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.

Please share with your missions pastor or on Facebook.

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American Exceptionalism and Mission Trips

sunset-flag-america-fieldsAfter living outside the US for a while, I thought I had the whole “America is better” thing sorted out. I was wrong. It’s one thing to realize that America doesn’t have it all figured out, it becomes very real when you travel to other countries. When you carefully observe your surroundings while traveling, you realize that America doesn’t have all the answers. It’s healthy to experience this. Humility is good.

There are some things that the US does very well, but we have a lot to learn. A few years ago I was traveling back from South Africa. The Johannesburg airport in South Africa is an architectural marvel: graceful design, incredible dining, great shopping, a reasonably priced attached hotel, this airport has it all. From Johannesburg I landed at London’s Heathrow Airport: modern, efficient, beautifully designed, it’s very impressive. From there I landed at Los Angles International Airport(LAX) which is pretty much a third world country, what a pit. LAX is rundown, horribly designed, and once you get out of the inefficient facility, your first impression of the US is blocks of porn shops. “Welcome to America.” I know airports are an odd example where the US is a little behind, and maybe I’m the last one to realize this, but there are simple examples like this everywhere.

Sometimes it’s the little details we see when traveling that make us go “why can’t we do this at home?” In Mexico, they have a very different system for traffic lights. They still use red, yellow, and green BUT they’ve found a simple way to make them work to help traffic flow better. In the US the lights jump from green to yellow requiring a quick reaction: “Slam on the brakes or gun it?” In Mexico, as the green is approaching the end of its time, it starts to blink, letting everyone know yellow is coming up soon. Simple difference, a significant improvement.

There are a lot of ways to judge a country. I am an American, and I’m proud to be an American, but I also understand America is far from perfect. In many basic areas, we rank way down the list worldwide. Of the 20 wealthiest countries in the world, we’re in last place with infant mortality rates. When compared to the bulk of “first world countries” we rank well down the list in income discrepancies, math and science education, healthcare, internet access, etc.. Pretty much the only area we consistently rate near the top worldwide is obesity rates.

In our day-to-day lives if we attend the same church, go to the same job, hang out with the same people, even visit the same websites every day, it’s easy to live in our own little bubble and think everything is OK. If we only spend time with people who look, think, and act a lot like us, it’s challenging to have an accurate view of humanity, and the world as a whole. We need to get out and meet people in other areas, walk the streets of a foreign city, and watch the news about America from a different country. Until we see the bigger picture, it can be hard to truly understand the world, how it interacts, how it functions, and how we fit into the mix.

If we go on a mission trip, it’s usually motivated by one or two primary goals: Spreading the gospel and/or filling needs through service to people in developing countries. Both of these are valid, but the side benefit of serving in other countries is that it broadens our horizons. It helps us to have an accurate picture of where we stand in the world. We have a lot to offer, and we have a lot to learn. From an evangelistic standpoint, most countries people travel to on mission trips have heard the Gospel. In Mexico, Central America, most of Africa, etc. missionaries have been sharing the gospel for years. In many areas of the world, the church today is healthier and more active than most areas of the US. Once again, America doesn’t have it all figured out. Which is why we NEED to go. We need to spend time with, and learn from, others.

Short-term mission trips work in both directions. We, as Americans, have a great deal to offer, and there are countries around the world that have a lot to offer to us. By traveling out on mission trips, we’re able to serve, encourage, and help support people around the world. We also have the privilege of experiencing faith and cultures in ways that we will never experience back home. Through our missions service, we can share with others, build relationships with others, and we will be better for it. If we go with a humble heart and attitude, we might also make the world slightly better. We will come to appreciate each other and the vast differences we each bring to the table and the Kingdom.

Please share on Facebook or wherever you hang-out online. thanks.

In an Orphanage, Leadership is Everything

pexels-photo-678637Why is it that when people cross the US border and go into the missions field, they think the common sense principles that work in the US suddenly don’t apply? If you have weak leadership in an organization, it won’t go well. The best of intentions, or spending more money, won’t help. Throwing money at a dysfunctional ministry in the US won’t make it better, so why do we think it will work in other countries? An organization needs good leadership to be healthy and effective in what they do.

