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.

Struggles with Short-Term Missions

A lot of Short-term Mission teams come from “The West” to the Philippines. And quite a few STM teams leave the Philippines to serve in other parts of the world as well.

And they can do genuine good. When they come in as genuine partners of local ministries, when they come in with welcome skills (especially) and resources, when there is a humbleness of spirit, such teams are great. The best teams, from what I have seen, are small… less than 10. Some of the best ones are just 2 or 3 people– there for transfer of specific needed skills. STM can also be a reminder that the church is not merely local, it is universal– it is not merely united, it is diversified.

But then there are other STM teams. They are a different story. There are many sub-stories in this, but I would focus on five groups. These groups are somewhat related and overlapping.

  1.  Churchy Vacationers. People who join STM often have jobs or school, and so are investing their limited vacations in the trip. But even though it is vacation time, it is still not vacation. Some focus on sight-seeing and creature comforts. Others are shutterbugs taking pictures of (exploiting) people who are struggling. It is tempting, and in many parts of the world, the rules of hospitality can make this attitude seem okay for STMers. At the other end of the spectrum, rarely, one can see the opposite where a STM trip was set up to work, work, work, and leave. However, a properly designed STM trip is more like work, work, fun, work.  Mixing a bit of fun with the work will also help make the work more fun.
  2. Cultural Critics. Some come as (very poorly trained) cultural anthropologists. They bring their ethnocentric views of their home with them, and can’t help but note how the food is not as good in their ministry location as it is at home– How the people are so “primitive”– How their houses are so crude, their clothes so odd, and their work so unorganized. Of course, a good cultural anthropologist would not come in and critique compared to one’s own culture. And in STM, one is not generally in a location long enough to critique competently anyway. Even if one is competent, it is commonly wise to keep one’s mouth shut anyway. None of us really enjoy outsiders coming in a disrespecting our country or culture.
  3. Unwitting Burdeners. Some STMers come in and want to help. But too many people helping too much can prove a very big burden on the locals. A team of 15, for example need to be fed, housed, and driven around. Even if the team comes with finances to cover the costs of their stay, the visit can still be a logistical nightmare, and a drain to time, and energy. When we have had short-term mission teams come, I have talked to my church here first, and let them know that it is likely that the STMers will gain more from the experience than the church. Is that okay? That understanding up front really can help. I have seen short-term mission trips where the host got the impression that the STM trip would be a financial and ministerial boon for them. It may or may not be true, but it is certainly not a healthy attitude regardless.
  4. Visionary Dominators. Sometimes, STM teams come in with a clear vision of what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. In many cases, the local hosts are seen more as means to accomplish their vision, rather than partners in ministry. Since locals are experts of what is needed, typically, the vision should come more from them. Often locals have a greater sense of what needs to be done, but are not able to bring that across to the STM mobilizers who are dictating what will be done.

Often STM is touted as a great boon for missions, or even a substitute for a long-term mission presence. Such views are far too rosy. A more realistic view is needed. On the other hand, some see STM as a problem, or at best a good way to inspire the members of the STM team to greater missions awareness. That may be true, but short-term missions can be far more than that.

Missionaries to 3 Churches and the “Can Do” Church

Four ChurchesThere has been a growing trend to raise up the importance of short-term missionaries. Nothing wrong with that, except that it has often been tied to a de-emphasis of long-term missionaries. Related to short-term missionaries has been the church’s move toward short-term thinking. This has seen itself in the increase of “project missions.” In this, churches do not send or support missionaries, but support individual short-term projects.

There are problems with overemphasis on short-term missionaries and projects. Some are, I would like to think, fairly obvious. Problems include

  1. the breakdown of relationality between churches in different parts of the world,
  2. need for people to coordinate short-term projects and personnel for long-term transformation,
  3. the necessity of a bicultural bridge.
  4. a dual role (emic and etic) viewpoint of needs in the mission field, tied to understanding what outsiders can and cannot help with.

