By Shane Bennett
This morning, the Rome airport was like an obstacle course of groups young and old, all wearing matching T-shirts, polos, or hoodies. The young lady next to me on the plane somehow managed to appear after the door was closed, crushing my dreams of a free middle seat. She’s heading home from Rome and off to Thailand in a couple of weeks. It’s short-term mission season.
There are a hundred snarky, patronizing, or arrogant things to say to denigrate short-term mission trips. But if you know me, you know I’m a big fan, particularly when they’re done well. Leading two teams to Catania, Sicily this month reinforced ten quick lessons for me.
1. Think ahead.
This probably only applies to the percentage of you who share my weakness in this area. Briefly: Don’t wait until your money runs out to go exchange more.
I was getting scarily lean on food cash for my team of 33 last week, so I went to the post office to change more. After a fair wait, I was informed that I needed the other post office! Then, after a fair wait there, the dear lady told me, “No. You can’t change money today. Come back next month.” What?!?
Turns out next month (Monday, July 1) was just around the corner, but you know, I needed the money then. I took a quick dart down the road to a private exchange office, and my hopes were dashed to find their sign put away, the lights out, and the proprietor literally locking the office door! Hearing my plea and seeing my distraught face, he consoled, “We are always open for tourists.” I took a hit on the rate, but the team ate!
Since this story is a little embarrassing, let’s just keep it between us, okay?
2. Get prayed for.
I asked for more prayer for this team than perhaps any other I’ve led. I shared my apprehension at the team size and ask people to pray for success. I’m cautious about assigning causal relationships between prayers and results, but you be the judge: We drove four huge vans with nine people each for seven days, crawling through the tiny streets of Catania. When we turned in the vans this morning, we paid for one parking ticket and were charged for one scratch.
Miraculous? You make the call! I smile just thinking about it.
I was hugely blessed to have a co-leader on this team. Nate covered bases, picked up slack, and basically helped the whole effort succeed. We also enlisted four people to input receipts generated by their sub-teams every day. So as I type, just hours after bidding the team adieu, 95% of the receipts are already entered into our expense report.
Yep, the missing 5% are mine. I am so glad it did not all rest on me.
4. Communicate often and well.
This team was huge! The nearly-daily pre-breakfast leader meetings went a long way to keeping everyone on track, in sync and happy.
5. Communicate, 2.0.
This team and another group earlier this spring both used an app called GroupMe to keep their teams in touch. A message entered once in the app flies out to everyone in the pre-arranged group. GroupMe banks on everyone having a data connection, charged phones, and sufficient cell coverage. When that was in place, it was super helpful.
6. Connect with the local church.
If your short-term team is going somewhere in which there is no local church, good on you! We need more like that. If, however, there is a local church and sufficient humility on the part of your team, connecting with them can shower blessings all the way around.
We experienced this as our team collaborated with a local Sicilian church to put on a “day away” for migrant boys living in a couple of asylum seeker facilities. The church opened up their rustic retreat facility, providing a cooler, outdoorsy venue to escape the city. We provided a bunch of bright, smiling faces to hang out, kick soccer balls, eat, and chat with the two busloads of boys who made the trek.
7. Take measured risks.
Midway through the day away, we loaded everyone up and rolled our nine-vehicle convoy up Mount Etna, whose claim to fame is being the “highest, most active volcano in Europe.” Someone had donated money to pay for the buses; I could imagine how cool it would be for the boys to look down on their new city from 6,000 feet up and I knew the break from the heat would be nice for everyone. But oh, it felt risky. My fears ranged from the mundane to the outrageous: What if their shoes are insufficient to protect their feet? What if lose one of the boys? If they fall in a crater maybe?
Everyone’s risk tolerance is different and I’m not suggesting you go rogue on God. But sometimes we need to push it a bit. In this instance I’m glad we did.
8. Engage with people along the way, even Muslims!
I continue to be delighted at the openness our short termers in Sicily experience as they engage the Muslims we are serving there. Where we find common language capacity, we almost always find willingness to laugh and talk and reconnect. This might not be the case everywhere, but on the off-chance things are trending this way, let’s keep initiating.
If you’re thinking, “No Muslims where I’m going,” I’ll concede the point (but I’ll bet you a bottle of malaria pills there are Muslims in the airport along the way).
9. Prioritize debriefing.
As schedules sometimes do, ours evolved to the point that we debriefed pretty late on our last night in Sicily. (It’s possible there was some lack of planning as well. See lesson 1 above!) There are many high-quality resources to help debrief, so we have no excuse not to. It’s not a good trade to do one more ministry activity when it means bouncing your processing time off the schedule.
Since I’m a pretty simple guy, I usually just ask three questions:
- What did God do to you? (or say “in you” for more sensitive souls!)
- What did God do through you?
- How does this experience fit into the rest of your life?
10. Prep a response to “How was your trip?”
The final debrief assignment we worked on, when people were feeling pretty tired, was thinking about how to answer the question they will be asked a dozen times their first Sunday back at church, “How was your trip?”
As I see it, you’ve got about 30 seconds to respond to this. Aim to tell one thing God did; tell it in a provocative way and in the form of a brief story.
What’s a lesson you learned from a short-term trip this summer or before?