Effective Tips For Short-Term Mission Trips (Tips 1 – 5 | Before The Trip)

You’re likely here because you’re either gearing up for a mission trip or contemplating one. I’m eager to share the insights from my own journeys with you. With 20 years in youth ministry under my belt and participation in over 15 short-term mission trips—11 of which I led—I’ve amassed considerable experience.  I am not trying to brag or share that I am an expert, just experienced.  My leadership has spanned local missions in my own city, domestic ventures to cities like New York and Denver, rural outreach in Native American reservations, and international projects in places such as Peru, Canada, and Northern Ireland. I’ve managed teams ranging from 10 to nearly 40 members, involving middle schoolers, high schoolers, and families, working with mission agencies or independently navigating the process. Reflecting on the last five missions I directed, I realized that we collectively raised over $300,000 through fundraising. I’ve clearly navigated the spectrum of mission work, recognizing the immense value these short-term trips hold.  Again I would not call myself an expert but I wanted to share what I learned from my years of experience (and mistakes).

I have learned many valuable lessons through errors along the way, and it’s those lessons I aim to pass on to you—to spare you from the same pitfalls. When I first started in youth ministry, resources on mission trips were scarce. One simply registered with an agency without much guidance on what to look for or even if partnering with an agency was the best route.  In my neck of the woods, most youth pastors didn’t go on many mission trips, or they just returned to the same place every year.  So allow me to ease your process by offering you practical advice that only comes with extensive experience.

Before we can begin, I must share two things.

First, I am not here to convince you or your church/leadership of the importance of short-term mission trips.  I have heard all the arguments for short-term trips: “cause more damage than helps,” “too expensive for our church,” “are not needed, you can experience all of that at home,” and more.  But let me cut right to the chase… anyone who doesn’t see the value of short-term mission trips has either never gone on one or at least been on a good one.  I will argue the value of mission trips with anyone.  I have seen more positive impacts on a short-term mission trip than any message series, program, camp, or relationship that I can offer to a student.  There is simply no substitute for the experience of being out of your comfort zone and being used by God in real-time, like a mission trip.  But that is not what this post is about (feel free to contact me if you disagree).

Second, this is not a complete list.  This is NOT “how to lead a mission trip,” which is a much larger conversation.  This list is for people who are already planning on going (or starting the process) and want to get the most out of the work you put into it, plus some tips to keep you out of trouble… So again, this is not a complete list; it is just the tips I wish I had known when I was first leading trips.

This is Part 1: Before The Trip.  Keep these in mind before you leave.  

ONE: Create Ownership By Letting Your Student Leaders Decide The Location

If you want to create more ownership and increase involvement many, many months before, get your student leaders involved (or the students who are most likely to go on the trip) and set up a meeting to prayerfully consider where to go.  Most times, I choose the agency and then offer 10 locations with pros and cons, and then we pray about each, then we discuss, do some more praying, and by the end, have a location chosen.  I try not to break it down with a simple vote (because then the losers become bitter) but more a discussion until there is a group consensus. Sometimes I make the final decision from the top two, but what this does is build instant ownership from the students you are influential and will be your main promotion in the future.

TWO: The Bigger The Group, The More Need For A Missions Agency

You might have a friend or contact from a local church or maybe even a partnership.  But it’s been my experience that any group bigger than 10 people in an established missions agency is easier, safer, and most times better.  A local church/contact who doesn’t host groups very often tends to be overwhelmed with all the logistics.   It’s a lot to put on a trip, including food, transportation, schedule, mission coordination, etc.  A missions agency takes care of all of that so you can focus on leading and equipping your team.  There have been a few of my trips where there just wasn’t enough food or ministry jobs for our team size because the lovely, kind, but not detailed pastor didn’t plan accordingly which really negatively affected our trip.

