Mead Minutes: Are short-term missions good or bad?

Dr. Tim Mead at work

Greetings from the Meads! We are back in the United States for a few weeks in Michigan. The year 2017 has already had us travel to many locations, from Pennsylvania to California, from Niger to Zambia, along with stops in Michigan and others in between.

Our time in Zambia, although short, was great. I was able to work with the CURE surgeons there. I got a feel of the problems the Zambian children face. The hardest part about leaving was that some of the care was not finished when I left. For example, there was a young boy attacked by a crocodile. I know the other surgeons in Zambia will take good care of his needs, but my mind still drifts back. Short-term missions have the benefits of experiences, but deficiencies of limited follow through.

Short-term missions: good or bad? There are points to support both sides. Traditionally, long-term missionaries arise from short-term mission experiences. Their short-term trips appear to center around how the experience will mold and shape their life. I am one. I once went with a group from church for a two-week medical trip to Ecuador. At the end of the trip, I knew I was not cut out for missions. Oops! The experience opened my eyes to needs of others overseas. I did little orthopedics, so I felt that I was not truly needed. Later, I was introduced to orthopedic needs in Kenya, and the rest—as they say—is history.

Short-term missions do not shift everyone overseas, obviously. Many trips are within the U.S., but few return the same way as they left. Preparing for a trip takes time and effort. Teams form to raise funds and plan their time. Other people gather to hear the story of what could be. For many travelers, this trip will be their first excursion outside of the United States. Immunizations, medications, passports, malaria, cholera, and dysentery are all addressed prior to packing. Anxiety rises as the time draws near. Some may opt out when faced with the uncertainty. Packing lists are made. Supplies are gathered. The support group enlarges as family and friends join in.

The day arrives. Tickets and passports are checked for a third time. The lines at the airport seem endless. First, all the tickets and bags are processed. Then, the security gauntlet. Passports are checked and rechecked. The gate is crowded with people all in a hurry to board an airplane. “What zone was just called?” Finally, you wind through the luxury of first-class seating to enter the real world of coach flight. How long will I be sitting in this cramped seat? Really?

Arrival brings you to a strange new world. You are no longer at home. Strange new sights, smells, and languages engulf your senses. Am I really here? After leaving the plane, you search for your in-country guide. Somehow, a simple sign with a smiling face holding it high relieves some stress.

Short-term missions can center on a variety of local needs. All efforts will serve short-term needs, bring laughter, assist long-term workers, and create memories. You will not change the country, erase poverty, restore health, or save the world. You will learn more than you teach.

Short-term missions come at a cost. Often teams create more work for those serving in country. There will be always the debate about finances. Wouldn’t it be better to take the costs and invest in an existing long-term efforts? How much effect will remain from a short trip? Are you bringing hope and then snatching it away? All of these are reasonable questions, but only focus in on a portion of the whole picture.

Looking at short-term mission efforts necessitates looking at three groups and the impact on all of them. If you look only at those people who are the focus of the effort, you will miss out. Sure, it may be an expensive way to bring immunizations, build a well, feed a few, or whatever is the plan. Maybe given money, the local government may care more for their people—or maybe not. Historically, funds given to countries and governmental organizations have failed to achieve the results planned. Likewise, immunizing a few, operating on a few, and feeding a few doesn’t eliminate the problem. This is not an excuse not to try. The needs of this world are overwhelming in scope. All too often people will sit back in comfort using the excuse, “The problem is too big, why bother?”

The second group are the supporters helping to make the adventure of service possible. Short-term missions allow those unable to go to become a partner. Their funds, their prayers, and their efforts take them out of themselves and join a group reaching to love their neighbors across the world. As these people learn more about the world’s needs, they can seek out and support organizations working in like fashion. From their homes, they can influence the world.

The final group are those travelers leaving home to go and serve. Serving as a short-term missionary brings you to a whole new world. What you know as reality (being a U.S. citizen) is not reality in most of the world. You meet people who have apparently “nothing” by your standards, yet are happy, and seem to carry few worries. You find people living with issues of impure water, poor hygiene, malnutrition, physical disorders, and lack of education, which may shock you. Some members of the group will return home and file the memories in the “I do not want to go there again” category. Others will look at life a bit differently. Maybe they will be thankful more for their home and family. Maybe they will support long-term efforts. A few will feel that call of Bill Hybel’s Holy Discontent, or as Popeye the Sailor says, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.” A few will see what could be, what should be, and what needs to change now. Life has become different.

Short-term mission trips will not individually change the world. Long-term mission efforts—if only bringing outside help in—will not either. Education and training is the key for local acceptance and change. Whether it is animal husbandry, immunization planning, disabled children, farming, water, raising chickens, or whatever, just doing is not enough. If you quit, the program quits. Rather, you seek out students with interest and talent. You invest in their lives. You share the skills. You empower people to succeed.

Short-term and long-term missions can mesh together for this effort. Short-termers and their supporting team can provide needed skills, equipment, and funding to enhance programs. Together, the group expands their capabilities and resources available to teach more. Later, the students can become the teachers, and a glimpse at self-sustaining programs arise. The developing world is not the developed world; there will always be needs. CURE International provides care for the poor with disabilities. This people group needs funds which are adequate to pay for the care they need. Training national surgeons will help to maintain the availability of well-trained caregivers within their home country. These surgeons then will train others to become qualified surgeons, leveraging the impact.

So, if you look just at a financial balance sheet and assume the same money raised could be given for a long-term mission, you miss the point of short-term missions. Short-term missions are not about the money. Short-term missions are about people: people served, people serving, and people supporting. They all play an important role.

We are called to do something in life. Sitting back is an option, but a poor choice. You need to get up and do something: anything! Start an adventure and start to live life in His grip!