Examples of harm done by short-term teams abound. I’ve read stories of churches in South America being painted 20 times in a five-year span because it was a good way to occupy the visiting Americans.
A long-term ministry in Russia was kicked out of a school they had worked long and hard to develop a relationship with when a short-termer took a photo without permission.
I’ve also heard a number of accounts of fake orphanages being set up in Africa when foreigners come. Children from the village gather and stare up at the eyes of their visitors, and somebody pockets donations—lots of them.
Worse, children can actually be taken from their families to create a similar scenario.
But don’t rule out the opportunity to serve overseas too quickly! God still uses short-term mission teams.
With healthy policies in place, short-term teams can be a tremendous benefit to long-term ministries. They can offer a fresh boost of energy, complete a much-needed project, or become prayer warriors with a passion and commitment they never would have had without visiting the field.
So how do you know if a team you’re considering joining is a good one? Will you make an impact or a mess?
1) What is the long-term plan to support those we’ll serve during this short-term ministry experience?
The big picture is important.
God does not call us to vacation abroad. (Now, a vacation is not a bad thing, and when given the opportunity, I’d take it. But getting in a plane doesn’t mean I’m fulfilling a command from Scripture.)
God does call us to “Go, make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19).
So let me be frank. Disciples are not made in a six-day span.
To think that I could revolutionize the world by taking a short-term trip would be pretty prideful. But I could be used to support an organization that’s in it for the long haul, doing the work day in and day out.
For example, one guy picks out a village from a map of Zimbabwe, shows up, and drops off hundreds of pairs of shoes.
Is it nice? Well, as long as the primary employer in that village isn’t a shoe company, yes. But does it make disciples? Probably not.
But in another example, a guy asks a ministry he respects what he could do that would be helpful. They request shoes for a village in Zimbabwe so that children will be permitted to attend school. So he takes hundreds of pairs of shoes, and they hold an event for the community in their new church. The hospitality the community experiences makes them feel so welcome, they begin coming weekly.
Is it nice? Yes. Does it make disciples? Quite possibly!
Without this long-term vision, many short-term efforts are little different than humanitarian efforts by secular organizations.
Before you select your short-term ministry experience, be certain it is part of a long-term strategy to make disciples.
2) What training will I receive before, during and after traveling with you?
Many well-intentioned folks jump on a plane with plans to change the world. But if they haven’t taken the time to learn about the culture they’re entering, there’s a huge risk that they’ll do more damage than good.
An organization with solid experience in a foreign field will be able to prepare you to be ambassadors for Christ in a new setting.
They’ll also alert you to any immunizations you should have prior to travel, help you with fundraising and applying for a visa, if one is needed.
What’s more, they’ll walk you through the experience by continuing the training while you’re immersed in the culture and help you process everything for the most long-term benefits after you return home.
3) Does the mission we’ll carry out fill a need expressed by those we hope to serve?
Imagine you’re at home one day, getting dinner on the table. The doorbell rings and when you open your front door, there stands a group of 14 in matching t-shirts. They announce, “We’re here to paint your garage!”
Unless you’ve asked for help with painting your garage…or at least acknowledged that your garage needs a fresh coat of paint, life just got really awkward. You’d probably wonder, “Why have they come to my house? Has the neighborhood complained that my garage is in bad repair? Do they think I can’t paint?”
In most cases, an international team would have at least sent an email before showing up at the door. But the result is pretty much the same. Gracious hosts around the world allow Americans to have their way, but in the meantime, they can feel stripped of their dignity.
Look for an organization that is sensitive to the felt needs of the people they hope to serve. Otherwise, you risk communicating that those you visit have a way of life that isn’t acceptable. That’s probably not the best way to establish the kind of relationship that invites meaningful discipleship.
4) How much of the trip’s cost is tax-deductible?
If the purpose and activities for your mission trip are in keeping with the sending organization’s tax-exempt purpose, then the entire cost of the trip should be! Of course, you may take in some culture by visiting a landmark or two along the way, but the bulk of your time should be spent serving the tax-exempt purpose to be tax-deductible.
This means friends and family can send their donations toward your trip’s expenses to the tax-exempt organization and receive a receipt proving the money was given as a tax-deductible donation.
Be aware: If the organization does not collect the funds and people contribute toward your trip by giving money directly to you, you are responsible to claim those funds and pay taxes on them.
5) What is included in the trip fee? What additional expenses will I incur?
