Monday, May 12, 2008

Missions Work That Works

I have spoken a few times in the past year to churches and individuals that asked how they could give or serve more effectively, or how they could improve the effectiveness of their missions department. So I’ve created a document here that relays some of my thoughts and ideas about more effective missions work.

So often I hear of churches sending groups of 5-15 missionaries to some foreign country for two weeks at a time and it makes me cringe. And on this end (in Rwanda) we often have people come here under the missionary umbrella and it ends up creating more trouble than good. And this is unfortunate because it puts us in an awkward situation. We know they are coming here to help, and their intensions are good, but if it’s not handled properly, missions work can often cause more problems than where there before they arrived. We are always grateful for people that want to serve. That’s not what this is about.

The issue is that missionaries often come here (or anywhere else you’d do missions work) for a brief time, they often have not done their homework ahead of time, they come here with their American ideals on how things should be done, the culture here gets trampled on, systems of dependency are created, the organization, orphanage or wherever they are visiting is depleted of copious amounts of time, money, and often some sanity, and then the missionaries go back home, show some slides, celebrate their “victory” by tallying up “souls saved” and three weeks later it’s all over…until next year’s mission trip.

Meanwhile, they just spent close to $30,000 on their trip and all we can think about is the tremendous amount of sustainable good we could have done with that amount of money and the long term effects it could have had. This is a generalization and I’m not in any way condemning missionaries. I’m merely making a point by using a broad generalization which is unfortunately quite common. So here are a few suggestions, though I am certainly no authority on the subject.

10 Steps to More Effective Missions Work
*The following applies to missionary groups, individuals, volunteers, church groups, etc.

  1. Do Your Homework – Find a group of people somewhere on the planet, (could be anywhere), and fall in love with them. Invest your time in people, not a cause. Causes come and go, but the people will always be there. Once you’ve fallen in love with a group of people, you’ll know better what they need and how to serve them. In today’s modern world it is quite easy to contact someone via phone or email in the area that you want to serve. Do all the research you can to figure out what the people really need in this area. Learn about the politics and culture surround the people and the issues in which you intend to address. Until you’ve done your homework thoroughly, you do not have the right to say you are serving a cause, community, orphanage, individual, etc. Sometimes this process can take a year or more.
  1. Pick a Few Scouts – Don’t send 15 people over on the first visit. That’s just irresponsible and frivolous. Send over maybe two scouts. These people should be the best equipped and experienced in your group. They should have experience in similar environments and they should be good problem solvers, planners and negotiators. They must be sensitive to the culture and make sure they incorporate cultural issues into your plan. Their purpose is to meet with the people you wish to serve, (or to scout them out), identify cultural issues that will need to be factored in, create a local team, and devise a plan with that local team. You should plan on having your scouts stay for at least 1-3 months to really get a handle on the situation on the ground.
  1. Devise A Strategic Plan – Take that plan back home to your mission team. Then revise the plan and all of your ideals, put them together and come up with a solid plan in which you will execute with the whole missions team. Put together a solid plan for who’s going to go, for how long and when. Figure out your budget for the trip, making sure to have a buffer of funds. This is always needed when working abroad. Appoint team leaders and make sure everyone has a very specific purpose. No one should just be a “helper”. Everyone should have a specific purpose before they ever leave for the trip. PLAN this mission as if it were a military operation (even though it will inevitably evolve more than you could ever imagine once you hit foreign soil). Just be prepared. Have backup plans and be ready to change the methods in which you will reach your goal at any minute.
  1. The Scout MissionYour scouts should go over with the purpose of listening and learning, not serving. If you are committed to truly serving these people, you are going to have to be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your scouts need to listen, listen, listen, and talk very little about their American ideals. Be prepared to throw out all of your previous plans for “serving”. Listen to the culture. Listen to the government (when applicable). And above all, listen to the people. Let them lead. You are there to be a catalyst, a facilitator and a resource, not a dictator. Your best bet is to find a little organization (something like Sisters of Rwanda) that has some expats working in it, but they are based in that country. Then do what you can to be a resource to them. They already know what they need. They just need the resources to make it happen. This is where you can form a very effective synergy that really serves the people in the area.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Do everything in your power to avoid reinventing the wheel. Work with local teams, work with existing NGOs (non-profits), form partnerships, facilitate projects that are already in place that need resources, etc. Don’t make this trip about you or your missions group. Your goal is not to come back with impressive numbers and accomplishments. Your goal is to serve, selflessly and diligently.

