Value of short-term missions, part 2 — A local’s perspective

June 11, 2021
Angela Goertzen
13 min
Poverty & injustice
Value of short-term missions, part 2 — A local’s perspective

Hungry For Life seeks to inspire spiritual vibrancy and facilitate opportunities to know Jesus through worldwide compassion. We envision a world transformed by a movement of compassion and justice, evidenced by the eradication of needless suffering.

It’s a big vision.

Over the past 18 years, facilitating direct engagement of partnerships between local Canadian groups and ministries in developing countries has been the avenue of how we at Hungry For Life work to accomplish that vision. This gap year allowed space to evaluate the effectiveness of our engagement and short-term teams model. Do lives change? Are we seeing human flourishing and spiritual vibrancy truly happen for both the local groups in North America and the international groups they are partnered with?

A few weeks ago, I put some thoughts down around the value of Short-Term Missions. The goal was to show that involvement in Short-Term Missions does have a lasting impact and, when done correctly, is a benefit to all. The perspective of the article was based on the results of a survey of members who have participated on previous HFL teams. Now it’s time to toss the coin and look at the effectiveness of Short-Term Teams from the perspective of the receiving groups.

In the weeks between Part 1 being released and writing this now, I poured over many blog articles, scholarly articles, and power read a couple books to try and gain some more insights about the effects of Short-Term Missions. Specifically, I was searching for a local perspective, one that was written by a long-term, boots-on-the-ground worker of an established ministry who has hosted international short-term teams. Unfortunately, the quest turned up quite dry. The research was informative and presented a lot of contexts to consider, but I failed to find an applicable article completely authored by a “local” worker. Knowing this might be the case, simultaneously, I set out to conduct some research with Hungry For Life’s own field partners. Field partners are the people and ministries HFL has partnered with who are living and working internationally to help alleviate human suffering through development in their communities. With the help of Hungry For Life’s amazing project managers, we sent out a survey to all our active field partners, asking for their honest feedback around their own experience with teams from Canada. Again, the response both surprised and impressed me.

The overwhelming theme through all the responses pointed to the value of relationship. Ten responses to the survey came back; the partners, nationals and expat workers alike, all placed a huge emphasis on the impact that relationships with the members of short-term members has made on their ministry.

Here are some responses to the questions:

What is the relational impact on the community of having teams travel back and forth?

“Returning teams have built relationships that get stronger each time and the community feels loved and remembered knowing that another group of people have left their home and country to be with them.” - Haiti Bible Mission, Jeremie, Haiti

“The teams have marked the hearts of the people of our community. It encourages our faith and ability to trust in God’s faithfulness.” - Pastor Victor, San Raymundo, Guatemala

“It brings a good connection between the team and community because, as the team continues to return, they continue to spread the message of love, and through the one-on-one connection the community learns new things, and the community is encouraged.” - Everlyn, Kakamega, Kenya

“Teams show an example of what it means to be a Christ follower.” - El Refugio, Ensenada, Mexico

How has being involved with Short-Term Teams impacted your ministry?

All partners answered that teams have provided much needed fellowship and encouragement to themselves as long-term workers and also to those whom they serve. Other common themes included:

  • Lasting ministry support through old and new connections
  • The blessing of working together for the Kingdom of God
  • Bringing valuable skills, knowledge and education to the communities
  • The ability to accomplish multi-phased development projects that help sustain the work and effectiveness of the ministry

“The teams from Canada have made the women appreciate life more. Their lives are improving on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. Some women have come to Christ through the work of the teams, and they are consistently encouraged in their faith when the ladies come back to do home visits and speak encouragements.” - Everlyn, Kakamega, Nairobi

“It is a blessing for us to be encouraged in our ministry to keep going and also see the spiritual growth take place in the team.” - Pastor Victor, San Raymundo, Guatemala

“Because ministry is a two-way street, relationships are built and both groups benefit.” - Pastor Marc, Grand Goave, Haiti

“Teams are important because it shows the local people where the boost of funds for projects comes from. It attaches a relationship to that money and makes the project more important, and adds a sense of accountability for the work that is being done.” - Liya, Nikopol, Ukraine

“Working together to see change impacts both groups positively.” - Dove, Cambodia

What are the downfalls of hosting teams?

