Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 1 (February 2012)

done_all Peer Reviewed Article

Standards for Short-Term Missions

Mark Woodward

Many congregations have been involved in short-term missions for decades, yet they have not taken advantage of the wisdom and experience of others who have thought deeply about short-term missions practices. By heeding industry best practices, congregations can take important strides toward more faithful and fruitful short-term mission work. This article employs the experiences of one short-term missions organization, Let’s Start Talking, as a lens for examining some established best practices known as Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission.

Several years ago, I was asked to defend short-term missions (STM) at a conference of missions professors. I must say that I was surprised by the antipathy of some participants. Yet, even though I disagree with their negative conclusions, I do understand that Christians have made many mistakes in the name of STM.

Attempting to help churches and ministries avoid the worst mistakes, over four hundred missions leaders came together in 2001 and began a two-year process of establishing standards for short-term missions. Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (SOE), a non-profit organization, grew out of their efforts.

SOE advocates seven standards of excellence for any STM project.1 I am going to borrow their outline and expand on it. I will offer a practical explanation of each standard, with examples of their implementation from my experiences.

Standard #1: God-Centeredness

Every person planning a mission trip—whether as organizer, host, or participant—should be clear about the purpose of the trip. Is it totally for the glory of God? Is each activity planned in such a way as to express godliness? Are the methods used biblical as well as appropriate for Christians in the hosting culture? And will the expectations or desired results advance the kingdom of God?

These questions appear at first to have such obvious answers that the reader may wonder whether to continue; nevertheless, asking some additional questions may suggest where some STM groups could get off track.

  • What do the workers see as the highlight of the trip: closing night of the mission or the two days on the beach before coming home? Which of these is emphasized in the promotion and recruiting?
  • How much time is planned for team devotionals, prayer time, or spiritual conversations?
  • Is the mission group sent off and received on site with prayer by those sending and receiving?
  • Is the biblical basis for the team’s activities thoroughly taught, rehearsed, and explained? Do they buy into the spiritual nature of the mission trip?
  • What are the real goals of the mission trip? Are they Spirit-driven or self-determined?

All Let’s Start Talking (LST) mission projects are described as “Sharing Jesus, sharing ourselves!” With this phrase, LST has tried to capture its purpose and method. People want to travel, to experience new things, even to grow spiritually themselves, but LST believes that all of these other desires should be subjugated to the primary objective of sharing Jesus. To encourage this spiritual dimension, LST plans prayer time as the first activity of every day so that it does not get lost in the business of the day. LST does, of course, plan free time for the teams, but workers are supposed to use it so they are refreshed, not exhausted, when they return to their mission activities.

In addition, the primary method of faith-sharing for LST teams is centered in God’s very Word. LST teams read the gospel’s own words and use their own experiences with God to illustrate the truth of the Word. The biblical basis for this approach is John 20:30–31: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples. . . . But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”2

Whatever else an STM might shortchange, it must not neglect God-centeredness, or the whole mission is in danger—not in danger of taking place, but in danger of being misplaced!

Standard #2: Empowering Partnerships

After God-centeredness, SOE’s next standard is empowering partnerships—and for good reason. Out of inexcusable ignorance, American Christians have often viewed themselves as the only source of mission strategy, the only spring of mission compassion, and, regrettably, the only well of resources that God can use for taking the gospel to the world. Lord, forgive us of our arrogance!

This flavor of hubris shows itself concretely in STMs in the following ways:

  • A church is looking for a good STM for its youth group, so they call their missionary and announce that they will bring 40 kids for 10 days in July—and they know the missionary will be grateful!
  • A church sees a small but vibrant mission church in a developing country and decides to send down a band of construction workers to build them a building.
  • A church sends a note to their missionary contact stating they are prepared to come with puppets and all to do a two-week Vacation Bible School, if the locals will put them up in their homes.
  • The local evangelist agrees to provide food and housing for the STM workers if the workers will provide the funds. The workers will provide the funds but need receipts. The national minister is highly offended, but the American workers find the evangelist’s actions very suspicious.

