Short-Term Missions that is Missions

I hear a lot of stories (sometimes comedies, sometimes horror stories) regarding short-term missions (STM). I nod and smile, or shake my head and scowl. But I am happy to say that I can’t really relate to these stories. My experience with short-term missionaries has generally been quite positive. But my own experience with STM is quite different from the normal. The normal STM team is more like:

  • A group of 5 to 10 to 15 or more.
  • STMers have little to no skills that are specifically matched up to the needs of the local missionary.
  • Often the STM team activity is driven by the needs of the team, rather than the needs of the local host.
  • (Because of this) It is common that the work done by the STM team is more “make work,” that provides a sense of accomplishment for the team, and putting a strain on the local hosts, rather than helping the long-term programs of the long-term missionary.

These traits commonly lead to the assumption that Short-term missions is really for the benefit of the STMers rather than the local missionaries or local hosts.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. One way around it is the method used by the Mormons. Short-term missions is longer (commonly 2 years) with prior preparation. Still, from what I see here in the Philipines at least, it still looks to be highly inefficient— succeeding more from sheer numbers and back-home optimism.

But is there the possibility of a short-term missions that makes sense on its own that doesn’t involve multiple years of work?

I feel like several of our experiences with short-term missions has a better record than that.

First.  The Short-term mission teams are small. The largest team we ever had was 4. Most are 1 or 2. Consider the numbers. Suppose it takes $3000 per person to do a short-term mission, and suppose the team is made up of two people. The cost then would be $6000. The cost of a team of ten would be approximately $30,000. That is quite a difference— five times as much. But will the larger team be five times as useful? Probably not.

Second.  The teammember(s) have unique skills that the missionary needs. It might be technical skills, it may be academic skills, or special certifications. Franky, most skills that people bring already exist in the field.

Third. The skills that STMers bring are ones that are specifically needed for the long-term ministry programs in the field.

Fourth. The primary goal of the team is to increase the capacity of missionaries or local hosts. The goal is the transfer of skills and resources to the field. The goal is not to maintain dependency.

Fifth.  The STM team is driven based on the need in the field. This is implied by the above principles, but still worthy of note.

Sixth.  It is the responsibility of the missionary in the field to ensure that they (or designated individuals) gain from the STM trip. Far too often, groups come and go and nothing is changed because those in the field did not intentionally seek to gain long-term benefit from the trip, and do not seek to properly integrate it with the longer-term strategy.

Note:  I am NOT saying that all STM should be done this way. There is a place for “Encounter Missions.” There is a place for reminding ourselves that the church is multi-national and that we have brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world. There is a place for doing things that are not at all cost effective.

But there are times when STM makes sense from the standpoint of long-term mission work in the field.

Trust Fall

Image result for trust fall

Years ago we would do an activity that was called the Trust Fall. It was done at summer camp, at church sometimes, and in some Group Process courses in colleges and corporate team-buiding activities around the world. It is pretty simply. One person crosses their arms, and from a standing position leans backwards and allows him/herself to fall. This violates the person’s natural instincts. The goal is to override that self-protection by trusting that other members of the team will catch.

Occasionally, we would find someone who would struggle with this. They would hesitate and vacillate. Some would eventually do it, others would walk away, and still others would start to go to a sitting down position as instinct took over. In “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Mitch Ablom speaks of doing this in Sociology class and having most of the class unwilling or unable to do it… at least at first. I was never in a group where more than one or two had a problem with the exercise.

For those who would go through with it, the team would be there to save the day— usually. But not always. At Summer Camp we had a four-foot platform to stand on. One would stand on the platform and fall backward while the rest of us would be there to catch. We all took turns. My sister was on the camp staff along with myself. She got onto the platform, turned around and fell backwards. Unfortunately, we weren’t expecting her to be ready so quick so we were still goofing around as she fell. Some of us were able to react in time and slow her fall. Her head and shoulder hit the ground. We were very apologetic. She got up, climbed the ladder stood on the platform and when we were ready, fell backward again. We caught her that time.

I was always good at Trust Fall. I never had trouble with it, and in fact never really understood why some do. One might think that I am a very trusting person, but I don’t think that is the case. I have generally found that people are not particularly reliable. I find trustworthiness to be a rare quality.

