Lessons I’ve Learnt After Going For More Than 20 Short Term Mission Trips
This article was written in the context of churches sending mission teams to rural areas or under developed countries. Some of the points below would be key especially for leaders organising short term mission trips.
I’ve gone for countless mission trips since the age of 14 and have led more than 10 of them. Each trip brought different lessons, experiences and memories. Team dynamics were also different and so we had to consider our team selection and approach too. Now that I’m based on the field for a longer term period (Cambodia for 2 years, Sabah for 3 years and counting) — I’m able to see through a different lens. Here are some lessons I’ve drawn from going for those many mission trips.
An Exhaustive Pre-Trip Preparation Is Vital
I cannot emphasize this enough. So many teams do not prepare themselves adequately for mission trips. They think they do, but in hindsight, more should be done. There can be detrimental effects to these lack of preparations. Particularly in the urban setting, we are all bogged down with activities and balancing our work-marriage-parenting-school life with an upcoming trip… there is so little time to prepare. But there are no shortcuts and I’m a firm believer of making time for what is important. I’ve seen teams treating mission trips like a vacation. They gear up towards the day, pack their bags, meet at the airport, say a word of prayer and then go! There’s danger there…
Team selection: depends how you do this, but having a ‘free-for-all-I-want-to-go’ may not be the best way to do it. You can have an open slot where people can sign up to go, but that doesn’t mean they are ‘fit’ for the trip. During the call for the mission trip, the criteria and requirements should be spelt out to clarify things. Some trips require one to be physically fit (trekking hills or crossing rivers), some may require those that can manage children and another perhaps require those that have some theological knowledge. The leader or pastors should do an informal/formal/written interview before making the final selection. The reality is you cannot take everyone. Where possible, run 2–3 trips concurrently with different strengths and requirements so that you are able to accommodate different people of different make.
Fast and pray: A mission trip is akin to entering a battlefield — a spiritual one. Every participants should equip themselves spiritually and this is non negotiable. The only way to fight this is to feed yourself with the right diet. The team leader should create a plan for everyone which includes prayer items, scriptures to meditate on and what to journal. I’d suggest a 21 days time frame, better still a 40 days one.
Group meetings: Believe it or not, I’ve heard several mission teams only met their team members on the first day of the trip. And they’d probably only had 2 group meetings and one day was dedicated to packing. You need to meet regularly, at least once a week for at least the month before the trip. During these meetings, I’d suggest doing a devotional that is relevant, sharing prayer pointers/personal challenges or needs and praying together. Thereafter, go and eat together! Or better still, hang out! This is important to gauge team dynamics, understand one another’s abilities and more importantly, to strengthen the bond.
Ask The Need, Not Create The Need
Do not burden your already overworked local partner by offering to do more workshops, programs and sessions. Many teams go into the trip by offering a list of things they think the local community needs but in fact, it may not be exactly what they need. I’ve seen a team coming into a Cambodian village to build solar panels, but what the community needed was in fact, clean water. The team had a solar energy expertise and after reading an international news piece of a lack of electricity in Cambodia, they proposed to do so. Another example was a team coming in to do a teacher training for a local school, covering modules such as lesson planning, effective teaching and so on. This didn’t do much to the teachers as they were overworked, tired and jaded from teaching. Perhaps what was needed was to run a retreat for the teachers where they can rest and refresh their tired bodies.
Bottom line is, do your homework with your local partner or church. Ask a lot of questions. If it’s a new outreach and you’re doing it for the first time, you may want to consider a preliminary visit a few months or a year before, should money and time allow.
A Mission Trip May Not (Always) Be The Solution
A church group from Perth, Australia went on a mission trip to a village in the Philippines for a painting job in an orphanage as their main reason. At the same time, some team members cooked, play games with the kids and on Sunday, run a children’s program. Did they consider that it may be far more beneficial just to send money over for the paint job and at the same time, provide employment for the young men in that community? Perhaps the few days the team was there were possible income for the community there? Not to mentioned the carbon footprint it took from Australia to the Philippines?
I personally have ran a few medical mission trips bringing in foreign doctors to rural villages. Did it serve its purpose? Perhaps. However, at the end of the trip we had stacks of medical records of the villagers which we did not know what to do with it? There was no clear plan as it was an afterthought. In hindsight, we should have engaged with local city doctors and nurses, send the money for medication and then let them do the work and processes. If we insisted on going, perhaps we could play a supportive role (by way of administration, dispensing medicine, collecting data…etc) rather than try to be the messiah.
