8 Ways to Do Short Term Missions Better

by Laura on May 23, 2012

I loved reading through the comments and engaging in the discussion last week about the value of Short Term Mission Trips {STMs}, their effectiveness and their costs. And as I answered people and asked others questions back, I think I recognized the quality I’ve been battling since I hit the ground here in Asia- cynicism.

And since the best way to fight ugly cyniscm is with determined positivity, I’ve written eight practical ways that we can do STM better as a community of Christians. These are not new ideas, nor are they necessarily groundbreaking ones, but if you are new to the discussion, if you are sending or going on a STM trip this summer, perhaps they will encourage you. Because, like so many of you commented, STM trips do change people, are typically birthed from a heart of love, and have ripple effects throughout entire lifetimes that are intangible, regardless of their price tags.

8 Ways to Do Short Terms Missions Better

1. Deep, Not Wide. One commenter {Kelly @ Love Well} last week said that her church focused on two different ministries– one in Eastern Europe and one in Haiti.  Their church has developed deep relationships with the missionaries and the locals in those locations, since they send teams to the same two places several times a year. This is a brilliant and effective strategy. So often, churches or even individuals, spread their resources and energy so thin that they lose their ability to connect with a ministry on a deeper level. If a church sends its people to 17 different countries and new ministries every year, their influence might be “a mile wide and an inch deep,” but what’s the good of a really big shallow puddle, anyway?

2. Listen More, Talk Less. Our general attitude towards missions needs to change. Instead of “I’m going to save them from hell and give them all this stuff and rescue them from poverty, while I’m at it,” our attitudes need to seep with a humility that listens and learns, first. We worked with a group who titled their trips “Exploratory Trips,” instead of “missions trips” because they wanted to communicate that the purpose of the two week trip was to learn about the culture, encourage the local missionary, and get a better understanding of the social and spiritual issues that were on the ground here in Asia.  When we head overseas with a bad case of the White Savior Complex, we trample people on the road to inflated self-esteems.

3. Beware of your P.R. Hollywood sells. And oftentimes the missionary {both long term and short term} does, too. I’ve written about this before— the challenge of communicating honestly and effectively to the folks back home. When we stand in front of a church, and we make a claim to plant 12 churches or effectively fight human trafficking— in 6 days, without the language or culture or local relationships, and then say that “God told us to go,” we capitalize on the dramatic to raise the money. And there is something a bit car-salesmanish about this, isn’t there? The sender should not expect this, nor should the STM missionary deliver it.

Check out your recent fundraising newsletter, do you have the words “learn, encourage, pray, support?”  Or, do you have language like “save, rescue, do, build, evangelize, teach, tell?” Not that it’s bad to do or communicate those things, but we need to be careful not to sell a “product” we can’t {and maybe shouldn’t try to} deliver.

4. Ain’t No Shame in Going Local. I love that one commenter said that their church was committed to taking their youth especially on local missions trips first. They have found that it is much less expensive and that it still effectively “shocks” people out of their comfort zones. In some ways, this is a brilliant first step because it practically opens students eyes to the poverty and injustices right in their own backyards. My husband has taken youth teams on trips to Washington and Los Angeles with Center for Student Missions, a fantastic organization that organizes intentional missions trips primarily in the United States. New Tribes Mission also has an alternative missions experience where students and adults can taste cross-cultural missions without every leaving the U.S. {Check it out as a more cost effective summer learning trip: New Tribes Mission Wayumi.}

5. Buy In. Another commenter spoke of a policy their church had of requiring students to pay 1/3 of the trip costs themselves. This is an excellent idea because it promotes ownership of the experience. When an individual chooses to give up buying a new iPod or working extra hours at Starbucks so that he or she can travel to Africa the following summer, that experience suddenly carries more weight, and it also gives their fundraising a different tone, as well.

6. Before and After. A STM trip should be a broader experience than just two weeks in the summer. Teams can greatly increase their effectiveness and understanding of missions with quality training before the trip and debriefing afterwards. A little cultural or even language training can go a long way, too, in reducing the clunky shoes we often trudge into another culture wearing.

