You Are the Missions Field

crossThere’s something a lot of people don’t consider. When your mission team travels to Mexico, Africa, or some other country, you’re probably assuming you’re going to share the Gospel. The reality is, the missionaries and ministries you’re visiting see you as the missions field, they see you as someone who needs to experience the Gospel as you’ve never imagined.

When I took my first trip to Africa, I was surprised by the sheer number of churches. Every city, town, and village seemed to have more than their share of churches representing a wide range of denominational and non-denominational faiths. These churches weren’t just buildings; these churches were full and alive whenever the doors were open. There were Bible verses written on most cars, and about half the billboards were advertising churches or church events. I quickly realized that the people we came to serve already had plenty of people come and share the gospel. The population as a whole was more excited about God than any area I had visited in the U.S. It kind of surprised me. “Wait a minute, I thought we came here to share the Gospel?”

People have been traveling the world sharing the good news for a very long time. At this point, it’s actually kind of hard to find a country where missionaries haven’t been working and sharing for many years. When I was in Malawi, I visited a monument in honor of the missionaries who had come from England in the late 1700’s. I was not bringing a new message. So what was the trip to Africa about?

If you’re following trends, or you’ve been in a church lately, you’ll quickly notice that churches in the U.S. are shrinking and closing at a rate never seen before. In spite of all the programs, activities, and trying to keep up with social changes, people are leaving the church in droves. ( pewforum.org: america’s-changing-religious-landscape/ ) Most of the world now sees the U.S. as the missions field, as an area desperately in need of the Gospel.

Maybe we need to look at “missions” in a new light.

For as long as there have been missionaries, the model has been, “We have the Gospel, we need to go over to that country over there and share this with others.” Maybe we need to flip the tables on missions and say, “Those people, over there, in that country, have a faith that’s deeper, wider, and more life-changing than mine. What can I learn from them?”

Around the world, there are missionaries, ministries, and churches that are alive and thriving. In many countries where churches suffer under persecution or severe poverty, they are trusting God and living out their faith in ways that most Americans have a hard time imagining. When we travel on short-term missions, we have the incredible opportunity to bump up against heroes of the faith who are living, breathing, examples of how the early apostles lived and walked.

I’m not saying U.S. short-term missions teams don’t bring something incredibly valuable to the table. U.S. teams bring technical know-how, skilled labor, and tremendous resources that keep ministries around the world open and operating. There are clinics, schools, and orphanages in the majority of countries that might not be open without the assistance of the teams that travel the world to serve. Through teams visiting, ministries in developing countries can share at a deeper level about their work. They can share the many ways people can partner with them to change lives.

We as a church need to view missions as a reciprocal relationship. A symbiotic partnership where both parties, the teams traveling and the people hosting, have something precious to share with each other. The idea of reciprocal missions brings a level of respect to both parties, seeing each other as valuable and knowledgeable, each in their own way.

So how do we walk in reciprocal missions? As in any healthy relationship, we need to communicate. If you’re planning a trip, try to find out what the real needs of your destination are and how to help in those areas. Once you get to where you’re going, listen. Listen to your host, listen to their stories, attend church with them to experience what church is like for them. It really is OK to attend a church in another country and not have your leader preach, or your team perform a drama. Sometimes, just showing up to experience and support a church can be a profound experience.

When we have a team hosted by our ministry, we hurt for them when they’re “here,” but they’re not present. Their eyes are closed to the opportunities to learn. We have a great team here in Mexico, and we love to share with visiting missions groups. I recently offered to have one of my team share with a group around a campfire and was told, “No, we have our own programs, we don’t need your team.” Every night, they had their same leaders, share the same messages they could have heard at home. They missed a tremendous opportunity.

Go on a mission trip, but go with a little different agenda. Go to serve, but also go as an education, as an opportunity to stretch your faith, your walk, and what your life might be. If we go with a healthy, humble, servant’s attitude, everybody wins.