Some readers may not even recognize a problem in the above scenarios, but the idea of an “empowering partnership” is absent from each one. In its place, a one-sided, power-based, culturally insensitive, and paternalistic attitude exudes from the American Christian side of the equation—mostly because such STM participants do not really believe that they are in a partnership. Many seem to prefer a charitable relationship over an empowering partnership.

LST made some of these mistakes early in its ministry but has tried to learn from them. Below are some concrete actions that LST takes to avoid these mistakes:

  • LST only sends teams when prospective hosts have sent a formal invitation. Many mission sites feel compelled, virtually coerced, to receive mission teams for any number of reasons. If a host cannot say no because the sending church supports them, or because the STM participants are Western, or because of any reason whatsoever, then there is no real invitation.
  • LST respects each missionary and/or national evangelis as a true host. Participants are thankful for their invitation, grateful that hosts want to work with them, and eager to serve them. The hosts are the initiators, just as if they were inviting guests into their home.
  • Both sides mutually agree upon the important details of every STM project before making any final commitments. From the dates of arrival to the times of every event to the cost of using the telephone, LST tries to clarify details prior to arrival so that participants do not even accidentally trample feelings of the local church. This is tricky cross-culturally and takes great effort, but it is essential.
  • The real needs of the host are foremost. If it is not good to host American groups during US school holidays—which is rainy season and/or winter in other countries—then do not expect a host to want an STM team to come during that season. If the burden of hosting twenty people is too great, then either cut the group sufficiently or do not send anyone. If the hosting church needs funds rather than two weeks of preaching, which would be the better gift? And if the sending church does not know what the needs are, it should ask.
  • LST meets with potential hosts, gets to know them, and does not accept invitations until there is mutual trust. Of course, STM teams trust themselves, but what about the indigenous leaders of the local church? Do STM participants trust them to tell the truth? To handle team money and supplies for the project? To determine the best time to receive a group? Is the STM team flexible about its own plans but feels the hosts are irresponsible when they change things? Do hosts even have the power to change anything? Such questions are very telling for an STM.

The word “partnership” in this context is what the New Testament also calls “one another.” STM participants should re-read those “one another” passages, apply them to their relationships with potential STM hosts, and then reflect upon whether or not they are acting as empowering partners.

Standard #3: Mutual Design

An STM team several years ago was building a church building in a majority world country.  After working for about a week, digging the footing, pouring the concrete for the foundation, and building up the wall about 2-3 feet, someone realized they had not put any doors on the building!

So the Americans spent the rest of that mission trip tearing down a major portion of the wall they had just built and rebuilding the wall, this time with gaps for doors. Another group went to the same area a year or two later, and the church had torn the whole building down because it never met either their needs or their standards.  There is a message in this story for those who would plan STM projects: just having manpower and money will not get you to the goal. Mutual design is also imperative

Mutual design does not guarantee a positive outcome, but it certainly increases the prospects and gives reason to hope for one.  Mutual design refers to a partnership between American Christians and hosting nationals with (to borrow from the French!) liberty, equality, and fraternity on both sides.

Here are some reasonable questions for both parties to ask in preparation for any STM trip:

  • What are the common goals of both guests and hosts? Is the primary goal to please the host or to please the American guests? Is there a way to plan the mission so both sides feel like their expectations will have been met?  Before an LST project ever occurs, an LST representative sits down with the hosting leader(s) and tries to describe in the local context what might occur when an LST team arrives. The representative talks about how LST spends money, how teams are typically housed, what each day looks like, what the teams typically do on Sundays—the conversation aims to cover every part of the project. Then the hosts explain how they believe an LST team could work best in their context. Where there are differences, LST makes a great effort to work them out—or both parties agree that perhaps some other form of mission would be better for their context.
  • What preparation and follow-up will the hosts/guests provide? What are the expectations of the hosts/guests both before and after the mission project? LST expects the host church to advertise prior to the team’s arrival, for instance, but leaves how they advertise to the expertise of the local Christians. If both partners find this acceptable, planning proceeds!  LST expects local Christians to make plans for follow-up. Local Christians expect LST teams to leave all contact information necessary for follow-up.
  • Who pays for what? Unfortunately, fairly simple questions like this create much of the havoc on STM trips. LST promises to pay for all food, local transportation, laundry, and the social events that are part of a typical LST project. Hosts are responsible for housing and advertising.  Some hosts have no housing options they can afford, in which case LST asks them to work out mutually acceptable housing arrangements before the team arrives. Often their solution is a nice American-style hotel—which teams most often decline because they cannot afford that either. So the dialogue continues until either there is a mutually acceptable solution or there is no solution. Even if there is no solution in the end, both parties know they have made a good effort to find a mutually acceptable solution but have failed—usually with a promise to try again next year.

Mutual design emphasizes the ability of both the American guests and the national hosts to implement what they have accepted as their responsibility.  When there has been full liberty to both negotiate and to decline, when there has been equality assumed by both partners, and when brotherly love (fraternity) is the framework of every conversation and interaction, then nothing short of a revolution will be the result–a revolution that both the church and God will delight in!

Standard #4: Comprehensive Administration

Whether it is a church organizing its own STM or an individual Christian wanting to join an STM project, one needs to be concerned about the comprehensive administration of the STM. SOE uses this broad term to include the following:

  • Integrity of the organizers
  • Competency of the organizers, especially in the area of risk management
  • Capability of the organizers to support and deliver

Consider these three virtues more closely.

4a: Integrity

The LST staff has had a fairly lengthy discussion about which countries to advertise as LST sites. It is tempting to use “attractive” countries in organizational promotion, even if teams seldom go to them. Likewise, the staff has debated at length a video clip that showed an LST worker reading with small children. Little children are huge emotional magnets for recruiting workers—but only seldom do our workers read with young children, so it is not typical of the LST experience. Such discussions, for example, are meant to ensure integrity.

  • Is there honesty in promotion of the STM? Check the motivations to which promotion appeals. Check the description of activities as compared to what the work will primarily be. Is the host culture as needy, as irreligious, as unhealthy, or as safe as advertising suggests? The world of modern advertising has skewed our sense of honesty—not to the point of lying, but to the point of spinning the truth. Speaking the truth in love will honor God!
  • Is there transparency in all areas of finance? Who determined the costs for the STM and how? Who will collect and disperse the funds, and is there an accounting process that includes accountability to someone external to the project? Do all participants have access to financial information?
  • For example, LST has three people who do nothing but work with the finances and accounting for the monies the organization receives and dispenses. There are strict protocols in LST’s office about who can open an envelope with money in it, for instance, and that same person cannot record and deposit that money. Each LST team does simple accounting with the money that they use in their LST project.
  • LST also has a yearly review by an outside accounting firm, which spends days in our office, going through receipts, deposits, even the accounting books of the individual LST teams that went overseas. Their audit is something that LST will provide to anyone who requests it. In addition, LST files a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service that discloses all important financial information—and much more. The Form 990 is public information, accessible to everyone. It is like publishing one’s personal income tax filing on the internet.
  • Are the reports of the STM results honest and accurate? Sometimes results are vague because organizers have no measurable goals. Other times, organizers skew results to justify the expense and effort. That is dishonest. Most often, no one really tracks or measures results. Failing to measure and assess also lacks integrity. How can STM organizations or participants honestly imply, much less report, that their effort and expense was fruitful without such accountability?

Nothing alienates people from Christian missions faster than the hint of dishonesty! STM organizers must ensure integrity at every level. Participants should make sure the organizers are transparent to a fault.