Jamie, The Very Worst Missionary, tells a story of students giving out sweaty hugs in Costa Rica, a nearly-offensive “ministry” in the local culture. I blogged and videoed once a guy screaming in English on a street corner, a method that falls pretty flat in Asia where respect and avoiding confrontation are values {as is, obviously, you know, speaking the native language}. And we ourselves have fallen victim to our own amount of bumbling, due to a lack of training before we hit the field.

There are several resources now available that specifically provide resources for groups or individuals going on international trips. Consider checking out The Hub, an organization specifically designed to help STM be more effective. The book When Helping Hurts {as well as it’s new online community} would be an excellent resource, as well.

7. Props to the Long-Term Missionary. The STM team or individual needs to remember that it takes a lot of work for the long term missionary to host them. A. Lot. of. Work.  It may be obvious, but if the STM team wants to go see elephants on a sight-seeing day and needs a guide, they need to pick up the tab for the local missionary’s family.  Trust me, they’ve already seen the elephants, and they are going just to be nice to you. Be sure to cover all of the missionary’s expenses— gas, meals out, lodging for ministry, etc. Chances are pretty high that the long termer is probably not rolling in the dough, and their willingness to host a STM team should financially help, or at least not hurt, them.

A STM team can be a great help to the missionary on the ground by asking specifically what they’d like from home and then bringing it. We had some ladies ask us what we needed once, we told them a few new Wii games for the kids, and they showed up with, literally, like 20. The kids thought it was Christmas, and we felt practically supported by their visit. Our home church sent a team once who showed up with two huge suitcases of items which we couldn’t buy here in Asia, including two pairs of running shoes for me. Ask me if we felt loved and encouraged by their presence– absolutely.

8. Telling Their Stories. In some ways, one of the greatest values of the short term trip happens after the travel itself is over. When an individual begins to tell the story of the experience, including the stories from those on the ground, awareness and financial giving and burdens for a people or issue can greatly increase. With the power of social media, those going on the STM trip become ambassadors and reporters, communicating and connecting their worlds back home with this new one they’ve tasted overseas. The Compassion blogging trips are fantastic examples of this idea effectively at work. The Compassion bloggers travel, but they spend a great amount of time blogging/tweeting/facebooking/photographing their experience, giving their personal networks, and the world, a powerful taste of the “STM” trip.

It’s also important to communicate the stories of indigenous peoples with integrity and respect. Required reading before you send out your post-trip newsletter should probably be this article from Christianity Today Kony 2012 and the Golden Rule {How We Tell ‘Their’ Stories} by Kent Annan.

* Pictured above are the teams from our supporting church, Woodland Park Community, our friend Ben Watson, and friends from our mentoring trip when we first arrived in SE Asia.

Okay, what did I miss?  How do we make STM trips more effective? What resources can you share? What’s worked best in your experience hosting, going, or sending? What would you add?

Related. Short Term Missions and the TruckLoad of Cash  |  8 Reasons Not to Become a Missionary  |  5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Mission Field   |  Apology to all “NonMissionaries”

If you enjoyed this, I’d appreciate connecting with you via Facebook {sidebar}, subscription to this blog {sidebar}, or twitter {@LauraParkerBlog}.

  • Harold

    These are all great ideas, Laura. I would like to expand on Number 6 a little bit. I think there should be more follow-up after the mission trip to make sure it isn’t just a week or two away from home that gives us the warm tinglies. :) It seems like too many people are more than willing to go on the yearly overseas trip, but they are never involved in other peoples’ lives at any other time. I would like to see teams require members to be actively involved in some kind of outreach activities after the trip so that being involved with reaching others becomes a natural part of their lives, not just a once a year thing.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Love that idea of encouraging ministry/intentional outreach all year long as a lifestyle. Obviously you wouldnt want to force or regulate that for people or loving others becomes a checklist, but I love that idea of encouraging “missions” at home– fighting the lie that a young person can only do something big when they travel.

