The Mess of Short Term Missions

by Sarita Hartz on May 24, 2015


(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 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
  • Marla Taviano

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing! (and I confess I peeked at the 10 practical ideas on your blog…) My husband and I took a short-term trip to Cambodia (10 days) in 2010, then went back for 5 weeks in 2011-2012 with our girls. And we just moved here in January and plan to stay indefinitely. I’m so torn about all of this too. One minute I want to write off short-term trips completely, but I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for that very thing. I think they can be so great in some cases, but in most others? Not so much. I’ll keep working this out.

  • Arthur Davis

    Hey Sarita, I really like your question about how we can open up partnership. You know, I reckon that in Australia, short-term exposure trips just aren’t so much of a thing! As long-termers from Australia, Tamie and I have never expected to host a short-term team, and I don’t think our partner churches have expected to send any. We’ve never really felt the need to relate in that way — there are so many other dimensions to partnership! We talk about having a responsibility to both the Tanzanian church and to the Australian church. We talk about partnership as a two-way thing in which Australian churches “send” but also “receive”. We talk about using multiple communication channels to help people feel connected to us. For example, we don’t just create video; we use 5 or 6 different types of short video for different purposes and occasions.

  • Thank you for your honesty in this, especially in being willing to say that it is mostly about the funding potential of hosting short-term teams. As expat professional people turned expat retirees who spend summers in the US I am struck by the divergence between what is apparent in the foreign location and what the home church perceives to be true about missions in general. Would love to talk more with you about your perspective on this subject.

  • There are some really great thoughts here, I love the honesty (about the reality of things) and humility (open to what short-term missions could become). I am part of YWAM which is well-known for being a pioneer in the short-term missions concept (for good or ill). One thing that strikes me is that often our debates are done by foreign missionaries themselves… which is ok. But, one reason I am still really open to short-term teams despite the well documented downsides is that locals keep asking for them. Not just locals, but local/national missionaries. It’s not always true, but so often they love them (and not because they want money or some other cynical reason)! In fact, the director that I have worked under for many, many years got saved thru a short-term team in his village in South Africa… they did a cheesy dance and moved on. Now he is an internationally respected leader in the body of Christ, especially for seeing indigenous peoples’ dignity restored. He always talks about how grateful he is for that team and is constantly pushing for more. He knows first hand the damage of paternalism and saviour-mentality… yet he loves short-term teams. I would be really interested for this conversation to have some voices from locals… both for and against. As I go through missions the repeated theme I am finding is that local/national workers are blowing the short-term trumpet more than foreign workers. Why is that and what is their perspective on this?

    • ErinMP

      You bring up some really interesting points here, thank you for sharing. You are right–we should get the local churches involved in this discussion, perhaps the most. 🙂

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Hey Lindsey that is a really good point and it would be amazing to get more of the perspective of the national workers themselves although many of them are not as social media savvy as those in the Western world or have access to reliable computers or internet. But I wonder if some of the desire to have short term teams come over is rooted in the fact that short term teams are an easy target for financial asks or sponsorships which only contributes to the widening gap and power dynamics. This isn’t always the case, and I do think there can be healthy relationships that are established between short term teams and nationals, but these cases are more rare. Most of my national workers do love short term teams because of the unique giftings and callings they bring, but that is because we have worked very intentionally to ensure our teams come with training or teaching that can be replicated. But in very poverty stricken areas, I don’t think most nationals would deny that the chance to meet a Westerner who might support them or their children financially isn’t a big draw for them. I think it’s a very real issue and I have seen some national workers take advantage of the naivety of short term teams for their own advantage.

  • Anna Wegner

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. All of the long term people working in this area started out with short term trips, so I do believe that it is a positive possibility. I wonder if some of the difference can be the time involved. A trip that is 7-10 days is going to be very different from a trip that is 2 months, and so on with each length of time.
    We have had good experiences with short term visitors. It helps that we are in an isolated, hard to reach area. If you want to plan a trip for 7-10 days, you don’t come here! And this is a place very few people would come for “fun,”(frontier area in Republic of Congo). That keeps us from having the voluntourism type of visitors. The biggest groups we’ve had are 5-6 people, and we usually have individuals, or 2 people traveling together. The minor problem we have is that the organization in charge accepts almost anyone, so at times we have more visitors than our resources are able to accommodate. This has led to some visitors having a negative experience as well as frustrations from the long term people. I’ve only recently understood the financial aspect of it, and begin to understand the way the system works. In time, we might be able to find a better balance for that.
    There are those who come who are not really able to participate in practical ways, but since it is a hospital, there are more hands-on things that can be done, even when language is an issue than other types of ministries. One thing that is encouraging is those who return over time, some churches and individuals who helped with the opening of the hospital, and have continued the involvement.

