7 Steps to Creating a Thriving Ministry Culture

At the age of 24, I started my own nonprofit to help rehabilitate girl child soldiers in a war-torn region of Uganda. I had little to aid me in this process except my passion and a copy of Nonprofits for Dummies I’d picked up in a Barnes and Noble one day which quickly became my Bible.

Passion is wonderful, but if we don’t couple that with education and a curiosity for growth, then we’re going to face many defeats and failures. As people came alongside me in my vision, it created layers of complexity, and I didn’t have the organizational leadership skills to truly build a thriving team culture. Towards the end of my time overseas, I began to try and implement some of these practices I’ve since learned.

In the new model of missions, many are starting and running humanitarian organizations that work in fields of sex trafficking, water wells, and social entrepreneurship. We desperately need help and sometimes we’ll settle for warm bodies, but at the end of the day we’re doing more harm than good if we think these volunteers matter less than the people we’ve set out to serve.

Sometimes as nonprofit directors we can fall into the danger of treating employees or volunteers simply for what value we can extract from them, what they can do for us, rather than as people with their own needs we should care for. Within missions’ organizations, we often chew people up and spit them out, offering little member care, and complaining when we have high turnover rates.

As leaders, we often want to fulfill the mission even at the cost of ourselves and those alongside us. I get it. I’ve been there. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I was so snowed under with my first nonprofit that I didn’t value staff well-being as much as I should have.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs of volunteers or employees in addition to the needs of the people you are trying to serve. And yet, studies have shown that investing in a solid, thriving organizational plan will result in happier, healthier staff and greater productivity as an organization with less turnover and burnout. Investing in self-care strategies and the well-being of your staff will result in long term sustainability.

But as Facebook engineer and Asana founder Dustin Moskovitz says, “It’s not something that just happens, I realized [culture] was something that needed to be carefully designed, tested, debugged and iterated on like any other product.”

With this in mind, here are 7 steps to creating a thriving ministry culture:


1. Own that there’s a problem around stress

Change has to come from the top down. As the director or team leader, you have to own your issues of over-responsibility and overwork and find a value for self-care so your people can follow you. You can say “unplug from work,” but if workaholism and martyrdom is lauded and modeled in your life, if people are praised for answering emails over the weekend and getting little sleep, then the culture is promoting eventual burnout.

Stop the guilt and shaming around people not being “tough enough” if they can’t do all you can. Accept there might be special grace on your life to do what you do. And remember if you are unhappy or stressed, your entire staff will feel it too.


2. Build a team — hire and delegate

We might be too overwhelmed to care for the needs of volunteers ourselves, which is why ideally we should have a volunteer coordinator, someone who is specifically focused on workers’ emotional well-being. As a missions organization, we should have a delegated member care staff person or hire an outside counselor or coach for our people to receive the ongoing inner healing they need to do their jobs well. Make sure these people have a value for compassionate connection.


3. Create policies that mirror your values

Instead of praising people for working 60-80 hours, start praising people who take their time off. Stop guilt and shaming around self-care or making people feel they aren’t tough if they aren’t sacrificing everything for the cause. Compassion fatigue is real. Write up and distribute policies that share your values. Come up with a fun name people can use when they need a break: “Me time,” “Mental health break,” “Snooze button,” etc.


4. Practice what you preach

Culture only happens if you implement your values and policies and you actually participate in them. Your team will model their lives after you. Email your team about your personal goals for self-care; that will give them permission to engage in their own. Some great ideas:

  • Morning celebration or testimony time (What gives you joy/what are you thankful for?)
  • Encourage people to leave work on time and unplug (Play a song loudly in office till everyone is out)
  • Flexible work hours (work from home; come in later if you worked late the night before)
  • 4-day work week (longer hours for 4 days for a 3 day weekend)
  • Digital detox (No emails sent late at night or on weekends)
  • Walking meetings (walking while you brainstorm promotes equality)
  • Keep healthy snacks in the office for energy throughout the day
  • Mandated mental health day every 3 months (time off to be with Jesus or do what nourishes them)
  • Build a quiet room for prayer, meditation, or power naps with a sofa or bean bags. Have lavender essential oils, tea, etc, an iPod with guided meditations or nature sounds for when people need a stress break. Offer adult coloring books, which are proven to reduce stress
  • Put a small gym at office (weights, yoga mats, punching bag, bike) and encourage exercise breaks during the work day (Studies show 20 min of exercise in the afternoon is a better stimulant than coffee)
  • Download meditation apps (Calm, Headspace, Mindfulness)
  • Employee of the month- give them a massage or gift card to something self-care related (honor attitude and compassion)


5. Get ownership from your employees and team members

This is perhaps what makes thriving cultures successful. Find out what your people value, what would help them de-stress, either through an anonymous survey or in person if you’ve created a safe environment for them to be honest. Invite them into creating your wellness policies. It can be scary to let go of control and get feedback, but it’s essential to a thriving org culture.