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“It’s Good Enough For Orphans.”

asia_children_joy_life_missions_myanmar_orphans_people-1174482-jpgd.jpegOver the years, I like to think I’ve become a patient man, my wife might disagree, but I still like to believe that I’ve mellowed. A few comments can still get me angry to the point that I reach for my blood pressure meds: “It’s good enough for Mexico,” or the more offensive “It’s good enough for an orphanage.” Or the similar thought process that’s the absolute most offensive: “It’s good enough for orphans.” There are times that behind my smiling facade, I want to punch someone.

There are a lot of definitions of “orphan” in the child care field: a child with no living relatives, a child that’s been abandoned, or a child that’s been removed from parents that are so abusive they’ve lost all parental rights. The common tragedy in all of this is a child who is alone in this world. Depending on who you talk to, and how the statistics are put together, there are around 150 million orphaned or abandoned children somewhere in the world. There is an astounding amount of need out there.

I only share these statistics to show the breadth and depth of the problem. It’s a broken world with a lot of messed up people, and there are a LOT of hurting kids out there. One of the problems is when you reduce orphans to a number it stops being a hurt, scared, child in need and becomes a figure on a spreadsheet or just another blog post. You can look at the big picture, but we as a church and individuals need to see the life of each individual child in need as a tragedy that needs to be addressed. Each abandoned child had his or her own story, needs, and horrible situations that have played out, and they are suffering because of it. They are not numbers in a system. They are precious children, created in God’s image, that society has failed to care for.

Most orphanages and foster care situations are fairly sad or outright horrible. There might be some great people involved, but they are frequently undertrained, underfunded, and under-appreciated. When people visit our home for the first time, the reaction is pretty predictable: “This place is great, it looks like Disneyland.” I’m not saying this to show how great we are; I’m saying this to show what low expectations people have of orphanages. So many orphanages are sad and depressing places that society has come to expect them to be bad. Sadly, society has also come to accept that an orphanage and foster care situation has to be less than it should be. We need to do better. We need a higher standard.

At our orphanage, we host a great number of short-term mission groups every year. We’ve seen the best and worst of teams. We can tell very quickly what the attitude of the group is, and how much thought went into their trip. There is one visiting group that has never donated funding, but we love to have them visit because of the way they love our kids. They perform dramas and run activities that draw our kids in, and shows them how important they are. You can tell this group wants to minister at a level that’s incredible, practiced, and worthy of our kids. We also have the groups that buy the ready-made craft from the back of a Sunday school supplies catalog and they just don’t care when they’re here. By their actions and attitudes, they are clearly saying: “It’s good enough for orphans.”

Once, I was speaking at a Rotary Club and during the “question and answer” time, I was asked by someone “How nice should an orphanage be?” You could tell by his tone that he thought our orphanage was a little too nice. I probably answered harsher than should have by replying: “Well, if you got hit and killed by a semi later today, how nice of a home would you like your children placed into?” By mentally placing our own kids into an orphanage, it brings into sharp focus the level of quality our work with orphans should have.

As Christians, whatever we do should be of the highest quality, especially orphan care. It’s not that we’re earning favor with God, it’s that we’re representing and serving our King. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto Me.” What are we offering our King?

Biblically it’s clear that the church, and individuals in the church, have a responsibility to care for orphans: James 1:27. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” We have this example and mandate. Some churches do a GREAT job of seeking out and caring for the lost. I’ve encountered churches that are known for their culture of orphan care, foster care, and adoption. I recently spoke at a church gathering where over half the people present had either adopted children or been adopted, by someone in the church. All churches should be known as “The ones who care for orphans.”

Nobody is perfect. No ministry or individual is always going to get it right every time. But whether it’s serving in our community, or during a mission trip, it needs to be done with quality. We need to look at how we care for orphans and widows. We need to ask ourselves if we are saying with our attitudes and actions: “It’s good enough for orphans.”

