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.