Recently, I spent some time with a few adults who were raised in our orphanage. All of them have been out on their own for a while, mostly doing pretty well. I asked them about their opinions and feelings on the hundreds of short-term missions teams they’ve experienced. It turned into a very long conversation, almost all of it positive. One of the things they discussed among themselves was the sheer economic impact short-term missions have had in our community.
We are a fairly small town, about three thousand people. In our community, there are two orphanages, a large free clinic, men’s and a woman’s rehab center, a career skills training center, and a free-of-charge daycare center. All of these ministries are supported by, and through, the short-term missions teams that come and visit our community. Many of the restaurants, mini-marts, hardware stores, etc. are open today, and are supported by, the sheer volume of short-term teams that come to serve in our area. Collectively, more people are employed in our town, either directly or indirectly, through short-term missions than any other “industry” in our area. Is this the norm for most communities? No, absolutely not, but in areas with fewer teams visiting, the teams that do visit can have an even greater impact. By purchasing food, building supplies, and whatever your team might need locally, you are providing jobs and pumping the local economy with fresh funds they would not see otherwise. There is a reason every city in America fights for convention business, people traveling to an area bring cash and can dramatically boost the local economy.
Some people put forth the argument that short-term missions teams can be detrimental to local economies by creating dependency or taking away jobs locals might have. I fully understand that, but if the teams are managed correctly, and are partnering with solid on the ground ministries who know the economic landscape, the impact can and should be very positive. We and many other responsible organizations take great pains to make sure any projects that groups might work on are not taking away jobs from the local community. The projects can be geared to augment work opportunities through healthy partnerships.
One example of responsible group management: We run a home building ministry here in our town in Mexico. These are very nice homes, about 600 Square feet, three bedrooms and very “homey.” These homes cost about $7,000 to build. The families receiving these homes are well screened, truly needy, and it would take them years to build a home that we can bless them with in a week. At first glance, it’s easy to say that the teams coming in are stealing these construction jobs from the local community. Experience tells us that these home projects are adding jobs to the local community. The average family who receives these homes would never be able to hire the workers they would need to complete the construction. The construction would just never happen. The family works alongside the visiting team, and we use some of the funding to hire other locals to work alongside them, creating jobs that would not exist otherwise. Frequently, the groups leave additional funding to finish out the house, creating even more jobs. We also work hard to purchase all of the building materials locally from community hardware stores. $7,000 spent in a small local hardware store has a tremendous impact on their profits and their ability to provide jobs. When managed correctly short-term missions can have a profound, positive financial impact in small communities around the world. But, as with any project, the efforts have to be managed correctly.
There are plenty of examples of people using funds in a way that does no good or even causes harm. Last year a great, well-meaning group built a house for a single mom with two children who lost their home in an electrical fire. In that same fire, the daughter was severely burned. As the group was leaving, one gentleman saw that the house was being powered by running a cord from the neighboring house (not uncommon in much of the world). This very well-meaning man handed the lady over $1,000 to put in the electrical meter and have the house connected safely. $1,000 was more money than she had ever seen in her life and she did not have the experience to handle it well. Two weeks later she had a large new TV, a gaming system, and nothing left to wire the house correctly.
Money is a double-edged sword. Money handled with wisdom can change lives, communities, ministries, and the future of countries. Money handled poorly can destroy lives and communities. It’s a cliche that everyone who wins the lottery says that it ultimately destroyed their lives. Most lottery winners are bankrupt, divorced, and lonely within three years. Over 75% of professional athletes are bankrupt within a few years of retirement. Everyone claims they will be different, but large amounts of money changes how we see the world, how others see us, how people interact with one another, it changes way more than we can imagine.
If teams are focused and wise in how they use the funds, a long-term positive impact is an attainable goal and can transform communities. When done right, micro-loans for small business start-ups can change lives. Partnering micro-savings programs with solid, applicable financial advice can shift a person or families’ future. By providing equipment, medicines, and practical training to an established local medical clinic, you can literally save lives.
Take a short-term missions trip, lead a short-term trip, but please do so responsibly.
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