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It’s OK To Be Ripped Off Now And Then

coloured-rugs-1636468A lot’s been written about the financial damage short-term missions can do to a community. Let’s look at it from a different angle. Americans love to spend money; we love to buy the blankets, jewelry, and trinkets to remember our journeys. Every youth group has that one kid who will buy the enormous sombrero. All this spending is a good thing. Sometimes the best thing you can do to help a community is let that “money spending” side of being American shine through.

The question of money in missions is a huge topic and comes up whenever short-term missions are discussed. “Short-term missions creates dependency!” “Don’t you know your project is taking jobs away from locals?” I understand the questions and concerns, but I also see the flip side of how short-term missions can positively impact the community from a financial standpoint. Our spending needs to support local business and local workers; this does not create dependency or steal jobs, this creates opportunity and jobs.

To have a positive financial impact, it’s important to not compartmentalize your missions trip. “OK, this is a rest day.” “We will be ministering on these days at this event.” “Today is a shopping day.” I hear these comments from groups all the time, and I understand it. We all like to have clean lines in our life, so we know what to do and when to do it. The problem is, ministry needs to be part of every moment of our lives, not something we schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have opportunities to minister all the time if we open our eyes to it. I’ve seen groups set up great giveaways of clothing, shoes, or food in town and then be incredibly cheap or condescending in every other area of their trip. “Our ministry time was yesterday.”

The shopping day is one area that most mission teams seem to disconnect from the rest of the trip, but it can be the most impactful service we bring to the table. We need to remember that we represent Christ all the time. Most groups go on a trip to serve the local people and do a fine job during scheduled activities, but when it comes time to negotiate for that Mexican blanket, look out. It’s “take no prisoners” time. It’s normal to see Americans who travel be borderline abusive and really grind the local vendors for that extra dollar. Later they might have dinner out somewhere without thinking about the cost. Then, they’ll pull out a calculator to determined the minimum tip they can get away with.

The idea of saving money is a good thing, we have a responsibility to be good stewards. We also need to be looking at what we do with the money we save. The idea of a group negotiating for the best deal in every situation hit home one day here at our orphanage. We have a gift shop with t-shirts, blankets, and the usual stuff. We use the proceeds from the shop to help care for the children in our home. One day I had a leader from one of the groups come in and try to negotiate on the price of our t-shirts. Think that through. He was here to serve our home, spent hundreds on travel to get here, and then decided to grind us on the cost of a t-shirt in our store.

If we want to bless a community and share with others, spread some money around to people who are working hard and are trying to earn a living. That two dollars you saved negotiating on the blanket might have fed that seller’s family that evening. That five dollars that your group saved on the tip after your dinner might have bought school supplies for the children of your waiter. If your team of 15 people stops at a taco stand, you might be half the sales that day and help keep that stand open supporting a family. It’s good to open the wallet now and then. Christians should be known for being good tippers.

If your team does a hit-and-run into a town and passes out money randomly it can do some real damage. Passing out money makes for uncomfortable interactions, and leaves the families you’re serving feeling degraded. Yes, they can eat better today or maybe buy some needed medications but they will be broke again in a couple of days. I’m all for helping people in need in a community. Our ministry runs a food bank, we build homes for families, we help support a free clinic, etc. but we try to do it in a way that builds the families up and not in any way embarrasses them. When your mission team buys locally, uses local caterers, and uses local transportation, you are directly supporting families in the community and allowing them some dignity.

All healthy relationships are reciprocal. If a relationship is just one person giving to the other it might feel good for awhile but ultimately it will break down, and people will be hurt. By allowing people, when possible, to play a part in their own well being, it builds everyone up.

Go and build the houses, run the medical clinics, do a quality job in whatever you do. But along with focusing on your project, it’s OK to overpay for that blanket, maybe buy two or three; it might be your best act of service all week.

