3 Painful Lessons Leading Summer Mission Trips

Ryan Miller
April 13th, 2020

I’ve learned some difficult lessons leading short-term missions trips over the years. From planning to execution, it is really a lot of work. But short-term missions trips can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of your ministry. Below are 3 lessons I learned the hard way – most of them from one trip in particular.

Fun cannot be the focus

Shortly after arriving at my church, I decided we HAD to do a missions trip. I picked out the location and the dates. I found an organization that I thought would work out well and then I started recruiting teens to go. In my recruitment I kept getting asked one question, “What are we going to do while we are there?” Thinking they would only want to go if I presented them with the fun side of the trip, I only told them about the baseball game we would go to, the malls we could shop at and the restaurants they would now get to experience. Sure, we would be partnering with organizations helping the homeless, we would be serving orphans and underserved populations, but that didn’t sound like a good sales pitch to a bunch of 14-18 year olds. We ended up going on the trip and it was absolutely miserable. The students couldn’t get along, there was alleged drug use by students, kids ran out of money, service locations backed out at the last minute, students complained non-stop.

It was absolutely miserable. I swore after that trip I would never go on another missions trip again, it was absolutely ZERO fun. Then I sat down with some more mature and wise youth leaders in our group and they asked me what we did on our missions trip. I thought it was a strange question, but they told me all they heard about was the fun stuff we were going to do, nothing about the ministry we would be doing. Maybe it would have been wise to focus on the other aspects – it would have attracted an entirely different type of student. The truth is I was young, naive and desperate to take anyone on a trip and have fun. I have learned over the years though that fun has a knack for showing up even when we don’t plan it. I do intentionally plan a “fun day” on our trips now, but most of the fun memories our kids have happen when they’re doing ministry. Don’t ignore fun, but don’t make that the main point of your trip or your kids will miss out!

Preparation Matters

That first trip I recruited students for a few months, we got in a van and drove to our destination. After 3 years I finally decided to try it again – I told you that first trip in 2013 was rough! This time I decided to take a different approach: we would prepare, a lot! In fact, our preparation began the summer before we took the trip. I was blessed with a group of invested parents and students that allowed me 2 days a week that entire summer. We went through various leadership materials, watched different movies and had discussion, and did ridiculous team building activities. But that process brought them closer together as well as allowed them to develop as leaders and Christians. By the time we took the trip the following summer, they were ready. They referenced things they had learned over the past 2 summers. Now we have at least 7-8 meetings before we go on a trip. We do personal and group development. We develop personal and group goals. We have created a standard of what our trips will look like and we won’t turn back. Students, parents and leaders all know what to expect.

Each Trip Will Be Different

As you do more and more trips it can be difficult to not compare a trip to the last. This summer, we are supposed to travel back to a location we visited 2 summers ago. There are only 4 students returning, however they have each expressed concern over it not being as good this summer as it was previously. I get that. I compare almost all of our trips to that first trip I took in 2013 with the group. But we have honestly had some great trips, others have been just ok, none quite as bad as that 2013 trip. As the leader you almost have to compare, but I caution you to not be too hard. Understand each group you lead will be different.

The trips we did from 2016-2018 had almost the entirely same group. It was actually difficult when new kids would join in, but they each had something to bring to the group and learn from the experience. I try to take at least 3 positives from each trip. I take the bad and learn from it, but I often reference back to the positive. When we start the process for a new trip, we talk about what was great about the last trip, we laugh about the inside jokes and memories made. After we have reflected for a while, I wipe the board clean and say let’s start new and make this trip just as great – what’s it going to take?

Short-term missions trips can be a vital part of your ministry. You must be intentional about planning! There will be good and bad to each trip for sure, but make sure the focus is on what Christ can do in and through your team.

Ryan Miller

Ryan serves at Open Door Church in Edenton, NC where he has been since 2012. Currently he oversees the entire family ministries (birth-12th grade) of the church as they work to empower and equip families in the discipleship process. When he’s not doing something at church you can find him watching college football, drinking cream soda or spending time with his 2 daughters and wife, Ashley.

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