You may live in a culture where you’re afraid people will become lazy. In some African cultures things seem to move a lot more slowly. Change your expectations and remember that a well-supported staff will be more productive in the end. If they have a stake in your values, they will be more likely to carry them out. Creating breaks will lead to fewer people trying to cheat the system. Make sure you follow up to see what’s working and what isn’t. Learn to respect people’s boundaries when they say they can’t handle something.


6. Invite play and fun into the workplace

Play is an important aspect of building strong team dynamics. In harsh environments where we witness intense suffering, play is perhaps even more vital. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have Crockpot Mondays where different people cook their favorite dish and share (breaking bread together is important in building cohesion)
  • Have board games in the office to play during lunch breaks or a staff game night (Smallworld, Codenames, poker, Cards against Humanity, Apples to Apples, Taboo)
  • Put up a whiteboard for staff to write inspiring quotes, funny drawings or encouraging messages
  • Do trust falls or a ropes course together
  • Go on a fun staff retreat together (camping or a resort)
  • Have a karaoke night or movie night with a projector
  • “Surpraise”- Every month choose a staff person and cover their desk in post it notes of praise and encouragement
  • Do sports together (Play volleyball, kickball, disc golf, ultimate Frisbee)


7. Take your vacations and mandate staff do the same

One of the things that begins to slip often in the nonprofit sector is time off. We get so caught up in fulfilling the mission that we lose sight of rest. Resting is essential and it’s admitting to God that we trust Him to take care of things, that we know He can move even without our help.

Recommended guidelines for international workers are 25-30 days a year of vacation time. But team members won’t feel like they can take the time off if they never see you completely unplugging. It’s also a confidence booster for staff to see that you believe they can hold the fort down and function without you. It’s recommended that every 3-5 years you take a longer sabbatical (up to 2-3 months) to reset, do research, and reestablish your purpose and your commitments to self-care. True growth often happens in the stillness.

In summary, let your organization be known not just for loving those you serve, but loving one another.


Sarita Hartz is a writer, life coach, and former humanitarian worker who writes about wholehearted living and healthy missions in her blog Whole at www.saritahartz.com. She loves helping people transform their lives. You can download her free eBook A Self-Care Plan for Global Workers (Learn to Prevent Burnout) at her blog.

5 Things You Can Do When You Feel Like a Failure

In January of 2013, after 6 years of running a nonprofit, I moved off the field in Uganda back to the USA and struggled terribly with re-entry. There were many good, wise reasons for this move, but none of them seemed justifiable enough to qualm the voice in my head that echoed with the fact that in leaving I had somehow failed.

It seemed like so many things had gone wrong. And I blamed myself.

When I left Uganda, I wondered if God still had a plan for me or if I’d somehow messed up His will, gone off track. 

I couldn’t understand why in the middle of one of my hardest seasons, it felt like God had abandoned me. I felt like maybe I deserved it because I had failed Him too. I hadn’t measured up to His expectations of me.

Even though my husband and I felt confident that God had asked us to leave, there was still expectation I had on myself that to be a successful missionary meant I was supposed to stay there forever. Anything less felt like I hadn’t finished the race.

In my coaching ministry with global workers now, this theme of feeling like a failure is always surfacing.

I’ve learned some things that have helped me not feel like such a failure.

1. Evaluate your metric for success

I believe many of us hold this faulty belief in missions and aid work, that the length of time we stay on the field is our greatest measure of success. I don’t believe this is true. We don’t measure the CEO of a company by the length of time in his job, but by how his company performed, by his output. Even Jesus’ ministry years were short in comparison to the number of people he helped. Yes, there is something to be said about how much time you’ve invested in learning a people, and a nation and the experience that comes from those years.

