Expectations in Marriage and Missions

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The church in America is an interesting animal. Over the years, the church has done some incredibly positive work, and at the same time, if we’re honest, the church has done a lot of damage. One ongoing and problematic issue the church has is that it tends to have a pack mentality. The church tends to embrace whatever the current trend is. Whether it’s calling for the prohibition of alcohol one hundred years ago, the rabid opposition to secular music about 30 years ago, or the spike in end-time studies that seems to come around every 10 or 15 years, the church follows trends. Continue reading

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You Need to Walk Your Pigs

pexels-photo-110820You meet a wide range of people when you run an orphanage. Visitors, donors, mission groups, etc. are all dropping by. Most people are a joy to work with; some are a little more challenging. Around the office, we use the saying: “Everyone brings joy, some when they arrive, some when they leave.” A while back one well-meaning visitor urgently asked to talk with me following a tour. This is not unusual. What he wanted to talk about was a little different. Continue reading

How to Melt a Snowflake

Snowman with a blank placard on the snowSome good friends of mine run a ministry coordinating short-term mission trips to an inspiring orphanage in Ghana (see links below). Some of the students and adults they bring to Ghana are from affluent areas of California and have been protected from the bulk of reality most of their lives. You know the type, people quickly offended by anything and easily “triggered.” I once joked with the leaders that they’re the first people to transport snowflakes into Ghana. Yes, it’s a corny joke. But to push the joke further, the best way to melt a snowflake is to apply heat. These trips are exceptional at melting snowflakes.

More and more, American society is easily offended. Many comedians now refuse to work the college circuit because anything they joke about offends everyone in the room. Politicians need to check every word and phrase before they speak. People are afraid to hear from others who they do not agree with, as if they might bruise if they hear or see something that doesn’t confirm their own beliefs. It’s harder and harder to have intelligent discussions on any topic without it becoming a polarizing issue. Try bringing up vaccinations, gun control, immigration, veganism, or any other topic and wait for the reactions to begin. The idea that other people might have beliefs different than ours and still be functioning intelligent people, in no small degree, has been lost.

So how do we, and others, begin to lose the snowflake mentality? By leaving our sheltered routine and meeting people outside our circle. We change and grow by exposing ourselves to new cultures, new experiences, and new people. Our world becomes bigger, as we realize how big the world is. We grow when we stop and listen, to really pay attention, to what the other person is saying.

There’s something powerful and life-changing about stepping out of our normal routine. Wherever you are in life, odds are your routine is fairly set. You have the same job, working with the same people. You probably attend a church with people who look a lot like you and from the same income bracket. When you eat out, you probably rotate the same restaurants over and over: burgers, Italian, Mexican, repeat. This is not a judgment; it’s just an observation. People naturally fall into a routine in their lives. Sometimes, it’s good to mix things up a little. God generally speaks to us on the mountaintop, not in line at our regular Starbucks.

Before my wife and I moved to Mexico, semi-regular short term mission trips were an essential part of our lives. The trips we took both as individuals before we met, and later traveling together were life-changing and broadening experiences for both of us. These short-term trips are where we first felt the call to full-time missions. Once we were living in Mexico and actively involved in orphan care, people assumed our days of short-term missions work were over. My wife continues to take frequent trips with our local church to mainland Mexico, and we’ve both been to Africa several times. Our lives, and our faith, require that we break up the routine. We all need to take a chance and serve alongside people outside our usual circle of influence.

My first trip to Africa had a profound impact on my approach to ministry and orphan care. We had already been caring for orphans in Mexico for many years, and I thought I had a handle on it. I was (and still am) an idiot. In Malawi, I was exposed to a level of financial poverty that was life-altering. It’s one thing to read about or watch documentaries on extreme poverty, it’s an entirely other thing to experience life with people living in those situations. We saw deep pain, as a mother begged us to take her four-year-old son so he could have a better life. We also experienced people with a depth of faith that put ours to shame. It was two weeks of an emotional workout, and we were stronger for it.

