Setting Expectations for Short-term Mission Trips

The following article is a guest Article by Terry L. Brown

Short-term mission trips can be exciting and life changing.

From navigating treacherous mountain roads to hearing the joyful sound of children singing, you never know what might be around the next corner.

This type of adventure may sound like just the thing you’re looking for. However, for others, the frequent changes and challenges can prove to be too much. Many who start out with good intentions quickly find themselves off track.

If you happen to be a team leader, you can help to ensure everyone fully appreciates their experience by discussing proper expectations. Do this early in the planning process by setting a preliminary meeting with your group.

Talking to Your Group

Once you have determined where your team is going (and why), the next step is to assemble people with an interest. These will not be everyone who will go. Some are there to determine if this trip is for them.

You should make several things clear at this meeting:

  • Why are we going? Let the group know if they’re going to construct a building, help with vacation bible school, disaster relief, etc.
  • Where are we going? Let them know where they are going, with dates of departure and return - simple enough.
  • What are the total costs? Share the total costs involved with a timeline of initial deposits and final payment due dates. It's helpful to show costs of travel, food, lodging, etc.
  • What documents are necessary? Gather the documents necessary for the trip: passports, visa, birth certificates, etc. Make sure this meeting is far enough in advance to procure passports and visas. Always make sure documents extend past your departure date. I learned this the hard way when my visa in Moscow had to be renewed in an emergency with two days left - the cost was $150 to make sure I could leave as scheduled.
  • What’s your personal information? Submit trip applications to everyone. Include full contact information with emergency names and important numbers, including any prescription meds and physical limitations.
  • What will the conditions be like? Give a brief overview of the conditions you will be in. Some people cannot tolerate heat/humidity, or the lack of electricity or air conditioning. Some will not be able to eat local fare such as goat, snake, etc. I did not want to eat a fish with the head on (and eyes looking at me) while in Haiti. The family serving us did so at great cost and sacrifice. To decline would have hurt them, so I put on my big boys pants and thanked them for a great meal.
  • Are there any cultural differences? Explain any cultural difference. Offending your hosts unintentionally is not a good way to start. However, they will appreciate any sensitivity you extend to them by doing your homework ahead of time. The first time I entered an Orthodox church, I was not aware it was offensive to leave the church by turning around and walking out with my back to the icons. I did not make that mistake twice.
  • How do we stay in contact? Communication may be difficult or non-existent in the part of the world you are going. If you are one who will suffocate without a text or e-mail for a few days, then you may want to go on a different trip.

What about the unexpected?

Stress that flexibility is key to making this a successful trip. Rarely do things go as planned, especially in a third world country. Three of us were blocked by flash flooding in Haiti on our trip back to the village we were staying at.

We ended up sleeping in a hotel that night and returning in the morning after waters subsided. Let’s just say a Motel 6 would have been three levels up from where we stayed.

A good team leader will convey this trip is not about you. Your needs do not come first. You won’t get to eat on schedule, sleep where you want, or sit next to who you want. The weather may be miserable, temperatures very uncomfortable, etc. Wearing the same clothes for a few days may be in order. You need to have a servant's heart in all aspects or your expectations will suffer.

What About Making an Impact?

A wise pastor once told me not to be disappointed about the change I thought I could make in another country. I was blurry eyed about taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.

I would dispense light into darkness and make a huge impact on entire people groups.

It didn’t work out that way.

He was correct in stating the biggest change would be in me. You will find on this trip spiritual gifts you may not have known you had.

You will learn how to work with others. Your idea of serving others will be prioritized. A new found appreciation for the missionary and the people in their community will be realized.

You will know exactly how to support them now.

Best of all, you can apply what you learned in your home church. You'll come back with a sense of purpose, and commitments to reach people, regardless of language or cultural barriers.

Preparing for Growth

For my first trip, I anticipated I would tag along and enjoy the scenery. I was blown away by all I experienced. I knew nothing of Christians willing to walk two hours one way just to be with other Christians.

I saw people cling to their Bibles as if it was their only meal of the day.

The sense of seriousness and commitment to their faith was humbling. In America, many people view church as a social function. Rain is enough to keep people home.

Witnessing people who depend on their faith grew me.

Prepare your people for the same.

Terry Brown is a deacon at his church and has formerly served as the global outreach director. He's passionate about Haiti and is an active missionary. In addition, Terry has worked as a church insurance agent since 1981. You can follow him on Twitter @terrybrowncic.