Best Practices for Short-Term Mission Trips

“First do no harm” is a rule that applies not only to medical practice but to short-term mission trips. Given the obvious challenges involved in shuttling a group of volunteers to a distant community with an unfamiliar culture, it cannot be stressed enough that mistakes can happen, with perhaps long-lasting consequences for mission participants or the host community. What are best practices for effective short-term mission trips?

Laurie Occhipinti, an anthropologist who researches economic development, has spoken with mission trip participants, read scholarly articles and religious leaders’ accounts of the experience, and participated in trips herself.   Based on her experience, including a trip with a Presbyterian church in western Pennsylvania to the Dominican Republic, she offers best practices to ensure that short-term mission are effective at providing help.[1]

Establish Long-Term Relationships

The “here-today-gone-tomorrow” quality of the short-term mission trip presents special challenges. How are we not simply “religious tourists?” Establishing a long term connection through repeated visits can change the quality of the relationship between sender and host. With repeated exposure, team members (at least those able to return multiple times) can deepen their understanding of the local culture. On her Dominican Republic trip, Occhipinti witnessed “old-timers” instructing newcomers on what to expect and how to behave. Another benefit of repeated contacts: it increases the likelihood that local community members will have significant input into the projects undertaken.

Reflect on the Experience

Orientation and debriefing experiences should be mandatory for groups undertaking short-term projects. The effectiveness of these sessions is heightened if everyone is encouraged to participate and provide input, not just the leader.   At orientation newcomers should be encouraged to talk out loud about their pre-conceptions about the trip and the culture. At the final debriefing, group discussions provide an important opportunity to provide social, cultural and political contextualization of the international encounter.

Work to Ensure The Project Actually Benefits the Community

It’s worth noting that good mission trips often resemble effective community development that is undertaken closer to home. If mission trip leaders practice good listening skills with community leaders, if they should focus on community resources, not deficits, and if they think about how the project will enhance community sustainability five, ten, or fifteen years down the road, then they are taking steps to ensure that the host community, and not just the mission team, will receive lasting benefit.

Understand the Role of Culture

Differences in culture matter, and attention must be paid. Occhipinti notes that mission participants often share a tendency to “collapse cultural differences” by lumping “the poor” in other countries with “the poor” everywhere else. Time invested in learning about the local culture (maybe even learning the basics of the language?) is time well spent.

Work In Partnership

“The question is not whether we travel and work with others; the question is how.” In other words, the process of working with others matters as much as the material output of the project. Unfortunately, the history of Christian mission has been tainted by missionaries’ collusion with colonial governments and institutions seeking to extract resource wealth from colonial territories. Only by continually stressing partnership in the planning and execution of the mission project can planners ensure a framework where both sides of the mission equation—project worker and host community—learn from each other.

[1] Laurie Occhipinti, Making a Difference In A Globalized World: Short-Term Missions That Work, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 117-121.

Photo:  Xololounge.  Morguefile license.

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