7 Short Term Missions Mistakes

7 Short Term Missions Mistakes

So you want to be involved in short term missions (STM)… Yours is a noble aspiration.

Today’s post is a long one so be sure you’ve got

an extra-large cup of coffee to wash it down… Enjoy!

You’re planning to invest you time, your talent, your money and your energy. Perhaps you’ll help with a construction project or help grow a local church or national work. You could’ve dedicated that two week vacation, to shopping, lounging at a resort or traversing the Caribbean on a white, floating palace… no one would’ve faulted you.

Instead however, you’ll check-in one not-too-large suitcase. Inside of which are 3 sets of work clothes (interchangeable so it looks like 7-days worth), 1 outfit for the three services you’ll take part in (Lord, don’t let my antiperspirant fail) and Dollar-Store toys & treats with which to bless Sunday School kids that you don’t know yet.

There will be no shortage of people wanting to encourage you and follow your progress via social media so you have a carry-on sized knapsack full of all that you’ll need to photograph, film & edit your way to a social media masterpiece. You’ve thought to pick up extra tracts in the local language, your Bible is packed and your testimony ready.

Now… pack this list as well or you could end up making one of these 7 common STM mistakes and come home from your trip having missed out!

Short Term Missions, Mission Trip, Mistakes, Poor Planning, pitfalls to avoid


#1: Participant Clustering

You will meet local believers or local residents when you reach your STM destination, you may even work alongside them some, exchanging the odd smile or short phrase, but not much more. You’ll shake hands, smile, perhaps sing, and at some point take selfies with these precious people. At the end of the day, you’ll hustle onto your air-conditioned bus with the rest of the team, while the locals ride away on scooters or go by foot, and you’ll talk incessantly with the team-mate two seats away, with whom you had a great conversation the day before.

You’ll do this… because it’s easier to talk to team-members than it is to really interact with locals. Your teammates speak the same language and share the same culture. Your mind can go into neutral with them and you’ll still have a great time. Sustaining contact with locals requires mental assertion:

  • You must listen intently to navigate the accent.
  • You must smile through sentences while trying to figure out the previous ones.
  • It might be rude to ask them to repeat a second time so… you fake it, hoping they don’t ask about what they just got done explaining.

Response: Don’t cluster. Muster.

Muster the courage to be out of your comfort zone just a little while longer. Take your sandwich & bottled water and sit with the locals rather than team members… THEN, get on the bus with fellow participants. Too often, at meal times, team members don’t mix with locals and you miss a chance to connect.

“An attitude of openness, not language, is the most important factor in communication.”


#2: Two Solitudes

You definitely have something to offer believers, churches & residents at your STM destination, if you didn’t you wouldn’t be going; both you & the locals know this and everyone expects to learn something from your team. Likewise STM participants often return home having learned valuable lessons from young people, families or Christian workers while away. This exchange of lesson-learning is extremely positive… so why is it listed as a mistake?

Because all too often, there is no time built into the schedule, or no natural opportunity, for each group to express to the other just what or how much they’ve learned. Each group can leave feeling as though the learning has been one-sided.

Host-country participants want to learn from the STM participants, but they also hope that STMers will learn something from them. Conversely, while team members have learned something from their hosts, they want to think that they’ll teach something as well.

Having said that, I do have a hunch that sometimes, although intuitively we know / hope that we have something to teach or to contribute, as a team, we often nourish doubts that we as individuals could teach something of value… because we also bring to STM experiences our self-awareness and awareness of our own perceived shortcomings.

Response: Don’t be time-ensnared. Share.

Be sure that, as time in your STM experience draws to a close, you take time to express to people what you have learned from them and what they’ve taught you. If time is not allotted to do this as a group, then be intentional about building it into those final conversations with host participants. Both of you will come away feeling better!

#3: One-week Friendships

Expectations are tricky things.

You have high expectations for your STM trip because you will be with like-minded… missions-minded individuals for an intense time of service together. You expect to find one or more kindred spirits who will, in some ways, “get you” more than many actually do; and you will. Some of them will be fellow team members and some of them may be part of the host team.

By virtue of the fact that you will spend morning, noon & night together for an allotted time, you will get to know each other pretty quickly. You’ll overcome challenges together, solve problems, help finish tasks, many of which will have both physical and spiritual significance. It will be time well spent, then it’ll be time to leave and go back to “real life”.

Know this: Some people come into our life to teach us something in the long-term while others come to teach us something in the short-term. Neither one is intrinsically more valuable because they each serve a specific, God-ordained purpose. While you will always share a common past with each individual on the team (the sent team or the host team) they won’t all move into the future with you.

That being said. There can be something very powerful about maintaining some level of contact with as many people as possible. People on both side of the STM experience often say that the relationships formed are one of the most meaningful aspects of these trips, yet frequently these great relationships are left floundering at sea and eventually drift. This is one of the positive contributions that social media brings to the table. It facilitates the maintenance of relationships. Take advantage of it when the trip is over.