Every week, some person or group comes to me and asks what it takes to open an orphanage. The first thing I do is try to talk them out of it; it’s harder and more complicated than they think. If they STILL want to open an orphanage I start to explain the three things it takes, in ascending order of difficulty:

1) It takes a safe, clean, functioning location. This is relatively easy; EVERYONE wants to put up a building. It’s easy, it’s long lasting, and you can see the project when completed. Once a project starts, it’s amazing how many people want to help.
2) It takes on-going funding. This is harder than number 1. It takes a lot more money to run an orphanage than most people think. Food, staff, medical, education, transportation, etc. add up quickly. Depending on where you are in the world, figure about $300 per child. If that sounds like a lot, you try to raise ten children on $3,000 a month for everything and see how hard it is.
3) The MOST important thing in running an orphanage is: Who is going to be the on-site director or leader. This is critical, and not everyone has the gifting or skill set to do this. Loving children is not enough.

Frequently, organizations who want to open a home tell me they have the first two items covered (location and funding). When I ask who will run it they respond with either “Oh, we’ll just hire someone”, or “We believe the right person will show up.”  If you were opening a church and needed a pastor would you “Just hire someone?” No, you would spend extensive time interviewing, meeting with, and praying over anyone interested. You would want the BEST person possible because the leader sets the tone and quality of everything that goes on. What type and quality of person would you want to raise your own children if something happened to you?

Organizations spend years and tremendous amounts of money finding and keeping the right CEO or president because they know the leader makes all the difference. Whether it’s a neighborhood diner or a huge corporation, the right leader will determine whether the organization thrives or dies off.

A few years ago I was asked to consult with an orphanage in Africa; it mainly involved visiting the home and helping to train their long-term American staff. After spending one day with the on-site leadership, I had a meeting with the people who brought me. I kind of offended them when I said: “No one I met today would make it through the first interview with an organization in the US, why are they running a home? They should not be here”. They were good people, but the completely wrong people to be running an orphanage. God can use anyone, just not in every position. Desire is not enough if the skill sets and the willingness to learn are not there.

If you run or are thinking of running an orphanage, please pray long and hard. Seek honest counsel from people who really know you. If you still want to move forward, please study all you can and spend time working with orphanages that do a great job. Learn all you can.

If you are looking for an orphanage to support or partner with, the most important thing you can ask yourself is: What is the quality of the leadership? Are they doing it for the right reasons? Do they show a high level of integrity? Do they have the skill sets needed to do a great job? If the orphanage leadership is weak, no amount of funding or short-term visits are going to help. An orphanage can not be run by a committee in another country any more than a church could be pastored by someone living in another state. Who is living with and raising the kids is everything.

If I come across as blunt or unforgiving, it’s only because orphan care needs to be great, and I’ve seen way too many homes that are not. This work matters greatly and should be done professionally and in the best way possible. The children who wind up in orphanages have already been dealt a lousy hand; we have a responsibility to help them heal in a safe, loving home. A home where they are lovingly guided through healing and into a healthy place. This can only be done in a home lead by people who are called to this work and have the skill sets to do it well.

Please share on Facebook or with the orphan care ministry at your church.

The Church Needs to be Infected

pexels-photo-415564To say the church in America is going through challenging times would be an understatement. There are churches on almost every corner but in-spite of all the efforts they are dying as fast as shopping malls and book stores. Most traditional denominations are quite literally dying as congregations age, and the next generation is not embracing the old church model. Fewer millennials attend church on a regular basis than any prior generation and the fastest growing belief system in the US today is atheism. For every church that opens today, four close.

Today more than ever there are hundreds of options competing for our time. It’s common to see people on their phones during church checking social media. As technology increases, there are more and more demands on the few precious hours we have available. This lack of time creates a huge challenge for the American church. How do you compete with the unlimited activities and interests screaming for our time, attention, and involvement? How do you break through the noise? The default reaction is to make the church as “friendly” as possible by adding more coffee houses, spending more on worship, and remodeling the stage to be as Pinterest friendly as possible. This is not working.

So, how do we reach people at a deeper level? We need to let them see and experience others who are on fire for Jesus. Short-term missions can do this. The standard model for missions is “let’s go and tell that group of people over there about the Gospel.” It might be time for us to flip that model to “Let’s go over there and experience a level of faith we have a hard time finding at home.” Maybe, just maybe, if we go out with an open mind, something different might happen. If we go out with the attitude of “Yes, we’re here to serve, but what can I learn from these people who are so on-fire for God?”

