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Setting Expectations for Short-Term Mission Trips

The following 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. Most likely, not everyone in this group will go. Some will be there to determine if this trip is for them, and some of them will decide it isn't.

You should make several things clear at this meeting:

  1. Why are we going? Let the group know if they’re going to construct a building, help with Vacation Bible School, disaster relief, etc.

  2. Where are we going? Let them know where they are going, with dates of departure and return—simple enough.

  3. 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 break down the costs of travel, food, lodging, etc.

  4. 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 for participants 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. It cost me $150 to make sure I could leave as scheduled.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 in the location you're visiting. I did not want to eat a fish with the head on (and eyes looking at me) while in Haiti, but the family serving us provided it at great cost and sacrifice. To decline would have hurt them, so I put on my big boy pants, ate the fish, and thanked them for a great meal.

  7. Are there any cultural differences? Explain these to your group if so. Offending your hosts unintentionally is not a good way to start. While nationals are often understanding of foreigners who aren't familiar with locals customs, they will appreciate any sensitivity you extend to them by doing your homework ahead of time. The first time I visited 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.

  8. How do we stay in contact? Communication may be difficult or non-existent in the part of the world where you are going. If you have team members who will have a panic attack from going without access to text or e-mail for a few days, then they may want to join a different trip.

What about the Unexpected?

Stress that flexibility is key to making this a successful trip. Things rarely go as planned, especially in a developing nation. Three of us were blocked by flash flooding in Haiti on our trip back to the village where we were staying. We ended up sleeping in a hotel that night and returning in the morning after the water subsided. Let’s just say a Motel 6 would have been three levels up from where we stayed, but we remained flexible and ended up having a place to lay our head that evening.

Everyone needs to have a servant’s heart in all aspects, or their unmet expectations may ruin the trip for everyone.

A good team leader will convey that this trip is not about you. The team's needs do not come first. They may not get to eat on schedule, sleep where they want, or sit next to who they want. The weather may be miserable, temperatures very uncomfortable, etc. Wearing the same clothes for a few days may be in order. Everyone needs to have a servant’s heart in all aspects, or their unmet expectations may ruin the trip for everyone.

What about Making an Impact?

A wise pastor once told me not to be disappointed if the change I made in another country didn't turn out to be as great as I hoped. I was passionate about taking the gospel to the ends of the earth and eager to dispense light into darkness and make a huge impact on entire people groups. It didn’t work out that way.

He was correct when he said 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 better with others. Your idea of serving others will take on new dimensions. You will gain a new appreciation for the missionary and the people in their community. You will know how to support them better than you ever could have without seeing where they live, work, and play.

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

Preparing for Growth

For my first short-term trip, I anticipated I would tag along and enjoy the scenery, but I was blown away by all I experienced. I knew nothing of Christians who were willing to walk two hours one way just to be with other Christians, especially coming from America, where rain is often enough to keep people home on a Sunday morning. I saw people cling to their Bibles as if it was their only meal of the day. The level of seriousness and commitment to their faith was humbling.

Participating in short-term missions has grown 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. He has also worked as a church insurance agent since 1981. You can follow him on Twitter @terrybrowncic.


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