So why wouldn’t I have trouble with this activity. If trust is not the reason, maybe it was invincibility. If I hit the ground, I can just bounce back up (like my sister did). In fact, in a different team activity, (Electric Fence), I summersaulted over the “electric fence” and my guys failed to catch me and I ht the ground pretty hard. But I survived. Still, I am not sure invincibility was the reason either. It certainly would not be the reason now. I guess, the reason was that I felt that the activity forced one to act like one trusts the team, so I acted as if I trusted them.  That sounds weak, but I suppose that is what faith is. Faith is know certainty. Saving faith is the recognition that I can’t do it alone, and I can’t trust others, I must trust God because I have no other choice. Most other religions are built around the idea of trust in self in one form or another. If I am good enough (heart lighter than a feather, less than 10% ‘bad,’ or something else), then I can earn eternity. Christianity gives no such position to hope in oneself. (And this makes sense to me personally, since I know that I am not particularly trustworthy either.) I trust God because I have no other choice. There is no other place worthy of my trust when it comes to eternity.

Now you may be thinking this to be a bad lesson. You may be saying, “The Trust Fall is meant to build trust in a team, NOT teach people to act as if they trust them (while not actually trusting them).” But I would like to disagree, and look at it from the standpoint of Christian Mission work.

Missions is a team sport.  It is not boxing (although boxers does have a team that stands by them in their corner). It is not running a sprint or a marathon (although runners also have trainers and supporters). Christian Mission work is most definitely a team sport, more like basketball, football, rugby, or a host of other such activities.

Every now and then, one finds a Lone Ranger missionary, a Lone Wolf missionary. This person works without a team, without accountability. Some were kicked out of a team because of lack of reliability. Some have been burned before by those who can’t be trusted and decide that they will never be burned again. Some simply “don’t play well together in the same sandbox.” I struggle what to say about that. Jesus worked as part of a team. Even when He sent his disciples out, He sent them out in twos– in temas. Paul and Barnabas worked as part of a team, and even when they broke company, they brought in others to go out as teams.

History is full of mission teams. Occasionally, a missionary will go out completely by himself or herself. I am not sure what to say about that. Bruce Olson seemed to go out on his own and serve God effectively. But that seems rare… especially rare as a successful venture.  Most recently, John Chau, went to North Sentinel Island as a Lone Ranger missionary and died there. Was this good or bad? I am still processing all of this. Maybe I will have a better answer in a few weeks. But I have to question a calling that led him to act disconnected from a supportive team. (Maybe I misunderstand the situation. As I said, I have to think about this a bit more.)

In general, however, those who treat mission work as an individual support are hardly doing Christian missions. They are doing something… maybe even something good… but hardly Christian missions. Jethro warned his son-in-law, Moses, that he needs to serve God with a team, not by himself. Elijah served as a lone prophet and burnt himself out. Finally, going before God to complain, God told him that he needed to train up someone to serve with him and replace him. That person, Elisha, appeared to have learned the lesson of Elijah, working with others (servants) and working with the school of prophets.

My wife and I have worked with many people in ministry. Working with some has been a pure joy. Working with some others in Christian missions has been highly fulfilling. In some cases, working with others was a disappointment. Some have, please excuse the dramatic language, stabbed us in the back (not many, thankfully).

This is the lesson of Trust Fall. The lesson is not that one’s team is always trustworthy and will always “catch you when you fall.” Sometimes they don’t. The lesson is that to do Trust Fall, one must act as if one trusts the others. The same is true in Christian Missions. One trusts others not based on the Pollyanna view that people will always be trustworthy. Rather, to do Christian Missions, one must work with other people. There is always a risk in this. When I was young we sang the Gospel chorus, “Christ is All I Need.” It is a nice chorus, and soteriologically true. However, not true for Christian Missions. God has called us to work together. We need each other.

To do Christian Missions, we must accept the fact that some people will fail us. And, if we are really honest with ourselves, we are not fully trustworthy to others either. We trust others because to serve God, we must.  




Therapeutic Use of Self

I have been reading “The Therapeutic Use of Self: Counseling Practice, Research and Supervision” by Val Wosket. So far it has been an interesting read. It is more for psychotherapy, but I felt that it was useful also for chaplaincy and pastoral counseling. Therefore, I wrote an article that was posted on the CPSP-Philippines website. (

You are certainly welcome to read it if you think it is valuable for your ministry. From a different angle, however, the research is suggestive of something more. The focus on methods is flawed. That flaw in psychotherapy may apply to missions as well.

  • Does it even make sense to ask the question “What is the best evangelistic method?”
  • Can one realistically argue what is the best churchplanting or church growth method?
  • Is it possible to say a mission strategy is consistently?

