I can still remember the random thoughts that shot through my head during my first couple of weeks as an adult long-term missionary. Wait, what? There’s nothing planned for us today? So what are we supposed to do? Hey, when is someone going to take us souvenir shopping? I was really looking forward to that! Why is no one telling me what to do with the trash? What am I supposed to do with it? Why is no one telling me what to do about anything?
I caught myself many times. No, Amy, you live here now. This is not a short-term trip. I knew that, of course, especially since I had been an MK. But it was weird how my short-term trips had programmed my brain with certain expectations.
This is not a post about the good or the bad of short-term missions (STM), or how to do them well. This is a post about the limits of STM trips as preparation for long-term missions.
These days, just about every long-term missionary has been on at least one STM. Of course, many long-term missionaries choose that life because of a short-term trip—which is a wonderful thing indeed. But what is often not discussed is how different long-term missions is compared to short-term trips. And sometimes, those misplaced expectations can actually make a long-term missionary’s transition even harder.
So if you are headed for long-term missions after a series of short trips, what differences should you expect? Here are four things to consider.
1. No one is going to hold your hand. STM trips, when done well, are carefully controlled. Your entire schedule, down to when and what you will eat, when and where you will sleep, and how you will spend all of your time, have been decided for you. You might not even get to handle local money yourself.
So when you arrive on the ground as a long-term missionary, it might come as a shock that you will be more or less on your own. If you’re lucky, there might be a few missionaries who will show you around and get you oriented. But they will be busy, and you will find yourself thrown in the deep end a lot sooner than you wanted. It might be scary and overwhelming and not nearly as fun as your short-term trip.
2. Daily life is not all ministry; in fact, most of it isn’t. My husband remembers his first STM trip when he was in college, and the shock he experienced when he realized that his host missionaries not only watched television regularly, but they had cable. What? Missionaries need rest? On STM trips, you might joyfully work 12-hour days and fall into your sleeping bag at night feeling smugly satisfied with all you accomplished.
But as a long-term missionary, you might waste 5 hours driving all over town, looking for the right-sized lightbulb. Or you might spend all day in the immigration line. You can go whole days where all your time is consumed by figuring out how to just live, and you think, Ministry? What’s that? On top of that, you’ll soon discover that burn out comes really quickly if you don’t allow some downtime into your life. Even if that means getting cable.
3. True results take a long, long, long (long!) time. When you went on that STM trip, you may have been ecstatic to see the kids who raised their hand at the VBS. One of the best moments of your life might have been when the poor family stepped into the new home you built for them. And you will never forget the party that broke out in the village when they witnessed the well you paid for. But a few days later, you got on a plane and left. You weren’t there to notice that the VBS kids never showed up at church again. You didn’t see the poor family get pushed out of their brand new home by an older relative. Six months after the well was built, you weren’t there to see it broken and rusting.
But when you sign up for long-term service, those disappointments become your reality. And if you’re expecting quick, easy, fabulous success stories, you’re not going to last very long in your new country. You’ve got to start your new life with your teeth clenched in determination, with lots of grit, and humble, long-term perseverance.
4. Going home will be a whole lot harder. Anyone who has gone on an STM trip will secretly admit that the best part is coming home. You’ve got a great couple of weeks behind you. You eagerly discuss with your teammates which fast-food restaurant you will go to first when you get home. Your church and friends and family are bursting with questions and praise and eyes full of wonder at your stories. And when all the excitement dies down, you settle back comfortably into your old life.
Except, coming home after two or three years looks nothing like coming home after two or three weeks. Your friends have moved on with their lives. You are a different person—you feel different, and your friends treat you differently. They don’t know what to ask you and you struggle to relate to each other. You may find that the home you dreamed about now feels confusing and disorienting.
One of the keys to adjusting to a new culture is holding loosely to your expectations. Unfortunately, STM trips can actually make that worse by creating a false picture of what your new life will look like. I still love short-term missions trips when they are done well, but it’s important to understand their limits in preparing you for long-term service. Don’t be surprised if you need to un-learn some of what they taught you.