As the years of ministry pass by, I’ve become a passionate advocate of short-term missions. Yes, when short-term teams are managed correctly, they can have a powerful and positive impact, but the individuals on the teams are also impacted. Horizons are broadened, minds are opened, and the seeds of empathy are planted or expanded as people experience new cultures.

If you, or people in your influence, seem to be a little too easily offended, you might have a snowflake issue going on. Think about spending some time serving others for a week or so. Let the cold, self-righteous attitude of the snowflake melt away as it’s exposed to warmth.

To plan a trip to Ghana or to Mexico, please contact Be2live, or contact me directly through this blog.

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Random Affection in Orphanages

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One of the realities of orphan care is that everybody considers themselves an authority. Just like parenting styles in a traditional family, opinions on orphanage styles tend to shift frequently on how to “do it better.” These opinions change depending on what’s trending in any given year. In the last few years, there’s been a lot written on the potentially harmful effects of too many visitors on the children in an orphanage. After working full-time in orphan care for over 25 years, I could not disagree more.

The current theory states that having visitors in orphanages on a regular basis leads to attachment disorder problems later in life because the children are bonding with random, different strangers every week. In my experience, children raised in dysfunctional orphanages will have a wide range of emotional problems later in life, just as anyone raised in a dysfunctional family. If the children are bonding with random strangers every week, this means there are many underlying problems in the orphanage already. The bonding issue is just a symptom.

Let’s look at two scenarios:

Scenario 1) In our orphanage, we have more visitors than almost any orphanage in the world. In a typical year, we host around 280 groups and have other “drop by” visitors on a regular basis. We enjoy hosting the groups, we enjoy leading them into service and short-term missions, and we believe when well-managed, these visits are healthy for everyone. So how do we avoid the random attachment? First, we have reliable, consistent staff and plenty of them. Our children do bond with adults, but it’s with consistent adults in their lives. We have an excellent child to staff ratios (about 4 to 1) and minimal staff turnover. Second, although we have a tremendous amount of visitors we intentionally limit the time they have with our children. We limit the visiting hours with our infants and toddlers, but more importantly, we encourage all of our groups to stay with us but travel out daily to serve in the community or with other ministries in the area. Our children see the “visitors” as just that, visitors dropping by to see our family. The majority of children who grow up in our home go on to have healthy marriages and families. In spite of all the visitors, most of our children turn out okay.

Scenario 2) In an orphanage that is understaffed and overcrowded, the children will seek random affection from any visitor that comes through. You can see this when you first arrive in a home. If children above the age of five are running over to hang on you and ask to be held, they’re starved for affection. A normal, well-adjusted 10-year-old doesn’t just walk up to a random stranger seeking physical contact; this is a symptom of much deeper issues in an orphanage. The children are not bonding with the staff and are severely lacking affection. They WILL have problems bonding later in life without a tremendous amount of healing. Most children raised in poorly run orphanages eventually produce children that wind up back in the system and have a tough time with healthy relationships. (Just like too many children from foster care.)

So how does someone, or a mission team, respond to these two examples? If you’re dealing with a healthy orphanage, one that has well-adjusted kids and is well run, continue to back their work. Find out what their needs are and keep supporting a healthy situation. Help them to continue to provide what their children need.

If you’re working with a home that’s not so great, it gets complicated quickly. A few years ago, we were helping an orphanage near us that was a pit. The orphanage was overcrowded, filthy, and the children were deeply starved for affection. We were praying for a change in that home but did not have a lot of hope with the current management. With eyes wide open to the situation, we continued to send teams to that orphanage on day trips. The teams would clean, prepare meals, and spend time with the children in need of attention. I would encourage the teams by telling them, “This home will probably never change, but for one memorable day, those children can know someone cares about them.” With these “hit and run” trips, it was far from perfect, but it was giving these children something.