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Missionaries Are Messed Up

summer-sunshine-alcohol-drinkI recently sent a small, short-term mission team to visit another ministry. This other ministry does some incredible work and is lead by a profoundly inspiring man. The group spent a full day experiencing the ministry, listening to the stories of what goes on and saw how God is moving. They were impressed and impacted. They were also surprised that the leader of the ministry was wearing a Call of Duty T-shirt. “Missionaries don’t play Call of Duty.” Mmmm, maybe a little…

I love the line “Missionaries are normal people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.” This is so accurate. Some people think missionaries are somehow more spiritual or together than most. We really aren’t. I hang-out with a LOT of missionaries and let me tell you, we have some issues. Below are a couple of examples that might surprise a few people.

We like to have a beer now and then. (three baptists just passed out reading this). I’m not saying missionaries sit around and get drunk, but a nice IPA between friends, when not out in public, is good now and then.

We use dark humor to cope. “Why is it always better to date and marry adult orphans? No in-laws.” We deal with some of the worst issues in society: abandoned children, sex trafficking, things most people do not want to think about. It’s common for people working in emergency rooms, people in law enforcement, or anyone who works in life and death every day to use dark humor. It’s weird and disturbing, but it does help people to survive and cope. (I can’t write some of the jokes here, fairly offensive, use your imagination)

We worry about money more than we should. About twenty-five years ago, when my wife and I started in missions, we had a company that was fully supporting us. It worked for about three years and then the company went bankrupt. Scared the cr-p out of me. I know, I’m supposed to trust 100% in God and talk about how He will provide, but when you have your one source of support suddenly end, it tends to “stretch your faith.” I do know God will provide (He has) but when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from it can be complicated. Recently a group of missionaries were hanging out in my office, and someone asked “How much can I get for a kidney on the black market? (they were kidding, but somebody helpfully Googled it for them) Fundraising is a much bigger part of missions work than most people will tell you.

We watch/read/listen to the same stuff you do. A leader on our team uses his spare time to attend Comic-con every year and he loves superhero movies. I recently binge-watched Breaking Bad again. At any given time I would say the music my staff listens to is 50/50 Christian or secular. We have an informal staff meeting over coffee every morning, and you’d be amazed (or shocked) to be a fly on the wall. Sometimes after an exceptional odd meeting, I joke with my team “Other missions teams talk about favorite Bible verses or devotional themes, if people only knew about our conversations…”

I know of one ministry in our area that has a PERFECT social media presence; all photos of prayer and service and well-lit images of their leaders speaking in front of churches. They give a very polished, clean, holy presentation to everyone who visits their ministry. I kind of struggle with it. While doing some great work, I know them, and I know they have their share of flaws and fears. You would never know it by the way they present themselves. I think more people would join them in their work if they were a little more approachable, a little more transparent, a little more real.

George Müller was a Christian evangelist and the director of the Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol, England during the 1800s. He’s a missionary and orphan care hero and legend. Maybe I’m cynical, but along with the truly incredible work he did I have a feeling George had his bad days. He probably did worry about money now and then, got mad at his dog, felt like punching someone occasionally. That doesn’t diminish the great work that was done; it just makes him human.

The point of this is not to bash missionaries or shock anyone. The point I want to make very clear is that God uses regular people. I hear from people all the time that they’re not ready to serve; they’ll serve when they’re good enough, when they have enough support, when they’ve paid off their student loans. Here is some news: you’ll never be good enough, you’ll never have enough support, go anyway. If we’re waiting for the “perfect” time or circumstances to step out and serve God it will never happen. God does not use perfect people. God uses the broken. God uses the available. If we wait until we get our act together, we will be dead and in a box before we do anything.

Go serve someone; you’re more ready than you think you are.

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Tips On Short-term Missions: Don’t Screw it Up

pexels-photo-672358A while back, a friend from another ministry asked me to give a reference for someone who had been serving long-term at our orphanage. He asked me two questions: Is this person flexible? Is this person teachable? That was all they wanted to know. I thought those questions were brilliant, as long as the person was flexible and teachable, they could work with them. This is good to think about in short-term missions, and in life.