But I believe when we look at whether or not we’ve been successful, we need different metrics. Did people feel loved when they were around us? Did we give our best? What is the legacy left behind? Were deep relationships built? Were we obedient to what God asked of us? How is our relationship with God and those closest to us? Are we able to still move from love and compassion to those around us? Sometimes leaving is the most loving thing we can do, for ourselves, and for others.

The truth was, it was a lie that I had failed. I hadn’t. I had loved and I had loved deeply, and that can never be a failure.

2. Let go of the fear of man

When people parade your picture around church talking about all the “good works” you’re doing, it’s easy to feel like everyone has expectations of you that you can’t meet. It’s easy to feel like you’re not measuring up, or that if people knew your real struggles they’d be horrified. It’s what makes us feel like we have to plaster on a fake smile and a fake face. Or that we have to hide from people. Or that we have to perform so people will be happy with us. In order to save my own soul, I had to stop caring as much what people thought of me. I had to let go of the fear of man, and care only about what God said about me. This can be a painful death when we are used to operating to please others. But there is so much freedom in letting go and just being where we are and being honest about it.

3. Remember that imperfect can be beautiful

The Japanese art of kintsugi, which means “golden journey,” is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. It is all about turning ugly breaks into beautiful fixes. It’s an embracing of the flawed or imperfect. There can be beauty in brokenness and in repair. Not only that, but it these “cracks” in our journey that can lead to the most beauty. The idea that something or someone could be more beautiful not in spite of their brokenness but because of it. What I’ve learned is it’s in brokenness where intimacy with God and with ourselves is truly birthed. I see my brokenness now as an opportunity, an opportunity for growth, for redemption, for wisdom, for the chance to practice self compassion and know God’s goodness. I ask myself now, “What can I learn from this, what is this teaching me?”

4. Learn to practice self-acceptance 

This is the notion that we can let go of the idea of who we think we “should be” and accept who we are here and now. It’s knowing that God created you how you are and has unconditional love for you even in the midst of your failures. He isn’t expecting perfection from you, just a full and present self. He’s not holding up the measuring stick and finding you wanting. Jesus died not just for our past mistakes, but your future ones as well. When Father looks at you He sees His child in whom He is well-pleased.

When we feel like a failure, we let shame in, and shame destroys our sense of self worth. I’ve spent many hours in therapy working through my shame. When I feel shame coming, I like to imagine Father God’s heart for me. I like to ask Him how He sees me. I find that He isn’t pulling away from me, but rather that I was hiding from Him.

Sometimes instead of negative self talk I ask myself if I can find one thing I’m doing well? Can I see one gift God has put inside me?

5. Let your greatest setbacks become your greatest comebacks 

I wholeheartedly believe that our areas where we feel we’ve failed the most or had the biggest setback, can be our area of greatest triumph. What we learn in these dark moments might be the very thing that defines our life in a new way. What if what I thought was failure, was my greatest launching pad? In fact, what looked like failure ended up leading to my greatest calling. If I had never left Uganda, I never would have found the healing my heart so needed.  If I hadn’t found that healing I wouldn’t have found the work I love to do now in journeying with others as I coach them. I now don’t just touch Uganda, but I touch nations through the lives of those who serve there. God completely redeemed my story.

What have you learned from what you thought was failure?


Sarita Hartz is a writer, life coach, and former humanitarian worker who writes about wholehearted living and healthy missions in her blog Whole at www.saritahartz.com. She loves helping people transform their lives. You can download her free eBook A Self-Care Plan for Global Workers (Learn to Prevent Burnout) at her blog.

Nine Ways to Save a Marriage

If there is one place where your marriage will suffer, it’s probably on the mission field.

My husband and I waltzed into marriage crazy in love and stupidly naïve. After knowing each other only 4 months, we eloped on a white sand beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Then we spent the next five years running a ministry in a war zone in Uganda. Yeah, smart. We thought that love and sex would save us, and it worked for a while. But the reality is, while marriage is an intimate union of two souls growing together, it’s also hard work, and it leaves the soul rubbed raw.

When we left Uganda, I wasn’t quite sure if we should even stay together. It seemed like we’d done a lot of damage, and like a house on fire, we weren’t sure what charred remains to salvage. Like most things in our life, we had to learn it the hard way, but we’ve finally figured out some gems.