Everyone knows that eating junk food all the time makes for a lousy diet. In a perfect world, we would all have access to regular, healthy, balanced meals. If someone is starving, the standards drop, and junk food is better than no food. If a child was starving, and all we had to give them was a candy bar, that candy bar would mean the world to them. Long term, you would hope that the situation would change, but I don’t think anyone would withhold the candy bar because it’s not the ideal, healthy option. “Junk food” affection, when it’s the only real option, is better than no affection at all. People not visiting an orphanage to avoid this attachment and bonding problem does not suddenly make healthy bonding occur if the orphanage is understaffed and poorly run.

Caring for orphaned and abandoned children is obviously a complicated issue. It’s an issue that has been around for thousands of years and will not be going away soon. To believe that not visiting orphanages will help the situation is like saying not providing services and meals to homeless will end the homeless situation across America. I wish orphanages didn’t exist, but if they have to exist, they should be great, and they need our help.

Please, continue to follow the fundamental teaching of our Christian faith in regards to orphan care:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

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No Regrets

IMG_0355Everyone is playing with the “Faceapp” right now, the app that shows what you will look like when you’re older. Time killer? Yes. Creepy? Absolutely. Are they harvesting your data? Probably. But the one good thing that might be coming out of the Faceapp fad is it’s forcing people to think about getting old and eventually dying off. Most people are in denial; they believe they will be around forever. People believe that they will take that mission trip to Cuba “someday.” They will work with children at risk “eventually.” They’ll help others “once my loans are paid off.” It’s good to remember we might not have that many tomorrows. The time we have is a precious gift that is slipping away faster every year. Don’t reach the end with regrets.

This last week was one of the busiest weeks of our summer here in Mexico. We coordinated three large teams and their efforts to build four homes for needy families in our community. Well over 150 people from multiple states across the US, spending a week of their summer on a short-term mission trip. They all came down with the hope of changing lives. It worked, but I can guarantee it worked in ways almost none of them could have anticipated or might have noticed.

Obviously, the families who received these houses were blessed, and their lives were changed. The homes built aren’t just shelter. The teams, working alongside the family, build a home where they can be proud to live. These are semi-finished three bedroom, one bath homes that would have taken them years to construct without the help of the missions groups. This is why the groups come down, to have a profound and long term positive impact on the families they are seeking to bless. But something else went on in the background beyond the expressed agendas and motivations.

These projects help to provide desperately needed jobs in our community. Almost all the materials are purchased locally. Over the summer, our homes and other projects account for about half of all the local hardware store’s sales. The local skilled laborers hired to help out were able to feed their families. The local glass shop guy always does a little “happy dance” when we walk in to place a window order. These homes impact so many local lives in ways that are impossible to count.

The impact of a well run short-term mission trip is life-changing for everyone involved. For the vast majority of the people who traveled down to help recently, it was a week they will remember the rest of there lives. The teams that came down built relationships with each other, and worked together with fellow church members in ways they’ve never been able to before. I listened to one father, working alongside his wife and three kids, as he shared with tears in his eyes about the bonding time with his teen girls. They spent the week hanging drywall together and learned how to tape and mud the drywall panels. Ask any dad; it takes some effort to find quality relationship time with teen girls.

I was witness to the tearful home dedications as keys, hugs, and blessings were shared all around. The families, teams, and individuals who worked together this week will be sharing stories about the trip for years to come. If they hadn’t taken a chance, spent the time and money to come down, they would always wonder, “what if?” They would carry those regrets for years.

Too many people reach the end of their life and wonder if they’ve ever made a difference. They regret not taking a chance. They wonder if they’ve made some mark or impact that will be remembered. People who serve where the need is greatest never have to worry about this. I’ve never met anybody who regretted caring for orphans, widows or those less fortunate around them. The life we build has nothing to do with the stuff we usually focus on, a life well lived is one focused on having a positive impact on other people’s lives.

On your grave, between your birth date and death date, there will be two dashes: – – representing your life. What will those two simple dashed represent? What did you do between those two dates? You might not change the world, but you can change someone’s life. Don’t end your life with regrets.