    • brittany

      im sure this may seem like its
      not the place but im very curious to know what ministry you are working with.. please message me if u can on here im new tot his i signed up so i could reply to u

  • ErinMP

    I am one of the long-termers who started short term (8 trips, 10 if you include my work as a counselor in Hollywood “short-term outreach” camps and as a bible-study leader in Nebraska). Setting aside the benefits for myself, I would suggest we also consider these things:
    *How many people do you know that finally gave their lives to Christ due to one finalizing conversation or experience? As the Bible says some of us plant seeds, some water, and some give the increase. I can look to people who were in my life long term that helped me find Christ–such as my father or my mentor–but I remember one summer camp (the equivalent of a short term mission) where I completely, finally gave up the anorexia that was killing me because of one motivational Christian speaker one night over a weekend. And I know people with similar experiences. So who are we to judge who and when and for how long God uses other parts of the body? Maybe they are just fingers and us long-termers finally feel like legs or something (or feet in my case, har har), but they are still needed and being used.
    *We are to encourage believers! As the Bible tells us, sometimes Christians would travel or bring gifts to faraway believers to show–hey, we are here, we support you, and it’s not for cultural reasons or because we know you or grew up with you or have to put up with you because we are stuck with you for such a such a time. We are traveling vast oceans to remind you: you are loved, we remember you, we refresh you…here, let me take that load a bit. As a now recent (recent) long-termer, there were times I would have LOVED that, as I felt so isolated from other Christians where I started out on the field. So honestly, it may sound silly, but I think it’s worth it just for that…IF the workers coming are really dedicated and willing to help.
    *Hey, summer camps–fantastic help and love and yay gifts! Helping to build a house or church–just extra hands to keep the project going, how can that be bad? (I haven’t read toxic charity yet, though I’ve been meaning to, maybe that will change my mind??). And learning from other cultures can help the church workers and local Christians, as I learned when I was in Chile and Romania; I felt we helped each other in this. So sometimes short terms just bring fresh perspective and a jolt of other ways of doing things that may help.
    I’ve also seen things go badly–kids who were forced to be there who were glued to their ipod, shallow people who just want to sun bathe and show up for pictures (one of my leaders did this), or treat it like a vacation. No bueno! But as someone who felt I both received and gave on those short terms before I took the plunge, I’m still not in the STM hater camp. 😉 Just kidding, don’t hate me because I made that joke!

    • ErinMP

      Oops *God gives the increase.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Erin, I completely agree and am not in the STM “hater camp” either, but really want teams and churches to thoughtfully engage around the issues of motivation and actual long term sustainable impact and take those things into consideration. I have had people who came at the right time to offer encouragement exactly when I needed it and that is so valuable. At the same time, we have to be careful about how we measure “lives saved,” as in so many of these nations when crusades are hosted, nationals feel the pressure to raise their hand that they got saved because they think they will make the white person happy or get something in return. Remember that we are not called to make “converts,” we are called to make “disciples,” and that is the reason Jesus sent us out, and so we need to look at what are the best ways of doing that. In my limited experience, that is through life on life relational mentoring which can’t really happen with any depth on a short term trip. But I do think teams can encourage missionaries so they can continue to pour into the lives on the ground.

  • I noted that you wrote: “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.”
    I tend to disagree since the reason I hope that people will come on short trips is that they will be converted by the poor to lives lives that reflect the Reign of God, a reign of real justice, a reign that threatens and challenges North American lifestyles and ways of looking at the world.
    I want people to come and see the faith that is already alive in the people I work with – and let it challenge them to live live that reflect a faith rooted in the justice of God.
    If they decide to help – great. But what I want is real solidarity of people in Christ, crossing barriers, opening people of the need to see Christ active in the poor, opening the people who come to be evangelized by the poor.

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Hermano, I completely agree that most missionaries would love to have teams come over because they want it to change their lives and affect how they view the poor and learn from the beautiful faith of those in the developing world, but I think the main goal of these encounters would be to have the teams engage long term relationally and financially. People put their money where their heart is and if they do connect then the hope is they would also do something to bless and support the lives of those in poverty or difficulty.

      • My situation is probably different from many. The parish where I serve here is in a sister parish relation with a parish in the US (where I happened to work before I came here.) They have been very generous and continue to be so – even though they cannot come here to Honduras at this time.
        I see the importance of generating financial support, but I hope that those who come will have a different vision of serving God and the poor wherever the visitors may live. Many of the visitors who have come have been university students and some now are working and volunteering to aid the poor in many different parts of the world.
        For me, the relational aspect is very important as is the opening to conversion. The financial has come and continues.
        One advantage is that even though at this time I have few visitors, I visit the parish once a year to help them understand what is happening. This year they have invited the pastor of the church here to come and that should generate a deeper sense of relationship, of solidarity in Christ.

