Despite some arguments to the contrary, short-term mission trips can be positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
Short-term mission trips have gotten a bad rap. Many people say they take jobs from local people; absorb the time, energy, and resources of the groups they’re trying to help; create dependency cycles; and don’t accomplish necessary work. The now-popular conclusion is that most of our so-called “service” trips are actually about ourselves. In 19 years of leading teens and adults on mission trips, I’ve seen all of these things happen. At times I’ve participated in them. And yet, I am still leading mission trips, and I believe it is possible for them to be positive experiences for both visitors and hosts. The steps and missteps I’ve made over the years suggest the following:
- Take the long view. Realistically, trips are mostly about us in the short term, so it makes sense to wonder if that money might be better used by being sent directly, rather than sending privileged people on trips. Maybe, but I’m unconvinced that money would be sent at all in that case. So I try to help our participants understand the limits of our usefulness and understand that we are primarily there to build relationships and learn. This isn’t about how much work we can do for poor people. This is about immersing ourselves in another culture and perspective so we can better see the blind spots and needs in our own. The cost of our international trips is about $1,500 per person, but I don’t think of that as the cost of a week doing dubious service. I see it as an investment in a lifelong path toward loving the world as God does. Of course, I’m biased; my ministry vocation began with the church’s $1,500 invested in me.
- Overcommunicate. We once arrived in the Dominican Republic to discover that our hosts thought we would be bringing $7,000 for project supplies. It never occurred to me that such an expectation wouldn’t be stated up front. It never occurred to them that we would come on this trip without budgeting significant supply costs. Cultural differences led them to anticipate that teenagers would be able to put a second story on a concrete building, a project I would never assign to a group of adolescents. We found things to do, but it was frustrating for us and wasted our hosts’ time. The experience taught me to be very clear about arrangements. What are the accommodations? What will we be doing? What are the exact costs, including lodging, food, transportation while at the site, supplies, and any extra activities?
- Do what they need, not what you think they need. Our last trip was to Palermo, Italy, and some participants had an expectation of working directly with refugees—but it turned out that work didn’t look like we anticipated. What we thought they needed: Americans pulling hypothermic children out of the sea. What they needed: Americans hearing their stories and understanding the refugee crisis so we could relay that story to people with the power to help. Some members felt useless because they weren’t doing physical labor, but it was important to let our hosts define what was useful work. And what they needed us to do was listen.
- Roll with it. Things will go wrong. My list of things that have gone wrong on mission trips is encyclopedic. But half the point of mission trips is what you do when things go wrong. Nothing teaches you that God is in control quite like being stuck together in a foreign culture where nothing is going as planned, and to me, that is a life lesson well worth the time and money.
Stacey Midge is associate minister of First Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York.