Remember, these people have seen you at your serving-best. It gives them a chance to be a support and an encourager when you need to reconnect with that experience (see #10).  Not everyone will be your best friend for life. But someone might become a good long term friend or inspiration; used of God to speak into your life for years to come.

Response: Don’t just retreat… inbox or tweet!

I repeat… expectations are funny things. Set too high and they could set you up for disappointment, but set too low (ie. not expecting anyone from the team to want to remain in touch ‘cuz “It’s just the nature of short-term.”) is equally unproductive. God placed these people in your life for a special reason at a specific time… because he wants you to be strength, encouragement and a blessing to each other maybe now… maybe in the future.

#4: This is it… This is the plan!

You have come to a specific country, have been working with a specific people and have seen great results during your stay. All of a sudden you get the idea that perhaps this is what you’re supposed to do with the rest of your life… and you begin to move heaven and earth to make it happen and you make public declarations to that effect. “You’re coming back!”

I don’t want to sound skeptical, but I’ve seen it… more than once.

In all honestly, it could very well be the place and it could very well be the plan… but that doesn’t mean that it’s the time. Putting yourself out there prematurely and very publicly can be a recipe for disaster at worst and embarrassment at best.

Remember… the heart is deceitful above all things so even though it feels like the will of God at the time, it may not be. Time will prove whether those feelings were just feelings or the beginning of something more.

Response: Don’t over-commit… but continue to explore it!

If the Holy Ghosts prompts you… or even if He confirms to you that this is the path, I’d advise you to…

  1. Take things slowly.
  2. Speak with a limited number of people who know you, who are spiritually discerning & who can keep confidence.
    HINT: Your Pastor needs to be one of these people.
  3. Pray, research and plan. The more time you spend here and the more thorough your preparation, the better the next experience will be (God called us to France in 2012 and we planned intentionally from October 2012 – December 2014.  If it’s God’s will… don’t rush it. It’ll happen).

#5: STM = Super Trooper Missionary

Let me say it again… expectations are tricky things.

Many of us have aspirations… an “ideal-me” that we want to become. We are aware of our shortcomings and weaknesses… all too aware of them and somewhere we get this crazy idea that going on a mission trip will transform us into that ideal version of ourselves:

– we’ll sing better
– we’ll preach better
– we’ll be a better witness… evangelist
– we’ll become a better team player… etc.

The problem is. That’s not reality.

STM experiences will expose you to different circumstances with different people but your “core personality” or “core make-up” is hopping on that plane with you. So, unbeknownst to you, in your carry-on, you’ve also packed all of those same fears, weaknesses and shortcomings.

  • If you’re not a great team-player at home… you may struggle with that on your trip.
  • If you’re easily tongue-tied or terribly shy at home… you may still struggle with street evangelism while away.
  • If you are prone to self-doubt at home… you may still face it while away.

…with one difference. Chances are you will be surrounded with other people who are just like you. Bringing their own “undeclared carry-on items” and trying to be that “better-them”.

ANSWER: Don’t retreat. Beat feet.

“Beat Feet” is an expression from my youth that meant to move forward with enthusiasm, energy & speed. (eg. “The kids beat feet it to the ice cream stand.”). The whole idea of a STM experience is to give young people a chance, in a controlled and organized setting, to try things that often have an element of newness to them. You’ll be coached and prepared to help minimize any risk of failure… but if you do miss the mark… you’re still safe.

The main thing is… check your expectations. If you think that you’ll automatically become “Super Missionary” you’re setting yourself up to fall short of your own expectations and walk away with a bad taste in your mouth.

Realize this:

  • …if you are not great at “X, Y, or Z” at home… you won’t automatically become good in those areas.
  • …if you recognize your weaknesses, fears & shortcomings before coming and want a chance to improve in those areas of your life, with supportive leadership to help hone those areas… then a STM trip provides a great training ground.

#6: I’ll be a better Christian as a result of STM

If 99% of people did not believe this to be true, they would neither go nor support people who wanted to go… pastors included. That is both the hope and the assumption… that people will grow and mature in their Christian walks as a result of time spent in STM. Surprisingly that is not always the case however.

Studies (references below) have been done measuring participants’ relationship with God, relationship with the local church and relationship with the world prior to going, immediately upon return and after one year back home. It’d be easy to get weighted down with the numbers, but let me give you my way-too-short summation:

Quite often change was most evident in the short term.
(Immediately following the return home. Within a year change was not as evident. Even financial giving to missions was not significantly impacted in the long term.)

The effects of STM trips are temporary, seemingly having little effect on participants beyond amplifying existing beliefs and being significant life markers.

These findings surprised me greatly because it is the complete opposite from my experience over the years. Also… there are likely considerations that come into play considering the TYPE of STM experience that you’re a part of.