  • MercyMild

    I’ve seen both the pretty and the ugly of short-term missions, I guess. For awhile, my hubby and I were a part of an organization that promoted “tourism missions,” I would call them. They encouraged volunteers simply because they got support and even earned money off of volunteers staying with them. This made me cynical of short-term missions, because they saw a completely different side of the organization. We, as long-term staff, saw the ugly underbelly and all the behind the scenes that went into preparing things for them. They didn’t realize how little they were actually doing, other than supporting the charity. Needless to say, we left. It was, in general, the organization’s attitude towards short-term volunteers that made us leave, plus very frivolous leadership.

    On the other hand, I, too, have participated in one short-term missions trip and it led me into coming back to India long-term. AND, I’ve met and seen several others who have felt called into long-term missions after a short-term trip. AND, I’ve also been really encouraged by short-term volunteers. Their enthusiasm and fresh eyes are a real encouragement when I can’t “see” anew anymore. It’s like being around a child who finds everything so fascinating and cool. It’s encouraging, revitalizing, and reminds me we’re not alone.

    So, my input is: it depends on the motivation and wisdom of both the organization and the volunteer. Volunteers who really want to help should do their research and know that the money they spend getting over there could do a lot. On the other hand, volunteers who are investigating long-term connections (supporting or staffing long-term) probably SHOULD come visit on a short-term basis first. 🙂 Anyway. Thoughts not complete, but that’s the basic outline.

  • I took a trip with my high school youth group to Costa Rica. From my perspective looking back now (after spending a semester there in college as well) I cringe at the idea that we were “missionaries” to them. We went to a compound where a missionary family had lived for generations and did a few menial labor type things. We engaged with the school that was housed there and more in depth with the church’s own youth group. I ended up staying friends with a few of them for quite a few years.
    But honestly, the total disunity among the members of our team, the lack of clear expectations before we left, the crazy things that happened while we were there make me wonder if we were really more of a burden than a blessing. They had a thriving Christian community there and were doing their own outreach.
    Perhaps if it had been billed more as a cultural exchange I wouldn’t look back so much now and cringe. Then again, we probably wouldn’t have gone since how would we have convinced our friends and church members to send us on a vacation trip in the late 90’s! I know you can fund raise those kinds of things now, but back then it was unheard of.
    To be fair, I’m certainly glad that our pastor had this Bible school friend there to connect with. Originally my best friend and I had wanted to go to Tanzania after our missions conference. (funny that I have strong ties to another organization in Tanzania now and we may end up there as a family some day) But I think the cost of sending 15 people to Tanzania for 2 weeks would make me want to puke! Because I’m absolutely sure that the amount of labor a dozen white American kids do is a pittance to what those people do on a daily basis.
    I DO think short term missions can be done well, my current church seems to be doing it as we just had a couple of pastors up from a church in Mexico just last week thanking us for sending a team every year. But it’s a two way street. Our teams go more to encourage, and get the high school kids out of their American perspective rather than to be the saviors swooping in for 10 days. The pastors were thankful that we had an ongoing relationship, they said they were thankful to know they weren’t forgotten.
    I wonder in the end if this is the crux of the situation. If a team goes for 10 days and then is never heard from again do the local people wonder if they ever really cared to begin with? Everything in Christianity starts and ends with relationships.

  • Kimberly

    Maybe I’m abnormal, but I want people from my home churches in the states to come, specifically because I want to see their faces.

  • Jody Hesler

    Wow! You are brave!! I am the product of a short-term missions trip – about 7 of them to be exact, to the same 2 places. Short-term missions is what let me to become a long-term worker. I have been in long term missions for 20+ years – in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In Eastern Europe, working with at risk children, I hosted dozens of teams: teams that made genuine impacts on the lives of the street kids and kids living in state orphanages. We did get buy-in as you say and God blessed us with all the resources we needed. I feel that the teams and recipients: me, my colleagues and “our” kids truly benefitted. And then… I moved to a Central Asia. At first the medical/dental teams that poured in met a huge need among IDPs, then security started to decline, it became dangerous and still the teams came. There was a donor organization (even couched in “M speak” I’m afraid to say the ch…ch word) that sent team after team after team after team with the sole purpose of building relationships with a village that was built with a lot of this organizations funds. No one listened to the long term team’s warnings of the danger it put both teams in – long-term and short-term or the massive funds that were spent in travel and then organizing them once they were on the field. Sigh… I think I’m rambling. I have been blessed to experience incredible short term teams who made a real impact and were impacted and I have also experienced teams who came to meet their own needs at the cost of the long-term team and nationals who hosted them. And, when I tried to bring this up – several times – I became pariah in that organization. It is a topic that needs to be talked about but as you say it gets so emotional and even ugly. Thanks for stepping into the arena!!

