In our twelve years as missionaries, we’ve seen some doozies of short-term teams. The first team we witnessed up close (which was a large group of fully-grown adults) thought it would be funny to see how many days each of them could go without showering. Of course, they had a perfectly good shower available to them, but they had some sort of a bet going (or something). We did not find it funny. Nor did our local friends.
We saw other short-term team members who openly criticized the missionary who was hosting them–because apparently living here for three weeks made them experts. Another church insisted on sending their missionary a gigantic team of about twenty people. The missionary had no idea what to do them all, so they ended up painting walls. In a city where there’s 40% unemployment.
Eventually we started hosting our own short-term teams. Though they weren’t without bumps, thankfully we never experienced any total disasters. We learned a lot along the way, and got better at it as time went on. There’s been a lot written that’s been directed at the short-term participants. But since this is the time of year when churches might be contacting you about hosting a summer team, I want to focus on you: The Host Missionary.
How can you ensure that your visiting team will be the best-ever? Here’s what I’ve learned.
- “Exposure” is a perfectly good purpose for a team, so let’s not pretend it has to be more.
There are basically two types of short-term teams. A skilled team is a group of people with a specialized skill who come to fill a specific need, like medical, dental, specialized construction, or technology. The other kind (which tends to be the majority of short-term teams) is an unskilled team. I’m talking about a group of people with willing hearts, curious minds, and a hard-working attitude who want exposure to missions. Of course, that doesn’t mean that these kind of teams have no skills to offer—because of course they do, and their enthusiasm and critical mass might be just what you need for your ministry project. But the primary purpose for this kind of team is exposure, and it’s really important that you get that clear in your mind and in their minds.
I think that a lot of the pitfalls of short-term missions can be prevented when we all recognize the elephant in the room and name the true purpose of most teams. There is nothing wrong with a group of people going overseas to learn about culture and missions. In fact, it can be incredibly beneficial. But from the beginning, you need to make sure your team knows its purpose. If you ask for a building team, is your real purpose because you need the funding? Then be honest about your motives, and make sure you are careful not to steal the dignity and independence of your community. Do you ask for a team because you really just want to build a greater connection with your sending church? That can be a great reason too, but don’t pretend that their assigned “project” is more needed than it actually is. If we want to fight the mentality of I’m going to save the world in three weeks! and encourage a mindset of learning, then it’s important that we’re straightforward about our motivations.
And if a church wants to send a team, but you really don’t have meaningful work for them to do, don’t just create a job could cause more harm than good to your ministry. Instead, graciously invite the team to come and learn. Use your local friends to help the team go through a typical “Day in the Life” of your country. Set up interviews for the team with other missionaries. Take them to visit various ministries. Have them experience local places of worship. Ask them to take notes and participate in discussions. And even if you do have a specific task you need them to accomplish, make sure they know from the beginning that learning is going to be a big part of the purpose of their trip.
- How much you communicate ahead of time will directly correspond to the level of success of the team.
There needs to be one leader on your side and one leader on their side, and before the trip, all communication needs to flow through only these two people to the rest of the people involved. If you are co-hosting the team with another missionary, pick one to do the communication. If the team has co-leaders, you need to know which one is really in charge. We learned this the hard way, so trust me on this. You will avoid a lot of misunderstanding and hurt feelings this way.
The more you communicate ahead of time, the better the trip will go. Get detailed. Write a purpose statement for the trip about what you want to gain and what you want the team to gain, and a concise, daily schedule. Require the team to read cultural or historical information about your country or people group. Tell them exactly how you want them to prepare. (I highly recommend requiring Cross-Cultural Servanthood for all team members.) Tell them exactly what you want them to bring (or leave behind). Anticipate questions before they arise. Answer emails quickly.
- Their best learning will come from you personally.
The worst thing you can do with a short-term team is to drop them off at their “ministry” and leave them for the day. Not only will the results be unpredictable, but the team will significantly lose out on their main source of learning: YOU.
If a team is going to learn what missions really looks like, they need to be around you and your community as much as possible. You are the host. Helping the team to be a success will take more time than you can imagine. You need to integrate them into your entire schedule for the duration of the time they are in your country. This means that you avoid housing the team in a hotel or church building. Instead, arrange for them to stay with you in your home or the homes of national friends, even if it means they sleep on the floor. Sure, that might mean that they see your messes and they might even witness you snap at your spouse. But they’ll also see how your routines flow with the culture, how you interact with local people, and that hey—even missionaries watch TV sometimes. Maybe falling off their pedestals is exactly what they need to see you do.
This doesn’t mean that every time you are with them is a lecture on the benefits of oral storytelling in a non-literate culture. It means that you see the entire trip as an opportunity to infuse the messy beauty of missions into those who are sharing your life for this short time.
- Know your limits and stick to them.
If your car only has room for four extra people, then it’s okay to say that you only want four people. If you don’t have the energy for high schoolers, then insist on college students. If you only have two weeks in your schedule available for this trip, then stick to those dates. It’s really important that you are calling the shots on these things. Sometimes church leaders at home are so focused on what this trip is going to mean for their people, and you might start feeling pressured to let just one more student join in, or that really mature 15-year-old, or to add just a few more days to the trip. Of course, if it’s realistic to flex on these things, then do so. But remember that at the end of the day, you know what is best—for your family, for your ministry, for your energy level. Push aside those people-pleasing tendencies and shoot straight with the team leader.
- Don’t be afraid to be controlling. (Yep, I said that out loud.)
For years, we hosted short-term teams to run our summer youth camps. The first summer, we handed the team a blank slate: Here you go….do what you want…just make this a really great camp! That was dumb. We found ourselves constantly putting out fires. Oh, you can’t sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” since most of these campers are not Christians. Oops, you can’t play games that allow boys and girls to touch each other….that doesn’t work in this culture. But these mistakes weren’t the team’s fault! They were completely new to this country and we hadn’t given them the guidelines to know what was appropriate.
As the years went on, we continued to tighten the reins a little more each year. We asked the teams to send us the song and game list in advance for our approval. We chose the camp theme and did the teaching time ourselves. Of course, we still really needed the teams in significant ways—there was no way we could have run these camps on our own. But we found that they felt more successful—and we had a much happier experience—by tightly controlling what they did.
This goes against our instincts, since everything in missions right now is about not controlling, and instead releasing people to do the work themselves. But that doesn’t apply to bright-eyed Americans who have never stepped foot on the continent before. If you’ve only got a team for a few weeks, then yes, you need to control everything about what they do, say, eat, and sleep. Want to avoid some of those short-term team nightmares you hear about? Then be controlling. And make sure they know ahead of time that’s what they should expect.
This means you might need to say things like this:
No, we don’t want you to bring your digital devices to the village, and only one person will be the designated photographer.
Yes, girls do need to wear long skirts, and here’s a picture of what I mean when I say “long skirt.” Let me explain to you why this is important.
You know, it’s really not actually funny that you’re making a game out of not showering. Let me point the way to the bathroom.
- But also be full of grace.
Yes, stick to your limits. Yes, be the one in control. But be nice about it. Keep your expectations in check. Remember the mistakes you made when you went on these kind of trips, or when you first arrived in your country. Hopefully you will have agreed to this trip prayerfully and carefully, so if things go wrong, you can trust that God is in control. And since your life is the primary way that this team is going to learn anything on this trip, then let them go back home saying, The grace of God was with them.
If you have hosted a short-term team, what have you learned? If you have participated on a short-term team, what is your advice for the hosts?