Monday, October 19, 2009

Short-Term Mission and Youth Ministry

I recently returned from an annual conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Short-Term Mission Leaders. We bring together leaders connected to this movement that has become known as short-term mission to learn, dream, and improve what has become a one billion dollar industry.

We had people directing ministries, [like me] practitioners, church pastors, authors, team leaders, host receivers, and service providers. About the only folks missing were youth pastors.

That’s right. The leaders responsible for sending a great percentage of our short-term people around the globe were not represented. Not underrepresented mind you. They were not represented. There was not one youth pastor in attendance.

If you are like me, you wonder about stuff like that. You wonder why not one person who leads and inspires students today in churches across America felt four days of learning and training to be better short-term mission participants was worth their time.

So I started asking questions. I didn’t get a lot of answers at first. Most people seemed to say that youth pastors are a busy group. Or the cost [about $1000.00 once you add travel, lodging, and meals] was too much. Some said that as a group, these people we charge with providing religious leadership for our students are just bad planners and like many adverse to commitment.

Then I asked Don. He is a director for a large mid-western mission agency that sends hundreds of shirt-term participants around the globe in support of their long term missionaries. Don said his ministry was asking the same question. So they did some research using focus groups.

They brought in youth pastors from big and small churches. Urban and suburban. Rich and poor. And they asked questions. Trying to find out what they, as a ministry could do to better serve the youth pastors of America regarding short-term mission.

After two days of questions, conversations, and evaluation, Don, and his ministry got their results. The answers may surprise you. They should shock you. They should anger you.
  • Youth Pastors do not believe they need any specialized training to do short-term mission.
  • Youth Pastors do not want to participate in any training related to short-term mission.
  • Youth Pastors believe that those of us who invest our lives in short-term mission have nothing to offer or teach them.
I don’t know about you, but I find this troubling. I spent the better part of my conference talking to other leaders trying to disprove these results. Surely, I thought, these leaders had indeed come across youth pastors who were seeking out training and leadership in this important area of their ministry.

Nope. I found no one who regularly came across youth pastors that saw a need for stuff like cultural training, developing cross cultural ministry partnerships, or real language learning in short-term mission.

This means that the people arguably responsible for sending more Americans abroad than any other group, believe they are adequately trained and in no need of additional insight from some of the top short-term ministry minds in the country.

Is it any wonder people are questioning the effectiveness and indeed, the very idea of short-term missions?

What are your thoughts?


Nori Ochi said...

that's interesting, and i think it would be discouraging if there were no other factors involved. without discounting the results from don's focus groups, i would say there are things he's neglected.
1) the constant battles that youth pastors have to fight with church boards. youth specialties has a conference specifically for youth pastors, and with the spiritual need so apparent in everyday youth ministry work, and with YS being regionally focused (thus cheaper), going to YS is probably the one conference youth pastors can afford to go to/ be willing to fight the board for.
2) as shortsighted as it is, a mission trip is often seen as "just" one week out of the year. it's easy for the youth pastor to partner with organizations like adventures in life and use that mission trip as a "break" or "vacation" from the rigors of the other weeks. not their fault, but just a sign of the lack of support youth pastors get.
3) there's probably confusion regarding short-term missions leaders and ministries. i think many youth pastors are trying to discern their calling, and the usual paradigms they choose from are being pastors or being long term missionaries. the short term missions organizer is not on the radar map for them, or even for the churches/ seminaries that they receive their training.
4) youth pastors can also be arrogant and cocky, but sometimes that is reflecting the lack of support/ fatigue/ lack of clarity in their own calling. so they'll respond like how they did in don's study, when they're really saying they need mentoring, guidance, or just a vacation.

Dave Miller said...

Nori, I am pretty sure that there is lot of overload for the typical youth pastor.

Couple that with the very real factors you cite, lack of budget, time, and a need to service the larger youth group, as opposed to a small mission team, and we have a recipe for cross cultural disaster.

I know that for me when I was pastoring, if I was to have gone to my church and asked for a training budget for our short term mission stuff, I would have been laughed out of the building. And we were a church with money.

However, within the arrogance you mention, may be a little bit of a pride problem.

