Short-term Missions Leadership

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Leadership matters. This seems obvious, but it’s an important part to consider in any successful missions trip. The quality and vision of the person leading will make or break the experience. The leader’s experience with international work, their vision for the trip, and their ability to share that vision are critical.

For over 20 years our organization has had the privilege of working with countless short-term missions teams. In 2016 alone, we hosted and helped facilitate over 280 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 the course of 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 you 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 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 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 world changing impact. Go and have your world changed.

 

The Fear Factor

pexels-photo-471470“Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to respond to this question over the last 20 years. I honestly believe this is more of a statement on the church in America today than any perceived danger in Mexico.

What keeps us up at night worrying almost never happens. In 2016 there were a total of 4 deaths by shark attack, 67 people died from taking selfies. If you ask a cross section of people, fear of sharks would probably rate higher than fear of smart phones. Way too many people live lives wrapped in fear of things that don’t happen or don’t matter. American culture feeds and encourages fear: fear of the “other” political party, of terrorism, of people from different countries or cultures. Fear has become the new American way.

A few years ago I got a phone call from a concerned father who was looking at sending his daughter with their church missions team to serve with our orphanage in Mexico. After talking to him for a while, he asked me straight out “Can you 100% guarantee the safety of my daughter?” I think I surprised him with my answer: “Absolutely not.” I asked him if he could 100% guarantee the safety of his daughter when she was driving to school, out shopping, or even in their home. There are almost no 100% guarantees in this life other than the fact that we will all eventually die. If we lived our lives looking for 100% guarantees, we would never do anything, that’s not why we’re on this earth.

At what point did the church collectively decide that we need complete security at all times? Why are we so afraid? Jesus never taught that we should only go and share the gospel if our safety could be guaranteed, that we should only help others if there is zero risk involved. I’m not saying we should take unnecessary chances, but what should we be willing to risk to share the Gospel?

“Fear not” comes up a lot in the bible, “You need to avoid risk” not so much. If we believe we have an all powerful, loving Father in heaven who only wants what’s best for us why are we so afraid? If we believe that God can use ALL things for our good and the good of His kingdom, why can’t we rest in that? The Apostle Paul did some of his best work sitting in prison. Paul was completely convinced this was just a temp job; he was on his way to heaven. Paul doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who was afraid of what might happen. The world needs more Pauls.

A good friend of mine has been a missionary in a Muslim country for a few years. (for his safety I can’t share his name or what country). This guy is fearless. Recently he sent me an e-mail asking an IT question, not a big deal. He went on to share about the struggles they were having going to print with a new bible recently translated into a dialect for that area. One print shop was burned down, one printer who wanted to help was sent to prison, my friend’s family was threatened, and he was arrested and held for several days. Yikes. I would have hit the road long before this. Rather than running, giving up, or even complaining, he was rejoicing. Through the entire E-mail, you could feel the joy he was experiencing; he had found the “joy in all things” that Paul wrote about while in prison.

In 2014 my wife and I were scheduled to travel with the team of about 20 to Ghana in west Africa. We had our tickets, we had our visas, and about 30 days before we were scheduled to leave the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa. You couldn’t pick up a paper, turn on the radio, or watch the news without being told how dangerous Ebola was and how we were all going to die. Not the best time to travel to West Africa. Over the course of a few weeks most of the team dropped out and, to be honest, we thought about it. We made a few calls to people on the ground to get accurate information and had some LONG talks. Any sane person would have canceled. (we’ve never been grouped in with sane people). We decided to go. The team was just five people, and EVERYONE said we were crazy. We went, had an incredible trip, and I believe we had a real impact at the orphanage where we were serving. West Africa is a BIG place, where we were serving we were over 1000 miles from the nearest Ebola case. At no time were we in any danger other than malaria and the other normal issue from that area.

In looking back at our trip to Ghana, I’m flooded with emotions. One of the emotions I have is regret for the many people who, out of an abundance of caution, chose not to go. They missed out on a life changing experience. They missed out on the chance to share with others and connect with believers on the other side of the world. The enemy once again used fear to stop ministry from taking place. How many people weren’t reached? How many lives weren’t changed by this incredible experience? The people who chose to stay back had the perception of safety, but they missed a life altering experience.

