Dream Teams or NightmaresThe amount of time and energy a leadership team expends in pre-field training is the key to turning a short-term mission group into a "dream team."
Hundreds of Canadians are getting involved in short-term mission and the numbers continue to increase dramatically. More and more churches are sending teams to the ends of the earth. Often the experience turns out to be a great blessing to the host missionaries. However, short term teams are often a big headache for the hosts too. The key factor is usually how well-trained the team is before departing. Many teams make the mistake of assuming that by simply showing up they will be a blessing.
Having been there a grand total of three minutes, they decided they knew what was best.
I recently spent a month with a long-term mission team working among refugees in a European capital. The team hosts upwards of a dozen short-term teams each year and having done this for years, they have lots of stories. They shared stories and insights about what makes either a dream team or a nightmare.
One team showed up at the refugee centre and was told by the missionaries (who run the ministry), "Here's your schedule!" The team responded: "No, it's not. Here's our own schedule!"
The short-term team had decided what they would do, and when they would do it. Having been there a grand total of three minutes, they decided they knew what was best. This team forgot the basic premise: they had come to serve the team and the refugees and were fitting into an existing ministry, one that had been operating for years. Teams need the wisdom and humility to follow the lead of the missionaries who live and serve on the field.
Another short-term team expected the missionaries should go to neighbourhood restaurants, get the menus and translate them into English. This request is probably number one on the all-time list of worst expectations from a short-term team! Part of the short-term experience is to get out of your comfort zone and experience new cultures and realities.
Don't expect the missionaries to be your tour guides, cooks and babysitters. Missionaries love teams who are able to adapt and survive on their own and happily accept new challenges that take them out of their comfort zones.
One team wanted to bring a craft for children to the mission field. Their plan was to build birdhouses, but the hosts said, "It won't work in our context; however, try this." After some discussion, the sort-termers brought along a different craft, pencil boxes, which were a huge hit with the children. A flexible, servant attitude and a willingness to listen to hosts made all the difference.
The best teams communicate with the agencies they are going with, and the missionaries on the field. Everyone benefits when questions are asked.
Teams serving at the refugee centre are told upon arrival not to pick out a particular refugee and focus solely on that individual. One team member, unable or unwilling to follow guidelines, spent almost her entire time with one young refugee man. After returning home, she sent him clothes and other items. Her well-meaning actions led to the young refugee walking around with an attitude of superiority: "She likes me more than the rest of you. I'm more special!" It was the missionaries who ended up having to clean up the mess and repair damaged relationships, because a well-meaning short-termer wouldn't follow the rules.
Remember, the missionaries live and work within a context. They have spent years there, and it's important to listen to their input, because they should know.
Another team spent six months training together before their mission. The women on the team got together for coffee every week. They laughed, prayed and prepared together. When a problem arose with a team member's health, limiting her ministry, the trust already built up enabled the team to come up with creative solutions. Instead of criticism, there was support. The months of working together paid off in creative team solutions.
The key to turn a short-term team into a dream team falls upon the team leadership, and the time and energy they are prepared to expend in pre-field training.
When a team knows what to expect in the ministry that's ahead of them, along with the cultural and personal challenges they will face, they can be prepared.
A short-term mission can be an incredible experience! Train and prepare to make it so!
Mika Takamaki is a church mission consultant who helps train short-term teams from churches across Canada. He can be reached at Mika.Takamaki@iteams.org.
Originally published in Christian Current, April 2005.
Used with permission of the author. Copyright © 2005 Christianity.ca.