But there is more.. Consider where missionaries, on some level are needed. See the above Figure. Think of each hexagon as a type of church.

  • The first church is the Church that Is Not. This church does not exist in the real world, only in the mind of God. Missionaries are needed to evangelize, churchplant, disciple, establish leadership (and move on). This Missionary Role is shown by Arrow “A” moving people to the second church. One could call this PIONEERING.
  • The second church is the Church that Is but Has Not. This church exists, but some aspects of its God-ordained ministry it has not embraced… yet. Some of these may may be pastoral care, theological education, community development, social justice, evangelism, ministering to sub-cultures and missionary outreach. There are many more. Missionaries can inspire, train and provide “tooling” for the church to embrace its role (moving from has not to has). This is shown by Arrow “B” moving people to the third church. One could call this PARENTING.
  • The third church is Church that Has but Cannot. This church can take care of its own people, as well as do a wide variety of ministries in its community. There are, however, some ministries that it doesn’t do, because it cannot. It lacks specific materials, as well as financial and skilled human resources. Some of these might include radio ministries, orphanages, livelihood centers and hospitals. In these cases, missionaries may need a longer presence, but with the intentional plan towards gradual transfer of resources and skills to this church to move it to the fourth church. This is shown by Arrow “C”, and could be described as PARTNERING.
  • The fourth church is the Can Do Church. The church has moved to the point that it has no real NEED to receive missionaries. That does not mean that there cannot be missionaries helping in some way with some aspects of the work. In this case the missionary is not doing classic missions but is assisting or PARTICIPATING in what this church is doing. This is shown by the broken line Arrow “D”.

Where can short-term missionaries come in? All four arrows, all four “churches.” However, how many of these can a short-term missionary (or STM team) serve without long-term missionaries supporting and bridging their activities? Really only Arrow D. Arrow D is where the STM team participates with the work of a Can Do Church. There may be some very specific ways in which short-termers can do Arrow B (parenting) without long-term missionaries, but for the most part, Arrows A, B, and C really need long-term missionaries working with both STM and the associated “churches.”

Where can project mentality really work? Again, Arrow D is the most obvious one. Mission projects can be linked to the Can Do church to participate in their broader and longer-term vision and mission. To a lesser extent, projects may be able to effectively Parenting in some ways under Arrow B with the Has Not church. However, projects are not appropriate for Arrows A (Pioneering) and C (Partnering).

NOTE: I am using the four Ps (Pioneering, Parenting, Partnering, and Participating) a bit different that in used by others. They link it strictly to church planting and building. I am tying to the broader church cycle. As such the terms are a wee bit awkward. Especially awkward is “parenting” when it pertains to projects and short-term missionaries. However, when connected to longer-term missionary programs, this one also makes sense… sort of.

STM: Between Colonialism and Paternalism

One of the wonderful things about studying Missions is that no one really knows what they are doing. Whenever one messes up… one is in good company. This is all too evident in Short-Term Missions.

Unbridled Enthusiasm: Some churches now see the future as the demise of the long-term, cross-cultural missionary. Some of those in this category are the “Just Send Money” folks… where resources flow to local ministers, while keeping foreigners away. (Curiously, they don’t mind local ministers coming to “Christian countries” to be trained… maintaining a toxic inequity… but that is for another day.)  Others see the demise of long-term missionaries with its replacement by Short-termers. The inherent limitations of STM for long-term program partnerships and outreaches is actually pretty obvious. The need for bi-cultural individuals to serve as liaison between STMers and local hosts should be evident to most. Add to that the challenges of ethnocentric clashes, “religious tourists,” and economic inefficiencies, and it becomes clear that a strategy built solely around short-term mission is doomed. Even other religions that build much of their missions strategy around STM (or at least MTM) such as LDS still have long term site coordinators.

Unbridled Antipathy.  Some go the other way. Some cite the cost. Some cite the lack of training of participants and the ultimate inability of STMers to do long-term work. Additionally, there is the thought of some that feel that STMers do more damage than good. Some see the tendency of Christians using STM as more of a vacation than a mission as a problem.

