Needless to say, there has been a great deal of debate around the topic of how to do short-term trips well, and it is a sensitive issue. I have read countless articles and heated debates on blogs, both lauding and criticizing short term/volunteer trips.
Here are some of the viewpoints:
“It is a total waste of resources that could be better spent.”
“It opens the eyes of people to the world and to the needs around them.”
“It is self-serving and paternalistic.”
“Where will my funding come from if I do not let the teams come?”
“How will I ever find them a hotel with reliable AC?”
Having been on both ends of the spectrum, I think I can offer some perspective. I started as a short-term volunteer bumbling along, carefully squirting hand sanitizer every five minutes and sampling street meat. Then eventually, I committed to become a long-term global worker, living six years full-time in Uganda and doing the hard work of building relationships, while enduring the hilarious as well as the not-so-funny moments—like when a family of mice took up residence in my oven.
What I have found is that there is a widening disconnect between what churches and teams think is necessary or helpful, and what actually provides long-term sustainable impact to global workers and nations.
I do not claim to be an expert, but recently a friend asked if I would speak some truth to her team who will be taking a short-term trip to Thailand this summer. They will provide support to a local organization that rescues women and girls out of sex trafficking (which is becoming more and more common).
After agreeing—and having only a slightly-cynical version of “Please do not go at all!” playing in my head—I decided to sit down to the task of doing some research. I have ample personal experience, with stories of well-meaning groups coming over in packs and descending upon my town like a busload of tourists, complete with their cameras and face masks. (They forgot their blast shields.)
I also have equally positive stories of being truly encouraged by certain individuals and small teams whom I hosted. They genuinely poured into my husband and me during times of need and have made lasting connections.
However, I also wanted to draw upon the wisdom and experience of others, and to see if I could pull out certain themes that might emerge in a delicate snowflake pattern—truths that I could hold in the palm of my hand.
What I found, honestly, was kind of a mess: people yelling really rude, ignorant things at each other, and judgment flying in all directions on comment boards of well-known bloggers. (Not that you nice people would ever do that!)
So where does that leave me? On the fence, I guess. I actually addressed this tension in a blog written while on my first six-month trip to Africa in 2006.
Though I have made plenty of mistakes, it is strangely these mistakes that have fueled a kind of purpose, one that has led me into deeper intimacy with God and myself. I am just scratching the surface of this journey of honesty and revelation into which He has lead me. This knowledge, born out of suffering and birthed in the secret place, is so precious—it is a thing of beauty, to be turned between your fingers.
Now that I am back in the States, I am more interested in influencing how we can do global work with integrity—both short-term and long-term. This is something about which I am really passionate, and it is time for me to pull on my big-girl pants and finally address this issue.
First, I have to be honest and say that I think the only reason that most global workers invite or allow short-term teams to come over is not to see your shiny faces. It is rather because they secretly hope this will give your church or organization more ownership in what they are doing. They hope that you will “buy in,” so to speak, and continue to support their ministry financially. They think they will get some kind of stamp of approval and be legitimized to remain on the budget. (A bonus would to be to get a long-term volunteer out of the deal, but this rarely ever happens.)
This is what it boils down to: We need money and people. Global workers and ministries need money to operate, and they rely upon the generous donors in America and the rest of the developed world to provide it.
So a lot of time—and probably money—could be saved if we could find a more efficient way to make this happen. Perhaps skype calls would help, or sharing more videos. Maybe one or two leaders from a church should travel over to visit the project. (This would be something similar to how Jesus sent the 72 out 2×2—is there a model in there?) I am not sure I know the answer, I only know that it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Now then, assuming you still want to do a short-term outreach trip and that you think I half-way know what I am talking about, let us get down to the brass tacks. (I will define “short-term trip” to be anything from one week to three months, although most church trips are typically 7-10 days.)
Be careful, I am about to drop some bombs on you!
In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton writes,
“Contrary to popular belief, most outreach trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term work. By definition, short-term outreaches have only a short time in which to “show profit,” or to achieve pre-defined goals. This can accentuate our American idols of speed, quantification, compartmentalization, money, achievement, and success. Projects become more important than people. The wells dug. Fifty people converted. Got to give the church back home a good report. Got to prove the time and expense was well worth it. Individual drive becomes more important than respect for elders, for old courtesies, for taking time.”
Wow! What is remarkable is that, through personal experience, I have found this all to be true. The only exception in my own experience is that a short-term trip (mine was more like six months rather than two weeks) can indeed lead to long-term service. In my case it did, but I am also a bit weird that way.
I have since learned a lot of lessons that have made me question if we are even doing long-term global work in a way that sustainably impacts nations for the better. However, rather than “throw the baby out with the ‘I have had way too much African red dirt on my feet’ bath-water,” I am trying to find a way to revolutionize the system from the unhealthy “saving the world” paradigms to more authentic ministry that is rooted in excellence and wisdom.
I am not trying to steal your hope, but I love this quote:
“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism.
Hope without critical thinking is naiveté.”
Question to consider: So, what are your thoughts on how we can do short-term outreaches better?
Helpful follow-up reading:
Originally published on February 17, 2015; adapted for Thrive.
Editor’s Note: You may find it helpful to share this article with your supporting churches–with the senior pastor, the youth pastor, the missions committees, etc.