Plan Effective Short-Term Missions

Every summer, with bags packed and immunization shots received, thousands of hopeful short-term “missionaries” from the United Sates venture to distant lands with a vision to change the world. But Mike Gable, the mission office director of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati, has seen far too many short-term mission trips do more harm than good. “Don’t waste your time raising money for trips that are only going to increase superior imperialistic attitudes,” Gable cautions. Orientation, cultural sensitivity training, and lasting relationships are the keys to an effective short-term mission, Gable says. Here’s his advice:

  • Choose your location wisely. When deciding where to go, start nearby. Does your church or parish have a relationship with another congregation a few hours away that could use your help? Thinking locally can help minimize costs and create relationships between the “missionaries” and the “visited” that are easier to maintain. If you are thinking globally, go someplace where your church already has a connection. Gable tries to connect parishes with other parishes abroad to ensure meaningful long-term relationships before, during, and after the mission trip.
  • Screen participants. Use an application process to screen all congregants who want to participate. Ask questions that will reveal applicants’ cultural sensitivity. For those you feel are not prepared, create a pretraining program with a focus on intercultural relations that will prepare them for next year.
  • Train, train, train. Once you’ve selected a team of short-term missionaries, begin a weekly training program. Invite speakers who are from the region you are travelling to and ask them to share about their people. Prayerfully study the region’s religious history, economic structure, and political climate. Ask speakers how your congregation can best support, serve, and learn from their people. Gable recommends a minimum of four sessions prior to leaving.
  • Connect on the ground. When you arrive, avoid what Gable calls a “Santa Claus trip,” where you do an act of service and go home. Instead, go as “humble pilgrims with antennas up to receive and respect the people you’ve gone to serve,” Gable says. Listen to the people and talk with them. Create a two-way cultural exchange in which both parties are serving and being served. Finally, ask them about their needs and how they think you can best help.
  • Upon returning, debrief. Once home, meet often as a group to look at photos, share important memories, and think of next steps. How can you stand in political solidarity with the people you met? Are there immigration or trade laws that you can mobilize around that will enhance the communities you worked with? Write letters to your members of Congress about the needs of the people you met.
  • Bottom Line. “Short-term missions” is really a misnomer. While your stay may be short, the relationships and commitments to the community you’re visiting must be lasting. “Two years from now, is your congregation going to be more politically active on behalf of the area you are working with?” Mike Gable asks. “If not, then stay the heck home.”
Jeannie Choi is assistant editor of Sojourners.

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