4b: Appropriate Risk Management

As the author writes, Guatemala is preparing for a volcanic eruption and a tropical storm. Belize is flooding, as is El Salvador. Tajikstan has an outbreak of polio, and there are still travel warnings out for Thailand and Sri Lanka. In addition, a major earthquake has struck the Philippines. Only this last item is listed in the CNN headlines, however. Whoever is organizing an STM should be aware of relevant natural, political, and cultural risks and have a plan for dealing with them.

Natural risks – Christians should not be fearful! Being informed and measuring the risks, however, are not acts of fear. It is unfortunate to be stranded in Cambodia because of a typhoon, but it is foolish not to know that July and August are peak months for typhoons in Cambodia and to have a plan in the event that one occurs. It is foolish not to know that malaria is also dangerous in Asia and the Americas rather than just Africa. Many travel sites, but especially the government-sponsored Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) and the US State Department (www.state.gov) have important information for evaluating natural risks.

Political risks – Christians should not be fearful! Being informed and measuring the risks, however, are not acts of fear. LST has had workers in Moscow during a political coup, in Yugoslavia when civil war broke out, and most recently, in Thailand during the political unrest and violent demonstrations. Political unrest can occur almost anywhere and predicting how extreme or violent that unrest might become is difficult. How does one make good decisions about STMs in foreign areas where there is almost always some level of political unrest?

  • Rely on more than just the US media to stay informed. LST is a member of OSAC, the Overseas Security Advisory Council (www.osac.gov), an arm of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in the US State Department which publishes daily information on all trouble spots around the world. OSAC gleans and distributes pertinent information from foreign newspapers around the world.
  • During the most recent trouble in Thailand, LST actually evacuated two teams early because the violence had spread unpredictably. By following local news sources on Twitter (www.twitter.com), LST was aware of surprising developments at least 12 hours before hearing it on US news.
  • Believe the local Christians! Local Christians tend to be more cautious and more concerned for the potential safety of their guests than the guests themselves. If they say to come ahead because it is safe, then their judgment may be a compelling consideration.

Cultural risks – Christians should not be fearful! Being informed and measuring the risks, however, are not acts of fear. Singapore laws forbid chewing gum. A STM team should know this. STM workers to China should avoid discussing the three T’s (Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen) with Chinese locals. Pickpockets work every subway in the world, so workers need to carry their wallets in a different place perhaps. An official passport is the only way to positively identify oneself in a foreign country. These are just a few examples of information that STM workers need to know. Information diminishes risk.

Someone involved in organizing STMs should be responsible for researching cultural risks at the host site, and then all participants should not only be informed but trained to avoid risky situations and risky behaviors. Risk prevention begins long before an STM begins.

4c: Risk Management Plan

LST once had a team in Madagascar. A local gang looking for a ransom kidnapped the evangelist’s daughter in front of the church building where the college team was working. After just a couple of hours, the girl managed to escape unharmed. The family reported the name of the gang leader to the police who arrested and jailed him immediately. The gang leader bribed his way out of jail, however, and vowed to kill the missionary and his family. The LST team was staying in the home of this family.

What should a church or organization do now?

Here are the two most important questions to consider:

  • Is the church prepared to deal with this situation? Does the church have the necessary personnel, funds, and a plan to take care of its people?
  • How quickly can the church or organization implement its plan?

In this case, LST immediately moved the team into a high security hotel and then flew the team out of the country within twenty-four hours. In addition, LST staff met them in France, let them talk through their experience and their fears, then arranged for them to finish the last three weeks of their mission trip with a church in southern France. When they returned home, not only was the team emotionally and physically healthy, but they also could not stop talking about how God worked it all out for good!