Years ago, before vaccinations, if a child had chickenpox, it was common for the moms in the area to get together and have all the kids hang-out so they could infect each other. It was much better to have chickenpox as a child than maybe have it later as an adult. By spending time with someone who’s been infected, the children were much more likely to develop the disease. By hanging out with anybody who’s contagious, we are more likely to catch whatever they are carrying. Faith acts the same way. We can read about it, be preached at, maybe even be exposed to it through family history or tradition. Until we hang out with someone who is deeply passionate about their faith, someone who has been infected by their experience with Jesus, it’s hard for our faith to become real and personal to us.

I’m assuming if you’re reading this blog you are a believer, if you’re like the vast majority of believers, you were first drawn to the faith by spending time with someone else who was passionate about their faith and their walk with Jesus. This is truly how faith spreads, one-on-one and relationally. Even if you came to the Lord at a large concert or outreach, odds are you were brought or invited by someone else who had already experienced the joy of walking with Jesus. Can faith sprout spontaneously when someone is reading by themselves or just spending time contemplating the Lord? Absolutely. But it is much more likely to be spread by contact with another believer.

There are churches in America that are doing some incredible things. There are pockets of revival and people of passionate faith anywhere. God is not limited by geography. Just as a plant can survive growing through the cracks of the sidewalk, faith can live anywhere. But for a plant to thrive it needs better conditions, better nutrients, the right climate to grow into the healthy living organism it was intended to be. There is no greater influence in our lives than the people we surround ourselves with. We need to be spending time with churches that are on fire, that are going through revival, churches that are passionately in love with Jesus.

Around the world, God is doing incredible work through financially poor, persecuted, understaffed churches. Standing in a church in the middle of Ghana you can experience a level of real, joyful worship that makes anything you can experience in a US mega-church pale in comparison. In a cramped living room in Cuba listening to an “uneducated” pastor preach the gospel makes the best-trained theologian sound dry and feeble by comparison. Hearing the stories of the pure joy experienced by persecuted American missionaries in Muslim countries makes the writings of Paul come alive. The church in America is in desperate need of experiencing faith as a child, faith that is all consuming, faith as God intended our relationship with Him to be.

If we hang out with people who eat too much, we will eat too much. If we hang out with people who exercise, we will exercise more. If we hang out with people who are cynical and sarcastic, those traits will grow in our own lives. Faith works in the same way. If we spend time with people who are passionate about their walk with Jesus and are truly living it out, we will be drawn to do the same. If our church spends time and builds relationships with churches experiencing revival, with churches trusting in God at a deeper level, our church will be healthier. Short term missions can help to save the church in America.

By taking teams to other parts of the world and learning how to serve others, ultimately it can change the lives of the teams that go. The phrase that comes up over and over again from short-term missions teams is “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” Obviously, they’re not talking about material wealth; they’re leaving with something so much more valuable. The teams are leaving with a renewed and energized faith. In the grand scheme of things, their renewed faith is something extremely more valuable than any skills, supplies, or financing they might have brought to their destination countries. They leave infected.

Who Will Guide You Into Missions?

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We all need people in our lives to guide us, to teach us, to keep us from making a mess of things. Without a guide, we stumble along and we MIGHT find our way to whatever goal we’re seeking, but the odds are against us. We need someone to shine the light on our path and show us what to do, and just as important, what to avoid.

In 1953 Sir Edmond Hillary was just a man from New Zealand with a very ambitious goal. He wanted to be the first to climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. He was in great shape, he was bright, he had deep funding, but he didn’t have what it would ultimately take to climb that mountain. He needed a guide. He needed someone who knew the area, the way around the obstacles, what to watch out for. He needed someone with on-the-ground experience with all the pitfalls and shortcuts. He found that guide in a local sherpa named Tenzing Norgay. Working together, Sir Edmond and Tenzing accomplished what no one had done before; they climbed that mountain. What is your missions “mountain?” What kind of guide do you need to reach your mountain top?

You might already have a great relationship with an organization, missionary, or pastor in whatever country you’re traveling to. If you feel good about who you’re serving alongside, fantastic, stay with them. Finding a stable, trustworthy ministry partner is rarer than you might think. Continue to work with them, back them, and continue to build that relationship. But, if you’re just starting out, or want to look around at other options for short-term missions, here are a few things to think about.