Ever since Prince Charming kissed Snow White, we’ve imagined there is only one perfect person in the world for us, and they will complete us. If they don’t, we assume it’s the other person’s fault. Unfortunately, the Christian world does nothing to mitigate this lie. We perpetuate it through Christian romance novels, erroneous prophecy, and the crazy idea that God forces us into things that will be “better for the Kingdom.”

While I do believe God brings people together, we all have a choice. Your person is right because you love them and chose them, and just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I had to get over this lie early on in my marriage when I thought that because my husband wasn’t this identical picture of the “perfect man” I had jotted down on my list after reading “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” he was somehow wrong for me. I’d made a mistake.

Sometimes God brings two very different people together because he knows you need each other and because you will actually be more amazing together than apart. Once I started accepting him for who he was and focusing on his strengths rather than his flaws, I began to see that while he wasn’t “perfect,” he was perfect for me. Part of loving well is this “iron sharpening iron” process we must surrender to.


Unless you married a complete, narcissistic jerk, (not just your perception, in real life), most things that make us angry in our marriages are actually wounds that are triggered from our past. It’s basic psychology that we seek out what is familiar to us based on our family of origin, and we repeat patterns until we feel we’ve gained mastery.

Most of us don’t genuinely love ourselves, and it is this self-hatred that creates unhealthy cycles. We blame, because we are hesitant to admit fault lest our darker selves be revealed. Most of the things I blamed my husband for were actually areas I felt insecure or vulnerable, or was anticipating rejection.

I expected that marriage would make me happy; therefore it was his job to make me happy, and any “failure” was held over his head. I had to learn I was the only person responsible for my happiness. I can’t give my power away to others by expecting them to save me or do what I want, and then be disappointed when they can’t meet my expectations.

Love is a verb, and one that does not equate with control. Like Iggy Azalea raps, I started “work, work, work, work, working” on my stuff: I got a therapist I could trust to unload my history. Most of all, I learned to love myself as God loves me, and that is the greatest key to being able to receive love and give love away.


I believe one of the most crucial foundations for a healthy marriage is the capacity for self-awareness and growth. My husband may not write me poetry every day, but he is willing to explore the ways he reacts to situations and is open to change.

People who say, “This is just the way I am,” are doomed for failure. Denial is just another word for pride, and humility is the only way this marriage thing works.

Every moment we have a choice towards connection or disconnection. We can move closer or we can push farther away and try to punish by withholding our love. It’s amazing the relief that can come from the magic words, ”I’m sorry,” whether you are 100% wrong or only 5% wrong.

If your partner is interested in something, try to learn about it and join with them. My husband is really into zombie TV shows like The Walking Dead, and trail running. At first, I was nervous to really get into both because I was scared. It was outside my comfort zone. But I tried them because I wanted to be together with him doing the things he loves, and now those are some of our favorite moments we share. And he’s even joined me on a poetry reading or two.


This is probably one of the biggest mistakes I made the first two years of our marriage. I had my identity wrapped up in my dream and I thought it couldn’t be bad because I was working for God and performing good deeds. But the truth was my workaholism was attached to the belief that I only had value and significance if I had the world’s approval. I performed for the pat on the back that said I was worthy. Because I had to work so hard, I was constantly responding to late night phone calls and emergencies and I exhausted myself so I had only leftovers to give to my marriage.

I gained significance from being “needed.” It was easier to love people in my ministry because they loved me back and I didn’t have to go home with them. I could put on the role of the “perfect Sarita,” and they wouldn’t be disappointed in the “real me” like a husband could. They didn’t have to see my flaws, nor I theirs, and in this way I could hide from true intimacy.

At home I felt like a failure, but out there I was a “hero,” and that was a much easier hat to wear. I wanted to be a counselor, a dispenser of wisdom, but I didn’t want to look at myself because that meant having to face the me I didn’t like.

It took a lot of healing to realize I was already worthy. I had to learn to set boundaries with the ministry, to prioritize self care, date nights, and getaways, so I had something to give to my husband instead of expecting him to take care of me when I wasn’t doing a good job myself.


People are not mind readers (men, especially). Communication isn’t just about talking, it’s about being vulnerable enough to clearly acknowledge and articulate your feelings and needs.

Building a relationship and a community where you can practice this skill is incredibly important. Early on, I assumed because Tyson loved me, he would also know what I needed. If he didn’t somehow deduce that when I said, “I’m so exhausted, I don’t feel like cooking tonight,” that translated to, “You need to make a plan for dinner,” it meant he didn’t really love me. It sounds crazy, I know, but being a Type 2 on the Enneagram means I’m not good at asking for what I need because I’m always thinking about what other people need.