Make sure that the church or organization has both an Emergency Management Plan and the personnel and funds to implement it twenty-four hours a day while a team is on the field. Here is a short list of the type of emergencies that one should be prepared to handle:

  • Travel emergencies – lost documents, canceled flights, unexpected fees, passenger error (goes to wrong airport, checks in too late, etc.)
  • Medical emergencies – accidents, illness on site, flare up of preexisting conditions, sudden death
  • Political emergencies – political violence, curfews, closed airports, police harassment (one LST team suddenly was required to get special visas), political extortion (demanding bribes)
  • Natural emergencies – typhoon, flooding, earthquake
  • Team emergencies – unexpected death or emergency at home, emotional/spiritual breakdown, unexplainable hostility (often culture shock), immoral behavior, disregard of authority, misuse of people or funds

Emergencies don’t happen often. Still, in thirty years of sending STM teams, LST has dealt with everything mentioned above at least once. One cannot remove all threats or prevent all emergencies—even with the best preparation and training—but it is possible to be intelligently prepared for conceivable risks.

Standard #5: Appropriate Training

A missions minister whose church wanted to begin requiring training for all of its STM participants was looking for a training model. He knew that LST teams had a reputation for being well-trained, so he consulted with the author. The missions minister literally went pale when he heard that the college students who go with LST receive approximately 45 hours of training in preparation for 3-6 week mission trips and that church members going for two weeks receive 20 hours! His church now requires one Sunday afternoon of training for their short-term workers—which is more than most churches provide or require.

The problem is not that STM leaders do not believe in training; it is that nobody wants to spend the time and energy that it takes to do it. Appropriate training is essential, however, for an excellent STM trip. Here are some of the characteristics of appropriate training:

  • Appropriate training prepares the workers for their spiritual work as well as their physical work. While getting materials together, practicing songs, going over assignments, or role-playing conversations is appropriate and essential, many volunteers are spiritually ill-prepared for the challenges of mission work. Many have never verbalized their own faith, so they have difficulty responding to questions like “Why do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?” Many Christians do not know where to start with the person who does not believe the Bible is the Word of God. When challenged, unprepared Christians may begin to doubt their own faith or to move toward an “all-roads-lead-to-heaven” faith. Mission trips are spiritual pressure-cookers and tend to bring spiritual weaknesses to the surface. Spiritual as well as physical preparation is essential.
  • Appropriate training includes how to work together with others! Just as “personality issues” (a euphemism for any number of our own selfish desires) are a major source of trouble between Christians at home, putting 5-6 people together 24/7 for 2-3 weeks in close quarters under less than ideal circumstances can quickly cause the façades of Christian charity to fall.
  • Appropriate training includes cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity. Who is telling the volunteers about appropriate dress? Who is preparing the team for the toilet facilities? Who is preparing the group for worship in a foreign language without translation? Who is training the workers how to “look and learn”—that is, watching and imitating the local Christians in situations that are unexpected or unfamiliar.
  • Appropriate training happens before, during, and after the STM trip. Most training needs to be done before the team leaves, but while on the field, situations and questions arise that catch all short-term workers off guard. Who helps them sort through their questions and feelings? And who helps them know how to return home? LST conducts EndMeetings with all of its workers. EndMeetings help workers frame their experiences, know how to report about their mission, as well as how to deal with reverse culture shock.
  • Appropriate training is done by qualified trainers. Heed one small warning here about the person who is the cultural expert because they have been in a particular country for a week a couple of years ago! If qualified trainers are not on hand, it is worth the trouble to find some and bring them in.

The lack of appropriate, high quality training is why churches quit sending and people quit going. Invest time and energy into appropriate training and God will receive more glory and honor! The added value to good training is that what one learns for the mission field is still valid after returning home.

Standard #6: Thorough Follow-up

An excellent STM will always include thorough follow-up with both the host and the members of the mission team. Following up an STM is asking probing questions designed to reveal both strengths and weaknesses in the project.

Follow-up with the Mission Site

Whether in written form or in person, the STM organizers must create the opportunity to ask the mission site all of the hard questions. If no one asks the hard questions, then assessors will only get the answers that they want to hear—which will not reflect the truth! Without the truth, how will one know if the STM has been helpful, if it has served the kingdom well, or if it has brought glory to God?

