5 Things I Want Every Short Term Missionary to Know
In my 2.5 years here, I have helped host 10 mission trips. A short term missionary (STM) trip is when a small group of people, generally from a church, are sent to support a ministry for a short period of time- typically 1 - 2 weeks. At our location, STM’s serve through hosting medical clinics, educational programs and vacation Bible schools in and around Cobán, Guatemala. The children and youth of Guatemala are blessed through the wonderful and high quality programs that are put on by our brothers and sisters in Christ. Through it all, I have been able to see the breathtakingly wonderful and occasionally the not-so-wonderful side of short term missions. Furthermore, as a long term missionary and host, I am always thinking about the existential questions of short term mission trips: do they help or harm? Does it promote "savior complexes?" Who gets more out of it? We work really hard to design our mission trips with these problems in mind - we make sure the team is truly using their specialized skills to serve our community (not taking work from locals) and that they are doing work that enhances the work that the on-the-ground missionaries are doing. Most importantly, all of our mission teams sent from Acts Ministries International recognizes the possible pitfalls and spend months of training! There is a lot I could say about STMs and its long complicated subjects, but I would like to start with the 5 not-so-obvious things I want each short term missionary to know.
The missionaries and staff on the ground are serving you. Here's a secret: most missionaries consider STM's a ministry where we are serving the STM. We spend months/weeks preparing for your arrival. We pray, we prepare our hearts with the best attitudes to serve you, we organize your activities, we solve the problems that arise on your trip, and we clean up for you after you leave. Many ministry centers have entire teams dedicated to 100% supporting STMs. No matter how prepared or experienced the team is, there are a number of unglamorous logistics that we coordinate behind the scenes. When it works well, it is a two-way relationship where we are blessings to each other. Try to give more than you take and be thankful to the numerous people that make your trip possible! It means a lot!
The work started long before you and will continue long after you. Even as a long term missionary here, I know that in my ministry, the work started before me and will continue after me. I strive to honor the wise plans that were laid in the past and I am always thinking about the future sustainability of our church, school, educational programs, scholarship programs and economic support ministries. Thus, for our economic support/care/scholarship ministry, we put a lot of thought and effort to make sure support is distributed in a fair and orderly way, and gets distributed to those in the most need. Though you may have a desire to serve a child or family financially, on your own, remember that we are here to make sure that gets done in a healthy and sustainable way. Thus, if you feel moved to help a family or an individual, remember to always check first with the missionary and make sure things get done through the right channels.
Keep the Complaints Constructive Many years ago, I was in Angola for my job and I remember making an offhand comment, "I can't stand using these Android phones, I love my iPhone." Although my comment was directed at my fellow expat coworker, I saw out of the corner of my eye, one of the local employees had overheard and was looking down at his flip phone with a disheartened look. I immediately felt bad, and I am more careful how I complain. I know it may seem unfair, because everyone is certainly entitled to their opinions and thoughts. However, just be aware that when people have different living standards, your perfectly acceptable opinion may make someone feel inferior. I've sat through numerous conversations with people complaining about their technology, travels, fancy jobs, expensive schools or restaurants without being aware that there may be locals or missionaries at the table where these are unattainable dreams. Please be honest and share about your lives (don't be embarrassed that you enjoy traveling, have a great job or a hobby), but don't let it turn to complaining. Keep complaints constructive.
Poverty can look different than you expect. Please try to move past the stage of pitying the poor and seek to holistically serve the communities. Many people see our church families and notice the obvious poverty and living conditions. It is heartbreaking and it is easy to be discouraged by it, because it is difficult to see how your week-trip here will make a difference. However, when you've been here long enough, you realize the spiritual poverty is just as rampant as the economic poverty. Hopelessness, emotional poverty, abuse, addiction, broken families etc., are also problems that we exist to support. Our ministries support both economic and spiritual poverty, but one of the most valuable activities that STM's do is spiritual support. We work with a lot of children that do not receive a lot of daily love in their lives, and giving your love and attention is incredibly valuable. I see the most tangible fruit when a team candidly shares their personal stories of God's work in their lives, give unconditional love and attention to children, or intercede for people directly. Hands down, I think the most impactful part of our STM’s are when the team shares their testimonies on Sunday service. You can have a big impact as a ST missionary. However, if you focus too much on one type of poverty, you’ll miss the bigger area where you can make a difference in someone’s life.
God wants to teach you something. Learning is just as important as serving. At the presentation that Jon gives to every team at the beginning of the STM trip, he makes a point to remind the team members that they need to be both like Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). As a team, they are here to serve, like Martha, but they need to be careful not to make that their sole focus and remember to be like Mary, and listen to what Jesus is trying to teach them while they serve. My absolute favorite part of STM teams is to see what God has taught each person on the mission team. I am so encouraged by seeing God work in each STM missionary's lives. Some leave encouraged to pursue their calling for missions, others have a new outlook or perspective on the world, and many find a solution to a situation back home. Most times, God speaks in unexpected ways into STM missionaries' lives and I feel honored to be part of that. This encourages me to continue to support short term missions. It can be difficult to make long term impact in one week, but most people find that the long term impact happens in their own lives when they apply their learnings back home.
Here's a look at all our amazing STM's of 2021!
College Ministry at Church of Southland STM June 2021 - Science Camp and Vacation Bible School
Remnant and Kairos STM July 2021 - Vacation Bible School
Tapestry STM August 2021 - Science Camp
Renewal STM September 2021 - Vacation Bible School and Classroom Support
Church of Southland STM October 2021 - English Camp and Math Camps
IHGO Medical Mission Team November 2021