The Mess of Short Term Missions

by Sarita Hartz on May 24, 2015

stmw

(yep, that’s me on a short term 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?”

There is a widening disconnect between what churches and teams think is necessary or helpful, and what actually provides long term sustainable impact for missionaries and nations.

Having been on both ends of the spectrum as a short term volunteer bumbling along, carefully sampling street meat and squirting hand sanitizer every five minutes, 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’d like to offer some perspective.

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. Only they forgot their blast shields.

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.

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.

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 on my big girl pants 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 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.

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, because in my case it did.

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.

 

Please join me tomorrow as I offer 10 practical ideas for doing short term missions well.

 

How have you seen short term missions done poorly?

_
profile photo blog2Sarita Hartz is a writer, speaker, former missionary, and non-profit director, who tackles issues of missions, infertility, travel, and how to live wholehearted, in her blog Whole, found at www.saritahartz.com. She just finished her first book, Whole, and lives in California with her husband Tyson, and fur baby, Rosie. You can find her on Facebook as Sarita Hartz.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Previous post:

Next post: