What No One Tells You (But Should) about Short-Term Mission Trips

Researchers estimate that more than a million people per year take short-term mission trips (STMs).  Some say that in the 13- to 17-year-old bracket, that number is closer to two million.

When I took my first STM, a seasoned missionary told my friend cynically, “She will probably get a lot more out of the trip than any of the nationals she’s going to help.” I like to think the people I met on that trip—some of whom I still have regular contact with—would say he was wrong. Still, it would have helped to have some guidance for avoiding pitfalls.

Today—many STMs later— my husband is a missionary, and we have seen first-hand what does and doesn’t help. Additionally, I took a poll of some ministry workers. So here are some suggestions for your group’s next trip.

  • Prepare well. Before going, read a history of the country where you’re going, catch up on current events there, and read books such as When Helping Hurts.
  • Truly serve. One person told of teens and single men sitting through a marriage conference their team was helping to provide while the local pastor had to hire someone to care for his kids because such work was “beneath” them.
  • Invest in the long term. Consider partnering with one church in one place over a long term. Rather than using mission trips to see different parts of the world, really develop one relationship.
  • Let the locals call the shots. Ask the nationals to tell you the best week or month to visit. Make sure the time you have chosen is actually best for them. Student teams going over spring break often arrive at the host country when kids there are in school, and the church has no extra hands to spare for translators or hosting. Going at Christmas may be less convenient for the STM team, but much more convenient for those who “can easily add more beans to the pot.”
  • If your group goes to build something, make sure they aren’t taking work from nationals who could benefit from the income. Sometimes churches in the developing world will invite teams to do such projects because the Americans often leave lump sums at the end that the nationals grow to depend on.
  • Look at the economics. If your group plans to spend $10,000 in travel, lodging, and food to build a $7,000 school foundation, you might want to reconsider.
  • Do for the nationals only what they cannot do for themselves. Creating dependency on STM teams is unhealthy for the receiving organization.
  • Assume that the people you are going to help will also teach and minister to you. See the relationship as give-and-take. Never view the nationals as the primary recipients. See yourselves as the nationals’ students. And notice in what ways you are impoverished that they are rich.
  • Take cues from the ministry workers on the ground. One husband, ignoring the advice of the local missionary, built orphanages in his wife’s name as a gift to her—in a place where the church was moving to a model that was emptying orphanages in favor of supporting kids in extended family members’ homes. Today those buildings sit empty.  
  • Think twice about going simply to play with/do VBS for kids in orphanages. The process of bonding and separating can complicate existing attachment issues. The money may be better spent supporting a relative of the orphan, such as an aunt, who cannot afford to raise the child but could do so if the funds were available.
  • Replace references to “third world” countries with references to the “developing world.” The former ranks the receiving country below the sending country, suggesting superiority on the part of those lending aid.
  • Let them reciprocate. A Texas congregation with a sister church on the US/Mexico border took a seminary student with them who was from Mexico and assigned him the task of talking with the local pastor privately to find out if there was anything they could do to better serve. That conversation yielded a number of suggestions: Stay on the Mexico side of the border every night instead of seeming to “flee to safety” on the US side; and invite the receiving church up to help with VBS—creating a true partnership. Notice they didn’t say, “Don’t come.” But rather, do it better.

What advice do you have for those leading STMs?  

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


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