My family has served as missionaries in Costa Rica for the past seven years. We partner with Conexion Ministries and host an average of 12 short-term teams each year. We serve schools weekly, teach Celebrate Recovery in the women’s prison, and participate in Medical Mission Weekends. Through working with various teams, we have been able to discover how short-term mission teams can benefit both the team and the people they came to serve.
Here are our family’s top 14 pieces of advice to short-term mission team members:
1. Be flexible.
Plans will change often. The missionary you are working alongside knows that many North Americans want to know a plan and become flustered with last-minute changes. Living cross-culturally means that nothing is constant, except change. The most common phrase I tell our teams is, “There’s been a change!”
2. Be open to “God moments.”
Leave your expectations in the US and travel cross-culturally to discover what God is doing around the world. Don’t expect immediate results. Our call is to serve and to be obedient to God’s work, and that might include not seeing the end results.
3. Be prepared before you get on the plane.
A well-trained and prepared team makes the trip run more smoothly and avoids conflicts and embarrassing moments. You never want the host missionary to have to apologize for incidents after you have left.
4. Try to learn a few words in the language where you will serve.
Have fun with the locals, laugh at yourself, play charades, draw pictures. The locals will appreciate that you are trying to speak with them. Pray with people, even if in your native language.
5. Be patient.
You might find yourself rushing, just to sit and wait. People in many countries spend more time building relationships and less time on tasks than North Americans do. Much time can be spent waiting for others to arrive, for the program to begin, or sitting in traffic. Make the most of these moments and talk to the locals. Car rides are a good time to journal or take photos, if appropriate, to document your experience.
6. Work alongside your local missionary.
The host missionaries are the people who live and work with the people they serve, so allow them to plan your schedule. Serve in their ministries and find out in advance what type of lesson or craft would benefit their current work.
7. Be incarnational.
You may think there is a better or faster way to get the job done, but it may not be culturally acceptable. Respect the culture of the people you are serving and try to do things their way.
8. Be respectful with photographs.
Photos tell a great story, but, before you snap the photo, ask the host missionary where and when it is appropriate to take photos.
9. Be considerate.
Follow the dress code of the host country. Engage with others, not with your phone. Try everything and be aware of your facial expressions when you try a new food or walk into a home. Eat snacks on the bus, not in front of those you are serving, unless you have enough for everyone. Of course, ask your host missionary first.
10. Avoid temptation.
Leave your expensive jewelry at home and be careful to not tempt others. Find out where to store your personal belongings.
11. Talk to the host missionary before giving something to a local.
This includes everything from a gift such as a bracelet to money. It is easy to have your heart strings pulled for the people you will serve. Missionaries do not want the people they work with to expect to receive a gift every time a team arrives.
12. Do not make promises to the people you serve.
When a team member promises to write or send something and doesn’t, the local people blame the missionaries. Relationships are damaged and trust is broken.
13. Find out what the host missionary needs.
Host missionaries do not expect gifts, but a favorite chocolate candy bar might be exactly what they have been craving! Ask if gift bags are needed for the people you will be serving.
14. Relationships are important!
Anyone can paint a wall or play with kids. The heart of missions is relationships! As missionaries who work day in and day out with the local people, it brings us joy to see team members using their hearts to build new friendships. As North Americans, we often find it much easier to build a wall than a relationship, but remember that both are important.
Image attribution: Mike Watson / Thinkstock