Many short-term mission teams come with their own pre-planned ideas and agendas; this is fine as long as they mesh with the goals of the ministry they’re serving. Sometimes these goals and agendas are questionable at best. Sometimes they can be harmful to the goals that have been laid out by the receiving ministries and communities.
We once had a well-meaning group ask us about building some very large chicken coops bordering on a professional size operation. On the surface, it sounded great. “Sweet, free eggs for the orphanage”, but something in my gut said this was a mistake. It was outside our vision, and nobody on our staff had the skills or time to manage it. As a team, we decided to move ahead with the project, but it felt like a weight was added to our already complicated days. This highly motivated group spent tens of thousands of dollars and several months setting up “the chicken project.” When they were done and gone, we had around 400 chickens producing eggs. Once again, on the surface, this sounds great. With several months of egg production under our belt, we did the numbers. After paying for extra staffing, feed, utilities, sick birds, etc. it was MUCH cheaper and simpler to just go buy eggs. We wound up eating a lot of chicken over the next six months and eventually converted the chicken barns into something we could actually use.
If you, or your missions team, have an idea for a project, one of your first steps should always be communication. Talk with your receiving organization to see if the idea is something that would actually serve the ministry. Your idea might be great, but if it doesn’t match the vision and skill sets of the people you’re serving, it’s just a great idea that will eventually die off. They need to REALLY get on board, not just say “yes” to make you happy. The receiving organization has to have somebody on their team who is excited about your idea and willing to manage it.
Mission projects tend to come in trends. Many years ago everyone wanted to install computer labs. Right now the project everyone is pushing is hydroponic or organic gardens. Using computer labs and gardens as an example, unless someone is staying behind, or the ministry has someone on staff with a vision to maintain it, it’s wasted effort and funding. Orphanages and schools around the world had computer labs set up ten or fifteen years ago that quickly gathered dust because no one on site had the IT knowledge or desire to keep them up. I’ve seen dozens of hydroponic gardens either rotting away or torn down to have the materials used for other projects. Computer labs and gardens CAN work and be a huge blessing, but only if the receiving ministry has someone on staff to see it through.
Is your project something they want? Or is this great project YOUR idea that would work “if only they did their part.” Many receiving organizations will say yes to a project because they feel obligated. They don’t want to offend. It took me a long time realize it’s better to risk offending someone with a great idea than to say “yes” to be polite and suffer through it.
Every couple of weeks, a different person contacts me about setting up a pen-pal project between the children in our orphanage and a school in the US. On the surface, this sounds nice, and I know the people mean well, but this makes NO sense on several levels. My first thought is: “You have heard of this thing called the internet and Facebook right?” To spend time and money to mail letters back and forth doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore. Also, just as I know this is a homework project for a US Spanish class, my kids see it as the same thing, another homework project they do NOT want to do. A pen-pal program would also require one of my staff to manage it: sorting letters, badgering our kids to write back, mailing everything, etc. One more great idea that we would have to manage together with our already overworked staff.
I know I sometimes offend people when I say “no” to a project. Sometimes they seem crushed that I’m not thrilled with their idea. I hate to discourage anyone from serving, but sometimes I need to say “no” for the good of our staff, and the children in our care. It’s so much better to have people spend their time, energy, and resources to come alongside a ministry with a project that is needed. To build a relationship, bless them, and partner with them in work they’re called to do.
Communication is critical in so many areas of our lives. Honest conversations are all too rare. When you layer the mission team goals, cultural differences, the pressure to keep “donors” happy, communication can be extremely difficult. Your mission project idea might be incredible, but unless the people receiving this project are honestly on board, nobody comes out ahead. You will be wasting efforts and resources.
As for the idea of chickens… Years after the “chicken incident” an older gentleman on our maintenance staff asked if he could get a few birds. He patched some coops together using scrap wood and started the project with almost no funding, but he “owned” the project. Within a few months, he had about 15 birds and a nice little egg production going for our home. Later a group came alongside his vision and helped him grow to about 50 birds. It was the right time, with someone on-site with the skills and vision to run with it. We finally got a chicken project that worked.
Please share on Facebook or with your missions pastor.
I remember the chicken story! That was something. Great article and well said. Good to know your perspective on these projects. Good idea to explain it to us.
I agree. As someone who has grown up doing missions, I can see how people mean well or get something in their head that seems great at the time or in their own environment but in reality when we are serving in short term missions we need to be sensitive to the people who stay behind full time and rather than say,”here is what we want to do for you” rather ask,”How can we partner with you while we are here and best serve you and your needs.”
Agree, thank you so much for sharing.
Thank you for sharing DJ. At times mission groups come out to support and have good intentions but then you ( the ministry) is left with the aftermath like the chicken case. In my experience a church ( mostly youth) came to bless us with a painting project but when everything was said and done there was much work to do behind them ( cleaning up the inexperienced painters work).
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“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” – Warren Buffet
Great article DJ
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