Taking a quote from my other article (which in turn came from Wosket),

Perhaps as well as considering ‘what approach is most effective and what can we learn from it?’ it might have been profitable for more researchers in the last few decades to have asked ‘which therapists are more effective and what can we learn from them?’

Carrying it over to missions, are we focusing on the wrong things? Roland Allen asked the question of whether we should use St. Paul’s methods (or principles) or our own?  I think a lot of what Allen said over a century ago was and is quite valid. But perhaps a better question would be “What quality traits did Paul (or Barnabas or Peter or John OR CHRIST) have that led them to be successful in ministry when others seemingly did not?”

Businesses are learning that a good resume’ does not make a good employee. Character isses such as EQ and morals/virtues and work ethic, and more are more important. What about in Missions?


Isaac and the Akedah

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”                             -Genesis 22:1-2

The Talmudic rabbis were fascinated by the Akedah Image result for akedah(The Binding of Isaac) and analyzed so many aspects of the story seeking to understand motivations and ethics of God and Abraham. St. Paul utilized the story to support the argument that “the just shall live by faith”— even Abraham was declared righteous by his faith. Kierkegaard, in “Fear and Trembling” took the story to point to a “leap of faith.” I can’t argue against the importance of the story. Abraham agrees to do the unthinkable because God told him to. We like to know why Abraham agreed. The writer of Hebrews gives an answer— but a rational justification doesn’t quite give the full picture I think.

But I am more interested with Isaac. Commentators differ, but it is pretty clear that Isaac was most likely a teenager or a young adult. And Abraham? Well, he was old. Really old. In the story in Genesis 22 it states that Abraham left his servants behind and went up the mountain with Isaac alone.

Isaac almost certainly was a willing party. It became clear to him, eventually, that there was no sacrifice except for himself. Isaac could have run, easily outrunning his father. He could have fought back, easily overpowering Abraham. But he didn’t. He allowed himself to be tied up. He may have even helped his dad place himself on the altar.

Why would he do that? I don’t think he did it as an act of obedience to God. It could be, but Isaac is not used as the ultimate example of faith and devotion to God, Abraham is.

Abraham was devoted to God, but Isaac was devoted to his dad. That has a beauty to it, but a weighty thought for a dad.

As a parent involved in missions, I recall back in 2004 when my wife and I acted on our calling and got on a plane to go to the Philippines. We brought our three children with me. Our two youngest— ages 7 and 5— had no idea where we were going. They just went willingly where we went. In a three month period, we went from a very nice house in the suburbs, to sharing one room in a relatives house in the US, to sharing a tiny place in the international dorm of a seminary in the Philippines. Over the next few years, our children were bullied by kids who saw our children as “foreign.” They grew up to feel like outsiders wherever they live. All three of them had atopic dermatitis— possibly triggered by the air pollution problems here. None have died, praise God. Two of three are over their physical problems.

Maybe their living in a different country helped them. Maybe they are better for the experience. I would like to think so, but I don’t know. We are not privy to the results of paths not taken.

But that is not the point. We came here because of God… but they didn’t. They came because of us.

That is a burden. Abraham in the end did not sacrifice Isaac. I do wonder how that affected their relationship. Did it strengthen it? Did it weaken it? I don’t know, but it certainly changed it.

To me, the most interesting thing regarding the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, was that he was a willing party. He did it not for God but for his dad. More than interesting, though— as a dad, it is scary.

Quote on Missionary Flexibility

I have suggested that the three main characteristics of a good missionary are:

  • Willingness      (a volitional quality)
  • Flexibility         (a psychological quality)Missionary qualities
  • Resiliency         (a spiritual quality)

<You may feel that “spiritual” is the wrong word, but if one accepts the definition of spiritual as the intersection of power and meaning, a lack of resiliency means either a breakdown in power/determination or wavering of meaning/purpose. Within the Christian context, such meaning/purpose is largely found in Christ.>

Focusing on the 2nd quality, psychological flexibility, the following quote is provided

“Missionary work, though it may occupy a missionary’s lifetime, is essentially temporary in nature.  The missionary always looks forward to the time when this part or that, or even the whole work will be completed. What does this mean to the missionary? It means that if he is a competent worker, one of two things will happen. Sooner or later he will have to change his location, as each job is completed; or he will have to have the mobility within himself to change his type of work as the old needs are filled and new ones present themselves. In either case he needs to be mobile.”