For the unbridled antipathy, perhaps a a testimony would help.

1. Back in 2003, I joined a team of ten that went to Londrina, Brazil (a beautiful place). We helped build a church there. It was part of a partnership between the Parana Convention of Southern Baptist Churches, and the Baptist General Assembly of Virginia. The partnership was long-term, each helping each other in different ways. The trip helped to inspire me to be involved in missions and eventually led to my family and I going to the Philippines.

2.  In 2009/2010, in response to typhoon damage in the Philippines, our mission board sent over Chaplain Charlie Benton. He provided training for our team to do crisis stress defusing. This was a big help, and has moved us forward allowing us to help out with a number of crises in the Philippines. This particular STM mission has made us far more effective in the following years.

These two stories I believe attack the antagonism of those who do not value STM. The first story points out that STM can be of value to the STMer. This cannot be ignored. I grew from the experience and that provides some genuine justification for STM. The second story shows that short-term missions can genuinely help long-term. Additionally, both point out that STM can be a strong aspect of a longer term relationship between Christians in different countries. STM has its value.

But there there are two implied concerns that need to be addressed as well.

A.  Fear of Colonialism. A colony is a region that is ruled/owned by outsiders. These outsiders utilize the colony primarily for its own benefit. Related to missions, there is the fear that STMers go to a foreign country and gain from it… with loss for those in the mission field. (Seems to be a bit of Christian “Marxism” here… the presumption that if one group of people gain in an exchange, then the other group must lose.) There can be an aspect of reality to this. However, the fear is a bit misguided. When we have short-termers coming to the Philippines, I have told people in our local church in Baguio that those coming are likely to learn/gain from us more than we will learn/gain from them. I ask the people whether they will embrace their role as trainers of those that come? With at most (perhaps) one exception, the alleged recipients were happy to help those who came to help. Short-term missions should not be parasitic… STMers should not be there to selfishly hurt. But one should not be afraid that the short-term missionaries gain from the experience more than the recipients of the mission.

B.  Fear of Paternalism. A more recent fear is that when the “haves” (whoever or whatever they are) help the “have nots” (or “have less”) it could be for the wrong reason and create a toxic relationship. In a sense this is the opposite of the first. One is fear of the “haves” gaining from the “have nots,” while the other is fear of unequal relationships that may demean the recipient.

But if you think about it, the two kind of negate each other. Paternalism creates the presumption that missions recipients have less, while the colonial presumption is that they have more. Bringing the two together shows that it is NOT about haves and have nots, but “HAVE DIFFERENTS.”

However, related to both colonialism and paternalism is the presumption of inequity of power. This is a more realistic concern. However, if we embrace the idea of each having different resources, the inequity of power only really exists is we support such a belief (through stereoptypes, prejudices, and policies).

If Christians around the world edify each other through missions, rather than viewing certain groups has having and others as needing, one does not have to have such fears.

10 Years in the Philippines: Reflections Past and Present

I and my family have been serving in the Philippines for 10 years. I found some colored papers with my handwriting on it. It was reflections from the first two weeks in the Philippines (back in early 2004).

Days 1-8.

We have been in the Philippines for 13 days. The first 8 days we spent in Alabang and Cavite, just south of Manila. We have seen Laguna Bay from the 31st floor of our hotel. We have seen squatter neighborhoods where families live in a level of poverty that we Americans cannot fathom. We have seen the Taal volcano, a small active volcano which is an island in a lake which has formed within the crater of a much larger volcano. Manila is the center of everything in the Philippines. It has the richest and the poorest of the nation. We over 11 million people, Manila ranks among the largest cities in the world. The heavy smog and equally heavy traffic jams do little to dampen the generally pleasant dispositions of its inhabitants. But what is the most memorable thing about Manila? The city has gigantic shopping malls that put malls in the US to shame. They are gigantic multi-story architectural works of art, filled with almost everything. They are not merely places for buying clothes and food. They have large entertainment areas, worship services, sporting events, and huge food courts. In tropical Manila, air-conditioning is still for the homes of the privileged but in the malls, it is a free gift for the masses. They are crowded at all hours with Filipinos, many having no interest in purchasing, but simply enjoying the sights and sounds in air-conditioned splendor.