THREE: Have Monthly Team Meetings To Prepare Your Team

Never treat a mission trip like summer camp – all you have to do is get them there.  That way of thinking is dangerous and ineffective.  It creates the narrative that short-term mission trips are not worth it (and treating them as just another event shows it’s not).  So, instead, they should treat it as a much bigger commitment for the leaders and the students.  Starting AT LEAST 6 months out (foreign mission trips I start 10 months) schedule monthly team meetings that are required to attend if a person wants to go on the trip.  At these meetings, we do some spiritual preparation (focusing on God and not ourselves, preparing us spiritually), team-building activities to build trust, fundraising, and other logistical needs. I also make every member, leader, or student share their faith story.  Most of the time, it’s the first time each student has ever done it, so I will give some training and examples on how to do it.  It’s always a joy to hear people’s faith stories and bond with the group.   The purpose of these meetings is to prepare for the trip spiritually, physically, emotionally, and relationally.  These people are going to be living with each other for maybe over a week.  They need to trust one another and know each other.  These meetings help with conflict resolution, building team unity, giving information to parents (which helps build trust with them), communicating the vision, and keeping people moving toward the trip.  A trip without regular team meetings is a trip that is limited in its potential.

I also invite parents to all team meetings, and they are usually the first couple they attend, which is another crucial trust-building opportunity for you.

FOUR: Don’t Draw From The Same Well With Fundraising

Fundraising is a big aspect of every trip; it’s one of the main reasons why groups don’t go on trips in the first place!  A big resource is support letters (there are a million good examples online), but you can’t send out support letters to all the same 10 families and then ask them to come to a potato feed dinner and give more.  So, be creative in your fundraising.  I tend to have one big “in church” fundraiser where we invite the church like an auction, soap or potato feed, etc.  But then most other fundraisers we try to target “outside the church”.   We do student serving weekends where people can sign up for jobs we work, restaurants give a certain percentage a night sometimes, we sell cookies or sandwiches before the Super Bowl, Christmas gift wrapping during Christmas, a parent’s night out babysitting night, etc.  Our biggest fundraiser is a church-wide garage sale where we ask our church to donate their junk and sell it (it’s our only annual fundraiser).  I’m not here to give you the key to the fundraising treasure box and all you have to do is… Every church context is different, and what will work in one area won’t work in another.  But I will give you some advice. We only do support letters for our big foreign (over $1,000) trips, and we do fundraisers for all the other domestic or local mission trips.  This means we only send out support letters every 3-4 years.  Yearly support letters don’t seem to work most of the time.  And asking people to attend multiple fundraisers because your team hasn’t reached their goal yet doesn’t work either.  I also suggest going big with one big one rather than a bunch of tiny ones (you’ll burn everyone out with those).

FIVE: Don’t Focus on Payments Until Way Closer To The Trip

Continuing on the money train, it’s easy to ask for deposits, have percentage deadlines evenly spread out, and collect all the funds before the trip.  I get it. You don’t want to be on the hook, and for many years, I wrongly thought that if I charge them more or, say, 50% of their total needs 6 months in advance, it somehow inspires them to work harder OR makes them more committed in the trip.  In my experience, it has the opposite effect.  What I do is have either no deposit or a $25 one for the initial application but then push all the deadlines closer to the actual trip.  If we are going on a Spring Break trip in March, I tell people that 50% of their total is due January 1st (about 3 months out), and then 100% is due 1 week before the trip.  That’s the only time people need to remember.  A few reasons for this

  • It prevents me from having a million deadlines that can be confusing
  • I don’t have to keep checking on people’s totals (and if they don’t meet them, I avoid awkward conversations)
  • People start bonding with the team at our team meetings and are less likely to quit if money is a struggle
  • It allows more time for people to do their own savings or fundraising
  • I have seen other team members help or even give some of their totals because of the teamwork mindset we build

But the biggest reason I have experience is if you have too early of a payment deadline, then families pay their own money into their total but then later could earn funds through fundraising that is over their overall need – what do you do then?  Give the money back?  I have learned never to request more than 50% until after ALL fundraising is complete. Then, IF (and it’s rare) they still own funds, I ask the family to pay out of pocket the rest.  But most times, other team members have earned more than enough, and that spills over to the team members who still need help until everyone is fully paid.  Money is always a tricky balance, you can’t ignore it and chalk it up to “faith” but pushing big deadlines too soon could really hurt momentum.


Tips 6-10 will be part two of this blog series, answering the question, what should you do about your leaders?


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