Short-term trips: Five lessons learned

From my very first experience in Chile as a junior in high school, to the last five years that we have lived in Malawi, I have come across and learned more than I can write about the role and potential impact of short-term teams. Here are five of them – and five of the people who taught them

1. Be Flexible Like Gumby (Eastside Compassion Team – Tammy Leatherby)

Similar to moving overseas full-time, so much planning goes into just a one or two week trip. Months of prayer, fund-raising, project organizing (on both ends), and then it all comes to a crux as the week unfolds. And, inevitably, things will not go according to plan. Many things will go as one would hope, but you cannot underestimate the power of small changes to potentially throw you off course. For example, you come prepared (with materials!) to teach a hundred kids and find three hundred eager faces looking back at you. As Tammy would say, “Be gumby.” Willing to stretch in any direction that the situation may require, and without complaint. It is a small taste of life in an undeveloped nation, where power and water are not given resources, and the hands on the wall on the clock release their grip of control.

2. Pray to see beneath the surface (Dr. T – India)

We understand much of what is happening underneath the surface of our own culture, and assume that similar clothes, buildings, trees, etc., must mean we have something in common with the people we are going to engage with. It’s a false sense of understanding, as there is always more to the worldview behind the cultures actions than we understand. Even a seasoned expat will tell you that they cannot fully grasp the entire worldview of the people that they live amongst. Don’t assume that you understand what’s going on, and pray for understanding to see beneath the surface of the culture. Which leads me to the next…

3. Ask Questions! (MoHI – Keith Ham)

“That’s a great question,” became my catch phrase, after I watched Keith interact with the hundreds of people that flow in and out of the doors of the Pangani Center at missions of hope. Working with short-term teams as my primary task for three years I heard questions ranging from details about paper and crayon supplies to trying to understand and grapple with the disparity that defines Nairobi culture. With so many activities, opinions, people, languages and in another culture, there is no possible way to have all the information that you may need to fulfill your task or even to communicate! Don’t feel silly asking even simple questions to your ministry partners.

4. Engage in healthy relationships (Too many people to list!!!)

Let me start by saying that you don’t need to be best friends with every person that you meet overseas. Though you will not be short of requests. Only in Africa do I talk with the parking attendant as she collects my fee, only to shortly be asked, “Can we be friends?” But this is another topic for another time.

What will remain after the projects are finished, lessons are taught, and energy completely maxed from pouring out all that you can? Of course, it is memories that remain with you and with those you interacted with. A five-minute conversation with a woman suffering from terminal TB (as I remember from my first to Kenya during college.) A soccer match that equaled the playing field between mission team and partner, student and teacher. A hand held with a child as you walked between stations, recognizing perhaps for the first time a new depth of human connection. The eyes of a new friend as you saw Christ more clearly than ever before.

These are things that you can “take home,” beyond any photograph, transformational story, or tangible project. Those things are important too. We take great efforts to find needs that match the strengths of those that are coming to visit. But the most valuable lessons that we can learn overseas will apply on both sides of the ocean, border, culture or whatever it is you are crossing for your mission trip.

And what is the most important lessons we can take away from short-term trips as a whole? That, thankfully, is not up to me to decide.

Perhaps we learn more about how to be present.
Perhaps we learn to say “yes” to the Spirit that is at work in us and around us.
Perhaps we learn to say “no”, consciously, to our presuppositions about what life should look like, and how God should look and act.
Perhaps we learn to sacrifice more of our time and finances after we return home.
Perhaps we learn to allow ourselves to sacrifice our ideas about God and people.

Whatever it is, we pray that we can somehow better learn to see and live out what “love” looks like.

No, I haven”t forgotten about number five.

5. Once you get back home, be ready… “it’s not easy being green.” (K. White – CBU)

Say you are coming from a blue culture, and you are entering a yellow culture. After a few weeks or months, you are inevitably going to take on a greenish tint. And you’ll be able to say along with Kermit the Frog, “it’s not easy being green.” You can’t just do everything the same way that you did before. Spend your time and money the same way. Engage in seemingly normal activities the same way. Be ready to have things that you need to talk through and process, and find other green-ish people to walk with you.

These are some of the things that have been imparted to me. What has been the best advice or lessons you have learned about serving on a short-term trip? What advice would you give others?


3 thoughts on “Short-term trips: Five lessons learned

  1. Thank you for these Justine! Important lessons for teams! Linking in with your # 4 – I often train our teams…(when in Africa), “talk to an African” There are times that in our busy constantly moving society that we forgot the value of spending time getting to know another person. Sometimes on short term trips there is down time as things get organized that can feel like a waste – in these slower moments are opportunities – to talk with the people we came to serve – to ask them directly the questions (#3) you might feel like you want to ask your team leader (who will probably say – I don’t know and need to ask a local anyway!). The value to getting to know those that serve on a short term trip is very high! Take time to “talk to a ________”

    1. That a great addition Nancy, thanks for sharing! And you are exactly right- what a great use of the “down time!”

  2. I love this! Cried a little… you capture well the enormous value and impact of short term missions. And I love reading your writing!

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