 

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The Toilet Paper Police

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Years ago, our ministry had “the toilet paper police.” A gentleman on our staff was in charge of all the soap and cleaning supply distribution to our very large orphanage. This is actually a tremendous job when you think about it: all the soap, TP, shampoo, pine cleaner, diapers, toothpaste, etc. for 120 children, plus the staff, plus the many visiting teams we host. Human beings just go through a LOT of supplies. This gentleman (we’ll call him Bob) was very detailed. Bob would keep lists, track everything, look for patterns in supply usage, etc. Although it was all with the best of intentions, he was kind of a pain. He eventually got the nickname of “the toilet paper police.” He was trying to do the best job possible, and he might have saved us some money, but what was the real cost? What damage was he doing to relationships by stalking people over one extra roll of TP? Kids get sick, people fall in the mud, things change. Sometimes it’s just better to let some things slide for the greater good.

The toilet paper thing might seem odd, but the same controlling attitude can easily flow into other areas of ministry. Some people make a plan or agenda and can get VERY upset if things need to change. When we have a flu outbreak, and most of our kids are throwing up, it’s hard to force them to participate in the great vacation bible school program you had planned. If your group was scheduled to paint a building, I understand it’s frustrating if it rains that day, but that is not in my control. Sometimes things change. When you have a large team, traveling to a foreign country, things changing is the norm.

This week we had a group working hard to prepare lunch for our large family. We occasionally have government inspections (always a lot of fun by the way). Once the group had the spaghetti in the boiling water and cookies in the oven for dessert, we all had to participate in a mandatory government fire drill. I’m sure the group wasn’t expecting or planning on this, but they flowed perfectly and actually saw the humor in the whole situation. The group standing around with our kids while a head count was done turned into kind of a cool experience.

Occasionally, something happens that completely derails the best-laid plans. It’s so critical to realize, God might have a plan that is very different than our schedule or agenda. If we’re focused on our frustration of missed flights, miscommunication about transportation, or people getting sick, we might miss out on a very different opportunity. How we respond in the midst of changes, challenges, and frustrations shows everyone around us who we honestly see as being in charge. Are these our plans, or God’s plans?

Now and then, plans change entirely. In two weeks, we have a fantastic group coming from the Midwest to build a house for a needy family in our town. The planning has been going on for months. Blueprints have been finalized, and materials have been purchased, pictures of the family have been sent to the group, etc. This young family has four children, one of their sons is special needs. The details were in place, and everyone was expecting a fantastic week of service and relationship building. This week, everything changed in a way that no one would have expected. Due to what we believe is a reaction to some medication she was on, the mother of this family of four passed away two nights ago. Understandably, the husband and the four children are devastated. We are helping with funeral arrangements and doing what we can to support the family. It seems trivial in the face of death, but what do we do with the home build project? As of the writing of this blog, the group is planning on moving forward with the home build, but the changes are bringing phenomenal challenges and opportunities to minister at a vastly more profound level. Flexibility on the part of the group will be essential for everyone even remotely involved with this project.

Obviously, this is an extreme example. But unexpected changes are the norm with life in general, and international missions especially. Part of it is the bizarreness of international travel; part of it is different cultures and systems than most groups are used to. But part of it is also a spiritual dynamic. There will always be challenges and barriers to effective ministry. The key to getting through those challenges and barriers is to see them differently. The changes we encounter, the disruptions to our plans, can lead to incredible opportunities for service and ministry as long as our hearts are in the right place and we keep our eyes open to those divine appointments that God has laid out for us.

Be organized, plan well, but always remember to allow for the unexpected. Allow for God to set things in motion in ways that we didn’t prepare for. Please don’t be the toilet paper police.

Any donations to support our mission efforts are greatly apprecated. A dollar or two through the “donate” button would mean a lot. Thanks.

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Short-term Missions Leadership

pexels-photo-346885Leadership 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.

Any donations to support our mission efforts are greatly apprecated. A dollar or two through the “donate” button would mean a lot. Thanks.

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