You need someone to guide you into a productive short-term missions trip where your team has a real impact, and your team has a deep, real, life changing experience. Ministry is all about the relationships. You need to find someone, or some organization, in a healthy place that you feel good about. Someone you can build a relationship with. Like any relationship, nothing is perfect, but there are signs when it’s the right connection. You make judgments like this all the time with friends, church involvement, when finding a spouse, etc.

The following are not in any order; it’s not a complete list, OR are all qualities required to do a good job. These are just some things to consider.

Is the hosting ministry bearing fruit? This can be hard to determine without building a relationship first, but it’s a basic sign of good spiritual health. Are they just surviving, or are they growing? Are people drawn to their ministry, or do people leave and not come back? Honestly, your team probably won’t make a significant impact on your own in a few days. But if you’re backing, and building up, a healthy established ministry, you will help them to continue the work long after you’re gone.

Are they building THE Kingdom or their kingdom? If any ministry is healthy, it’s working together with others in the community and seeking ways to reach beyond their walls to serve others. Does your host organization have good working relationships with other ministries in the area? Are they excited about sending groups out to serve in the community or with other ministries? Or do they have the groups they host paint the same wall over and over again as long as it’s their wall? These sound like some fundamental issues but, as in a healthy church, a healthy missions hosting team is looking to build up anyone doing God’s work, not just their own ministry. We should all be rooting for other’s success in ministry. It’s not a competition, and we really do all serve the same boss.

Do they have good “customer service?” I know this sounds odd, but a good indication of how they’ll host you is how they respond to emails. If it seems like getting information from them to help you along is a battle, odds are it will be the same when you’re standing in front of them. A professionally run ministry is, sadly, kind of rare. Good communication is the basic building block of all relationships; it needs to happen in healthy ministry also. That being said, please have some grace for those serving, most people serving in missions are overworked and exhausted. Emails can slip by, but it is something to take note of.

The BIG question to ask your self is: Why are they hosting us? The motivation to receive and host groups can have MANY different answers, and that’s OK. Mixed motivations are the norm in any situation. Almost nothing is 100%. Do they want to help lead you in your vision to serve? Do they want you to partner with them in what they see God doing? Do they want this trip to be life changing and meaningful for your team? There is also the question that nobody talks about: Do they host groups ONLY for the money and as a way to build their financial support? There is nothing wrong with having groups support the ministry, it’s part of the deal and expected, but it shouldn’t be the priority when a group is being hosted. A pastor wants to lead his flock and minister to their needs; he still needs to pay the bills. If a pastor’s only motivation is financial, it’s a problem. We all have mixed motivations, but with hosting organizations, as in church, the priorities are important. This relationship you want to build goes both ways, examining expectations and motivations are important in any relationship.

No one is perfect. No ministry, missionary, or church is perfect. But we need to come along healthy people to guide us. None of us can do it on our own, none of us can climb that mountain without our sherpa. Go and find your Tenzing Norgay and let him help you climb your mountain.

If you think this is of value, please follow this blog and share on Facebook or wherever you hang-out online.  thanks

Getting Started

OK, I’ll try to be different from 90% of the bloggers out there who commit to regular posting and are about as faithful as people who commit to diet or to work out. (I’ve not done well in those areas either.)

My hope is that someone, somewhere might learn from my abundant mistakes and avoid many of the pitfalls I fell/ran into over two decades in the missions field caring for orphans. I’ve seen tremendous blessings and experienced deep joy, I’ve also walked through storms and attacks that I would wish on no-one. Most of all, I’ve realized that God sees a bigger picture, He’s in control, and we’re just along for the ride.

Over the years I’ve been blessed to have great people to guide, coach, correct, and pray over me. No one works alone. I invite you to join me in my ramblings; please fight with me a little, let’s talk about issues that matter. Together, something might happen that will make us both a little better.

Along with blog posts, you might have noticed the Q & A link above. It’s just what it means. When people send me questions, I will do my best do answer them. If a question stands out as unusual or insightful, I’ll post the question and my response.

Thank you for making it this far. My prayer is that what I’m doing here might have some positive impact on your walk and ministry.