If you are unhappy with the actions, behavior or anything else that the ‘short term mission groups’ are doing; it is your responsibility to communicate it privately. You are in a position of authority there, you should be communicating expectations before the groups come to Haiti. Or communicating that you would rather them not to come at all, send money instead or whatever the need is. This blog is really bothering me. I can’t believe that you are publicly shaming mission groups, and taking a very self-righteous attitude toward them. Disappointed.

    • Hi Sheryl. I think it is great that you feel the freedom to express your opinion so openly here in the comments on this blog. I am sorry that you are disappointed by your perception of the way that this specific experience was presented. Even though you might feel like the content was presented in a self-righteous manner you can see by the questions at the close of the post that the author is striving to understand and seeking advice. To me that shows a learning heart; not a shaming one.

      You might like to direct your attention to a post that we had from Seth Barnes about a month ago called “A Case for Short Term Missions” in which the long list of the positive points of short term missions groups is presented. Here’s the link:

      You share some good ideas of how this specific situation, and others like it, could have been handled differently. These are things that some people may have never thought of before. That is precisely why bringing up a touchy topic like this in a discussion format is important. Oftentimes the topics that we would most like to avoid are topics we should address head on.

      You are welcome here in this place, just as all who have a difference of opinion to express. Even though we might not agree let’s try to speak with each other with an encouraging tone. Thanks.

      Angie Washington
      co-editor of A Life Overseas

    • Bethany

      Sheryl, I totally support that this is finally out there and is being discussed, it is a conversation that needs to be had, and not behind closed doors. It’s happening all over the world and we are faced with the same challenges in my corner of the world. I don’t know how you fit into this puzzle, but as the executive director of an NGO, these are things that affect our overall success in what we are doing. I would encourage you to speak with others in our position and hopefully you will begin to understand why this conversation needs to be had.

  • Vicki

    We had a wonderful experience with a short term last summer. After talking with Mexican church leaders here, we decided to change the way we do short term group. Many Mexicans do not want Americans to come down to do something FOR them, but they would like them to come to do something WITH them. Relationships are soooo important here. Also, many Mexicans feel embarrassed by the greed that the lower class shows when too many gifts are given out.

    With this in mind, we asked the American team to do the following:
    1) Long before the trip, we asked them to do monthly cultural acquisition activities (worship in a Mexican American church, try a new Mexican food, read several articles about the differences in the two cultures, etc.) We expect our new missionaries to do two years of cultural acquisition activities. We want short termers to develop a respect for the culture, too.

    2) While in Mexico, we asked them to work under Mexican leadership. For instance, they helped with a five day VBS that had workshops. They did an English workshop, a craft workshop, a sports workshop, and a missions’ workshop.The director was Mexican. They worked beside the Mexican church and under the Mexican leadership.
    Also, they did a construction project under the supervision of Mexican masons. We missionaries helped translate.
    3) Although they initially wanted to bring down lots of gifts,they only brought really appropriate gifts- Christian books to give the VBS teachers, gift bags with school supplies for the kids. Other gifts they brought down were given out during the year for Bible memorization, a new kids’ club, etc.

    Our Mexican church loved this group. The team had learned the value of relationships in this culture, and they started learning to respect the culture. Many of them still Facebook each other!

  • Shannon, thanks for being willing to share your experience and your thoughts here with us! i was talking about your post with a fellow missionary over the weekend, and we agreed that we have similar experiences here in Europe with short-term teams. She related to me, how in her country, in dealing with ST teams, she has come to understand that it isn’t about the “job” the team is coming to do. But it is all about the changes that will take place in the lives of the people who come. Heart change. and so in their planning and implementing, they have to remember that and even keep telling themselves, “it’s not about the project”

    Later I was discussing this with my husband and he told me a shocking statistic: 80% of all long-term missionaries, first come on short-term trips (we are part of that 80%).

    So then as I kept thinking of these things myself, it is easy to see how more profitable these short-term trips are for the people who go on them vs the recipient of the project. Or are they? because isn’t the sacrifice made by the host community (whether they realize it or not) deeply purposeful? They ARE instrumental in the changing of hearts. At first, it seems a little backwards, but then again not surprising for God I know 🙂

    Thanks for causing me to think deeper on this!

  • Great conversation with valuable insight! I’m the Missions Director for an orphanage in Haiti . . . we have about 26 teams per year, so I’ve definitely experienced what you are referring to. Shannon, thanks for asking and seeking clarity on the “tough questions!” And, we press on . . .

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