Here are a few fairly random tips for short-term mission teams. It could be longer, but this is a place to start.:

Be Flexible:    Most Americans like to have a plan, they want to know what’s going to happen and when. This is fine when you can control all the variables, but very few situations of life allow us to be in control. When traveling internationally, and in the missions field, flexibility is critical. Flights get delayed, passports get lost, people get sick, standard travel issues occur. Most developing countries have their own unique challenges. Electricity might only work for a few hours a day or go out randomly. Water that we take for granted in the US might be shut off for hours or days at a time due to maintenance or other issues. Stuff happens. Even if the travel, housing, and utilities all line-up, your host might run into unforeseen circumstances. Medical emergencies, staffing problems, broken vehicles, or other surprise issues are the norm with most ministries. Maybe you’re all set to build a house, but a bigger need arises, and you’ll be asked to shift your project. Maybe you were planning on your team sharing at a church service, but the pastor had other plans. As individuals, and as a group, you need to be flexible, or you’re going to experience an incredible amount of frustration. It’s better just to flow with it, be positive, and make the best of whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Unforeseen events are going to happen, roll with it.

Be Low Maintenance:   We have an in-house joke at our orphanage: “All mission groups bring joy, some when they arrive, some when they leave.” Most of the groups we host are fantastic. They come in self-contained, they know what they’re doing, and they have a great, flexible attitude. To be honest, some mission groups we dread. They need to be hosted, cared for, coddled, and they treat our team like their personal servants. We’ve had groups ask if we could have ice delivered to their cabins. I had one group get bothered that we didn’t have Keurig pods for the coffee maker they brought with them. One group that was working offsite at other ministries (which we encourage) wanted one of my staff with them at all times. Some people just don’t get it. Once again, most groups we love. Some take a little more grace.

Be Teachable:   Being teachable comes down to just being humble. Everybody thinks they’re humble, even when they’re showing an astounding amount of pride. American mission teams have a long history of coming in with the attitude that they are here to save the world. Yes, teams bring in resources and manpower, but it’s important to remember that you’re partnering with people who live in the culture, and have probably been in ministry for many years. Take time to listen to whoever is hosting your missions team. No, seriously, slow down and actually listen to the people you encounter. There are so many fascinating, inspiring people serving in the missions field who want to see lives changed. Here is something most people don’t realize: For most missionaries, they see YOU as a missions field. They want you to experience God in new and incredible ways, and for you to grow in your faith. Listen to them; they know what they’re talking about.

Be Culturally Sensitive and Respectful:   Not everyone in the world sees America, and American cultural norms, as the best. Please be aware of this. I know this sounds obvious but how we dress, the language we use, the attitudes we present are the biggest part of our witness. With every action, you’re representing not only the church; you’re representing the ministry you’re serving. It might be a dress that’s a little (or a lot) too short or an inappropriate shirt. It might be acting like the “loud American” in a local restaurant. It might be acting overly picky or turning up your nose at the local cuisine. Unless you have actual allergies, eat whatever is placed in front of you. It comes down to respecting the local people and culture. Sometimes it’s just common sense: The local police chief in our town has my number and will call if the visiting American teams are out of control or doing donuts in rental vans in a field somewhere (yes, it happens). Respect the culture, respect the people, respect the community. You are representing Christ. Walk accordingly. Side note on being culturally sensitive: leave the cameras at home, or at least ask permission before you take someone’s picture. “Do unto others…”

If I come across as snarky or negative, please don’t read it that way. Most groups we host are wonderful to work with and have great attitudes. I’m a deep advocate of short-term missions and their ability to change the lives of all involved. My hope is that people go into the mission’s field well prepared, with their eyes and hearts wide open to experience what God has laid out for them. Go on a trip; it can change your life.