  1. Listen and Learn – I have mentioned this a few times already, and I’ll continue to as it is of utmost importance. When you are a foreigner, especially and American, you will have the tendency to be impatient, to turn into a dictator (usually out of frustration) and to do your own thing. Don’t. Listen to the people and to their culture. If you don’t, you risk creating a bigger mess than what you started with. Listen to your local team and trust their knowledge of the culture, government and people. Lean people’s names and stories. Learn about their lives. Take pictures, (only when you’ve gotten permission, and it’s important to ask first). Take videos and get interviews. Be polite and always ask people before gathering this info if it is ok to do so. Don’t be pushy. Remember that a big part of your mission is to LISTEN AND LEARN.
  1. Report Back to the Group – Go back to your church or group and report everything you saw with pictures, stories, video, songs, souvenirs, art, or anything else you want to relay the message. Get people excited about what you learned. Relay who the people are, not just what you did for them. Talk about individual people. Avoid using words like “they”, “them” and “those people” as much as possible. Use their names and stress that they are not just pictures and statistics. They are people, just like you and me. Their life and death matters just like ours. This leg of your mission is focused on relaying everything you took so much time to learn while you were away.
  1. Preparing for the Group MissionNow it’s time to put your real plan together. It’s time to talk to the other 12 people in your group about how you guys are going to go and serve. Be thorough. Your goal should be to set up sustainable systems for whatever you do. If you go to minister to others, go with the goal of putting together a team that will continue the ministry and counseling and support after you leave. If you go to build a well, make sure you appoint a committee that knows how to maintain the well and is responsible for its upkeep. And if you turn it into an income generation project, that’s even better. Go there to “train the trainers”. Spend at least a few weeks to a month. Make sure what you do is still going to be operating 10 years down the road. If it ends when you leave, you’ve served only yourself in that you got a cool vacation and some bragging rights. Sustainability is key. And I’d certainly suggest poverty reduction/income generation activities being a part of ANY missions trip. Don’t offer Jesus in exchange for rice. Teach them to grow rice, like Jesus would have done. Always remember that people need to eat and sustain themselves first. Put your plan together and get the team as culturally sensitized prior to departure as possible.
  1. Saddle Up and Roll Out – Now you have a good plan and a good team. It’s time to go on your mission. Everything should be in order. Once you hit the ground, be ready to for anything. Be flexible. LISTEN. Remember you are there to serve, not just to carry out your well devised plan. So things may change. You have to be ok with that, especially if you are operating in a developing country (like Rwanda). Just be with the people you are serving. Know that you just being there with them means the world to them. Do not impose your American ideals on them. Couple those ideals with what they tell you they need and see if you can come up with a good plan. Then create an ongoing plan and make sure your appointed committee is ready to carry the torch once you leave. Set up a plan for how you and your team will communicate after you leave. When you leave, the program should not dissipate. Remember, sustainability, no matter what it is, is key.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure you’ve written OFFICIAL LETTERS OF DONATION for all the items you might be bringing into the country that are being donated. For instance, if you are bringing a box of bibles or a box of parts for a well, you will need to write a letter saying that “X Group” from “X Country” is donating said goods to “Y Group” in “Y Country” for the purpose of “Z”. Make sure you calculate and include the value of your goods. These letters should be cleared in customs BEFOR your group ever leaves their home country. Work with your local team on this. If you do this, you will have no problems (or very few) at customs getting your stuff into the country. If you do not, you will risk not getting your things by the time you have to return to your country. (We’ve had this happen, and heard of multiple instances of this.)

