In a normal year, 2 million U.S. Christians would be preparing for and traveling on short-term mission trips right now. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Barna Group survey reports that 43 percent of churches have canceled trips or are considering canceling this year. While many of us are disappointed that we will be staying home, we now have some time to reflect on the risks, challenges, and value of short-term missions.
In 2006, fresh out of college, feeling called to “do more” and utilize my time and (limited) talent to care for vulnerable children, I packed my bags for South Africa to attend a training school on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The school was connected to an orphanage, where I met Jacob.* He was separated from his family and placed in the orphanage. I tried to spend as much time with him as I could, hoping the love I had to give would help him know that he was valuable and worthy of love.
I cherished the three months I was at the training school, but dreaded the impending goodbye as I approached the orphanage’s cottage to break the news to Jacob and the other children I had come to love. I cried as I explained my departure, yet I was thankful for the impact these children had on my life, what I had learned from them, and the time I had playing with them. I treasured these last moments, hoping to remember them forever.
What I didn’t consider was how Jacob felt as I said goodbye. Would he remember our time together, and what feelings might be associated with those memories? Was he confused and hurt, as yet another visitor from America who told him that she cared about him returned home?
Impact of Orphanage Volunteering
The effectiveness of mission trips to orphanages has been debated in recent years. More people recognize the risks these visits pose for vulnerable children and the impact they have on how communities choose to care for them.
A growing evidence base shows that short-term visitors coming into and going out of orphanages, however well-intentioned and organized, exacerbates the existing insecure attachment of children who live there. In my desire to do good, I likely caused harm to an already vulnerable child.
Additionally, decades of research tell us that 80 percent of children living in a residential care facility have a living parent, and poverty is the primary motivation for placing their children in orphanages. Other leading reasons include a family’s inability to provide for the education of a child and inability to meet the needs of a child with disabilities. Consider the impossible choice a parent has to make between placing their child in an orphanage or keeping their child, knowing they cannot provide for him or her.
Evidence in neuroscience and social science, as well as research on outcomes for children, all suggests that children need to be cared for in families. Even Scripture agrees. Psalm 98:6 tells us that God’s design was always for children to grow and develop in families.
Mission trips to orphanages not only increase risks to children, but they also support a system that requires children to be separated from their parents for their physical needs to be met.
A Better Approach to Short-Term Missions
Fortunately, in my reflection and learning about short-term missions, I discovered a wealth of information and guidance on how the spiritual and practical impact of short-term mission trips can improve.
According to the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (SOE), the best mission trips are planned with great intention and consider all who are impacted by the trip including trip-goers, senders, and receivers. Here are five high-level best practices in short-term missions:
1. Engage in in-country partnerships. Whether church-to-church, organization-to-church, school-to-organization, or other arrangement, long-term missions partnerships with local in-country entities can best support community transformation. Locally based partners are best suited to determine the most appropriate and effective ways to serve and how to utilize short-term missions.
2. Empower local people. While you may be tempted to partner with those who have the greatest need, best practices suggest that it’s best to partner with those who approach their work with excellence. Ministry should always complement what local leaders are already doing, which makes a deeper and wider impact than if they were working alone. For example, construction projects may actually be best completed by locals with financial support from the missions team instead of the team members doing all the construction themselves. Let your time and support come alongside what God is already doing in community.
3. Support mutually beneficial activities. It is important to recognize that short-term missions over the last 20 years have placed great focus on the goer. For example, rocking babies in an orphanage is a wonderful experience for a visitor, but has a potentially negative impact for children. Together, organizers and hosts should design ministry efforts that meaningfully benefit both the goers and the receivers and do not unintentionally contribute harm to those they intend to serve.
4. Assess motivations for taking a trip. We must consider our motivations for going on a trip and our expectations for what we will gain from our experience. For those eager to help vulnerable children, common expectations include the hope of having an emotional connection to the children they visit or a desire to be the answer to the needs of a child. These motivations are rooted in an important instinct to protect children, but fail to address sustainable, long-term solutions for the children and their families. To ensure that trips support what is best for children, setting clear goals and expectations prior to the trip is vital.
5. Be a humble learner. God is already well at work in the community you plan to visit. Trip organizers must humbly trust their ministry partners on the ground and empower them to lead. It is important to take the time to learn about the context and culture of our visits and not assume that we have something to bring or to do for those we will meet. Ask your partner about the most appropriate and helpful ways to support their work. Let the local staff be the heroes.
I have slowly begun to rebuild my faith in short-term mission trips by investing in organizations who are strengthening communities to care well for their children and families.
What We Can Do Now
While we might not be able to travel this year to the mission field, we need to find alternative ways to serve. Organizations serving vulnerable populations need our support more than ever. COVID-19 is presenting extreme challenges to already vulnerable families. Now is the time to shift from considering our contribution as simply a one-week service trip to, instead, seeing it as a committed partnership. Find partners doing the hard work that brings sustainable outcomes and combats injustice.
Once you have found your partner (perhaps it’s the same organization you planned on visiting), ask them how you can help and volunteer from home. You don’t have to travel a great distance to make a cross-cultural impact. Examples include writing for the organization, providing graphic or web design, assisting with fundraising, or starting a crowd funding campaign to encourage giving. Become a committed prayer partner, funding partner, advocate, and storyteller, highlighting the organization and mission you were not able to engage face to face.
As our mission trips this spring and summer get canceled, the disappointment we feel is real and the loss is worth mourning. However, this time can be used to help rethink how we’ve done mission trips in the past and imagine how our mission trips can be improved to make us a better reflection of Christ to those we seek to support.
Megan Pratt serves as the Director of Engagement for Faith to Action, which works to equip churches, individuals, and organizations with the important message of family-based care.