We’ve all heard the short term team horror stories…I have a few to tell, some have way worse stories. Growing up as a missionary kid I never saw or heard of this phenomenon – The Short Term Missions Team. It was only later in life after I returned to the US that I heard of it. After participating in one, at the age of 15, I was totally convinced these things were useless. What I saw as an MK in one trip was this:
•Air of superiority of the American team.
•Lack of interest and love for the culture of the hosts.
•Entitlement of receiving praise for helping in the presence of the humility of the hosts.
I go into some more detail in my article A Simple Meal.
Fast forward, now as an adult I was forced to revisit these opinions and scrutinize the whole concept. The reason I say “forced” to do is because my boss back in 2010 asked me to join him on a team to Haiti. Inwardly I cringed at the thought, but rejoiced for the opportunity to travel and put my language skills to the test (TCK syndrome). After that initial trip to Haiti I realized I hadn’t lost my touch with languages, in fact, I even rediscovered my gifts and talents that had been seemingly dormant for years.
Since then I have been leading and training teams and doing mission work on my own. I’ve had several years to study short term teams…from the perspective of an adult MK.
My first impression wasn’t so far off. I’ll cut to the chase; this is the formula I came up with for an effective team.
Have a seasoned and knowledgeable leader.
- This is a leader that has a good rapport with the locals and can communicate well with them. It is important that this leader has a good relationship with the local missionary. The leader must make the rules very clear to all participants and communicate what is expected of the team.
Recruit your team (if you are the leader).
- For highest return on effectiveness, choose your team. The root of most STM problems can be traced back to unqualified volunteers. A majority of teams I’ve been on were assembled by taking volunteers who wanted to go. While many do it this way, I personally have had better experiences taking who I recruited. Depending on the objective of the mission, I pretty much know who I want to take. I would already be familiar with how they handle certain stressors and how well they follow instructions.
Keep the team small.
- A small team is a manageable team. Less people and baggage to haul, yields less chances for problems. Of course, there are exceptions. Medical missions for example require more resources, people and equipment, most of the time.
Have a healthy emphasis on re-entry.
- Often times overlooked, re-entry is another process which should begin to be addressed at the beginning of the mission. This is a whole subject matter within itself and if not carried out properly can cause terrible spiritual fallout in a person’s life.
Consider recruiting rather than gather applications of volunteers and hoping everything goes well. The main reason why I am an advocate for recruiting is basically effective discipleship. This is a two way street discipleship road. Both the host and the team benefit. Let me explain…
Mentorship / Discipling
Being intentional on who you take provides an opportunity for you (the leader) to mentor and disciple the recruits. With a smaller team you can focus more on each individual. At the same time, as you mentor the team members, they are offered a chance to aid in discipling and teaching the beneficiaries of the mission. They can be given the opportunities to apply their gifts and even discover new gifts.
I’ve noticed that the American way for mentoring and discipling is very systematic. For example, read a book and follow the disciplines and journal, then report to the “coach” or leader. While this may suit some people, it isn’t very effective for most. These types of approaches are culturally foreign to many people and we must consider we all have different learning styles. If we observe Jesus’ ministry, it’s clear that the time he spent with the twelve were moments of mentoring and discipleship.
I am firm believer that the best form of mentoring/discipling is through relationship. So, rather than focusing on painting a wall, focus on the lives of people. Spend time listening to the missionaries, talk with the local people, have meaningful discussions with your team. Time shared with people isn’t time wasted. Most teams have this sense of duty to stick to a task or schedule and the people are overlooked. The problem with many short term missions teams is that they are too task oriented. The main focus becomes the schedule. This creates a false sense of duty where the priority is given to the "project". We cannot forget that the people are objective and relationship is the key. How many people do you know that return from a mission trip and only talk about the beautiful wall they built or the task they completed? The stories of those whose lives were touched by others are more impactful. Those are the stories that show The Holy Spirit working and moving in the lives of people. That is what compels us to go, give, pray and send!
Sure there are always exceptions. If you’re going to drill a well, I get it, there are time limits and restrictions. Maybe you will not get a chance to meet the people who will benefit from the well, for example. Nevertheless, there are people on your team. How can God use you in that setting? Again, the mission boils down to one main thing: relationship. Making disciples is equivalent to building relationships.
The leader’s relationship to the team can speak volumes to the hosts just as the hosts’ relationship with the leader serves as an example to the team. Everyone really becomes a beneficiary.