If you’ve been connected to short-term ministry as long as I have, you’ve seen a lot. US built structures sitting empty, the same kids accepting Jesus year after year, tools left in the exact place where we left them the year before, and a seeming inattentiveness to the things in ministry that us outsiders value, and often times, are key to providing.
All of these and more are the types of things that drive well intentioned, but often ill-prepared US Short-Term Mission Leaders nuts.
It doesn’t have to be that way. With a healthy investment of time, talent, and of course resources, short-term mission can be the valuable asset to the ministry of the Kingdom we all want it to be. But only if we are willing to see our ministry as part of the larger long-term ministry of God where we are trying to serve.
Jesus said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays a foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Luke 14: 28 - 30
If we are really serious about short-term ministry having an impact that lasts long after we’ve returned home, shouldn’t we too, as Jesus implored, look towards the end goal? For too long, US short-term ministry has been guilty of short-term thinking because we have not wanted to truly consider the real costs of our short-term mission.
Let me give you four suggestions on how we can reframe our thinking, and in doing so, give short-term ministry a better chance of long-term success and impact.
1. Understand that there is no such thing as short-term ministry, or mission. There are many people who travel to “ends of the earth” places to participate for a short amount of time, but the mission and ministry where you work a week, is investing long term in the Kingdom.
As we continue to play up the value of short-term mission and ministry in the United States, we are facing the risk of an entire generation of Christians growing to maturity with the idea that the mission of the Gospel can be accomplished with a short-term investment of time.
Projects take years to move from ideas to completion. Translating a bible into an indigenous language can be a lifetime endeavor. Church planting and discipleship are not tasks that can be accomplished in a one-week ministry trip to another country.
Effective ministry that understands the local customs and builds lasting relationships with people takes a long-term investment of your time, not just a one-week, or even a one-month commitment.
2. Do not go it alone. Nothing can impede moving towards a long-term perspective more than trying to go it alone. This approach, while initially providing some short-term successes, can quickly lead to burn out, frustration, and relational challenges as the goer guest struggles to maintain contact and communication from abroad.
A better approach is to connect with a mission organization or missionary that is already on field where you want to serve and is connected with churches and locals in a way that facilitates long-term ministry.
Then, after some time serving together in the same location, you will be better able to assess whether that particular area, or ministry and your group are a good match.
Find yourself a ministry partner and stick with them. Walk with them as Paul walked with Barnabas, as long time mutual encouragers in the work of the Lord.
Recently I had breakfast with a doctor in Oaxaca, Mexico who frequently works with short-term teams from the US. After a while at the table, I asked him to tell me where Americans have erred while working in Mexico. As he started, he caught himself and then looked me in the eye, asking a question.
“Are you sure you want to hear this stuff?”
The people with whom we serve in other countries should feel that they have the freedom to be critical if we screw up, and the security to know that the airing of those shortcomings will not dry up mission support or end the ministry partnership.
That only comes from an intentional effort to work alongside others when you decide to participate in short-term ministry. You will also find that not only can this approach give you valuable insight into the people you are serving, it can also help shield you from being deceived by local ministries that are not always interested in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Let me explain.
I have served in Mexico for over 20 years. In that time one of the Spanish phrases I have learned is “Presta Cristianos,” or “Rented Christians.” Here’s how it works.
One pastor, knowing an American group will be at his church serving for week, “rents” a group of believers from another church so his church will look like it is a growing and vital ministry. Then when that other pastor has a group, he “rents” believers back from the first church.
The result is this. Both churches look like they are growing and vital, for a week. The American church gets a great experience, some feel good time, and a chance to serve the body of Christ. The Mexican church gets some needed financial help, perhaps part of their church built, and a lot of encouragement.
And no one is the wiser and both groups, at least on the surface, get what they want. The chances of this happening are greatly reduced when your ministry partner is looking out for the interests of both the goer guests and the host receivers.
3. Involve your entire church. Most short-term ministry teams are seen as a ministry of the local church here in the US. In reality, these teams are usually a ministry of a church department like the missions or youth department.
This type of compartmentalization can lead a to lack of long-term funding, an inability to truly commit to on-field ministries, and the type of short-term ministry that never makes the leap to a long-term ministry perspective.
I find it interesting that as churches interview people for a position as a Senior or Youth Pastor, programs such as Sunday School and Youth Bible Studies are never seen as something the new hire can choose to end, or even radically change.
Yet that is exactly where short-term ministry finds itself whenever there is pastoral change in the local church. It is one of the biggest frustrations and worries host receivers face. Will the ministry partnership survive a change in church leadership; because that ministry was never really adopted by the entire church! Instead, it was adopted by a department and a few dedicated individuals in the church family.
If we want our church to have a long-term ministry perspective regarding overseas ministry, that ministry must be connected to the entire church body, and not just the youth department or the mission commission.
4. Finally, be prepared to invest! Now I am not just talking about money, I am talking about time, leadership, and people.
Short-term ministry with a long-term view is going to take an investment. From a time perspective, the field is saying we need smaller teams for longer time periods. We also need US churches to make a commitment up front to partner with us for more than just a one-time visit. We need churches to give all of us involved sufficient time to begin forming the types of relationships necessary for effective ministry together.
Perhaps instead of sending a ministry team the first couple of years, a better strategy would be to date. That’s right, think of your time as a date.
One thing I do with most first time groups in Oaxaca is ask the leader to come with just a few leaders the first time. When they arrive, I give them a chance to see a variety of the ministries we have. We can then talk, pray, and dream about how our ministries might work together and where they see their church fitting best in this new relationship.
Then and only then, can we really begin to think about specific ministries.
What are the skill sets their people have, what limitations does their group have that might impact ministry, and how do they see their church, not just their team, being involved.
And yes, money should be on the table. Even a relatively inexpensive short-term ministry these days can cost upwards of $1500.00 per person once you factor in transportation, training, and post field debriefing. Extend that out for a group of ten people over 5 years and we are talking some serious cash.
Short-term ministry with a long-term perspective means a real investment from our churches, our people, and our pocketbooks.
So often we neglect to really consider the real costs of short-term ministry. Are we busy building “ends of the earth” short-term foundations that will be left to wither and die as Jesus warned? Or, are we working towards ministry models that seek to have a long-term ministry impact.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.