  1. Keep Your Word – Now your whole team is back, having just had the experience of a lifetime. You’re all full of stories and everyone has a slide show or video they want to show. This is good. Refer back to Step #6. Now you’ve got to create a plan for keeping the lines of communication open with the community you just served. Make sure you’ve set up systems for how they are carrying out “the plan” you left them with. Keep them accountable. Encourage them to keep YOU accountable. Do whatever you have to do to keep this relationship going. Do not be one of those groups that go over, get their fill of humanitarian work or alleviate their guilt of selfish living and just moves on. Don’t be that group. That’s what gives missionaries a bad name, (or at least on of the many contributing factors). Make a plan for visiting annually (at least) and make sure activities are going on all year around. Set goals and do what it takes to achieve them. This section could go on and on. The point here is to make sure this isn’t a one time dip into another country and then you leave them hanging out to dry. Do what you said you’d do. I’d venture to say “hang them out to dry” isn’t on that list. Just be true to your word. Lead by example. Remember that you are not just representing your group, you are representing “missionaries” as a whole, (as well as your country and race).
  1. Keep The Fire Alive – Being that I work for a small grassroots organization, I have a very first hand knowledge of the fact that most of our problems in developing countries could be solved with a huge bag of money. We have lots of great plans, but we need the money to carry it out. So become a resource. Get your group or church or whatever all fired up about supporting your community over there. And make sure the funds you are sending are being accounted for accurately and that they are going towards sustainable projects. You should set up a system of checks and balances. Don’t just leave things up in the air. Run it like a good business. That’s what will truly serve the people. 1 This should not be the end of your missions trip; it should represent the beginning of a long relationship between two communities. You’ve started a new family and you must maintain those relationships. True missions work is an ongoing. Don’t concern yourself with having a huge list of all the great missions destinations and projects you’ve done at the end of the year. Concern yourself with the relationship you’ve created with a deserving community that needs a helping hand. Be committed to them, just like you said you would.

1 You might want to start by encouraging your church to stop giving 10% (or less) of it’s income to missions work and 90% to new buildings and coffee shops. Try and get them to flip that scenario. That would be some real missions work if you can accomplish it. Some of the greatest missions work is done from your own church, office, or computer.

Cultural Etiquette
When you are in another country, especially Africa, please do not fuel the stereotypes of your race or country or origin. Don’t give $20 to the street kid. I guarantee it will cause more damage than good. That kid would then be in a position of being robbed, beaten, accused of theft, or worse. They could be using that money for things they shouldn’t. And most importantly, that type of behavior just fuels and perpetuates the idea that all white men, Americans, Europeans, etc, have endless amounts of money. So the next time someone like me (or thousands of others in Africa) that is just as poor as the locals walks down the street, I can’t blame that kid for thinking I’m rich; because you taught him that I am. If you want to serve that kid, take him to lunch. Learn his name. Give him an amount of money that is responsible and reasonable, (ask your local friends), or give him a new shirt or shoes. Giving $20 is not a sacrifice for you. If you truly want to serve this child, spend some time with him or her and let them know you truly care. I guarantee that will have a much more meaningful and lasting impact on them than your $20.

You can apply this lesson to all sorts of other situations. Listen to your local team. Don’t be careless with your time or money or commitments, always. The second you make a promise and don’t follow through, you will begin fueling stereotypes that missionaries come here and do more damage than good. You are better than that. Just be wise and calculated in all that you do and don’t make promises that you aren’t 100% sure you can keep. At Sisters of Rwanda, we may spend 6 months to a year putting a project together for the Sisters before we ever tell them about it. And we don’t announce it until it’s already happening. That way we rule out a lot of opportunities for disappointment and hurt. This takes discipline, but it’s imperative to the success of your mission, which is to serve.

In Closing
This is just my opinion based on my experiences. I’ve never done any traditional missions work or been on a missions trip. I came to Rwanda to set up sustainable businesses that would provide opportunities for the poor and to create products that will raise the image of the country. This is what I’ve seen work, first hand.

If you’re here to pick apart my philosophies and ideas and find holes in them, you’d better have some free time on your hands. If you are open to hearing some good ways to serve others and then apply those to what you are already doing, then you didn’t just waste your time. I hope this is helpful in some way. And if it serves just one person, it was worth the 20 minutes it took me to think about it and write it down.

*If by chance you have found this document to be helpful and accurate (at least on most counts), please feel free to pass it along. This wasn’t done for any official purpose; only in hopes of serving the missionary and humanitarian community.

If you'd like a PDF of this document, you can download it HERE.


Theresa said...

Great thoughts, Jared.

I love what I'm reading. Way too cool.


Ciona said...

This is good stuff. More churches need to hear this. Seems like some are rethinking missions right now:

I read that and thought of what you had written.

I think your message about the street children is important for us to embrace here, also. We don't spend time with people without houses; we just give them money quickly (or completely ignore their existence). I know the reasons behind your saying this for the street children in parts of Africa are slightly different, but my experience is that th heart of it is the same: "If you truly want to serve this child, spend some time with him or her and let them know you truly care. I guarantee that will have a much more meaningful and lasting impact on them than your $20."