Saying I need help means admitting I can’t do it all, and that felt like weakness to me. It was also scary to admit to what I needed, because what if I didn’t get what I wanted? That would leave me exposed. Learning I needed to grow in honesty and authenticity (Brene Brown is a hero for me on this) was a pivotal turning point for our relationship. My husband was patient with my false starts and stutters.


All marriages will inevitably require some kind of compromise. We cannot coexist and both get what we want at the same time, all the time. My husband and I are both dreamers and we are both pioneers, which means neither of us are very good at backing down. In the end, we realized we could either resent each other for holding one another back, or take turns being each other’s biggest cheerleader.

Tyson moved to Africa because that’s where I was already building my ministry and accomplishing my dreams. He knew how important it was to me and was unwilling for me to give it up (I was too stubborn to anyway). He spent five years championing me and letting me run ahead while his dreams took a backseat. I didn’t ask him to this, but it was an organic outcome of where we were in life.

When we moved back to the United States, I was pretty close to burnout, in major transition, and needed to pull back. I made it a point to encourage him to pursue the development of the business that was on his heart while I took over the responsibilities of our home. It also made sense due to our financial needs coming off the field. These were conscious choices we both made as a team to pass the baton to each other, so the other could soar.

Especially when children are involved, it becomes even more difficult to negotiate who will take more responsibility for the home so the other can pour into work. It’s important to have deep conversations exploring the pros and cons of each choice and ultimately hear from God about whose turn it is to run. Wholehearted agreement on a plan is imperative to balancing power dynamics and promoting harmony in the relationship.


As you get deeper into your marriage, you might have to redefine the definition of romance. It might be less of the longingly staring into each other’s eyes on a beach, and more the way your husband washes the dishes. If we look hard enough, we can always see the good again in our partner, no matter how far we’ve gotten away from those initial reasons.

I started focusing on the things I loved about Tyson instead of his flaws. I loved his sense of humor and sense of adventure. I started laughing more at his jokes, and planning little trips to get out of the ordinary. I praised the way he worked so hard for our family and held back from criticizing him for things that bothered me. I planned dates if he forgot to plan them. I stopped always thinking the worst of him, and that he was deliberately trying to hurt me, and started giving him the benefit of the doubt.  I started seeing the gold in him and calling it out.

And slowly, my heart began to change. I started to remember the reasons why I loved him and why he was good for me. And because he was less afraid to fail or disappoint me, he began doing many of the things I longed for in the first place.


It is so easy to let resentment build up in our marriages, and like that greasy gunk on the inside of our oven, it gets harder and harder to wipe clean. So often we think we’ve forgiven, but they are just words. We will bring up an old wound, mistake, or fault at the first chance. We’ll say things like, “You always do ____” or “You never do ____.”  What we’re really saying is, “I haven’t let that go.”

It takes a big person to be authentic, to tune into your inner truth and say, “I’m angry right now, but what that really means is, I’m scared.”

When we returned to California from Uganda we signed up for a Love After Marriage course at our church. And I truly believe it saved our marriage. While the whole thing is amazing, the part that impacted me most was when we had to write each other letters. The goal was to spend time asking God to reveal the areas where you’d been hurt by your partner then allow God to convict you for the ways you had been complicit in hurting your marriage. We then wrote each other letters and what poured out of me was so surprising. I saw the ways I had been selfish and demanding. I saw how I had been critical and set unrealistic expectations.

Then it was as though I could see Tyson’s heart and how much he truly longed to love me, but often didn’t know how. I had such compassion for him. We both apologized genuinely from our hearts for the individual ways we had harmed one another. Ways that had been long buried over, poisoning us in ways we hadn’t realized. For the first time, I felt like he really heard me, he could really see what I’d been saying and there was genuine acknowledgement and empathy for the areas he had failed me, and I him. When we read each other our letters, in between the flood of tears, there was breakthrough.


Being in missions or ministry means everyone is looking at you and you feel the need to project the idea that everything is fine. Because many people will judge you it’s hard to find safe places to process your true feelings and fears about your marriage. It’s also incredibly difficult because you are often isolated, without community, in remote regions, and that is why it’s so imperative you choose a person or a couple to mentor you and check in on you throughout your missions assignment.

