A 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.