Short term mission trips (officially defined as less than two years in the field) are a very controversial topic for church mission committees and professional ministries.  On one hand, they are a fast and effective way for churches to immerse their members in mission ministry, whether it’s local or around the globe.  Experiencing the issues facing different cultures is a practical learning experience, and it is often more effective than simply reading about the trials and needs of other cultures or people groups.  However, critics often say short term trips use financial resources that could be better spent by the ministry.  Additionally, short term trips are criticized for creating a sense of dependency by the people and ministry being aided. This controversy will likely never be fully resolved.  However, the experience of the Global Engagement Team suggests that short term trips, when planned and executed correctly, can be a very effective activity to build mutual understanding and relationships.  Our intent with the following FAQ’s is to provide a basis for meaningful and effective short term trips. Don’t see your particular question?  Go to our Mission Discussion Forum and ask your question for others to respond.

Q1:  How can I tell if our short term (ST) trip ministry is successful? How do you evaluate the ‘success’ of a trip?

A:  Establishing expectations and objectives before your trip will help you know if those things were accomplished.   Ask! Make sure you evaluate with your host before you depart for home, ask trip participants what they think. There are short term trip standards that can help you with this. Having several criteria and benchmarks will be helpful.  Success can include financial solvency, team health, smooth travel and how enjoyable the trip was.  But don’t stop there!  Ask questions like the following and have team members write their responses:

  1. What did God get for what we did?
  2. How was his name glorified?
  3. What kind of kingdom impact resulted from the trip?  
  4. What did we learn on knowing better how to pray for those we served?
  5. How did we seek to involve our partners in decision making?
  6. How were the spiritual lives of our team members changed?
  7. How were the spiritual lives of our hosts changed?

Then, gather the team together to discuss the responses.  Don’t consider the trip to be over when the airplane lands (see the next question). For evaluation of operational issues (and spiritual), consider using a formal survey tool.  SurveyMonkey provides free surveys that are ideal for this purpose.

Here are some resources to help you in this area:

Q2:  What role do ST trips have in discipleship?

A:  On trips we give our very lives to those we serve.  Trips that include thoughtful training and leadership will contribute to the participants’ understanding of the Missio Dei (Mission of God) as well as God’s character. Short term trips are often an  opportunity for participants to apply their spiritual knowledge to the reality of serving. This connection can be transformational.

Intentional, thoughtful planning that helps participants think about God’s work in their lives once they return from a trip is foundational to their spiritual growth.  Discipleship should be intentionally planned for and considered before the trip (for more on this, see Q9 below about team preparation).  Ask your host to help with the discipleship and spiritual growth of your team.

Q3:  What are helpful ways to think about raising support for ST trips?

A:  Start by being clear about a couple of things: all that we have belongs to God, and we are privileged to be stewards of it. We are joining God in his mission, not ours.  Inviting others to join his work by supporting a trip can be a rich experience for everyone.   Raising support should always have a prayer component in addition to the financial one.

Raising financial support helps us put our hearts where our treasures are, and allows us to depend more completely on God to provide what we need.  Sometimes people feel badly about asking others to support them personally, but they can also raise financial support for the ministry or church that will be served. Support raising done well is a discipleship experience in addition to a faith building one!  Some of your team members may be affluent enough to pay for their own trips.  Nonetheless, they should participate in the fund raising, as there is a definite spiritual component to it.

Here are some resources to help you in this area:

Q4:  Can anyone go on a short term trip? Can you tell someone they cannot go on a trip?  How?  Why would you?

A:  Prayer, discernment and a process for team selection are essential. Trust that God will bring the people he wants for a team. Put in place an application (including medical questions), interview and reference check, as well as a debrief process. Recruit an interview team. Such a process assures a fair, objective, consistent and intentional method of developing a team. It also creates a platform to begin teaching and discipling from the very beginning. This also helps the trip leaders to understand how God is working in the life of the applicant, and to get an idea of how participation in a trip fits with that work. If an applicant is not appropriate for a trip, the interview team can help share that decision. It is always best to do this in person, rather than through email. Be clear on the goals and objectives of the trip as set out by both the host and trip leaders.   Trip organizers have a responsibility to the host, and to the team, to assure that they can accomplish the goals and objectives of the trip.  There can be many motivations for participating in a short term trip.  Most times the motives are healthy.  

Occasionally trips are seen as merely opportunities for travel or joining friends in a fun adventure. While travel, fun and friends are always part of a trip, they alone don’t hold much weight compared to an experience that includes people with a deep commitment to serve and love others and are being led by the Holy Spirit.  Yet, participants who are looking for that type of experience can easily ruin it for all the others. Most often it is health, diet or physical limitations that keep people from participating in a trip. Occasionally there are interpersonal or spiritual reasons.  The bottom line is that a trip is not about the participant and what they want to do or how they want to serve. Trips are focused on God, on his Kingdom and on those whom you will serve alongside. Take care in the process of selecting your fellow team members.

Q5:  What about those who do not follow Jesus?  Should they go on trips?

A:  Opinions on this vary and can be controversial…some say this is a great way to help someone understand Jesus, or to come to faith in him. Others say it is inappropriate. Depending on the expectations of your host, it could be great, and it could be a disaster. Once again, expectations, goals and outcomes can inform this decision. If your purpose is to bring team members to faith, then your host must share this commitment.  Bathe this decision in prayer, talk with your host, and be very clear about the effects of this on your team.   