Here are some of the questions every STM project should always ask as follow-up to a mission project:

  • Did the visiting group provide all the information necessary in order to prepare well for their arrival? Did they provide it in time to prepare well? What should they have provided prior to their coming that was not available this time?
  • Was the visiting group a good size?
  • Did they seem prepared for the work they came to do?
  • Did they adjust culturally?
  • Did they seem to get along with each other well?
  • Were their leaders/sponsors cooperative?
  • Did the mission project meet the host’s goals for it?
  • Was the local church’s involvement satisfactory?
  • What would the hosts do differently with a future group?
  • How will the hosts follow up this mission project? Is there anything the group should have done that would make follow-up more effective?

The media ran a story recently about a plumbing company that always followed up its house calls with the request for a simple evaluation by the customer, “How would you rate our service on a scale of 1-10?” What made this plumbing company special was that although they almost always got an excellent evaluation, they were not satisfied with a 9.5 average. They always asked, “What could we have done that would have earned us a 10?” That is the attitude that all involved in the leadership of an STM should have.

Follow-up with the STM Worker

As with the mission host, participants cannot learn how to do their mission better if they do not explore questions that surface any weaknesses or problem areas. Before they return home, participants should evaluate their experiences in the following areas:

  • Training. Did the training prepare you well for the tasks you were given? Was there something missing in the training that would have helped? How effective was your team trainer?
  • Physical Arrangements. Beginning with the travel to site, then the housing, the food arrangements, the daily schedule, even the free time, was there anything that could have been better and made for a better mission trip?
  • Team Dynamics. How was the team dynamic? Were you able to make good decisions together? Were you able to handle conflict when it occurred? Did you get the help you needed when you asked?
  • The Mission Itself. Were you able to do the work you prepared to do? What surprised you about the work? Is there anything you wish you could have done better?
  • Personal Response. Are you glad you went? What was difficult? What was wonderful? Would you like to do another short-term mission? Would you encourage others to do one?

After asking for this kind of an evaluation, organizers sometimes believe themselves to be finished with follow-up. In fact, one more critical activity remains: preparing the participants for going home. While short-term mission trips typically do not allow workers to acculturate as a long-term mission would, the spiritual and emotional impact on the worker can be significant. Those who organize STMs are not finished until they have helped workers deal constructively with these new feelings and experiences.

At LST EndMeetings, staff members spend time with returning workers in these ways:

  • Helping workers frame their experiences. Frames contain the elements of a picture as well as keep extraneous items out of the picture. Workers have already begun deciding what they will include and exclude in their memories and feelings about their mission trip. LST encourages them to include everything that gives God glory and exclude the rest.
  • Celebrating workers’ experiences and helping them talk about them. Putting words to their feelings and experiences not only helps each worker understand what they did better, but it encourages and inspires others. Real community is built around shared experiences, so a celebratory—as opposed to an inquisitorial—environment in which to first “report” about a mission trip cements both the individual and the communal experience.
  • Affirming the faithfulness of workers. Especially in an evangelistic mission trip, workers often do not get to see the fruit of their work. A Ukrainian man was unmoved by the story of Jesus the first time he heard it in 1991. Fifteen years later, the LST worker who first shared with him returned to Ukraine to discover that this same man was now a Christian and had published three books defending faith in God to the scientific community in Ukraine. After hearing such stories, returning workers better believe that God can do the same miracle of faith with the seeds they have faithfully planted.
  • Preparing workers for reverse culture shock. Because the links of common experiences between people at home and the workers are broken for a period of time, some workers are shocked to feel like outsiders upon their return home. They also do not understand why people are only superficially interested in their mission project. Helping them understand the dynamics of unshared experiences ensures a better homecoming for each worker.
  • Teaching workers how to report well. Since the first question they will hear upon arrival at their hometown airport is “how was your trip?” LST teaches workers to have a 20-second answer ready. Participants also learn what to include (people stories, work stories) and what to exclude (free-time pictures, problems) from their private and public reports. LST encourages them to seek opportunities to report in order to motivate others to go and/or to give!
  • Encouraging the workers to continue the mission. The mountain-top experience that most short-term workers have does not have to be a one-time experience. God has given them special gifts to use in missions; that is why they have been able to accomplish this mission successfully, from the initial commitment to the fundraising to the training to the travel to the work itself. But special gifts bring special responsibilities, so what will they do with these gifts now?

