General CBF

The Truth about Short-term Missions and Churches that Encourage

By Chris Ellis

ChrisEllisLast year the Cooperative Baptist Fellowhip asked me to speak about field personnel partnerships with churches at the annual Encourager Church Thank You Breakfast during General Assembly. The church where I serve, Second Baptist Little Rock, has partnered with many ministries and field personnel through the years.

While I can say a lot about being an Encourager Church from the perspective of a church minister, I realized while preparing for my talk that it’s probably more important to ask the field personnel for their perspective. So I asked several CBF field personnel here in the United States and around the world what they would like to say to churches but for whatever reason are afraid to say. There were several common threads, and here is what I gathered:

1. Short-term mission teams are really tiring.

How many of you have extended family that comes to visit from far away? Probably all of us. How many of you love to have those same family members come visit? I know we do. Now, how many of you love to see your family members depart after they’ve kind of re-written your normal life for 12 days? We all do.

Why is this the case? Does it mean that we’re ungrateful they came? No, it just means that hosting people, breaking up your normal daily routines is very, very tiring.

Now, imagine that your family has just left and that there’s a different set of family members coming in two weeks, after all it’s summer, and who doesn’t love to travel and see family during the summer? Are you exhausted just thinking about it? That’s right, many field personnel aren’t just working with your church, they are working with multiple churches who want to come and engage with their work. So field personnel understandably get tired. It’d be strange if they didn’t. When you visit, don’t expect field personnel to drop everything they are doing and spend 24 hours with you. They have lives and important ministry apart from your trip!

2.Field personnel need ministering to themselves (these are my words, not theirs).

Many field personnel live in challenging places, far from their families and without what we would consider the very basics of life: chlorinated water, reliable electricity, high-speed internet, or even Double Ristretto Venti Half-Soy Nonfat Decaf Organic Chocolate Brownie Iced Vanilla Double-Shot Gingerbread Frappuccino Extra Hot With Foam Whipped Cream Upside Down Double Blended, One Sweet’N Low and One NutraSweet, with Ice.

God’s calling is often challenging. You might be thinking, “field personnel are called and that ‘calling’ should give them loads of extra energy and faith to persevere,” and I’m sure it does. But that extra energy and faith doesn’t make it easy. Just ask Ezekiel, who had to spend 400 days laying on his side because God asked him to.

This concept is something our church learned the hard way.

Some time ago, one of our ministry partners had to step down because she had developed PTSD after a series of events that rocked her world. We (truly I) didn’t realize the enormous impact that this series of events had on her. She had been living in difficult conditions and eventually it became too much.

If we’re going to have true partnerships with field personnel we need to be with them even when we’re not physically present. Our churches need to find ways to be the wind in their sails and not an anchor that drags them down.

Here are a few ideas:

  • When visiting, take them something from home that is not available to them where they live. Whenever I visit my friends in South Africa, I always purchase a bunch of new movies or recent seasons of their favorite television shows. And they love it! I’m not naïve enough to think that the complete series of Friends is going to solve everything, but I hope it communicates that our church cares for them.
  • If your group plans a fun activity during a short-term mission (STM) trip, like dinner out or a safari, don’t leave the field personnel sitting on the curb, wishing they could go with you. Invite them along; let them escape their context for a few hours or even days. And here’s another tip: when you invite them, don’t expect them to pay for it. Build it into your trip costs and plan to support and care for them as an important part of your trip…because it is important.
  • Set up a small fund at your church that your field personnel partners can access for an experience that rejuvenates and re-energizes them. We’ve told some of our partners recently that we’ve set aside up to $1,000 for them to use. All they need to do is write a short paragraph about how they plan to use the money in way that is restorative for them and they can have it – no strings attached. We want them to know in no uncertain terms that we care for them. We love them and don’t want them to resign their positions because their souls are undernourished. Think of it as preventive medicine.
  • Pray for them consistently: Pray for them and their ministry before, during and after the trip. As people of faith we shouldn’t underestimate the power of knowing that somebody is praying.

3. Consistent funding support should be an important aspect of partnership and a sign of full commitment.

If you say you have a partnership and it doesn’t include financially supporting field personnel, then your partnership has significant room to grow.

Did you know that $1.6 billion is spent on short-term mission trips ever year? All that money supports 1.6 million STM participants annually – and those numbers are just for people over the age of 18! The average mission tripper spends about $1,500 per person per trip. STM trips are expensive; your trip probably costs more than their entire ministry budget.

Now you may be thinking that the STM trip itself is a commitment of money that directly supports your partners’ ministry, that’s not the case. That money is overwhelmingly spent on you (plane tickets, food, fun experiences etc.) and not field personnel or within their local ministry. Financial commitment should come in additional forms.

Around tax time in 2006, Robert Priest surveyed thousands who had been on STM trips. Their research found that there wasn’t “a significant average increase in giving by participants caused by STM experiences. In short, one claim about STM, that it helps to create higher levels of financial support for the career missionary enterprise, does not appear to be true.”

In 2006, Kurt Ver Beek studied participants who helped those affected by Hurricane Mitch in the late 90’s. Many of the participants self-reported that “their trip had resulted in significant changes in their lives, including their financial giving, but their donation records did not reflect any substantial differences.” We often think we’re doing and giving more than we are. It’s our job as Encourager Churches and supporters of field personal to avoid that perception.

If we are going to justify the financial costs of STM trips, we must commit to new transformational endeavors where we make long-term financial investments in CBF field personnel and the communities we/they seek to serve.

So, decide to give financially and make sure you are actually giving. Budgeted giving is always best, but regular special offerings are helpful too. If that approach means fewer trips and partnerships, that’s okay. We must be vigilant about generosity and make sure we are in fact being generous and not just fooling ourselves.

Finally, let me say that there are many field personnel who would love to have an Encourager Church. If you feel your church would be interested in deepening your relationship with the work on the field, contact CBF and begin a process of reflecting on your commitments.

2 thoughts on “The Truth about Short-term Missions and Churches that Encourage

  1. Chris Ellis is exactly right about all his points. I would add one thing regarding budget giving to missions. All the mission partners in the church’s budget should receive their funds EVERY MONTH, and these checks should be written first—before the utility and personnel checks. We ask our people to give (even tithe) “off the top” of their monthly income. How many times have you preached that the gift to God should be the first check a family writes? If that is a legitimate expectation, and I believe that it is, then why do churches get to wait until December and then give to their mission partners “if we can afford it”?

  2. Church members’ money spent on STM experiences do improve awareness of mission needs in this world; however, that money often cuts into the church contributions to the overall CBF programs where dedicated field personnel are giving their lives. Church members should be made more aware of those on-going CBF programs that are now suffering from decreasing funds.
    True, there are some STM trips that inspire participants to make financial and personal commitments into the future, not only to that one field group they visited but also to general CBF mission programs. In other instances a particular STM experience just leads to the desire to have additional travel-abroad opportunities.
    Churches, thus are being influenced to stress STM programs for their members, without supporting the grand programs of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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