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.
1. POUR INTO THE MISSIONARY, NOT “THE CHILDREN.”
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.
2. SEEK TO SERVE, NOT TO SELF-GLORIFY
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….
3. THINK ABOUT WHY YOU ARE GOING ON THIS TRIP IN THE FIRST PLACE
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:
- 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
Ask yourself: what will be your sustainable impact?
5. BE A LEARNER AND A DISCIPLE, NOT AN IMPERIALISTIC, PATERNALISTIC JERK
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.
6. ASK ABOUT CULTURAL AND SOCIAL NORMS BEFORE YOU GO, AND RESPECT THEM
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.
7. BE FLEXIBLE AND PUT YOUR CONTROL-FREAK ALTER EGO ASIDE FOR A WEEK
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.
8. BE GENEROUS WITH YOUR TIME, TALENTS, AND PATIENCE (BUT NOT YOUR MINI IPOD)
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.
9. BE COMPASSIONATE AND KIND, BUT DON’T BE LED BY NEEDS. BE LED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.
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.
10. FOLLOW THROUGH
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.
- 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:
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.
Sarita 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.