I know some of you are facing some very real hurts in your marriage that you think you might not be able to overcome. And I’m not trying to trivialize those. Seek help through marriage counseling or Love After Marriage. It is so worth it, I promise. Pain has a way of carving out room for joy.

And if you think you are in a situation where you might be being abused either verbally or emotionally be willing to put yourself first and set boundaries with an unhealthy person. Read books like Keep your Love On, and pray about a possible time of separation. While I’m not a proponent of divorce, I recognize in some situations people’s choices make this fact inevitable. It’s not the end of the world and it’s not the unpardonable sin. God will still love you. But make sure you’ve done everything in your power to save your marriage before you think about throwing in the towel. You might be surprised by the redemption that could come out of it. I know I was.


photo credit: Pixabay

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.

What to Do About Short Term Missions

Yesterday I discussed the Mess of Short Term Missions. Today, I’m going to offer ten ways to do a short term mission trip well. These ideas are for anyone leading or going on a short term mission trip — or for anyone who’s trying to decide whether or not to go on a particular trip.



The most effective form of short-term ministry is to pour into the local missionaries and their national staff rather than beneficiaries. (Yep, that might mean good-bye VBS with kids climbing all over you and braiding your hair.)

You will not be able to impact those beneficiaries on a day to day, but you can impact the missionary who will get to. That means you probably don’t need a team of 15 people, but rather a smaller, more intentional team.

It doesn’t look like we were ever really intended to do short-term missions the way that we do them.

The only “missions” in the gospel was relational and long term. Churches like Phillippi would often send 1-2 missionaries from their church to support and encourage the work of long-term missionaries like Paul, but the intention was always to serve the long term missionary so he could continue the work of serving people.

Philippians 2:25, 29–30 says:
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need … So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”

Paul, calls him “my brother and fellow-worker and fellow-soldier.” Those three words speak volumes. He isn’t there to fulfill a self-serving need of holding babies or to gain experience, he is there in the trenches with Paul to encourage him and co-labor with him.

“Epaphroditus is a great model for short-term work. Epaphroditus served the church and the cause of missions by being a messenger of the church’s love for Paul, and by being a minister to his emotional and physical needs. His “short-term” efforts advanced the cause of missions by supporting the most effective means of missions — long-term missionaries.” (I stole that from this really smart guy.)

Most missionaries are having a tough time feeling like they are always failing because they live in a constant state where people are pulling on them with tons of needs.

They probably already feel pretty horrible and they don’t need you to make them feel worse or like they aren’t measuring up. They have lots of good ideas that rarely ever turn out as planned. They spend countless hours in uncomfortable situations loving on prostitutes in brothels or waiting in long lines at the hospital to get their locals some medical care. They might be recovering from physical illness or be burned out because of the toll long term stress and trauma can take on the body. They have self-doubt and self-loathing. They miss creature comforts and their families. Their marriage might be going through a tough time because of all the stress and fatigue.

You don’t live there under those extreme conditions, so you might not get it, but be a SAFE PLACE for them to air things out without judgment or reproach.

Offer grace and encouragement that they are doing a good job and help them to see when they might want to take a break. Maybe bring them some funny TV shows, or Breaking Bad, or some good books, or downloaded sermons, or some chocolate. They could probably use a chocolate bar.

Develop a connection that will remain long after you leave. You might be the lifeline of support they need, and you might learn a lot from them in the process.



Don’t think about all the cool stories or photos you want to bring back so you can show people what you’ve done. These missionaries are the people who have a heart for this nation and have sacrificed everything to be there every day loving people and doing the hard stuff.

When you roll in and hand out a bunch of soccer balls and candy to kids, it undermines the bridges of trust built through partnering and instead sends the message of easy “Aid” and spreads dependency. It makes it much harder on them when you leave and people wonder why this friend who has been staying with them over all these years never “gives them stuff.” If you have gifts, only bring what they’ve asked and let them hand them out at a time they deem appropriate.

