Mission trips: Do all four phases right!

Challenges, opportunities, problems, solutions

In normal years, as many as half a million North Americans go on short-term missions trips. A 10-day short-term missions trip experience is more than just the 10 days spent on a mission field. There are important things that need to happen before the trip occurs and important things that should occur after the 10 days are over. As you set up your mission trip calendar, there are a lot more things that go on it in addition to the date of departure and the date of return.

Here are the three phases of every short-term missions trip along with a listing of activities that will or should go on in each phase.

  • Ministry (evangelism, medical, construction, and other)
  • Team building
  • Surprises
  • Language encounters
  • Challenges requiring flexibility
  • Divine encounters
  • Tourism
  • Dealing with conflict [ conflict management and styles ]
  • Juggling finances
Back to earth
  • Debriefing (and even de-griefing)
  • Reverse culture shock [ more on reentry issues]
  • Reporting
  • Plugging back into home culture / environment
  • Future decisions for both go-ers and receivers
  • Re-mobilization
  • Cleaning up messes on field and at home
  • Field followup on new contacts

This chart reflects presentations by Roger Peterson at Fall conferences of the Fellowship of Short-Term Missions Leaders and the followup discussions among conference participants.

It's been said that the interactions within a group of participants on short-term mission trips often go through a progression of:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

Over the past few decades, short-term mission trips have become very visible parts of the church's attempt to carry out Christ's Great Commission. While those trips are a key component, they are not the one-and-only way the Great Commission is being fulfilled. They are just one component of today's world evangelism enterprise.

Mission trips reflect the giving nature of God. Many do construction but others are evangelistic. Some give specific skills such as computer technology, medical care, sports outreach, teaching or sewing. The trips affect the go-ers as much and probably even more than they affect the receivers.

Some time ago a Haitian pastor reminded me that a chief benefit of mission trips was the feeling it gave both receivers and go-ers of being part of the global Church.

An excellent short-term mission fosters healthy, on-going relationships between sending and receiving partners. An excellent short-term mission collaboratively plans on-field methods and activities aligned to long-term strategies of the partnership.

A good mission trip is truthful in promotion, finances, and reporting results. It will have quality program delivery and support logistics. Good short-term mission trips are led by spiritually mature servant leaders that are prepared, competent, and accountable and who seek to empower and equip others.

A good short-term mission trip has on-going training and equipping (pre-field, on-field, post-field) that is Biblical, appropriate, and timely. It will also have thorough follow through which includes comprehensive debriefing of all participants (pre-field, on-field, post-field). In short-term mission trips that are done well, participants are above all else seeking God's way of doing and being right and they have their hearts set on the Kingdom of God.

green arrow    Resource for the pre-trip phase: Before You Go by Jack Hempfling, a devotional book for short-term mission trip participants

Four mission trip stories

Experiences on every mission trip turn into stories worth telling over and over again. Here are four such experiences of which I was privileged to be a part
    -- Howard Culbertson

Not about the money

I am sometimes asked, "Rather than us spending so much money on travel and lodging and meals to go somewhere and help on a construction project, wouldn't it be better for us to just send that money to hire local workers to get the job done?"

One day during our five years as missionaries to Haiti, I posed that question to a four or five key Haitian pastors. One of them got a pained, sad look on his face. An awkward moment passed and then in a quiet, plaintive voice he said, "It"s not about the money. They help our church members know that we"re not alone. They help us know that we"re part of something global. Having a mission trip team here is an uplifting time for them regardless of what gets done in the terms of construction."

"I know Christ because you came"

I went on my first short-term mission trip as a college student. We went to a town in northern Mexico called Musquiz. Forty years after that trip I was back in Musquiz over a Christmas break, this time as the university"s coordinator of a large short-term mission group.

On New Year"s Day during that trip people from five other churches in towns nearby gathered in the yard of the Musquiz church for a combined celebration service. I stood in the back leaning up against a palm tree. A young man from the Musquiz church stood nearby. At one point he leaned over and asked me, "Aren"t you one of those they said came here a long time ago and helped build this first building?"

"Yes," I said.

"Thank you," he said, "Because of what you did, today I know Jesus."

The man wasn"t old enough to have been born when we were there 40 years prior. However, because of the launch forward given to a tiny house church, the gospel reached the heart of a young man who came along later.

No romancing!

The standard rule on short-term mission trips is "No romancing." No romances between team members. No romances between team members and those of the receiving church.

However, on one trip I helped organize and send, a college student in Oklahoma named Joel and a college student in Ohio name Sara wound up on the same short-term mission trip team in Papua New Guinea one summer. They obeyed the "no pairing off" team rule. However, at the end of the trip, they exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. A long-distance romance did develop and after graduation ceremonies at their respective universities, they were married. They then spent two years as short-term volunteers in Italy. After seminary, they went back to Italy to be involved in church planting. Joel was eventually named mission field strategy coordinator over southeastern Europe.

"What good would I be?"

One year I was in a Louisiana church recruiting people for a short-term mission trip to do church construction in Monterrey, Mexico. An elderly lady approached me and said, "I"d sure love to go. I"ve always supported missionaries and I"d love to visit Kingdom work in another country. But, what good would I be? I cannot do anything to help with the construction project."

I told her if she"s come on the trip, we"d put a chair out near the street and she could dispense lemonade to the workers (local people as well as the Americans on the team) and she could interact with the inevitable group of neighborhood children who would show up to watch the activity on the project.

She did sign up for the team. She did sit in a chair near the street. She did dispense lemonade and she did interact daily with all the children who showed up. She became their English-speaking grandma for that week! She was a key part of the impact of that group on the ministry of that local congregation.

Problems encountered on mission trips and some solutions for them

"May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." -- Romans 15:5-6

Solving problems in each of the three phases of every cross-cultural exposure experience


1. Pre-field preparation

Problem: Time pressure, distractions, busy culture, work schedules, tourist or consumer mentality, "adventure" attitude, lack of understanding

Solution: Provide pre-field Bible studies. Insist that every team member prepare their heart for ministry through completing these devotional Bible studies before leaving for the field.

2. On-field experience

Problem: "Tyranny of the urgent" for leaders, lack of time to prepare, unexpected schedule changes. Good intentions with no follow-through

Solution: Schedule 20-30 minutes before breakfast (or another set time) for team members to be alone with God. Provide on-field devotional Bible studies to help participants grow in their spiritual walk.

3. Purposeful reentry

Problem: Time and schedule demands on returning students, workers, professionals. Failure to understand or feel the need for readjusting to a person's own culture can later cause serious problems for returnees.

Solution: Frequently, people underestimate reentry stresses. Maximize your short-term mission trip investment with follow-up and debriefing. Provide reentry devotional Bible studies that include helpful reentry questions.

Based on material by Howard and Bonnie Liesch

"As leaders we can do a great job of managing team logistics while at the same time becoming so busy with those details that we fail to help our team members grow spiritually." —Howard and Bonnie Liesch

"Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you." -- 2 Corinthians 13:11

How do I raise support?

NextHow do you get started raising finances for a missions trip? There are some effective strategies you can use to create a network of faithful supporters. [ more ]

Short-term missions resources     Mission trip fundraising     Ten ways to ruin your mission trip     Re-entry: Coming home from a missions trip

10/40 window explanation and map     Seeking God's will?     African martyr's commitment    Nazarene Missions International resources