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How to do short-term missions the right way

Image  by CreationSwap/Julie Ayers
Image by CreationSwap/Julie Ayers

Short-term mission trips — particularly international trips —  can be faith-deepening and even life-changing. They offer experiences we might never have back home, and they are a way to put our beliefs into action.

However, when short-term mission trips are not done the right way, or when churches partner with the wrong organizations, they may end up doing more harm than good.

Una Jones, assistant general secretary for Global Ministries Mission Volunteers, points out that in John Wesley’s General Rules of the Methodist Church, the call to do all the good we can is actually rule No. 2! The first is to do no harm. As representatives of Christ, the church and our home communities, we have a responsibility to do short-term missions well.

Learn the issues

You first need to recognize that there are many potential issues with short-term service trips. This isn’t to say that all short-term trips are bad, but consider questions like:

  • How much money are you spending on things other than actual help on the ground?
  • Are you being asked to work on projects for which your team is qualified and prepared?
  • Is the work you are doing a part of a larger, sustainable plan to help the community?
  • Are your team and the organization you are partnering with focused on your experience or on relationships with the local community?

It is estimated that nearly $2 billion are spent annually on service trips of all types, religious and nonreligious. This boom has led to difficult conversations in the field of international development. The impulse to serve is a good thing, but we need to beware of falling into pathological altruism.

Assuming that your help is better than nothing or that your team is the right group of people to help simply because you come from a richer or more developed nation are just some of the myths around short-term trips that need to be re-examined.

Check your perspective

Matt Lacey, the Southeastern Jurisdictional Coordinator for United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM), says much of his work focuses on the reason for missions.

“I know I’ve been on teams where there are team members who spend more time taking pictures than they do actually being engaged with people on the ground,” Lacey said.

The places to which you travel may be exciting. The communities in which you serve may open your team’s eyes to issues of poverty and inequality around the world. And an international service trip may be a valuable addition to a resume or college application. These are all positives, but if they become prime motivators, you have to ask whether you are being selfless or selfish.

Lacey said that UMVIM and their partner projects in the United States and around the world focus on relationships. He recommends finding an organization or project within a community that churches can return to year after year. This kind of long-term bond can be achieved through short-term trips, and it helps to keep the focus on the community being served.

Jones encourages volunteers and teams to change their vocabulary, saying, “It’s not a trip. It’s a journey.” This shift in perspective allows us to go from seeing these projects as a there-and-back event to an experience that encompasses dialogue, respect and relationship.

Do the research

The “voluntourism” industry is largely unregulated, which has led to some truly terrible consequences. For example, the increase in Western tourists has led a few Cambodian orphanages to recruit families to turn over their children so that they have enough kids for all of the visitors.

Looking for information on your own can be daunting. Some organizations publish impact reports that detail their relationships and work within the community, but it can still be difficult to assess — especially when looking at international projects.

The good news for United Methodist mission teams is that we have denominational agencies and resources specifically designed to connect local churches with vetted projects.

Lacey said that all of the projects advertised through UMVIM have been approved by local United Methodist church leaders in the region. Working through UMVIM ensures that your team will be doing work that is needed and that does not take jobs or opportunities away from members of the local community.

Through the UMVIM website, you can find a volunteer project and get in contact with jurisdictional and annual conference UMVIM coordinators for help or more information.

Pick the right project

Knowing where to find vetted organizations and projects is only half the battle. If you are uninterested in or unable to participate in the work of the organization, the trip or journey will be of little value for anyone.

The first key is remembering that your team represents the whole church. If you select and invest in the right project, it becomes a part of the wider mission of the church. This connection will make it easier to recruit team members, raise money and rally support within the congregation.

The second key is to know your team. While you will likely select a destination and project before team members sign up, you should have in mind things like:

  • How big will the team be?
  • What are members’ physical abilities or limitations?
  • What specialized skills might they have?

Here again, UMVIM can help you pick the right project. They can both talk with you about opportunities, and they can connect you with churches that have actually gone and served with specific organizations. 

Consider not going

After a bit of research, prayer and discernment, you may decide that an international journey is too much to undertake now. Or you may count the cost of transportation, training, insurance, supplies, food and lodging for your group and realize how much of a difference all that money might make in the hands of the local organization itself.

Again, while short-term mission journeys can be truly transformational experiences for the volunteers that serve, that should not be the No. 1 goal. Depending on what area of the world or type of project you are exploring, it may be possible to make a similar if not bigger impact by supporting a missionary or organization from home.

You can be a virtual volunteer, host a locally based international mission week, or raise money for a United Methodist Advance Project.

One of the advantages of donating to Advance projects is that 100 percent of the money you raise goes to the missionary, organization or project, with no overhead or administrative costs removed. Jones also noted that while some Advance projects are not set up to receive volunteers, all are doing good work and need support.

Other fun and active options include creating relief-supply kits for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) or hosting a meal packaging event for Rise Against Hunger (formerly Stop Hunger Now).

Train your team

Once you know where you’re going and what you will be doing, it is time to train your team. Depending on the project, you may be able to learn or practice a few skills that will be needed. This is also the time to gather supplies and make other important preparations, such as purchasing special medical and accident insurance, one of UMVIM’s recommended best practices.

Regardless of the project, one thing every volunteer team can use is time to pray together. This will help keep your team focused on the “why” behind your journey and build bonds among team members, especially if they don’t know each other well.

A valuable resource that Jones and her team developed is UMVIM’s volunteer handbook, "A Mission Journey."  It provides practical information, such as the full list of best practices, and covers the theology of missions, cultural sensitivity, processing of spiritual experiences from pre- through post-journey and the foundations of peace and justice ministry.

If you’re a first-time journey leader, or first-time-in-a-long-time journey leader, your jurisdictional or annual conference UMVIM coordinator can offer training and advice.

Tell a responsible story

Through the pictures and videos you take while on your journey, you have the opportunity to tell a story. The big question is: What story are you telling?

Perhaps the best story you can tell as a mission team is how God was present and active on your journey. This story is wide enough to include both the fun you’re having and the work you’re doing. This story allows you to showcase the local community and its people without using them as two-dimensional props or backdrops. You can also share about the relationships you are building based on mutual listening and learning.

If you have the ability to post or even stream via blog or social media while you are on site, this is a great way to keep your church family connected to your work. Just be sure throughout the journey to get permission from the people or organizations you’re photographing or filming when it seems appropriate. They deserve the same measure of privacy and courtesy that we expect for ourselves.

Finally, know when to put the camera down or the phone away. Not every moment needs to be documented. God, the community, the work and your fellow teammates deserve your focus.

Dan Wunderlich

Rev. Dan Wunderlich is an extension minister focused on worship, communication, and creativity with the goal of helping ministries and their leaders better connect with their communities. Find out more about his work and his podcast "Art of the Sermon" at DefiningGrace.com.

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