Take a chance. Risk something. Go drill a well in Kenya, go build a house in Baja, go serve (or start) a prison ministry. Step out and see how God might use you or might use the new challenges to change you. Of the people I hang out with in the missions field, I never hear them talk about the regret of taking a chance. What I see and hear are people who glow, glow with a joy that few people experience in this life. These are people who have taken, and continue to take chances for God. They are not afraid of risk, they embrace it, they have found joy. The only fear we should accept in our lives is the fear of NOT doing what God is calling us to. We should be deathly afraid of wasting our time here on this earth living a mundane, “safe” existence.

To answer the question about Mexico that I started out with: Yes, Mexico CAN be dangerous in certain areas, most of it is really safe, but watch out for those selfies.

I Hate Orphanages

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I wish orphanages didn’t exist. A child in an orphanage means the enemy has won a battle, a battle to break a child and parent bond or destroy a family. Orphaned and abandoned children exist because we live in a broken world. I wish we didn’t need the foster care system and I hate orphanages, but if these types of homes have to exist, they should be GREAT.

People frequently ask me “why does a child wind up in an orphanage?” There are a lot of misconceptions about this; most people assume all kids in orphanages are “orphans” who have no living family. The short answer to why most kids are in orphanages is “sin.” Severe abuse, neglect, abandonment, substance abuse by the parents, etc. are all results of flawed people who have fallen into deep sin. Some people should just never have kids. Unless you’re dealing with AIDS, war, or severe natural disaster, true orphans where both parents have died are kind of hard to find. Frequently, a parent might still be around, but for many reasons, they just can’t/won’t care for their child or have chosen to abandon their child or children. In any country, you can read stories every week of babies left at hospitals, fire stations or even in trash cans. Today, in many countries, there are thousands of children that are sold into slavery every year. We live in a deeply broken, profoundly messed up world.

Some people believe orphanages break up families to fill their dorms; this does happen in some cases, but less than you might think. There is an assumption that many children are in homes world wide due to poverty, this happens also, but most of the time there are other, deeper underlying issues. In most cases, it’s not easy to say what’s best for a child: A marginally abusive/neglectful situation or an orphanage?

In our home, as in any healthy ministry, we do everything we can to keep families together if it’s truly in the best interest of the child. The family is the ideal model, and every child deserves a healthy family. Every child needs the love, acceptance and loving guidance of their parents. If a parent needs short term help, counseling, etc. to keep the family together in a healthy situation, that should always be the first choice. If there is some extended family that can help that’s an excellent second choice. Sometimes all that’s needed is daycare to keep a family together so the parent can work and still care for their children.

Unfortunately, sometimes, it really is in the best interest of the child to break up the family. You can imagine some of the horrific stories of the children in our care. We had a five-year-old brought to us after the step dad held him against a hot stove for wetting the bed. We had a two-year-old dropped off late one night with bruises over much of his body and a broken leg after the mom lashed out in a drunken rage. We took in a girl who had just turned fourteen and was pregnant after being raped by her step dad. (he is now in prison) These types of stories are much too common. Even the most ardent defenders of family would be hard pressed to defend keeping some families together.

A well meaning, well-educated individual once passionately shared with me that orphanages are a broken system and that they should all close down. I agree that it’s a broken system, but saying all orphanages should be closed is like saying the health care system in the US is broken so all hospitals should be closed. Just because we close a broken solution, doesn’t mean the problem goes away. I so wish there were better options for the countless children who fall through the cracks of society.

If the family is not in the picture, and adoption is a real alternative, it should always be encouraged. Unfortunately, adoption is not a reality for the vast majority of children living in any care situation. The latest figures available are that only 2% of children living in care situations world wide ever get adopted. Most have multiple siblings, are “too old” to adopt, or they have some living family that still has a claim on them. Depending on adoption for a child’s future is very much like depending on the lottery for your retirement: It might work, but not likely.

