I am a mission trips veteran. I have been on a total of 20 mission trips with high school students. It’s been a wild ride. Mostly because I’m a slow learner and I’ve taken my bumps and bruises along the way (many self-inflicted). Here are three tips on how to best prepare for long-term mission trip success:
1. Your adult leaders are your greatest asset
Aside from Jesus and my wife, my adult leaders are the greatest people I know. I’ve laughed with them, cried with them, and shared my life with them. They have seen me at my worst and my best; I wouldn’t have it any other way! Picking the right adult leaders is single-handedly the most important thing I have done for the health of my ministries. I would take 10 super naughty teenage kids over one dramatic and destructive adult leader. So, how do you go about this process? It’s actually pretty easy if you stick to a few key principles:
- I have always loved Doug Fields’ quote, “Your adult leaders should LOVE Jesus and at least LIKE kids.” It’s funny because it’s true. Not everyone is fit for the job. Always require adults who are considering volunteering for a mission trip to come to your youth group for several weeks. That way they can see what they’re in for and you can evaluate if they are a good fit.
- Don’t advertise for adult leaders. Tap shoulders. Get to know adults in your congregation and feel out if they would be a good fit or not. Lay out the details and requirements of the mission trip experience in writing so they know what they are getting into.
Fun-note: We have established a yearlong group chat between adult leaders that allows us to share triumphs and tragedies and share life together. And we also have seriously competitive emoji battles! I also host a leaders training twice a year at my house and my wife and I cook out, and my son shares some serious dance moves for entertainment.
2. It’s OK to say “NO” to a student
I’m not talking about the naughty teen that loses their mind on the mission trip. There’s nothing you can do about that. I’m talking about the preventable ones. The ones you know will cause damage to a trip. It’s better not to take them and pour into them in other ways. Because, believe me, a bad mission trip experience gets around once you are back and next years crop of kids will likely not be as interested or excited. I used to try to get any and all students to go on our mission trips. I used to think that the bigger the trip the better it will be…boy was I wrong. That philosophy has almost always gotten me into trouble. In my eyes, a mission trip is a privilege, not a right. A GREAT trip with fewer kids leads to a bigger trip the following year. Set up expectations for the kid(s) you say NO to. “Suzie, I don’t believe you are ready for a mission trip yet and here’s why…” Set parameters so they have something to shoot for the following year. Carefully and lovingly saying no will help you in the long run. I will usually call the parent and share my thoughts with them. That helps a lot.
3. Establish your non-negotiables and stick to them
As church workers, we tend to want to be people pleasers. I know I am one. But for years I have been able to say out loud to large groups of people, “If you are not willing to follow these rules then don’t come,” with freedom. This is because I picked my non-negotiables and have stuck with them. There was pushback for a few years. But now, for the most part, the rules I have in place are generally accepted because the trips are highly valued. Here are my non-negotiables: We take cell phones at the beginning of the trip and hand them out for 10 minutes each night. They are kept in a lock-box and parents have all the adult leader numbers in case of emergency. I will never change this rule. It has been a good non-negotiable for many years and it keeps the students focused on the next two non-negotiables… We play hard but we worship hard. We will be the BEST behaved group at camp and we will worship and work with all we have. Then go ahead and have a blast in between. I simply demand it from my students, my adult leaders, and most of all from myself. We will do everything together. Period. Of course, there are exceptions like work sites and bathroom emergencies on the road. Otherwise, if in doubt, togetherness is the answer. So, there you have it. These three principles have worked well for me for a long time. I hope these suggestions help you to think about building your trips for the long-term.
- How can you take these three tips and use them in your ministry?
- Do any of these tips just simply not work for you? Why?
- Do you have adults in your congregation that fit the description of a good mission trip leader? What is preventing you from asking them?