Here are some ideas of things that might be helpful, but you should specifically ask your organization or missionary what their needs are. Maybe they need, I don’t know, CASH, more than they need you to fly over. It’s not shiny or seductive, but I promise it will be a thousand times more helpful than building a house they could have gotten locals to build better:

  • Be a friend (offer counseling, support, encouragement to local staff; help them recharge)
  • Pray and prophecy over them—bring fellowship to them because they miss that
  • Offer counseling, Theophostic prayer, or Sozo (if qualified)
  • Offer them a retreat, a date night, or a babysitter. Do their nails, or bring stuff over for them from America like food supplies and vitamins
  • Offer to pray over their national staff’s homes or make them dinner
  • Be willing to help around the office with admin/tech issues
  • Host a teaching conference (women’s conference) or something of lasting value (and pay for it). Give away the training you’ve received to people who don’t have access to those resources and materials
  • Train staff in Vocational Education — something they can reuse or train their beneficiaries in
  • Raise money for them.
  • Ask how can you help them long term. Your greatest asset to them will be what you do with your time when you come back. Will you serve long term? Volunteer? Spread the word?
  • Listen to their guidance and don’t suggest programs they haven’t suggested— ask what their needs are and where you can best serve.
  • Develop long term relationships with the organization
  • Don’t judge them — they know they have holes. Rather, encourage them and see where you can volunteer to fill holes.

Which leads me to….



Let God purify the motives of your heart. Is it for approval?

For man’s celebratory pat on the back?  Is it because if you show you are some kind of savior, you can prove your worth to the world and yourself?

Is it so you can have some cute African kids on your Facebook feed and show how unique you are?

Ask God to reveal to you why He wants you to go.

Remember that good intentions are not enough.


4.  ACTUALLY HAVE A SPECIFIC, NEEDED SKILL TO OFFER (nunchuck skills are not real skills)

The worst thing for the missionaries and for you, is for you to end up feeling useless. Before you plan a trip, really have an open conversation with the missionary/organization about what their actual needs are. Not ones they made up to keep you occupied, but the holes they truly need filled. Really press in and ask them to be truly honest, even if that means you don’t go. If you can’t find people to fill those specific needs, then perhaps rethink the timing or intention of your trip.

Here are some helpful skills on the mission field:

  • Nursing
  • Counseling (Marriage & Family or Trauma)
  • Parenting skills
  • Marriage reconciliation/conflict resolution
  • Computer/website genius
  • Book keeping/Data entry
  • Vocational (seamstress, T-shirt printing, jewelry designer, carpentry, crocheting, baking)
  • Grant writing
  • Graphic Design
  • Photography/Videography

Ask yourself: what will be your sustainable impact?



You’re not going to save the world in the 4.5 days you have on the ground, nor should you try.

You’re probably not going to come up with some genius solution to an incredibly complex problem like poverty.

You don’t have the same information or context as the missionaries on the ground, so don’t assume you know how to do it better than they do.

What if you recognize and accept that if you are going, it might be more about what you will receive and how you will be changed by it, than it will actually impact the people you are going to serve?

Don’t go with answers, but go searching for answers. Recognize there might not be any simple ones, and there might not be a happy ending.

This is messy, challenging work, but if you look close enough you just might find some grace and hope trickling through.

Don’t go in with HUGE expectations. Be humble and see how you can partner with what God’s spirit is already doing in that place, through the people already there.

Listen more and talk less, unless they’re good questions. Not, “When are we going to eat next?” or “Is it possible for us to get hot water?” But thoughtful, critical questions.



Just because you are white or a Westerner doesn’t mean you are superior or you have all the answers. In fact you probably don’t. And the ones you think of will probably have been tried a hundred times already. Wear the long skirt. Eat the strange food. Learn a few words of their local language. Build relationships by not offending people. Follow the rules of your hosts even if you don’t understand them.

Don’t look down on them as “less educated” or not as knowledgeable if they don’t carry your same degree or accolades.

Remember the missionaries and locals are experts on their own nation. Please respect the national staff and follow their recommendations.

And please, for goodness sake, don’t run off with people of the opposite sex. I think that’s universally frowned upon in most cultures.



It’s going to be tough to travel to the developing world. Most things will not go according to schedule or plan, and you huffing and puffing around like Darth Vader, isn’t going to change anything.

Most other cultures move a lot slower than America, and they are not on your time-table. The organization you came to serve has probably been running around for the previous weeks just trying to get your accommodation and transportation sorted in a land where time might be a fluid thing, so give them a break.

Your agenda may not happen.