In a staggering report of a 2008 article in USA Today, it is found that 1.6 million American churches went on mission trips (8 days average) abroad in a single year (which was 2005) and at a total cost of USD$2.4 billion!
What??? And there is even a term to describe this, i.e. “religious tourism”. The above data is from more than 10 years ago and I believe the total spent would have increased dramatically today.
Don’t organise a mission trip for the sake of it or fulfilling some sort of church quota. It’s nice to show the church at the end of year report that you have gone into the ‘nations’ and reached out to X number of people. Remember, people are not problems to be solved.
Be Careful With Using The Word ‘Impact’ or ‘Legacy’
Which brings me to my next point. I will disappoint many by saying this — the impact of your mission trip to the people was in fact tiny, very tiny. The legacy that you testified that your team left behind, may not even see its light of day after a year… for some, after a few months. Sure, the little girl remembers you for the gift you gave. The young boy recalls memories of the ‘duck and goose’ game you guys played. The group of youths will remember the powerful message you preached. But to say you’ve left a legacy… that’s a big, BOLD statement.
Real impact or legacy comes from long term relationship and support. Think: your mother. Your best friend. Your school teacher. And those relationship that saw you through life — in good and bad times. This is the same with missions or community development. To create such impact or legacy, there is a serious price to pay, and that is commitment.
Onto my next point.
Create A Sustainable Approach
What makes a relationship strong? A few factors — chief of which would be regular communication. While it is not practical to meet your local partner or church physically regularly after the trip, here are some practical approaches you can take for a more sustainable and meaningful relationship.
- If you’ve done a training program, create a realistic timeline of what should be achieved or practiced in the next few months. Then use basic Excel or a shared Google sheet and get the local team to fill up on a regular basis. That way, you can monitor their progress and still provide input.
- If you’ve run a camp and have names to be followed up, train the locals how to do it. Same as #1, have a shared Google sheet to monitor this. My pastor always say this to us: “People do not do what you expect, people do what you inspect”
- If your team did some manual work such as digging wells or installing solar lights, do a regular check on how it is taking shape. Get the locals to send you photos of their usage from time to time. These photos serves to also encourage your donors or team members that their work are not in vain.
- Get your church or group (if they have not already) to financially support the work, the pastor, the worker. I must add that while most of us would prefer to donate to a ‘work’, many of the individuals (pastors or missionaries) behind the work would appreciate a portion of your total support to go to their individual needs. Generally, most pastors or missionaries I know put their own needs last, which should not always be the case. As you give, do consider too their personal needs.
- Do a Skype/Facetime/Whatsapp video call on a regular basis, perhaps every 2 months. There is nothing like seeing a face behind the voice. These chats should be intentional and pencilled into your calendar. Continue the conversation going with you/your team and your local partner.
- Run a fundraiser for the project that you just came back from. Talk to your local partner about their financial needs and by helping to do a fundraiser, you are too also promoting their work.
- Help them design or redesign their website and manage their social media presence if they need one. Another is to also help them set up a crowdfunding page for an ongoing project. Most of the time, these individuals may be too consumed at work that they do not have the time (or the know how) to manage their church / NGO social media.
Post-Trip: Thanksgiving, Reflection And Next Steps
Here’s a typical after trip experience: on your final night, the team goes all out with shopping for souvenirs, cheap massages, visiting touristy sites and order Mcdonalds (because they declared they deserve it). Well, nothing wrong to celebrate for a job done. But it is easy to quickly forget the meaning of the past few days. The team leader is crucial here, where he draws them back to their actual mission and provide a platform for the participants to share and give feedback. The final night is also a good time to discuss follow ups and how they can continue supporting the work.
When you have arrived at your home country, don’t stop there. A week later, the leader should organise opportunities for each team member to share at various outlets — connect groups, youth events, children’s program and on Sunday church.
My philosophy of short term missions is this: We ought to regularly organise them, but like any strong relationships, you have to consider it for the long haul. I know churches love to plan diverse events — one year to Cambodia, the next year to Myanmar and the following to Chiangrai, Thailand. This would look good on their report card but did it create a dent in people’s lives?
One piece I’d like to write in the future would be about long term missions. I also wrote a piece about some best practices when volunteering abroad.
Terence is based in Sabah, Malaysia — away from his home state. He works through an NGO working with rural communities in providing poor children access to school. Prior to this, he was based in Cambodia for 2 years also working amongst the poor. He is trained in Marketing and was in the digital industry for 8 years before making the shift.