  • http://www.angiewashington.com/ @ngie

    Way to go beating that cynicism mongrel to the ground, girl! Thumbs up to all your points. You make me proud! Keep up the good work, friend. :) Love from way down here to way up there. <3 

    • lauraparkerblog

      Thanks, girl! Do y’all host lots of teams in your ministry at House of Dreams? What have you found to be most helpful when people come?

      • http://www.angiewashington.com/ @ngie

         I wrote a big long response to this earlier and now I am not seeing it here. Hmmm. Anywho. Summarized comment: Yes, we host teams. Most helpful thing we do? We have a volunteer coordinator dedicated to pre-trip communication and preparation, day one orientation, hosting, and then debriefing. So great to have a capable point person.

  • Katy

    Great list!! I love number 1 and that’s a big reason why I was “okay” with going on my first short term trip with my church this year (such an experience too since I had only done “longer” aka a year before for missions).  But I loved that our church has been going to the same place, same ministry for over the last 10 years.  That just speaks volumes to me.  I definitely still and know now that I lean more toward liking and preferring long term personally but then I get too that God does use events and connections and it’s like you said….let’s focus on the positives and keep getting more of that and eliminate the negatives.  =)

  • Torin Ruark

    Laura, I love the list. Now how do we get churches to slow down and invest the time and MONEY into quality. Hmmm…sounds like an idea for a blog post! Also, are we allowed to shamelessly plug our own blogs in the comments? I have a blog, http://www.themissionsmoment.blogspot.com, that is meant to raise issues and quickly equip practitioners with at least the ideas and next steps to improving their short-term mission experience. There are articles on how to tell your story, follow-through meetings after the trip, advice for friends of short-term missionaries, etc. Thanks for putting your time and effort into this. God bless you!

    • lauraparkerblog

      Thanks for writing in! Not shameless at all to share what you’ve written– am heading over to check it out!

  • Marilyn

    Love this discussion, love this blog.  Thank you, Laura.  We very intentionally call the STM teams that come down to visit us “Service and Learning teams.”  They are not (nor are we) here to “do” anything for or to the locals but “with” them (we do ask all our teams to read When Helping Hurts – another great book on the subject is Toxic Charity).  We try to give them this goal upon their arrival – taste and see the goodness of our God.  We want those coming down to see how huge and great our God is as He works in and through the people here and to take that new, expanded view of our God with them to their families, churches and communities – the places where God has planted them to be His Light in His world.  STM teams are difficult and taxing but we too are committed to hosting them (around 8 a year – any more than that and we become too cynical and tired and frustrated . . .) since we are on the field (14 years – only God!) because of my husband taking a STM trip 17 years ago.

    • lauraparkerblog

      Loved this comment– the practical suggestions and the reminder that YOUR ministry NOW is a result of a STM trip THEN.

      Awesome . . .  Love the idea, too, of putting a cap on how many teams a year to host. Seems wise on many levels.

  • http://jesseandandreablog.com/ Andrea

    I am always just shaking my head in agreement to everything you write! 

    I don’t have much to add other than to piggy-back off #6 – You cannot minimize the importance of pre-trip training, debriefing and follow-up.  We have seen a vast difference in teams that spend at a minimum of 3 months together weekly before arriving than teams that receive very little pre-trip training.  The “Short Term Missions Workbook” by Tim Dearborn is a great tool we have used that provides about 8 weeks of pre-trip discussion hitting on some great foundational topics of thought related to missions (i.e. breaking down the Savior complex, importance of cultural intelligence, etc). 

    Debriefing is also SO pivotal.  We found this quote and always share it with our teams: “Unless you intentionally plan to do something, you will unintentionally do nothing.”  Without adequate time spent on reflecting upon their experience and literally writing down some action points upon their return, many people will have good intentions but quickly get caught up in life and unfortunately return unchanged and unmarked by their experience.  Regardless of the length of a trip, we take almost 2 full days to debrief with the team. 

