Mission To Serve

This article first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Rejuvenate Magazine

People of all ages are signing up to take part in short-term mission work outside the U.S. Here are some key guidelines to keep in mind when you are putting together these complex programs.

By Kate Capleton


It wasn't too long ago that the word missionary conjured up someone who came home only once every few years, returning from an exotic destination to share stories and a slide show and raise money for their return trip. These days, however, everyone from teens to retirees is traveling long distances for one- or two-week stints to evangelize and do good works. In fact, statistics from Short-Term Evangelical Missions, a group that organizes missions and offers training and education, show that around 2 million U.S. church members participated in short-term missions in 2005, including 1.6 million traveling overseas.

"In the past 10 years, it's become much more normal," says Diane Solmonson, currently with World Servants in Minnesota, a Christian organization with a 20-year history of coordinating and facilitating mission experiences around the world. "People really want to be a part of something that they feel God is calling them to, and they might not be able to do it on a full-time basis."

Solmonson, who in her former career planned events for groups ranging from the YWCA to the American Heart Association, was called to plan her first mission four years ago while putting together an event to benefit an orphanage in Russia. She found her meeting-planning skills are quite applicable to organizing missions. "It resounded in me as a passion," Solmonson says, leading her to attend seminary to become a Lutheran church deaconess and to her current position. "I never would have thought that I'd be working in Africa. It's amazing how God pulls you along."

Missions Taking Off

Some see the roots of the short-term mission trend in organizations like the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, which has been sending out medical and dental teams for one- or two-week stints since the early 1960s, bringing special skill sets not normally held by missionaries. CMDA has seen explosive growth in the past decade. This year the organization will send about 50 short-term medical/dental/surgical teams around the globe, and more than a 1,000 Global Health Outreach participants, up from only a few trips a year in 1998.

It's not just people with special skill sets who are traveling these days. Many people find short-term mission work to be a good way to reaffirm their faith while helping others. This growing popularity can bring some unique challenges, though. Solmonson knows of one group heading to Mexico recently to build a church. The planner had visited months in advance to make the necessary arrangements, but when she returned a few days before her group arrived, she discovered that another group had already finished the church.

"So here she has a group of 60 people coming down to build a church, and no church to build," Solmonson recalls. "It was like, oh, my gosh, what am I going to do with all these people?" Talking with the community, the mission planner was able to identify another church that needed finishing to save the trip. "Thinking fast - this is what meeting planners do, right?" Solmonson says. "Flexibility and good thinking on your feet."

Well beyond large churches and international aid organizations, local churches are becoming more and more active when it comes to sending people on short-term missions, increasing demand for people skilled in organization, travel, and negotiation. Westerly Road Church, a parish of about 400 people in suburban Princeton, New Jersey, planned four mission trips in 2007, including one to Brazil for a team of 13 ranging in age from 15 to 50-something.

Westerly Road chose Brazil because the church supports a full-time missionary there. The two-week trip included partnering with a Brazilian church to sponsor a vacation Bible school camp and to learn about Hope Unlimited, a ministry that serves Brazil's street children.

"Our Brazilian missionary has been trying to build relationships with the community leaders," says Carine Toussaint, director of missions for the church. "Our goal was to support him in those relationships and to provide resources and encouragement to the Brazilian church for evangelistic outreach...to share the gospel with both communities and to serve the community where needed."

Lasting Relationships

One criticism of the short-term mission trend is that people go into a community and do what they think the community needs, rather than what the community actually needs. "We know of many short-term mission groups who do not adequately prepare, do not partner with local ministries, and who seem to think missions are about them and not the nationals, not going to truly serve, learn, and wash feet," says Ron Brown, associate director of Global Health Outreach for CMDA.

He notes that it is important to ask partners in the country to counsel and orient you and the team, learn what their needs are and how you can help without creating dependency on the part of the people you are seeking to serve.

Working side by side with local people is one way to avoid dependency - it ensures that the local people don't feel like they are getting a handout, while simultaneously enriching the experience for the mission participants. Toussaint's group worked with 15 Brazilians, making their total number about 25 to 30 at any one time.

"Joining the Brazilian team together with the American team was a great example of how to successfully partner with a native missionary without feeling as though the "Westerners" knew everything and overpowered or dominated the project," Toussaint says. "Every American was partnered with a Brazilian and it was great to see the relationships formed by all team members. At the end of the trip, the Brazilian church was empowered to continue in doing short-term missions."

That relationship on the ground is critical, and can be found in a number of ways. Solmonson mentions a church in the Minneapolis area that has been working with the same church and school in the Dominican Republic for seven years. "They don't always have the same people go over, but what they do have is consistency of some of the leaders," she says. "But [the community] remembers the church coming, and they think of the church as a whole - not just individual people. So they become friends with the church, as one might say. And the people who come back talk about what happened, so then the church as an entire membership begins to understand that there is a relationship building. And you involve them, too, by doing, say, a school supply drive. You don't have to go over as a part of the mission trip to feel the benefit."

Training is Key

Another important part of ensuring that both parties have a good experience is training. An organization like Habitat for Humanity, which has a department specifically geared toward working with church groups, or World Servants, will provide training for the group, something that is critical when entering into a different culture.

"A team can do more damage in a week of ministry from innocent faux pas - and potentially get long-term missionaries kicked out," Toussaint warns. "I'm an advocate of thoroughly training the team to go on any mission, whether it be in the next city or the next continent."

Toussaint, who is a member of the National Short- Term Mission Conference planning team, says everyone participating in a short-term mission should take the time to get trained, to read up on short-term mission trends, and to partner with agencies and organizations that are professionals in these types of trips.

In addition to training, CMDA's Brown advises focusing on the spiritual side of the trip. He suggests reading books like A.W. Tozer's Pursuit of God or the C.J. Mahaney book Humility: True Greatness.

"Prepare the team spiritually," he suggests, "and be willing to fast and pray and read as a team before you go."