Preparing for a Short-Term Mission Trip: What Nationals Wish You Knew

Preparing for a Short-term Mission Trip
Hand in Hand: A U.S. short-term missions team serves closely with Mexican workers in Baja California, Mexico. One TEAM missionary offers ways to make trips more about long-lasting relationships than "projects." Photo by Mark Bickel

Last year, Marcela Garcia, a university-educated Mexican woman who studied political science and Mexican history, sat down with a TEAM missionary in Baja California to discuss the American short-term missions teams that were coming to their church.

Garcia runs the VBS program at Emmanuel Evangelical Church of Los Cabos, and the missionary, Vicki Reyes, wanted to know how visiting missions teams could be more effective. Their conversation produced valuable insight into preparing for a short-term mission trip to do the most good and the least harm, prioritizing relationships above all else.

1. Use Caution With Gifts

First, the women discussed, groups should not bring lots of gifts to shower on the receiving community. Especially in many parts of Latin America and the developing world that are considered “middle class” relative to their economies, the hosts increasingly can afford these items themselves and are embarrassed when Americans come to town like Santa Claus.

In their book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert caution short-term missions teams against bringing many giveaways, even when visiting poorer communities that legitimately cannot afford to buy such items. “We undermine local assets and increase poverties of being, community and stewardship,” they write. Lavish gifts can lead community members to lose interest in local churches and ministries that can’t provide the same goodies.

Preparing for a Short-term Mission Trip

Not Just Mexico: Vicki Reyes’ standards for short-term missions can be applied in any context, not just Latin America. Photo by Robert Johnson / TEAM


2. Submit to the Local Church

Second, the women discussed that visiting short-term teams should work under the direction of local church leadership, instead of coming with their own plan and operating on their own agenda. This shows locals that the team is coming in with a servant’s heart, and it helps to ensure the group’s activities will truly support the longer-term ministry goals of the hosting Christians. This approach is also endorsed by Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (SOE), an accrediting agency devoted to promoting responsible and effective short-term missions trips.

3. Engross Yourself in the Culture in Advance

When preparing for a short-term mission trip, Reyes realized that visiting teams needed to make extra efforts to learn about Mexican culture to truly enable them to build real relationships with locals. Often, group efforts to learn the culture are limited to reviewing a few basic Spanish phrases. But Reyes built an entire curriculum and uses a Facebook page to share it with teams months in advance of their trip. She asks them not only to learn some common Mexican phrases and worship songs, but also assigns reading, gives them a map to study, and requires team members to visit a Hispanic grocery store and church in their own community before boarding a flight for Mexico.

One of the biggest hopes with such cultural experiences is that participants will understand that Americans generally have far different approaches to time and relationships than most of the developing world. Where Americans prize individualism, other cultures place far more importance on community, family and “quality time” together. Where Americans generally value efficiency and accomplishment, other cultures prioritize “quantity time” and may require lots of shared experiences before a mere acquaintance is considered a friend.

Reyes asks any group she works with to uphold these three standards when working with her in Mexico, and as a result, some deep relationships have formed between short-termers and Mexican church members.

Reyes’ standards are also worth considering for anyone, whether missionaries or sending churches, preparing for a short-term mission trip or working with short-term teams in any country.

Have a suggestion of your own for making trips as effective as possible? Leave a comment and let us know, we’d love to hear it.

TEAM is a member of SOE, a great resource for learning more about how to make your next short-term missions trip the most effective it can be for building the body of Christ. Wanting to really make sure you’re prepared for your mission trip? Check out this free download!


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About the author

Andy Olsen

Andy Olsen is a former senior writer and editor at TEAM. He is especially interested in exploring and sharing the metrics and best practices of great missions. Before joining TEAM, Andy served as Director of Communications for Latin America Mission. He has worked as a writer, photographer and videographer for NGOs in Haiti and for newspapers and magazines across the country.


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  • I have been on many mission trips to Honduras since 1998 and I agree completely with the 3 standards listed. I actually witnessed a team member giving out clothes (against the local missionaries advice) and then become angry and slam the trunk when a mob scene ensued. The local missionary had to do some serious damage control. Another thing I always recommend when leading teams is that volunteers make every attempt to not dress as a “rich American.” Our teams minister in the very impoverished villages of La Esperanza, Honduras where most do not even have running water or electricity. Trying to tell them about the love of Jesus, when you’re name brand shoes cost more than everything they own, will not be as effective. You don’t need to show up barefooted or with dirty clothes that are worn out. However, if you make an attempt to be more like them (as the apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people…..) in dress and demeanor your message will be more apt to be received. It’s always good, when making home visits, to genuinely thank them for allowing you to come in. Then make it a point to find something positive to say about their home, family or country. For first-timers, the poverty can often be quite shocking. Make every effort to not allow your facial expressions to reveal this.

  • As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands one for helping your self the other for helping other in the name of jesus christ.

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