-Quote from Harold Cook in “Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission” by Peterson, Aeshliman, and Sneed.  p. 210-211.

This “mobility’ is essentially psycho-emotional flexibility. If the quote included cultural flexibility, I think it is approaching the broad sense of the quality in missionaries.

Imagine a World With Limits

Picture two artists tasked to create works of art.

mending the hurts
“Mending the Hurts” by Rebekah Munson 2011.  Charcoal and Colored Pencils

Artist A is given limitations. He is told that it must be a painting on a 1 meter by 1 meter canvas. He is also given time constraints– perhaps 4 weeks. Further he may be given subject constraints— perhaps the one who commissioned it is a wealthy person who wants the painting to express hope in overcoming cancer.

Artist B is given essentially no limitations. There are no guidance as to the size, or even type of art. There are no time constraints— take as long as is needed.  And there are no subject constraints— just make the artwork “awesome!”

Who is likely to create the better piece of art? Most likely it will be Artist A. That is because most of us tend not to do well with no constraints. Most of us lack the discipline to keep working as hard when no one is holding a clock to ensure that we are making progress as agreed upon. Most of us would struggle to be creative when there are no limitations in media. For example, consider the massive creativity involved to apply paint to a limited size 2-dimension surface to show great vistas of outdoor scenery, or abstract imaginings? This requires a great deal of creativity.

Essentially, creativity is the act of overcoming the limitations of media or time. How does one create a moving 2-D image on a screen, with sound) that tells a story of huge battles in outer space? Or record a chariot race in a hippodrome in a setting that had disappeared 2 millennia before the film was produced? How can words on paper or sounds in a radio play draw one into the story so effectively, that years later one cannot recall whether one read it, heard it, or watched it as a movie.

I am presently reading “The Golden Bough” by James G. Frazer. The edition I am reading is almost 800 pages long. It is a LONG book… a compendium of minutiae. On a certain level I appreciate the bits of cultural trivia that are brought together to explain culturally the somewhat obscure ritual of the Arician Grove. While I may appreciate the book, I must also believe that the book would have been stronger as a creative construct if it was about 1/3 the length. There is far too much of — Group G has this practice… and Group H has a pretty similar practice… and so does Groups I, J, and K, although contrasting somewhat with Groups L and M. The book would certainly be easier to appreciate if it was shorter. Perhaps Fraser would have said, or did say, that it needed to be that long to cover the topic fully. I have heard some preachers make the argument that they have to preach for ______ minutes because they have to say what God told them to say. But it is quite likely that they would tell what God told them to say better and more effectively if they recognized that they were limited in time and in the attention span of the recipients. Preachers would most likely be better at preaching if churches put limits on their oratory.

Now suppose, surprise surprise, that Artist B produces a better work than Artist A. Is that possible? Certainly. There is no guarantee. But Artist A is LIKELY to do better because we thrive with REASONABLE limits.  An artist who gets paid minimally for making 2 minute caricatures of people at a carnival may have too many limiters to grow beyond a certain limit. But at the same time, the limitations of that situation may still motivate the artist to hunger (literally and figuratively) for bigger things    Too great of limitations MAY crush the creative spirit, but it can also act as a fire the drives growth.

But suppose that Artist B (without limitations) does do a better job than Artist A (with limitations) at that time.  What if the situation repeats itself? Who will improve the most? Almost certainly Artist A. Pushing against the limitations of media, subject, and time, exercises the creative “muscles.” Artist A is likely to grow as an artist through the discipline provided. It is likely that A will overtake B, all else being equal.

Sometimes there seems to be exceptions to this. The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, designed by Anton Gaudi, seems like an exception– an extravagant piece of art with very little constraints. Almost a century later, the building still is not complete. The Taj Mahal, and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel seem to point to greatness coming from no limitations. But my argument is that creativity grows through constraints. The artist grows through limitations… and in this culture of limitations and discipline, growth occurs. That creative growth and discipline provides the environment for an artist to shine if many of the limitations are removed. (I would still argue that time constraints are still needed… the Sagrada Familia’s century of build is hard to justify as a design project.)

Ministry is creative as well. And in a similar manner we need limitations.

It is good to have time and money limitations. I have seen ministry projects where money and time were not key constraints. The results were wasteful and sloppy. It is also good to have people who provide limitations through guidance and accountability. We simply do better with those things.

But suppose you are one of those unfortunate people in ministry that does not have a lot of accountability or constraints… what can you do? Well, you can create constraints.

