As we desire to have a sustainable impact and do short-term ministry trips well, here are some more suggestions.
5. Be a learner and a disciple, not imperialistic or paternalistic.
You are not going to save the world in the four and a half days you have on the ground, nor should you try.
You are probably not going to come up with some genius solution to an incredibly complex problem—like poverty.
You do not have the same information or context as the global workers in the field, so do not assume you know how to do it better. Do not go with answers; go searching for answers, recognizing there might not be any simple ones and there might not be a happy ending.
Understand and accept that if you are going, it might be more about what you will receive and how you will be changed by it, than it will be actually impactful to the people you are going to serve.
This is messy, challenging work, but if you look close enough you just might find some grace and hope trickling through.
Do not go in with huge expectations. Be humble, and see how you can partner with what God’s Spirit is already doing in that place through the people who are already there.
Listen more and talk less (unless they are good questions—not questions like, “When are we going to eat next?” or “Is it possible for us to get hot water?”). Ask thoughtful, critical questions.
6. Ask about cultural and social norms before you go, and respect them.
Just because you are white or a Westerner does not mean you are superior or you have all the answers. In fact, you probably do not. Solutions you may think of will probably have been tried a few times already. Wear the long skirt. Eat the strange food. Learn a few words of their local language. Follow the rules of your hosts even if you do not understand them. Build relationships by not offending people. Do not look down on them as “less educated” or not as knowledgeable if they do not carry your same degree or accolades.
Remember that the global workers and locals are experts on their own nation. Please respect the national staff and follow their recommendations.
Do not, under any circumstances, run off with people of the opposite sex. That is universally frowned upon in most cultures.
7. Be flexible, and put your control-freak alter-ego aside for a week.
It is going to be tough to travel to the developing world. Most things will not go according to schedule or plan, and you huffing and puffing around like Darth Vader is not going to change anything.
Most other cultures move a lot slower than America, and they are not on your time-table. The workers you came to serve have probably been running around for the previous weeks just trying to get your accommodation and transportation sorted out in a land where time might be a fluid thing, so give them a break.
Your agenda may not happen. Get over it, and see what God’s agenda is.
You might not hold lots of babies, or save a girl out of the red-light district. You might not have running water or electricity or regular meals. You might have to stand in church for four hours praying for people and sweating and wishing you had brought a bottle of water. These things happen. Anything can be endured for a short time, so buck up, and try not to complain—or worse, try not to take over.
You are not in charge this time, whether you are a pastor or the Pope himself. Follow the lead of your point-person on the ground.
I have had friends who were completely railroaded by short-term teams, spending the entire time trying to please the visitors and make them happy instead of focusing on their own very important work. Do not be a visitor like that! (If you are, they might have to taze you, and that would be seriously annoying.)
So take a breather, if you need to. Get some personal time, go for a walk, or do some yoga, but do not make extra demands on the ministry because you are outside of your comfort zone.
8. Be generous with your time, your talents, and your patience (but not your mini–iPod).
Okay, so this is one of my pet peeves. The issue of imbalances of power due to wealth are serious. In very little time you can create unhealthy patterns of dependency or even resentment. You can quickly do more harm to the local ministry than good. This ranges from the “White-Savior” complex who views everyone else as a victim to be rescued, to the belittling of leaders in developing nations, to the over-indulgence of resources without accountability, to the handing out of mini-iPods, cash, or soccer balls out of guilt and the desire to feel good about one’s self.
You should not give money to anyone other than the organization or global worker with whom you have built a trusted relationship, who has an accountability system in place! That means that you do not direct where those funds go, but that you trust them to attribute the funds to the areas of most need. If you do not have a trusted relationship, with accountability, then do not give money, period.
I have seen well-meaning people destroy locals with handouts. I have also seen good-hearted Westerners get taken for a ride, only to lose a lot of money on an “orphanage” that was never built.
Dependency is defined as: “Anything you regularly do for someone that they can do for themselves.” It is unhealthy and detrimental to relationships of equality. Instead, build authentic relationships that seek to minimize imbalances of power through mutual learning, understanding, and trust.
9. Be compassionate and kind, but do not be led by needs. Be led by the Holy Spirit.
It is not your responsibility (or the global worker’s responsibility) to meet all the needs of every single person.
Jesus did not do it, and we should not try either. You also should not expect the organization you are visiting to be able to fulfill every need of their beneficiaries. Focusing on one’s primary vision is the most difficult, but it is the most essential thing to maintain in the field when there are so many other needs surrounding you. Effective ministries have a clear focus, and they stick to it.
Your emotions will be stirred up, but try to differentiate between your heart strings and God’s actual voice—and be obedient. When in doubt, check with your team leader to see what is appropriate.
Do not try to “adopt” a kid or smuggle them in your suitcase, or hand out your email and address to “sponsor” someone. Do not make promises you cannot keep and do not put the global worker in the position to pick up your mess.
That is not why you are there. The reality is that in a few months, you will go back to your normal life and most likely forget about the promises you made or the people you met, while that global worker will still be there day in and day out with them. Make sure you discuss everything with them and abide by their counsel.
Remember that success is not defined by numbers or outcomes, but by whether or not you have been obedient to what your Father asked you to do.
10. Follow through.
Ideally, you would have a plan in place before you go regarding how your impact will help the global worker/organization long-term. Most people do not. Think about how you can make this trip actually change their life, as well as yours—not for five minutes, but for a lifetime.
While you are there, spend time discussing with the global worker how you could be helpful once you return home. The biggest impact you have may very well be after you leave, when you can be an advocate for their cause.
FUNDRAISING: Fundraising for them—Run a 5k and give them the profits; shave your head; etc.
VIDEO: Film and edit an artistic video or photo collage they can use in raising support.
SPEAKING: Speak with your church and friends about them—begin an intentional dialogue about global-worker care.
SPONSOR THE WORK: Sponsor the global worker monthly. Stay in touch with them; offer support from a distance.
SPONSOR AN INDIVIDUAL: Sponsor a child/woman/staff member monthly (only through the organization; not as an individual).
MARKETING: If they have products to sell, help them find a market for it—host jewelry parties, etc.
VOLUNTEER: Volunteer from home—website design, grant writing, financial book keeping.
LONG-TERM WORKER: Make a commitment to volunteer long-term with them overseas (this should ideally be six months or longer; a one- to two-year commitment is preferred). Prayerfully consider becoming a long-term global worker yourself!
GIFTS: Send gifts for the global worker, or needed items—especially around the holidays.
HOME-ASSIGNMENT SUPPORT: Stay updated on when they will furlough. Offer your home, your car, your babysitting skills. Ask your church to have them speak there. Global workers may be short on cash—find fun ways to bless them.
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:
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.