Of course this question had to be asked. I was looking for real honest answers and a whole-picture look at the effect of short-term groups on the local communities. Here is a summary of the collaborative response:

It can be a lot of work organizing for teams. It takes a lot of coordination. Sometimes groups come with the wrong mindset and offend the local culture they are trying to help. Challenges can also arise when bridging the gap of understanding between the cultures, and sometimes the language barrier makes communication difficult. Short-term team members build quick relationships and some promise to come back, but don’t. This makes the community feel sad and forgotten once the team leaves. Sometimes the community would like longer home visits and more guidance on projects they are working on together.

Do Team activities take away local jobs?

All partners answered no. Their experience is quite the opposite, actually. Teams bring funds into the community through the purchase of food and accommodations, hiring of translators and drivers. Each field partner reported an increase of local job opportunities, as staff are needed to help support the work and living of the team. As well, several partners mentioned that they intentionally plan projects that avoid eliminating jobs. Tasks are given to team members where there isn’t local skill to accomplish it (like computer training), or a team member is paired with a local worker who is paid to do a job together.

Do the positives of interacting with Short-Term Teams outweigh the consequences?

And to that, all the partners answered with a resounding “Yes!” They summarized that the benefit of interacting with teams is necessary for their success. Teams offer encouragement. In the words of one partner,

“The routine of ministry work can get mundane and discouraging, tiring, even disappointing. When the team comes, it is like a breath of fresh air and we get renewed” - Oksanna, Nikopol Ukraine

In addition, our international partners identified that the communities teams come to support feel special that someone came to visit them. Teams offer increased financial support for the ministry and a potential to form new partnerships. They create opportunities for a cultural exchange and an eye-opening of a new way of doing things for both groups. Krischelle from Lemuel Ministries in Anse-Rouge, Haiti put it this way, “We may encounter challenging situations, and there may be an isolated negative experience. But these are to be expected and overcome, and they do not negate the many benefits that teams bring to the ministry such as support, encouragement, valuable skills and knowledge and a partnership for important community development projects. “

What have been some lasting changes in the community because of Short-Term Teams?

Mark from Haiti Bible Mission reported that Haitian people have started to take more pride in their community because they enjoy the improvements, and leaders have their own growing businesses now because they were able to have some seed money to start. Also, local leaders have learned money management and are now teaching that to others, improving their own lives.

Pastor Victor and Merrari, both from Guatemala, have a whole generation of children who are now able to go to school and break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty in their families.

Sergie from Ukraine has reported that, because the team comes year after year, the community has seen the positive impact of serving, and they have also decided to help and serve their own people. It has showed the community that they can do it too. People are learning how to minister to others; it shows that helping is important and possible.

It has been over a year since many of our partners have hosted groups from North America. I asked them:

What has changed in the last year because of no Short-Term Team interactions?

Here is how they answered:

  • All greatly missed the encouragement
  • About half the partners experienced a decrease in funding
  • Forward momentum of project development has stalled
  • Greatly missed the relationship and blessing of ministering together

“The relationship (between Canadian partner and international partner) is best when they send teams because both groups can better understand the needs of a project and then how to address it together. It also builds a stronger relationship. Without the relationship connection, they are left wondering the status of their relationship: Do they still matter? Is the level of love and care the same?” - Dove, Cambodia

This feedback leads me to the conclusion that, YES, participating in and receiving Short-Term Mission Teams has been a benefit and continues to be an effective way to facility life-change opportunities for both groups. The value of this direct engagement is heightened especially through established long-term partnerships of mutual reciprocity.

We have heard testimonies that lives are changing in a positive and lasting way for both groups. It is no surprise that benefits are most strongly felt through the establishment of relationships between the two groups, interacting together in a healthy way.

Consider this: almost all HFL field partners live in a culture that places a high value on relationship, specifically relationship over task. They live with the notion that, “I belong, therefore I am”, and that a person’s identity is tied to the group. The group protects and provides for the individual. Efficiency and time do not take priority over the person. Knowing this cultural context, and comparing it with the testimony listed above, it is not a mystery why good relationships surfaced as an underlying value for all the respondents when they have consistent partnerships with Canadians. This is the very point where we, as North Americans, need to be careful. We need to be careful not to bring our cultural context of task oriented, time efficiency and self-reliance into the definition of a successful short-term mission experience.

The stint for ignorance in mission trips is over. We know too much about how well-intentioned help with poor execution can cause great harm to the very people we want to help. If we truly want to see spiritual vibrancy and human flourishing through direct engagement, we must change our mindset to the that of a learner; we must be strategic with purpose and focus on what proper poverty alleviation looks like with the engagement of short-term groups and long-term partnerships.