Day 9.

We decided to rent a driver and van to drive us to Baguio City rather than take a bus since we had so much luggage. It took us about 9 hours including a long lunch break in Tarlac. Baguio City is only about 130 miles from where we were staying in Cavite. So, outside of lunch, why did it take so long? That’s the way it is in the Philippines. First we had to traverse the 24 hour a day gridlock that is Manila. Then we had beautiful super highway driving through the Provinces of Bulacan and Pampanga. Pampanga is where Celia was born and spent her early years. But no time to stop now, have to visit another day. At Angeles City (downwind of Mt. Pinatubo) the expressway ends and we are sharing narrow roads with all manner of car and truck, bicycle, bus, jeepney and tri-car. Especially irksome are the tri-cars. These are small motorcycles with side cars. They act as mini-taxis carrying 1-5 people (not including the driver). They slow us down a lot. We pass through the Provinces of Tarlac, and Pangasinan and La Union.

In Tarlac in the Province of Tarlac, we and our driver stopped to eat. We spent maybe an hour and a half at Max’s Restaurant. (In the Philippines, food is meant to be enjoyed, not merely eaten). Then we hit the Province of Benguet. Until then everything was flat coastal plain. Now suddenly springs up these mile high rugged mountains. We snake our way up into these mountains. Some of the construction costs must have been amazing. In one area the risk of landslide was apparently so great, that they built a long concrete roof over that stretch followed by a long bridge curving along the mountain but keeping the road up and off the rock face. After an hour and a half of this we see a mountain that looks different from the rest. Other mountains have rocky tops with trees, grass, tree ferns and such growing on them, but this new mountain is covered with buildings. As we draw closer we see there are several mountains covered with buildings separated by steep ravines– also covered with buildings. In between these buildings are narrow, twisting, steep roads full of people and diesel vehicles. Sadly, the diesel vehicles need serious tune-ups. The temperature is mild year around. The attitude is different here. Many dress in clothes more reminiscent of the Western states. Many wear Western-style jackets, boots, and listen to Country-Western music. But you aren’t in Kansas anymore. Baguio city is like no other.

Day 10.

We settle into our house. We have, in this chaotic city, a peaceful tiny apartment which is part of a bigger house owned by Celia’s family. We have no heating or cooling, but in Baguio they aren’t really needed. Like most Filipinos, we have no hot water heater. We also have no car— which is a blessing. First, public transportation is excellent. Second, the people drive like maniacs. Traffic laws are suggestions only. Strangely, in 13 days, I have seen no accidents. I can only see one reason for this lack of catastrophe. There seems to be no road rage here. In the US, people become indignant when cut off on the road. US drives tend to get aggressive and foolhardy over trite offenses. In the Philippines, if someone is cut off on the road… “Bahala na” or “No worries.” Everyone cuts off everyone else at some point. It doesn’t mean anything. The use of the horn is a normal and healthy part of driving. In the US it tends to be looked upon as a personal affront.

Days 11-13.

These are days for shopping, visiting the seminary, visiting relatives, and so forth. We won’t bore you with all of this. The seminary is beautiful. We look forward to starting with summer classes in late April. On day 13, we stopped by the Baptist church near our house, the one Celia was saved in 31 years ago. We talked with Pastor _A__ and he introduced us to ___B__, a lay leader in the church. ___B___ had been in the US Navy and had served on the same ship I was on (but at a different time). He is now retired in the Philippines and works at doing mission work in rural areas. He is preparing a medical/dental trip to Iloilo later in April and another one to Palawan in June. We went to his house Friday evening for a Purpose-Driven Life group meeting. The church is finishing up its campaign. They had about 30 cell groups formed for PDL. One girl was saved at the meeting we attended.