    And lastly, I think it is equally important to challenge the team with deep discussion, probing questions and even some reading material DURING their trip.  This is much easier with longer teams or interns staying for a few months in comparison to the usual 10 day – 2 week trip, but it is still possible to carve out an hour each day with even very short-term teams to LEARN together!  This would also include someone who can focus their attention on the team to guide them through their experience.  If they are left to figure it out on their own, they probably won’t figure out too much!

    Love this discussion!

    • lauraparkerblog

      Andrea, thanks for your kind words.

      AND, loved your encouragement about preparing and debriefing– I agree– SOOO important and so often ignored.

  • carin

    Wow, you were very thorough! 
    I appreciate you adding a note about the long term missionaries, because STM is not easy and it takes us away from our ministry in order to facilitate one. 
    I may add that when you come on an STM don’t come as a tourist, come as a traveller, a learner, a child of God who wants to learn about the conversation that God is already having in the city you will be visiting. Come to worship with believers in the host country as a long lost brother/sister in Christ, come and see/hear what God has for YOU and love your neighbour as yourself.
     God is the God of the nations and it is incredible to be opened up to what God is doing on the other side of the world, it helps us to be encouraged and to vision what we are to be involved in, in out part of the world wherever that might be.
    Blessings to you,

  • Lindsey

    Love this! “Listen more, talk less”… I was just laughing w/ a co-work the other day about people that come to our location to “just encourage and bless you!” and then, so many times, procede to talk about themselves the entire time, day after day.   Never asking once how we are doing or what our challenges or victories are.  Last month a STM guy came and proceded to pour his heart out to me about his “struggle of walking by faith” because he was down to his last $250,000 and didn’t know where the money was going to come when that was gone.  I’M… NOT….LYING.  It reminds me, also, to talk less and listen more when I run into other missionaries… or just anyone for that matter.  Thanks for the post!

  • Brittany Cetti

    Laura – Great list! And thanks for the link to The Hub! 

    Something I’ve learned about STM and a question that I always ask myself and others who are going is, why are you going? I find that most of the time it’s for selfish reasons or at least, for the wrong reason. I can remember back when I went on a trip just because my three friends were going and I didn’t want to feel left out of the ‘experience’. God still showed up and worked but I’m not sure if I had all that big of an impact. 

    I really like number 8. I think sharing your stories are so important. It helps your family, friends, supporters, and church family understand what it was you experienced. Sharing both the serious and the funny are important too! I was remembering back to a few trips that I was writing stories about and all these memories came back and things that I’d forgotten that I’d learned and things that I had seen God do. Sharing your stories aren’t just beneficial for others, but they also are for you. There is a blog that DELTA Ministries International has that is purely for story telling. It’s a newer blog that we’re trying to get off the ground, intheriverofgod.blogspot.com. Whether it’s about how terrifying the driving is, or how God used you beyond your wildest dreams, or just the pain and hurt that you saw on a daily basis. 

    My family went on three mission trips together when I was 10, 13, and 16 to Italy. My mom made this pressed dried flower arrangement with this phrase in the middle: ‘We will not forget what God did in the hearts in Italy’. So often I forget about that! But isn’t that why we go?

    Anyway, thanks for all your great posts! I love how much they range in topic! And your pictures are so great too!

  • http://www.kesherinternationalmissions.wordpress.com/ Jill

    Great insights! Especially #3 “Beware of Your P.R.”  I wrote about this in my blog series “Dud or Deal”.  www.kesherinternationalmissions.wordpress.com  Keep sharing your thoughts!

  • http://www.saritahartz.com Sarita Hartz

    This is so good. Came across your blog when I was doing research to speak to a short term team about how to do STM’s better. Having lived on both sides of the spectrum, first as a short termer, then as a long term missionary in Uganda for 6 years, I’ve seen so many things do more harm than good. I got so fired up, I turned my training into a blog post. http://www.saritahartz.com/10-steps-for-doing-short-term-missions-trips-well/

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