Get over it and see what God’s agenda is. You might not hold lots of babies, or save a girl out of the Red light district. You might not have running water or electricity or regular meals. You might have to stand in church for four hours praying for people and sweating and wishing you’d brought a bottle of water. These things happen. Anything can be endured for a short time, so buck up, and try not to complain. Or worse, try not to take over.

You’re not in charge this time, and whether you’re a pastor or the Pope himself, you should follow the lead of your point person on the ground.

I’ve had friends who were completely railroaded by their teams and spent the entire time trying to please them and make them happy instead of focusing on their very important work. Don’t be that person!

If you are, they might have to taze you, and that would be seriously annoying. So take a breather if you need to. Get some personal time, go for a walk, or do some yoga, but try not to make extra demands on the ministry because you are outside of your comfort zone.



Ok, so this is one of my pet peeves. The issue of imbalances of power due to wealth are serious. In very little time you can create unhealthy patterns of dependency or even resentment. You can do more harm to the local ministry than good. This ranges from the White Savior complex that places everyone else as a victim to be rescued, to the belittling of leaders in developing nations, to the overindulgence of resources without accountability, to the handing out of mini-ipods, cash, or soccer balls out of guilt and the desire to feel good about one’s self.

You should not give money to anyone other than the organization or missionary you have built a trusted relationship with who has an accountability system in place. That means that you do not direct where those funds go, but trust them to attribute the funds to the areas of most need. If you do not have a trusted relationship with accountability, then do not give money, period.

I’ve seen well meaning people destroy locals with handouts. I’ve also seen good-hearted Westerners get taken for a ride, only to lose a lot of money on an “orphanage” that was never built.

Dependency is defined as “Anything you regularly do for someone that they can do for themselves.” That is unhealthy and detrimental to relationships of equality.

Build authentic relationships that seek to minimize imbalances of power through mutual learning, understanding, and trust.



It is not your responsibility or the missionary’s responsibility to meet all the needs of every single person.

Jesus didn’t do it, and we shouldn’t try either. You also shouldn’t expect the organization you are visiting to be able to fulfill every need of their beneficiaries. Focus on one’s vision is the most difficult, but most essential thing to maintain on the mission field when there are so many needs surrounding you. But effective ministries have clear focus, and they stick to it.

Your emotions will be stirred up, but during your time, try to decipher between your heart strings and God’s actual voice, and be obedient. When in doubt, check with your team leader to see what is appropriate.

Don’t try to “adopt” a kid or smuggle them in your suitcase, or hand out your email and address to “sponsor” someone. Don’t make promises you can’t keep and don’t put the missionary in the position to pick up your mess.

That’s not what you are there for. The reality is that in a few months you will go back to your normal life and most likely forget about the promises you made, or the people you met, while that missionary will still be there day in and day out with them. Make sure you run everything through them.

Remember that success is not defined by numbers, or even outcomes, but by whether or not you’ve been obedient to what the Father asked you to do. 



Ideally, you would have a plan in place before you go of how your impact will help the missionary/organization long term.

Most people don’t. So think about how you can make this trip actually change your life, not for five minutes, but for a lifetime.

Also spend time discussing with the missionary while you are there things that would be helpful for you to do once you return.

The biggest impact you might have may very well be after you leave when you can be an advocate for their cause.

Some ideas:

  • Fundraise for them (Run a 5k and give them the profits; Shave your head)
  • Film and edit an artistic video or photo collage they can use in support raising
  • Speak with your church/friends about them – begin an intentional dialogue about missionary care
  • Sponsor the missionary monthly- stay in touch with them- offer support from a distance
  • Sponsor a child/woman/staff member monthly (only through the organization; not as an individual)
  • If they have products they sell–help them find a market for it (Host jewelry parties, etc)
  • Volunteer from home (website design, grant writing, financial book keeping)
  • Make a commitment to volunteer long-term with them overseas (Ideally 6 months or longer; 1-2 year commitment preferred)
  • Send over gifts for the missionary or needed items (especially around the holidays)
  • Stay updated on when they will furlough and offer your home, your car, your babysitting skills, and talk to your church about them speaking (most missionaries are usually broke — find fun ways to bless them)


Helpful follow up reading:
Toxic Charity
Helping without Hurting in Short Term Missions Leader’s Guide


How have you seen short term missions done well? Do you have any ideas to add to this list?

Originally published on February 17, 2015 here; adapted for A Life Overseas.

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.

The Mess of Short Term Missions


(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.