If you are going to sponsor or lead a short-term outreach trip or you have one coming that you are not sure you want, here are some ways to do that trip well:
1. Pour into the global worker, not “the children.”
The most effective form of short-term ministry is to pour into the local global workers and their national staff, rather than beneficiaries. That might just mean saying “good-bye” to VBS with kids climbing all over you and braiding your hair.
You will not be able to impact those beneficiaries in the future on a day-to-day basis, but you can impact the global worker who will. That means you probably do not need a team of fifteen people but rather a smaller, more intentional team.
As I research and draw upon the wisdom and experience of others, it is becoming clear that we were never really intended to do short-term outreach the way that we have been.
Outreaches in the New Testament were primarily relational and long-term. Churches like Philippi would often send one to two global workers from their church to support and encourage the work of long-term global workers like Paul. The intention was always to serve the long-term global worker so he could continue the work of serving the people.
Philippians 2:25 and 29-30 (ESV) says:
25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need … 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Paul calls him “my brother and fellow-worker and fellow-soldier.” Those three words speak volumes. He was not there to fulfill a self-serving need of holding babies or to gain experience; he was there in the trenches with Paul to encourage him and co-labor with him.
“Epaphroditus is a great model for short-term work. Epaphroditus served the church and the cause by being a messenger of the church’s love for Paul, and by being a minister to his emotional and physical needs. His ‘short-term’ efforts advanced the cause of missions by supporting the most effective means of missions—long-term global workers.” Dr. Ramon Lull
Many global workers are having a tough time and feel like they are always failing, because they live in a perpetual state of having many very needy people constantly pulling on them.
They probably already feel pretty horrible, and they do not need you to make them feel worse or like they are not measuring up. They have many good ideas, most of which rarely turn out as planned. They spend countless hours in uncomfortable situations, reaching out in love to prostitutes in brothels or waiting in long lines at the hospital to get medical care for local friends. They might be recovering from physical illness or be burned out because of the toll that long-term stress and trauma can take on the body. They may have self-doubt and self-loathing. They may miss creature comforts and their families. Their marriage might be going through a tough time because of all the stress and fatigue.
You do not live there under those extreme conditions. You might not get it, but you could still be a safe place for them to air things out, without judgment or reproach.
Offer grace and encouragement that they are doing a good job; help them to see when they might need to take a break. Bring them some enjoyable TV shows, or some good books, or downloaded sermons, or some chocolate—they could probably use some chocolate.
Develop a connection that will remain long after you leave. You might be the lifeline of support they need, and you might learn a lot from them in the process.
2. Seek to serve, not self-glory.
Do not think about all the cool stories or photos you want to bring back so you can show people what you have done. These global workers are the people who have a heart for this nation and have sacrificed everything to be there every day loving people and doing the hard stuff.
When you roll in and hand out a bunch of soccer balls and candy to kids, it undermines the bridges of trust built through partnering and instead sends the message of easy “aid.” It spreads dependency. It makes it much harder on the global worker when you leave, for the locals then wonder why this friend, who has been staying with them for years, never “gives them stuff.” If you want to bring gifts, let the worker tell you what to bring, and let them hand the gifts out, at a time they deem appropriate.
Here is a list ideas of what might be helpful, but you should specifically ask your organization or global worker what their needs are.
MONEY: Maybe they need CASH, more than they need you to fly over! It is not glamorous, but I promise it will be a thousand times more helpful than building a house they could have employed locals to build better or more appropriately.
FRIEND: Be a friend. Offer counseling, support, and encouragement to the local staff. Help them recharge.
FELLOWSHIP: Bring fellowship to them, because they miss that. Pray and prophecy over them.
COUNSELING: Offer counseling, Theophostic prayer, or Sozo, if you are qualified.
RETREAT: Offer them a retreat, a date night, or a babysitter. Do their nails, or bring stuff over for them from America (like food supplies and vitamins).
PRAYER: Offer to pray over the homes of national staff homes, or make them dinner.
OFFICE WORK: Be willing to help around the office with administrative or computer-tech issues.
TRAINING: Give away the training you have received in your home church or at conferences. Global workers may not have access to these resources and materials.
VOCATIONAL EDUCATION: Train staff in something they can reuse themselves or pass on that training to others.
LONG TERM: Discover how you can help them long-term. Your greatest asset to them will be what you do with your time when you come back. Will you raise money for them? Will you come back and serve long-term? Will you volunteer? Will you spread the word?
LISTEN: Listen to their guidance. Do not suggest programs they have not suggested. Ask what their needs are and where you can best serve.
RELATIONSHIP: Develop long-term relationships with the organization. Do not judge them—they already know they have gaps. Encourage them, and see where you can volunteer to fill those holes.
Which leads me to…
3. Think about why you are going on this trip in the first place.
Let God purify the motives of your heart. Is it for approval, for man’s celebratory pat on the back? Is it because if you show you are some kind of savior you can prove your worth to the world and yourself?
Is it so you can have some cute African kids on your Facebook feed and show how unique you are?
Ask God to reveal to you why He wants you to go. Remember that good intentions are not enough.
4. Actually have a specific, needed skill to offer.
The worst thing for the global workers (and for you) is for you to end up feeling useless. Before you plan a trip, try to have a really open conversation with the global worker/organization about what their actual needs are. These should not be “needs” they made up to keep you occupied but should be holes they truly need filled. Press in; ask them to be truly honest, even if that means you do not go. If you cannot find people to fill those specific needs, then perhaps rethink the timing or intention of your trip.
Here are some helpful skills on the field (nunchuk skills are not real skills):
Counseling (marriage and family, or trauma)
Marriage reconciliation/conflict resolution
Vocational: seamstress, T-shirt printing, jewelry designer, carpentry, crocheting, baking
Questions to consider: So, what are your thoughts on how we can do short-term outreaches better? Ask yourself, what will be your sustainable impact?
Helpful follow-up reading:
Helping without Hurting—The Short-Term Missions Leader Guide
Jamie the Very Worst Missionary Blog
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.