Leadership matters. This seems obvious, but it’s an important part to consider in any successful missions trip. The quality and vision of the person leading will make or break the experience. The leader’s experience with international work, their vision for the trip, and their ability to share that vision are critical.
For over 20 years, our organization has had the privilege of working with countless short-term missions teams. In 2018 alone, we hosted and helped facilitate over 300 visiting missions groups. Some for a weekend, some for up to two weeks. Most of the teams we’ve hosted have been great, some not so much. Beyond funding, beyond the size of the group, beyond anything else, leadership is the single most important part of an effective, impactful missions team.
Short term missions, when it’s healthy, can be life-changing for the individuals going on the trip and can be a huge blessing to the receiving organizations and communities. When it’s unhealthy, it can be an expensive and damaging waste of time. So how does one lead a healthy short term missions team? Below are some key points to consider.
Be honest with yourself, why are you going? If you’re planning a short-term missions trip to mainly impact and educate your team, this isn’t wrong, but be honest about it. Don’t say it’s only about spreading the gospel and serving the needy if it’s really about something else. Leading your team into experiencing God and how to walk with Him isn’t a bad thing.
Many years ago, my home church was planning a two weeks missions trip to Australia. I went to my pastor seeking his advice as I wanted to go but felt like a hypocrite. I honestly had no deep passion for the people of Australia; I just wanted to go and hang out with people serving God. I still remember my pastor’s profound words of wisdom: “There are worse ways to spend two weeks.” I went, I had some life-changing experiences, and I think I may have even accidentally helped some people. There’s nothing wrong going with mixed motivation. My serving full-time in Mexico today can be traced directly back to that trip to Australia. A short-term missions trip can be hugely impactful for the people going, and as a leader, you should seek this and work to facilitate it.
Define who the leader is. This seems pretty basic, but depending on the team, there might be more than a few people who are natural leaders, the team needs to know who is ultimately in charge. “Adult” teams can be the worst, everybody is used to doing things their way, following directions from someone else can be hard for some people. Here at our ministry, we coordinate home building projects for needy families in our area. We’ll have teams come down to build a home for a local family over a week. If the team has three or four contractors, I make sure they select who is making the ultimate decisions; otherwise, they spend hours debating every decision or working in different directions. Your team can come to consensus agreements, but ultimately, someone has to say yes or no to any major decision. The leader sets the tone.
Know your team. The maturity, experience, and vision of every team member is a little different. It’s important to evaluate your team members to lead them effectively. If your team is under skilled maybe they shouldn’t work on a major construction project, if they’re new in their faith, maybe they shouldn’t be leading a Bible study or public prayer. If you have a skilled individual (construction, IT, mechanic, etc.) let your hosting organization know that these people are available if needed. Know when to push your team and when to hold them back. Jesus knew his apostles well, their skills, their weaknesses, and their maturity. He knew what they could handle and allowed them to take risks and grow. He also had them wait when needed. You need to be Jesus to your team.
Work on Cross-Cultural Training. If the members of your team have been relatively sheltered and have never been exposed to true poverty or other cultures, coach them in how to respond, react, and process what they’re experiencing. Every culture has nuances and differences, but an attitude of mutual respect goes a long way anywhere. Respect for local dress codes, traditions, language, and church culture are all important. Unintentionally offending a culture is a sure way to severely limit a team’s effectiveness, both in serving and in ministry.
Everyone has something to learn from others. Americans can carry a fair amount of national pride, and that’s OK as long as you realize other people can be proud of their countries also, even if it isn’t America. The “ugly American” stereotype exists for a reason. We need to realize that the culture we’re visiting isn’t worse than ours, it isn’t better than ours, it’s DIFFERENT than ours.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Let your team know the goals, expectations, schedules, etc. Communicate with your team about the importance of flexibility, conflict resolution, and being part of the team. Give your team a written schedule as a guide knowing things might change. Communicate with your host organization about travel plans, your goals, your skills, and ask them what they would like to receive from your group. From the day you have your dates picked, start communicating with your host organization and ask them everything you can think of. Also let them know everything they might need to know about your team (size of the team, ages, skills, any funding available, etc.) You are building a relationship between your team, and the team on the ground you will be serving. In any healthy relationship, clear and detailed communication can go along way in avoiding any problems or conflicts that might arise.
Teach and practice flexibility. When traveling with a team and working in other countries, it’s impossible to plan for, or expect, everything. Lost luggage, illness, power outages, can be expected but sometimes other things come up. I know of a group that was planning on spending a week working on a church building, the day they arrived a leader from the hosting church died. The project was unexpectedly put on hold, but it did give the team new, unexpected doors to serve and minister. The change was out of their hands, so they flowed with it correctly, maturely, and with grace.
Lead them into the experience. Missions trips can be overwhelming. Debrief every night, encourage intentional conversations about what everyone is experiencing. Maybe have everyone turn off the cell phones and focus on the day and the people experiencing the trip with them. It’s heartbreaking to see people on a missions trip with so much opportunity only to watch them stare at their phones the whole time. Lead your team into being intentional and living in the moment. A trip needs to be about more than the perfect Instagram photo.
As I was writing this, I realized that any one of these topics could be a book unto itself. What you have here is a VERY basic list of a few things to consider.
As a leader, you have a huge responsibility, also a huge privilege. A privilege to lead people into life-changing, mountain top serving experiences they will remember the rest of their lives. When led and hosted correctly, short term missions can have a world-changing impact. Go and have your world changed.
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