Finishing well requires as much effort as starting well. That’s why an excellent STM will finish well with great follow-up.

Standard #7: Qualified Leadership

The last of the Seven Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission is qualified leadership. Qualified leadership is a basic presupposition for each of the other standards. Will the mission be God-centered if there is no leadership? Will true partnerships between those who go and those who receive be established without leadership? Can there be thoughtful purpose and design, appropriate training, and thorough follow-up without leadership?

The ubiquitous nature of leadership is why everyone writes about leadership. But gifts in such great demand run greater risk of being neglected, imitated, or abused. Here are some examples in the context of STM:

  • Zeal trumps ability in many STM programs. Passion and good intentions are not the same as leadership, but they are common substitutes when qualified leadership is lacking. One might fairly suspect that the Christian group arrested and held for so long in Haiti for trying to leave the country with a busload of orphans was only guilty of substituting passion and good intentions for quality leadership.
  • People pretend to be leaders who are not! Again, not all of these people are aware of their lack of leadership gifts, but may in fact believe themselves to be leaders. One absolute test of leadership ability is whether people follow, and, if so, why. Jesus, the greatest leader, said about good shepherd-leaders, “His sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). Sheep do not follow a stranger’s (imitator’s) voice. So it is with those who imitate leaders.
  • Abuse of power in any form is the polar opposite of qualified leadership. One can recognize either early warnings or potential abuse when:
  • The leader starts by reading the rules for the mission trip.
  • The leader starts by describing his/her role on the mission trip.
  • The leader threatens someone with summary dismissal from the team if they do not ________________[fill in the blank with any of his/her rules].
  • The leader either does not request input from others or dismisses input when volunteered.
  • The leader is not accountable to someone else.
  • The leader has sole control of all of the organizational elements of the mission trip—money, schedule, resources, planning.
  • The leader knows things but is unwilling to share the information with the mission group “until they need to know.”
  • The leader uses the “because I said so” line.

Leadership issues lie at the heart of many of the worst STM experiences. Potential workers would do well to investigate thoroughly the leadership of any STM which they might be considering.

Summary and Conclusion

Using SOE’s Seven Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission, the author has attempted to explain and illustrate the problems that these standards address as well as what they can look like in practice. The way LST attempts to meet these standards of excellence certainly is not the only approach to short-term missions, but the LST commitment to the highest standards can and should be emulated.

Churches and ministries who want to organize STM are bound to address all of these standards lest their work prove to be made of straw and not gold. Our awesome God deserves no less than gold.

*An earlier version of this article was posted in May 2010 by the author as a series of blog posts. You may find Dr. Woodward’s blog with many other posts about short-term missions at http://markwoodward.org.

Mark Woodward, Professor Emeritus of Oklahoma Christian University and Executive Director of Let’s Start Talking Ministry, holds a PhD in Humanities. Dr. Woodward has a broad range of experience in ministry, having served as Campus Minister at the University of Mississippi (1969-71), missionary in Germany (1971-79), professor of English and German at Oklahoma Christian University (1979-2003), and, with his wife Sherrylee, the founder of Let’s Start Talking (1980). In addition, he has served local congregations as preacher, elder, and teacher. He and his wife currently reside in Fort Worth, Texas. He can be contacted at mark.woodward@lst.org.

1You can visit their website at http://soe.org for their list.

2Scripture quotations taken from the New International Version.