A couple of years ago, eleven-year-old Pablo (not his real name) was brought to us after being removed from his home due to neglect on the part of his mom. He had been bouncing around the system for a while. He hadn’t been in school, was in bad shape physically, and had spent way too much time on the streets. After a few days here, he expressed amazement that he was getting three meals a day and asked if that was normal. His mother is currently working with the government to receive custody of Pablo. Mom visits from time to time but is still not doing very well; she’s dealing with some long standing substance abuse issues. Pablo is now doing great in school, just graduated top of his class, and has become a real part of our family. We know we don’t replace loving parents, but here Pablo has a loving home with people who deeply care about him, great opportunities, and a future that was just a dream a few years ago. Very recently, Pablo came to us with a request. He knows his mom is working to get him back, but he’s also bright enough to know he has no future with her. He has asked that if his mom gets custody, and if it’s OK with her, if he could still live here. He wants to stay here so he can continue in school, work for a better life, and just visit his mom. We sincerely hope and pray that his mom gets her life in order but until that happens, we want to provide a great home to Pablo, and the many other Pablos who are out there.

Perspective in Short-Term Missions

workers-construction-site-hardhats-38293Few things are black and white in this life. Many people pass judgment on short-term missions from a purely sending perspective or as a bad use of funds. “Why spend so much money sending our team to Africa, what difference can they make?” “I’ve read that mission teams do more harm than good.” It’s so important to look at difficult, complicated, multi-level situations from many perspectives. Frequently, if we honestly try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we see things in an entirely different light.

A few years ago a member of my American staff here in Mexico was very vocal about how terrible all the new factories in Mexico were. Through her studies in college, she learned how the factories were abusing the workers and taking advantage of the low wages in Mexico. She had never actually been to one of these factories though or talked to the workers. After she had passionately shared for a while, a good friend of mine who was raised and educated in Mexico walked in. He was very familiar with the factory systems and had many friends and family members working in manufacturing. As neutral as I could, I asked him “what’s your feeling on the factory programs?” His immediate response was “send more,”. Living in Mexico with the factories, he saw them providing much-needed jobs at a higher pay scale than had been seen in generations. Yes, the workers are making less than their American counterparts but they we’re making more than any of their peers. The factories provided good health care, in many factories there was free childcare, and the workers actually had a lot of rights. Perspective is critical before we pass judgment.

What are the unseen blessings of sending groups? How do the receiving organizations and communities see short-term missions? Although there has been a great deal written in the last few years about the damage short term mission can do, you would be hard-pressed to find a single hosting organization who doesn’t want more teams to visit. Why is this? Don’t they see or understand the “damage” groups bring? Of course they see it, but the benefits to the missions organizations, the communities, and people in the field far out way the headaches of hosting most groups.

How many orphanages, churches, schools, or medical centers would not exist without the teams that built them or support them? How many long term missionaries would be in the field today if they had not first taken a short-term trip? In twenty-five years serving in Mexico, I’ve never met a long-term missionary that didn’t start out on a short-term trip.

When done right, short term missions can have a real and dramatic impact, beyond anything we might imagine. A few years ago we had a well-meaning group sign up with our organization to build a house in our town through a home building program that we run. When they signed up, they were sure they would have a large team and the funding. As the trip dates got closer a few people dropped out, and then a few more dropped out. They were left with six high school girls, one leader, and almost no funding. On paper, from a logical standpoint, not the ideal group to build a house or go on a missions trip for that matter. In most people’s eyes questions were raised: What are six high-school girls going to do? What difference can they make? Shouldn’t they just stay home and use the money more effectively? In spite of the reasonable questions that were raised, this group REALLY felt they were supposed to take this trip. They reached out to us and asked what to do. I told them to come, join our team for a week, and we’d find a way for them to serve.

Once the group arrived, I paired them up with a few local construction guys that I work with. The plan was to help pour a cement foundation for a house in town. The family receiving this blessing had been on our waiting list for a while, living in an old trailer. This single child family had a believing wife and a husband that was more-or-less the town drunk.

