Volunteers work alongside local volunteers to distribute and hang chemically treated mosquito nets in Ghana. (Photo: BGAV Mission Development)
Short-term mission teams are often criticized.
Those who question this approach can cite plenty of evidence: projects left undone, harmful things said or done by volunteers, concepts of superiority and privilege that ooze from team members, undue stress created when demands of the volunteers exceed the capacities of the receiver, and on and on the list could go.
When volunteers depart, the host is left with the sometimes impossible task of repairing the damage.
Many horrible, even disgusting, things have been said and done in the name of short-term missions.
Fortunately, many, but not all, organizations have learned their lessons. They have taken steps to improve the experience for volunteers, partners and those they are attempting to serve.
Short-term mission teams have proven to be beneficial to all parties involved: sending congregations, volunteers, receiving organizations and those receiving aid.
But, it does require a concerted effort that many choose to ignore if it is going to meet its goals and truly be a blessing for all involved.
There is no magic pill or definitive process that will remove the risks that volunteers bring to the table when working in an unfamiliar culture or in places that take them out of their "comfort zones."
However, there are certain practices that greatly reduce the possibilities for bad experiences.
The Baptist General Association of Virginia has discovered several components that create an environment that will allow for the best experience possible for everyone involved.
These same principles apply whether the team is traveling halfway around the world or halfway across town.
1. Work with local, indigenous organizations, churches or individuals in the field.
While we value much of the work of non-indigenous missionaries serving overseas and hold their calling in high regard, we will always default to the local church.
Our strategy typically begins with conversations among the national Baptist bodies of a country.
From those dialogues, we discover the hopes, dreams, plans and strategies that already exist and find avenues where we might be able to come alongside and provide assistance.
Sometimes we discover that there might not be a need for us to send volunteers or that their strategies and priorities don't match ours at that particular time.
By having the open, honest dialogue in the beginning we can avoid problems in the future.
2. Have a long-term plan from the outset.
We rarely get involved in projects that are temporary or short-lived unless that project is part of a larger strategy set forth by the local leadership.
We like to stay involved for the long haul. This creates an environment much more conducive to relationship, trust, honest critique and mutual respect.
Even if the initial engagement with a country arises through a disaster situation, which may require several short-lived and "quick hitting" projects (still coordinated with local leadership), we plan to stick around long after many other organizations have come and gone with very little long-term effects to show for their efforts.
This long-term plan also comes with a clear "exit strategy," which is vitally important so that both volunteers and receivers understand the limits and respective responsibilities.
3. Listen to local leadership and follow their lead when it comes to what and how they desire to do things.
Many times we, as Americans, believe that we know the best way to do everything. We don't.
There are always cultural, financial, environmental or even spiritual reasons why different cultures do things the way in which they do them.
If a team doesn't honor that fact, then the potential arises for the creation of a lack of trust; respect and relationships are placed in jeopardy.
4. Prepare the volunteer team for the experience.
We make sure they understand the guidelines above, know how we treat our partners on the field and how we expect each member of the team to honor that process.
Anything they do that is counter to the process runs the risk of damaging the relationship, trust and respect that we have worked hard to attain.
The overwhelming concerns of most volunteers deal with logistics: travel, lodging, costs and so on.
We address those issues and make sure everyone is comfortable with the trip, but we spend as much time talking about the relationship as anything else.
Our desire is to help the volunteers recognize that God is already at work in that place and that they have the opportunity to join God (and the people already in place) in that work.
We want them to see the connection to what has already been done by locals as well as what has been done by teams that have gone before them and teams that will come after.
One of our main goals is to assist the partner on the field and the volunteer to build a relationship that will allow them to continue engaging one another long after the experience has past.
We still have church groups traveling to places where the BGAV has long since ended the "formal" partnership because of the relationship that was formed.
This is not a definitive, exhaustive list of "things to do," but rather an organic process that might look differently with each team or partner.
The ingredients mentioned above have proven crucial in all of our experiences, and we make certain we include all of these wherever we go.
Dean Miller is mission development staff coordinator at the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series on missions and local churches / denominational organizations.
Previous articles in the series are:
Sharing the Gospel, Saving Lives in West African Nation
CBF of Georgia Connects Youth to Mission Projects
How Your Church Can Break the Fortress Mentality
Sustaining Ministries Through Indigenous Missionary Support
Cooks on a Mission Shares Love of Christ Through Food
Missouri Baptist Church Meets Medical Needs in Guatemala
Teaching Missions to Kids in Our Self-Centered Culture
Health Professionals Serve Through Short-Term Missions