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Being Present Changes Lives

restaurant-hands-people-coffeeThe best way to help anyone is to be present in their life. In missions, often our American mentality is that we have to build something, we have to paint something, we need to bring something tangible. Tangible projects and supplies are greatly needed, and they do help, but people are crying out for connection.

People in missions (and in life) need others who will listen, people who will encourage, people who bring dignity to lives. Too often, the people on the receiving end of missions are seen as the “target” of the mission, as opposed to real people who have lives, opinions, and their own walk with God. Maybe, all they need is a loving, compassionate ear. Someone to see them as an equal. Maybe they have something powerful they can share with us if we listen.

Not that long ago, I had a young US pastor in my office while his group was working with the kids in our orphanage. I asked him how he was doing, and he gave me a standard, polite, canned answer. I then asked him again. “NO, HOW-ARE-YOU-REALLY-DOING?” I explained: “I know being the leader can be a lonely, hard experience. I want to know how you’re doing.” His eyes got incredibly wide, and then a little watery. He began to pour out his heart about the pain and loneliness he was feeling, that he felt had no one he could talk to. He shared how hard the last two years of ministry had been on his marriage. The floodgates opened, and I believe it was deeply healing for him. I am not that bright, I don’t give wise counsel, but I was just available and willing to listen. It had been a very long time since this pastor had anyone really listen to him.

To be present in someone’s life takes some effort, but being present is what ultimately changes people’s lives. People remember an emotional connection long after any store-bought gift is long forgotten.

Several years ago, I had just started meeting with a small ministry in Southern California about a ministry partnership. We had met a few times and it was just the start of a relationship, we really didn’t know each other that well. About that time, my father-in-law passed away, and I needed to cancel a meeting with them to attend the graveside service. Halfway through the service, I noticed a gentleman standing a little to the side. One of the leaders of this ministry took the time to drive about an hour to the cemetery, just to be present and see if we needed anything. I was blown away. Who does that? From that point on I was drawn to that ministry and wanted to be part of it.

Often, in short-term missions, and in ministry in general, too many people focus on what they have to give. “I need to give them this message, I need to counsel them, I need to fix this for them.” Sure, people can use help, and it’s good to share the gospel with anyone, but people will be way more receptive if they know you care about them as more than a target for ministry. When you go on a mission trip, it’s good to really spend time with people, to get to know them as individuals with their own rich lives. We all need to see others as people, not projects.

A good friend of mine recently shared this story: “I was discussing the cost of a trip to Cuba with a man of means who considers himself an accomplished missionary. He said it was a waste of money to spend what it costs for transportation, food, and lodging for someplace as close as Cuba, and we’d be better stewards just sending cash. We went anyway. I was given the opportunity to travel to places that haven’t seen an American since the 1950’s, preaching every night for over two weeks in small house churches. The last night, we were in a place that had abandoned American factories rusting all over the village. The pastor came to me in tears and thanked me for coming. He said we were the first Americans to EVER care enough for him to come and share with him and his church. Had we just sent money, he would still not believe that we cared for him. I would have missed out on meeting an incredible man of God.”

If you look at the three stories shared, the pastor in my office, the visit to the cemetery, and my friend’s trip to Cuba, they all have one thing in common. Each story was just people taking the focus off their own goals and agendas and listening. Listening is a lost art. With all the noise and distraction in our world today, taking the time to really listen to others is very rare.

Jesus gives us the perfect example. Before He shared His critical message, He almost always asked about the person in front of Him. “What do you seek?” When He noticed Zacchaeus in the tree, Jesus asked to stay in his house. He wanted to spend time with him. Jesus was (and is) all about making personal connections. He’s never seen anyone as only a project; He sees each of us as individuals through eyes of pure grace. He is available to us. We need to do the same with those we encounter. It’s a good model for missions, and life.

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WE DON’T NEED YOUR ORGANIC GARDEN

pexels-photo-348689Many 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.

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