For a week the girls worked alongside my local team. The father could NOT figure this out. It confused him. A lot. He stood for hours with his arms crossed trying to figure out two things; Why are these odd, blond, American girls helping his family? And why were these local construction guys having such a good time? My guys are all strong believers. They were picking on each other as guys do, flipping wet cement at each other, laughing a lot, and having a blast. They weren’t cussing, they weren’t drinking, and the father couldn’t understand any of this. He had never seen or experienced healthy male relationships before, and he just didn’t get it. At no point was the gospel presented in words, there was no pressure on anyone. This project was just a collection of Christians from two cultures serving a needy family. The collective team was putting Christ’s love and example of service into action.

The week ended, the girls left, and it might have ended there. But the seeds of Christian service had been planted; the father witnessed Christ’s love in action. The following Sunday he was at our local church, the next week he came to the Lord. No one, including him, knew at the time but he was very sick and he died about 90 days later. Because this small, unskilled, under-funded team (that didn’t speak Spanish) pressed forward; this man is now dancing in heaven.

If we go into any area of our lives with an attitude of empathy, of trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, we will be more effective. As we approach short-term missions we need to move past our preconceived ideas of the people we’re serving, the needs we think we’re addressing, or even why we are going. Go with a plan, but be sensitive and open to just being present and experiencing God alongside others. Maybe God is just sending you to change you through the people you’ll encounter.

Short-term missions change us

971174_10200726932789783_914982034_nI have been receiving and hosting short-term mission teams in Baja Mexico for almost twenty-five years. Between the two organizations I lead we hosted 325 groups in 2016. Short-term missions are important but not for the reasons and justifications everyone gives for short-term missions. You think you’re going to put up a building, distribute food, or most importantly share the gospel. God has an entirely different agenda.

God works in ways beyond the ways this world works, His ways don’t make any sense in the eyes of the world: “the first shall be last, whoever would be great must learn to serve, to save our lives we must give it away.” When we raise funds, make plans, sacrifice our time to go and serve others, God has a very different objective than we do. God is always thinking of us and seeking ways to bless us, to shape us, to cause growth in us, to help us take on His image. We might screw it up, but God rejoices when we try, just as any loving parent rejoices when they see their child grow and try new things.

Short-term missions work because it changes the lives of the people who go. God is faithful and unchanging. Almost every individual or group we’ve hosted over the last two decades has the same reaction at some level: “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” When we take a chance and step out of our comfort zone, we grow. When we interact and serve with people from other cultures, it expands our world view. When we see how people live in other countries, it gives us, a deeper perspective on the conditions in our own country and humanity as a whole.

When we go and serve others, we’re putting our faith into practice. Jesus was a man of active faith. Jesus encouraged those He encountered, He spent time sharing His heart, He fed, He healed, He focused on those around Him. If we say we are a follower of Christ and we’re not actively serving others, we are hypocrites. Taking the time and resources to go and serve people in other countries changes us as we exercise our faith. People exercise to feel better, look better, and to be healthy. We need to be actively working out, stretching, and exercising our faith.

It is the very rare exception to find a full-time missionary who did not start out in short-term missions. We need to try walking before we run. Not everyone is called into full-time international missions, but some are. Is that calling on your life? Until we go and experience serving at a different level, it’s very hard to hear that voice calling us into something deeper. Today, there are missionaries around the world who got their start with a week serving in Mexico. THIS is why we host short-term missions.

At one point I had been living and serving in Baja for over fifteen years and thought I had a pretty good handle on what it meant to serve in the missions field. I was wrong. A few years ago my wife and I were asked to go with a small team to Malawi, a tiny, very impoverished country in the middle of Africa. Although I live in Mexico, I had never seen that level of poverty. It changed me. My hope is that we had an impact on the orphanage where we were serving, but I left with a greater understanding of what financial poverty looked like and the effect it has on people. At one point a desperate mother begged my wife and me to take her three-year-old child. She knew her child had no future in that country and no chance in life where they were. How scared and hurting must a mother be to give away her child? My life, my walk, my ministry was changed profoundly by my short experiences in Africa.

Short-term missions matter. Send your team, lead your team, go yourself. You will be better for it as you walk in the footsteps of Jesus and allow God to use you and to change you.

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.