  • If asked to speak/preach somewhere, ask for the topic. If they say to speak on whatever you would prefer, seek preferences or find out what are the concerns. It is comfortable, and lazy, to fall back into one’s own favorite topics.
  • If others don’t place limits on you, such as for preaching, set them for yourself. Maybe aim for a 20 minute or 30 minute sermon. While there are some cultures that appreciate longer sermons (especially where oratory is more of a performance art, rather than an act of prophetic ministry), most groups lose attention soon past 30 minutes. Don’t fall in love with your voice so much that you think the longer you speak the more effective you are.
  • If you head an organization, place people over you. Billy Graham established a board over him who guided him and even determined his pay. In the mission field, missionaries sometimes are in a position where no one (at least no one within a few thousand miles) has oversight. If you have none, find some.
  • Develop accountability partners. Today, some pastors serve in churches where there is no one they are accountable to. The same is true of missionaries— especially now that we are in an era where some missionaries are self-sent.
  • Tighten the limitations. If one has 10,000 dollars to accomplish something, establish a budget of $7,000. That not only gives you $3,000 for emergency, but it also pushes you to find creative solutions.
Of course, every time one gives advice, one risks someone (strangely) taking the advice too much to heart. I have known medical missions here in the Philippines that are very wasteful… depending on foreign medicines and foreign professionals, to say nothing are burning money wherever they go. Yet there are other ones that cut TOO many corners. They use expired medicines or doctors samples, and use underqualified medical professionals. Creativity is driven by oversight that sets limitations, but also maintains quality control.

I hope you will look for opportunities to be limited in your ministry!


Ministerial Recovery

We all fail sometimes. Sometimes the failure is minor… sometimes it can be spectacular. Sometimes one has control over the situation of the failure, and sometimes not.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failures are great opportunities to grow. But not all failures are equal to each other. Consider three forms of failure.

  1.  Failure of Vision. A minister lacks visiona clear vision or perhaps the minister’s vision proves to be leading in the wrong direction.
  2. Failure of Competence.  A minister lacks the skill-set and/or experience for what he/she is doing.
  3. Failure of Trustworthiness. The minister violates trust by cheating, or breaking a promise.

The last one, failure of trustworthiness needs a bit of explanation. After all, to fail in doing what one promises to do is not automatically a trustworthy issue, in my opinion. For me trustworthiness has to do with the martial virtues– Courage (doing what is right despite fear), Duty (doing what is right regardless of preference), and Honor (doing what is right despite lack of oversight). Failure in these virtues is a failure of trustworthiness. These failures are all very different.

What is easiest to personally correct?

Trustworthiness Failure. In theory this can be done quickly with repentance. However, in practice it can take awhile because failure in the area of trustworthiness will continue to be a temptation during stress. Ministry has lots of stresses.

Vision Failure. Nehemiah went from no vision to a very clear vision in four months. Paul and Moses got at least a start of a vision in a very quick event (Damascus Road and Burning Bush), even if they needed new vision adjustments periodically. I believe vision is a human AND divine activity. Ultimately, a lack of vision I believe is a failure on the human side, rather than the divine side. But it is correctable.

Competence Failure. Training, mentoring, and experience can be gained in a few months to a few years.

What is the easiest to recover from?

Vision Failure. People will commonly accept the transition from a muddy vision to a clear vision, or a change of direction, especially if the change can be clearly articulated.

Competence Failure. People generally understand that people start out without skills and knowledge. They may wait awhile for the person to prove himself/herself but another chance will normally be given.

Trustworthiness Failure. Some understand and give another chance and some don’t. We don’t know why John Mark quit on the first missionary journey… but probably an issue of lack of courage or duty. His uncle Barnabas was ready quickly to give him a second chance. Paul, on the other hand took a few years to warm up to him. Some will never forget a failure of trustworthiness.

What do we tend to emphasize?

Competence.  Preparation for ministry often focuses on learning skills and doctrine.

Depends. Some focus more on morals or trustworthiness, while others more on calling/vision. Either way, they are often given less priority than ministerial competence.

What failure is most risky?

Trustworthiness Failure.  Regardless of whether one is in charge or a worker bee, a failure in this area can sour future opportunities for ministry (especially if due to failure in terms of honor).

The Others. One can learn as a mentee (protege or apprentice) without a lot of risk. Additionally, in that role, one doesn’t really need to have a clear vision. One can learn while working helping another’s vision. These are bigger issues if the person is a leader.