Especially since Don's ministry approached this in their invitation and in their questioning from the perspective that they, as a missions organizer, must be doing something wrong.

I do not think I would be nearly as troubled by an answer that says, yes I recognize the need for quality training, but I cannot see a way to get it done. Can you help me?

That is a much better response than saying you have nothing to offer me.

Isn't it?

Brian Douglas said...


I think the simple answer is money. The churches now are struggling to pay the staff and electric bill, and any discretionary money is allocated to more tangible local ministries or maybe the denomination's long term mission program.

The youth pastors I'm sure don't want to go out of pocket $1,000 either, for training even if the training is excellent.

btc said...

Perhaps part of the issue is that, for a combination of reasons, youth pastors feel much more loyalty to bringing spiritual growth to their own flock and view short-term missions as tools to reach their own participants more than as tools to reach out to locals. It seems possible that some youth pastors might reckon the on-site impact of short-term missions to be minimal enough to justify not being terribly concerned about the results for those to whom they are ostensibly reaching out. It is, after all, much easier for a home-congregation to measure the effectiveness of their support when they can see the changed lives of their own children; only rarely will they get to experience the changed lives of those to whom they sent their children.

Dave Miller said...

Brian D... yes you are correct in that money is part of the problem.

However, it can't be the whole problem. Otherwise when the economy is/was good, we would expect to see them looking for these types of opportunities.

It is interesting to think about what it means when a majority of a church budget goes to maintenance of the mother ship and the first $$$ cuts are to the outreach areas.

Dave Miller said...

Brian C... I do think the fact that many never tangibly see the impact of their dollars.

I would point out that the training these guys could be involved in would go a long ways towards the spiritual growth of their "own" flock.

All us missions folk know that when little Susie or Johnnie is well trained before their trip and receives follow-up afterwards, the life lessons and the God lessons learned on the field become much more rooted in who that person is.

I think we can look at your old church and the groups from the Burns area, during Asher's time.

The number of people who participated from that era who have given significant time, and money, towards missionary and Gospel work, far outweighs that of any subsequent leader.

James' Muse said...

I did like that when Brian brought our youth group down to serve with you, he had us train ahead of time for months. We even practiced construction and built a large shed for our church. We practiced games for VBS, practiced Spanish. We had to go to all the meetings in order to serve. I like that, because I feel like it really did help prepare all of us and let us know this wasn't going to be a vacation, but a ministry opportunity.

I felt like this was a good example of a youth pastor not only being trained, but training those taken on a trip a lot more. It wasn't about making us feel good, but about making an impact. Brian knew that us feeling good would be a natural side effect of doing good.

I was sad when he left, because it is true; most youth pastors I come across don't think they need training to do short term missions.

jawnwily said...


I would echo the sentiments of the earlier comments and agree that financial considerations do play a significant, if unfortunate role.

Additionally, I think that the youth pastors/leaders themselves need to buy into the notion that they need training. Youth pastors are unique subset of individuals who are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. The additional time required for training might be too much.

Also, to offer a psychological perspective, studies show suggest that youth pastors, and pastors in the general, possess more narcissistic tendencies than the average person. I'm not saying that they have personality disorders by any means, but merely that youth pastors may deem themselves as "above" training. They are the leaders of the youth, seen by the church members as theologically trained scholars, and seen by parents of youth as hard working miracle workers. I know when I was youth pastoring, I had this "Jesus complex" and had an unhealthy and inflated view of myself. Making youth pastors aware of this tendency and educating them of the necessity of training might be beneficial.

On a personal note, our church concentrated on fundraising during the months leading up to the Mexico trip, and attended training meetings sponsored by Doug. Other than that, I don't think we had sufficient training (probably due to my narcissistic, self-inflated view of myself). :)


Dave Miller said...

Interesting self reflection John. How have your observations changed as a result of more study and marriage?

Unknown said...

I don't think finances has anything to do with it and I don't think its because of "how difficult" it is to be a youth pastor today.

Bottom line, we spend money on and make time for what we deem most valuable. And that is true across the board.

The problem is systemic and cultural and permeates every facet of the church and the STM organizations. It's very hard to be a follower of Jesus and be rich and anyone that has a home or apartment with water and electricity is rich.