As we cross cultures, we are sometimes scrutinized or often watched, because we are different.  If the examples and attitudes of our team are not supportive of the local church and followers of Jesus, we might cause harm. Perhaps better questions would be “Is this the best way that this person can become a follower of Christ?”  or “What are the things I can do right here and now to help  this person see who Christ is?”

Q6:  Are there standard forms my participants should complete?

A:  Yes, and be deliberate about ensuring participants complete them.  There are many

resources for forms, including samples at the end of this answer.  

They might include:

  • A trip application
  • A team covenant
  • Emergency information form that includes medications, medical conditions, authorization for treatment in an emergency, insurance policy information
  • Emergency contact phone and email
  • Release from liability as per the business administrator of your particular church.  A great way to think about what you need is to run through scenarios in your mind. E.g., what will I need to know if someone gets sick and needs to go home?  If our hotel were to burn down, how would I get the team home?  What do I need to know to make this happen?

Here are some resources to help you in this area:

Q7:  What might be included in a team covenant or agreement?

A:  Building a team prior to trip departure is very important.  The team can decide how it is that they wish to behave together, including such things as resolving conflict, full participation in all activities, traveling as a team rather than as individuals, commitment to daily devotionals and debrief, caring for one another, being inclusive, etc. It is always easier to address difficult team dynamics that will inevitably arise on the field if the team has set a precedent by talking about what they expect from one another.

Healthy team dynamics can be a positive example to those who observe the team. And, establishing team member expectations will help ensure the right participants will be on the trip.

Here are some resources to help you in this area:

Q8:  What policies and procedures should be in place?

A:  Consider policies that address support raising and financial giving for trips so as to conform with IRS regulations on such giving. Also consider baggage guidelines, policies on gifts – both those taking to others and receiving them--and the sharing of personal information with those you meet.  There should be written emergency procedures that are shared with the team, and revised to reflect your experiences. We are including several resources here.  Don’t be overwhelmed.  Simply use what is appropriate for your situation.

Here are some resources to help you in this area:

Q9:  How do I best prepare a short-term team for a mission trip? What do pre-trip meetings look like?

A:  Pre-trip preparation is a critical component for a successful trip.  It varies with each church and organization. Some prepare over an entire year, some over several meetings prior to departing.  Do not meet at the airport and introduce yourselves! Intentional and well-planned preparation will assure that trip objectives are met, and are done so in a way that encourages everyone involved, without causing hurt and leaving damage behind.  

Set and communicate a meeting schedule.  Require participation in team meetings, and be clear about this from the initial recruitment of the team.  Meetings typically include team building, spiritual preparation, cross cultural skill building, preparation for ministry (lesson plans for teaching, etc) gaining context for the place of service, cultural overviews, logistics, prayer, devotions, meals or serving together, and many others.

Find ways to engage team members by assigning different aspect of the team meetings to them.  Books and curriculum for preparing short term teams are widely available. Review several before you purchase them, and modify them to meet your needs.

Here are some resources to help you in this area:

Q10:  What happens after you get home? How do you effectively share the purpose and effect of the trip with the church body?

A:  Be sure to address re-entry prior to departing for home.  Some leaders plan an extra day into the trip for in-country debrief and team sharing. Talk about concerns your team members have about re-entry.  Plan a team meeting a few weeks after the trip.  Give participants ideas of questions that they may want to think through, or even give to those around them to help them share.  Practice a quick response to the question “How was your trip?” 

Ask participants to set up places to share (like their Bible study group or their Sunday School class), write articles for the church website, magazines, and other communication, or give an overview of the trip at a Wednesday night gathering. Ask them to report back to your congregation in a worship service or share with the children of your church in their classes, host a night of story sharing, and bring food from the country you visited.  Take video during the trip and share it on your church website or blog, write posts to Facebook. Gather people to pray for the group you served.

The point is, share the experience with the broader church family.  Don’t expect them to be as excited as you are, because they weren’t there to experience it.  Focus on stories and experiences, not agendas and facts.  Get the congregation engaged--  because if you do, they’ll be a part of a future trip.

Here are some resources to help you in this area:

Q11:  How long is long enough for a short-term mission trip?

A:  Pick an answer, any answer!  Some say two years isn’t long enough to gain cross cultural understanding and be effective, let alone to know the culture or language. Others say two weeks.  Perhaps the healthiest answer does not prescribe a length, but encourages the quality with which the trip is carried out.

If your goals, objectives and outcomes are clear, you and your host can usually figure out the appropriate length of a trip.  Always include ample time for relationship building and debrief of your team.  Put yourself in the role of your host…how long would you like a team to stay with you?  Remember, too, that the destination will in part dictate trip length.  Getting to Mexico or Haiti from the US takes a lot less time (and costs less!) than traveling to and from Kenya.

Q12:  Is it better to go to the same places year after year or go somewhere new each year?

A:  By nature, ours is a sending God: ”… so I send you” .  This implies relationship. Jesus was sent to be in relationship with us, to walk the earth and understand what being fully human was all about. Understanding the complexities of cross cultural relationships require time, motivation and perseverance. Those experienced in these relationships often say the first time you visit or meet someone you are an acquaintance, the next time a friend, and if you persevere, eventually you are family.  

This does not result from a one-time experience focused on the trip participant. Investing deeply in relationship will develop trust, clear communication, reciprocity and respect.