In order to compare trips’ fees, it is imperative to know what’s included in the published trip cost. If two are close to the same price, but one includes airfare and the other doesn’t, the actual costs vary drastically!
So be mindful of all the costs and compare those.
And you’ll want to give the implications some serious thought. If you’re a seasoned traveler, you may enjoy arranging your own flight, travelling solo and meeting your team in Katmandu. But if you haven’t left the country before, you may want to consider selecting a trip which allows you to meet up with your team on this side of the ocean so you can navigate the travel together.
6) Who will be leading the team and what are his/her/their qualifications?
The best team leaders are those who’ve lived in the country you’ll visit. They typically have the deepest relationships, the best grasp of the language, and the most familiarity with the culture.
Of course, that’s not always possible. So the more time someonehas spent in a culture, the better.
Also, inquire if they have specialized training in leading short-term ministry teams, are on staff with the sending organization, and have experience leading teams to your destination.
7) (If the ministry includes interaction with orphans) How do you promote attachment between orphans and their caregivers while bringing teams in and out of their lives?
One of the greatest challenges those who care for orphans face is forming a healthy attachment with them. Because most of the children enter their care after experiencing neglect, trauma, and abuse, it is quite difficult to build trust.
If the children see their livelihood is supported by the ever-rotating white faces at their door, they may not feel the security of knowing that their needs will be met consistently. They oftenfind it difficult to attach to their house parents, as they are constantly on the lookout for the next visitors to impress.
This toxic cycle undermines the efforts of those who work tirelessly, changing wet bed sheets, wiping noses, preparing meals, tutoring geography and sharing Bible stories.
Showing up for a few days and spoiling the cute kids with trinkets and day trips is fun. And it makes for great photos. But if it isn’t handled very carefully, in a manner that actually drives the children toward relationship with their caregivers, it is not in the best interest of the children.
Again, keep the big picture in mind and ask, “How can we help make these children disciples of Christ?” It’s going to be by supporting the caregivers who have a long-term impact in the children’s lives and meeting their needs.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (E.C.F.A.) is typically considered the gold standard here due to the rigorous examination they put member organizations through. So see if the organization you’re considering joining is a member.
But at the very least, be certain the organization is audited. SOMEBODY external, objective and qualified needs to be looking at the finances!
9) Where will our team be staying?
There are several reasonable options for accommodations, most with both pro’s and con’s:
Some teams opt to stay with host families, often church members. This obviously offers the highest degree of cultural immersion, but can leave some team members feeling isolated. It also makes mid-trip training and debriefing difficult.
On the other extreme, some teams stay on site, in lodging on the mission organization’s property. This offers the least interaction with the culture, but is a real advantage for team building, training and debriefing.
Another option is a hostel or basic hotel. This choice provides an opportunity for team building, as well as a respite from culture stress. The delicate balance is finding something which is not extraordinarily out-of-reach for the average person in that community, yet safe for foreigners.
Lastly, some destinations have resorts or high-end hotels. Choosing this type of accommodation typically prevents cultural immersion and risks magnifying the common perception that Americans feel superior to others. To avoid a perception which is not compatible with the attitude of Christ (Phil, 2:5-8), choose an organization which avoids these accommodations, if possible.
10) Do you have emergency political and medical evacuation plans?
The world we live in is treacherous. It would be wise to travel with a ministry that has a thorough contingency plan.
You may not need to know all the details, but please verify that a plan has been created and reviewed, taking measures to prevent risk.
11) What will we be doing that the nationals can’t do for themselves?
Be sure the organization you select is not so bent on creating an experience for Americans that they take work—or dignity—from the community. Sadly, many well-meaning ministries have crippled the communities they hoped to serve by taking employment opportunities from them.
This situation not only feeds the cycle of poverty, but also creates a culture of dependency and feelings of ineptness.
Ideally, the ministry you join will work in partnership with leaders on the field (the host culture and/or long-term missionaries) to create a mutually beneficial interaction. The nationals will have opportunities to share with or educate the visiting team, and the team will have the opportunity to serve, as well.
With some thoughtful planning, a mission trip can be the most challenging, rewarding, heart-breaking or inspiring experience of a lifetime…often, all at once! Not only can you have a vital ministry to “the least of these,” but you can also encourage missionaries and their partners. You’ll likely learn a lot—from words in a foreign language to a new level of dependence upon the Lord.
So don’t pass up the opportunity to obey God’s commands to visit orphans, to care for widows, to serve the poor. Just be sure the team you join is well-planned, and go confidently, ready to watch God at work!