In short… there’s an assumption that North American “short-termers” are vulnerable and that a one-week experience could easily shake up their world, causing lasting change in prayer, giving, etc. As a comparison… consider a tree sapling: It is easily pliable for the short term, but will return to its original shape in the long term unless something holds them in “the new shape” for an extended amount of time in order for long-term change to take place.

perhaps but not necessarily. If you go into your shell because no one can quite relate… you could regress.

ANSWER: Don’t revert. Subvert.

In order for long-term change to come from your short-term experience you need to have a few things in place.

  1. The more STM experiences a person has, the more change will “stick” and the greater the chance of long-term missions involvement.
  2. The more care & attention are paid to the pre-trip discipleship and the post-trip re-entry & followup, the more change will be well-anchored for the long-term.
  3. Participants from supportive families and churches have a better chance of long-term, positive change.

See also #3 & #7

#7: I’ll just stroll back into every-day life.

In western society, we’re quite good at compartmentalizing our lives. These people and experiences fit nicely into this part of my life but they’re all pretty far removed from this other part of my life… and so on. We compartmentalize around work, school, church, hobbies, etc. So the very real danger is that… once your STM trip is done… you just assume that you can leave your “life-changing experience” and walk back into everyday life back in North America with very little difficulty.

That’s a risky assumption to make.

While you’re away on your trip, people back home are carrying on with daily life… very little changes for them except that you’re not there experiencing it with them. You, on the other hand, are experiencing a TON of new things… things that are very significant, both spiritually and socially, and your friends back home will, by and large, not be able to relate, because they don’t have the shared experience to fall back on as a reference. The best they can do is refer to anything that you communicated via social media or in person.

So what happens?

– You come home having had your world shaken up.
– You try to talk about your experience.
– You have to explain lots & give context to justify new feelings or decisions
– It’s good for 10-15min… but their attention span won’t go the distance.
– You retreat… it gets tougher & tougher to try.
– Dreams get confined, forgotten or at best… put on hold.
– You return to daily grind.

ANSWER: Don’t be RE-tentional but rather IN-tentional

The fact that friends & loved ones can’t totally relate doesn’t mean anything more than that they don’t have the shared experience and are thus limited in their ability to relate.

Try to find someone who HAS taken part in a STM experience previously (even if it’s not from YOUR trip… the dynamics would bear enough similarity to make discussion relevant).

Keep in touch with others from your STM trip, they’ll surely be able to relate.

Talk to your pastor or another leader that you gravitate towards and who has an inspiring spiritual walk.

*** Caution ***

When it comes to keeping in touch with people on the hosting side of your STM experience, sometimes your sending organization will have guidelines about maintaining contact with people in the host country. Guidelines are usually there for a reason and need to be respected.

The sending organization has put a great deal of trust in you and you now represent them… it’s too easy to get into an awkward situation (like receiving direct requests for financial support or for something more than friendship – if there’s a guideline, it’s there because it’s happened in the past). Your organization may not have any guidelines and that’s fine, but respect any that are in place.

You’re equipped… now Go!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of potential pitfalls but it’s a good place to begin. If you take them to heart and keep them in mind as you go, you up the chances of you STM experience being even more positive than it already would have been.

You may never feel 100% ready to go… but 85% ready is a great way to begin. The important thing is to prepare diligently and then to GO!

Your short term missions experience, and your future await!
God bless you as you go!

Next Post: How to Publicly Thank Partners?

You’re either in the process of gathering financial partners or you already have them and are wondering how to express your appreciation. We are in a digital age and so the first instinct is to go to Facebook or Twitter, but is that always the best way to go about it?

Click here to see the next post.

I’m currently writing an STM handbook
(Eventually available on the Amazon Kindle store)
Want to know when it publishes?
Click here, join my email list, and check the “STM Writing News” option.

If you’d like some academic reading on the subject of STM, below are three studies that I drew from, and referenced in Mistake #6:

  1. VerBeek, Kurt Alan (2006), “The Impact of Short-Term Missions: A Case Study of House Construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch”, Published in: [Missiology: An International Review, Vol XXXIV, no.4, October 2006, Special Edition, pp.477-496].
    Click here (document will download automatically)
  2. Friesen, Randall Gary (2004), “Improving the Long-term Impact of Short-term Missions”, based on the doctoral thesis [The Long-term Impact of Short-term Missions on the Beliefs, Attitudes and Behaviours of Young Adults], University of South Africa.
    Click here (document will download automatically)
  3. Taylor, William Vaughan (2012), “Short-Term Missions: Reinforcing Beliefs and Legitimating Poverty”, Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee.
    Click here (document will download automatically)



9 responses

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    • Hi witness2nations and Thanks so much for stopping by, for taking a look at this post and for taking the time to comment. I appreciate the invitation but I’m currently on the field in France. If this article can be of benefit to organizers or attendees, please feel free to share it.

  4. Pingback: STM – How to Know Where to Go? « AIM Long

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