Reading these notes from 10 years ago, I note a few interesting things.

  1. As far as basic information, it is fairly accurate, although not particularly insightful. There are a few minor factual errors, and some things that were true then that are no longer true. But most of the observations are pretty surface level. Some of the deeper insights may have came from my wife (who was raised in the Philippines) or from travel books.
  2. Almost nothing important that was going on in my inner life was noted here. I remember leaving the airport on day 1 and riding in a car through rough neighborhoods and feeling the nervousness of being in a very 3rd-world nation. I remember being put (by my brother-in-law and family) the next day in a fancy hotel and feeling so out-of-place there… a room of marble. The juxtposition of poverty and wealth was disorienting and I felt out of place in both. I felt the terror of our young children trying to look over the rail of the hollow hotel that wold lead to a potential 20+ story fall. I remember the frustration of traffic and smog, of slow-moving traffic, and of taking so long for lunch when we were (in my mind) running so late. I remember a generalized sense of dread… wondering if we were in the right place, and whether I was right to quit my job, leave a comfortable house, and move to a place where we all were living in one tiny room, and we were spending more than we were earning (via missions support). This is what was real… not the little notes about roads and provinces.
  3. I am surprised at how much of our present was set into place in the first two weeks. The house we stayed in for only a few days upon arrival in Baguio has since become our home of 9 years. The seminary we visited back then has become a central part of both our training and our ministry up until the present. The church we visited was our church for three years (and school for our children for about the same amount of time). The other person we met was our ministry partner from 2004 until 2009, and set in motion much of what we are still doing even today.

Pulling these thoughts together, Despite being scary, it still was a time of affirmation and preparation. Even in the first two weeks, we were being trained and prepared by God for His work. It occurs to me that a lot of Short-term missions are around 2-weeks long. It occurs to me that God can do a lot of training and preparation in STMers… if they are willing to feel, listen, and learn.

Don’t Get Out of the Pool

The church can be involved in missions on several levels. Here are three.

1.  Pooling

Pooling is pretty obvious. Churches pool their resources, particularly their money… giving them to an outside body, such as a denominational organization or  non-denominational mission agency. The involvement of the church in missions is extremely limited.

Relationship with missionaries/ministry sites:            NONE

Church Training Needed:        NONE


Missions Promotion:          ANNUALLY (BUDGET TIME) BUT NON-SPECIFIC

Mission Locations:             SOMEONE ELSE’S CONCERN

2.  Participating. 

With participating, members of the church go on missions and serve on mission trips. Commonly, the work is short-term with little to no long-term strategy (at least from the church side).

Relationship with missionaries/ministry sites:            SHORT-TERM


Strategy:           SHORT-TERM SPECIFIC

Missions Promotion:          AS NEEDED SPECIFIC

Missions Locations:           SHORT-TERM SPECIFIC

3.  Partnering.

With partnering, the church is actively involved in missions work. There is an attempt to be part of the strategizing and planning and to develop a long-term ministry (either regionally or ministerially).

Relationship with missionaries/ministry sites:            LONG-TERM

Church Training Needed:        MINISTRY OR REGIONALLY SPECIFIC

Strategy:           LONG-TERM SPECIFIC


Missions Locations:           LONG-TERM SPECIFIC AND STRATEGIC


I would suggest that a healthy church missions program has all three tiers making a complete pyramid. I think that it is good for churches to support missions outside of themselves. I also think it is good to support short-term mission sites as special opportunities arise. Not everything has to be long-term and strategic. But it would also be good for churches to be actively involved in strategic missions. Ideally, all three exist locally, regionally, and internationally.

At the pooling level, there is no differentiation between the different regions. However, in participating missions, it starts to matter as to region, and it becomes even more important at the partnering level.

Summing it up, a church should seek to be involved in multiple regions in multiple ways. However, being involved at higher levels of strategy and involvement should not mean removing the foundational aspects of the pyramid (as shown). Churches should be involved in missions, but please “Don’t get out of the pool.”