    • Sarita Hartz Hendricksen

      Thanks Jody! I too am a long term missionary who was birthed out of a “short term trip” so I know how amazingly impactful it can be. And I agree, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do short term teams at all, but rather address where we have done them out of selfish motives and how we can do them better. This is something the church should be concerned with and I’m sorry that the organization you were involved with wouldn’t listen, as the experiences of long terms is really invaluable in this process.

  • Yes. Great article. “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.” and YES – to that too! Love this – looking forward to reading more of your work!

  • Janelle Peifer

    I got really derailed by your ‘like a busload of Asian tourists” similie. I came in really wanting to read this article and that statement threw up a barrier to me wanting to finish the rest of your story. I imagine that you have a lot to say and it makes me sad to think that something like that, a likely unconsciously biased statement, would prevent people from hearing your voice.

    • Avery

      I didn’t notice the phrase until you brought it up. If you can’t tell already (i.e. I think my picture make it obvious), I’m an American of Chinese descent. Part of me is surprised; perhaps having grown up in the States and considering myself American desensitizes me to those kinds of comments.

      I certainly don’t think any harm was meant by the phrase, but I understand and recognize the unease and offense that you’ve taken at the phrase. There’s this uneasy tension between not wanting to put a microscope to every phrase used, every thought uttered and wanting to allow the message to be clear instead of being side-tracked by unintentional offenses.

      The tragedy, to me, is that both of us are talking about a stylistic issue, not about the content of Sarita’s post, (the content of which pulls at me in the different ways it intersects with my own life journey). I don’t know your own background, so it’s unclear to me what relationship the phrase has with your own personal journey; part of me wonders if the phrase used is offensive because of the user. Would the ethnic background of the writer influence whether offense would be taken? Maybe. Maybe not.

      How does one move forward? I’m not sure. I’d love to hear Sarita’s thoughts on this.

  • Patty

    Do you think that there are many missionaries that go into service for the long term that have never been on a short term trip?

    • duckfan

      Very, very few in this day and age.

  • Steve

    Agreed! Thank you for sharing! It’s because of these challenges that 400 concerned short-term mission (STM) leaders from churches, mission agencies, and schools invested thousands of hours of work, discussion, and prayer to develop best practices, or Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission ( As a result, now other organizations can know how to do STM with excellence – instead of repeating the same mistakes you so eloquently describe!

    • duckfan


  • Mike Snyder

    Again…if done right, and if the assumption from the start includes the question of ‘how might we MAXIMIZE our Kingdom impact,” Stm can be a launching pad for shared, long term,visionmobilization, and partnership ..OR it can be little more than Christian tourism.
    Anecdotally…98% of our long term missionaries (in my denomination) Were involved in STM prior to receiving the call to vocational missions. Statistically…somewhere around 3% of all participants go on to vocational ministry. My question is..what are we doing to mobilize that 97% on their return? Thoughts? Pray . Give. Send
    Go. X; )

  • duckfan

    Having been a short-term coordinator in Europe for 10 years I find that many of the discussions about short-term are focused on trips to poorer parts of the world; particularly in Africa and South America. Therefore, it is difficult to extrapolate the experiences in those locations to ST in places where the nationals may be more affluent than the short-termers themselves.

    The bottom line for me is this: is there effective and meaningful field-driven/requested ministry that can be accomplished by STers? If not, don’t go. Or at least don’t call it a short-term MISSIONS trip.

  • Dusty Cooper

    I agree with you, Sarah, to a degree but disagree on the reason most missionaries invite or all STMs to serve with them. As background, I grew up in the West Indies (yep, the infamous MK), then served as a resident missionary in Brazil, and for the past couple of decades taking short-term mission teams to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. What I have observed watching my parents host teams, hosting teams myself, and now facilitating teams for others, is that ongoing partnerships with resident followers of Christ (mainly national pastors/leaders and some missionaries) work best, are the best investment of time and resources, and are more apt to transform those we serve. Even more so, the transformation of those that go to serve on the STM and, through them, the churches and friends that sent them is more common than not. I strongly believe that STMs, done more according to the Pauline principle of sending apostles to unchurched areas to preach the gospel, then continuing to send apostles to disciple and expand the church, returning to give a report on what God is doing – those teams make a difference on both side of the STM equation.

Previous post:

Next post: