As summer approaches, many congregations are planning, or have already planned, to share God's love with others — in their own neighborhoods, in a different town, in another state or overseas. Regardless of where a team goes, the church and its leaders must answer a few questions.
Where and what?
Often needs trigger the answers to the "what to do" and "where to do it" questions. Many faith groups respond to human needs in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Several congregations continue to minister in Haiti devastated by an earthquake in 2010 and in Japan hard hit last March by an earthquake and tsunami.
Passion — of a member or the church — often leads a congregation to a particular ministry or place. Associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Lee's Summit, Gary Snowden is the liaison with the congregation's missions team. The former missionary to Argentina's passion is Guatemala. He leads teams from his church and coordinates efforts for Churchnet, which he serves as missions mobilization team leader.
For Lyle Witcher, pastor of family ministries at Memorial Baptist Church in Jefferson City, determining where to minister is a matter of "connecting the dots." He will take a team of students to Haiti this year.
"The connector point is the earthquake," he said. From news media, he learned the quake had prevented a couple from picking up two girls they were to adopt. The couple started My Life Speaks (mylifespeaks.com) to minister to orphans in Haiti. The Memorial team will work with them.
"You look at the need, the empathy element," Witcher said. "And you look at their [the agency's] leadership. Are they trustworthy?"
He connected to London after attending a Super Summer Global event and started praying for someone "with the same heartbeat." This summer, a Memorial team will serve during the Olympic Games in London.
"Everyone has a passion that can trigger a desire to send a team," Witcher explained. He believes churches should give members the freedom to "examine what things would look like" if the church could help them make "that passion happen."
Members at First Baptist Church in California generally concentrate on ministries that will be "more lasting," layman Gene Eulinger explained. "We like to develop relationships…. We look at whether it's something the church has the ability to do and if it would appeal to the skills and interests of church members.
"We ask: Has someone really been called to do it? Then we determine how we can support them," he added. Members are encouraged to take their suggestions to the church's missions council.
Some churches tap into established programs, such as North American Mission Board, International Mission Board and Woman's Missionary Union short-term opportunities. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and many Baptist state conventions and associations offer possibilities through partnerships or ministries to local needs.
How to prepare?
Short-term mission trips, even local ones, require preparing participants on several levels — spiritual, emotional and physical. Many resources are available to leaders to assist with preparing a team to serve. The IMB and NAMB have printed and online resources, including for spiritual preparation.
An online search reveals a host of resources, such as Zondervan's mission trip prep kit (missiontripprep.com). Leaders can even find resources, such as Denver-based STM Toolbox (stmtoolbox.org), that, for a fee, will take care of all administrative details, including making travel arrangements.
The three mission leaders stressed spiritual preparation. "We emphasize spiritual preparation, praying at each step of the preparation," Snowden said. "We encourage them to be sensitive to God in their personal time."
Each leader also pointed out that mission teams must have the flexibility to shift plans as circumstances change.
As a missionary, Snowden dealt with many mission teams. "We saw some [people] with a pretty rigid attitude," he said.
Should the trip include a time for rest and relaxation? Some participants don't think so. They go to work and want to spend all their time in ministry. But the three church leaders believe volunteers need a rest.
"They can't be burdened down all day, every day of the trip," Eulinger said. "They need to have a break."
Even if a team is working in a neighboring town or in another state, participants will need some relaxation, Snowden believes. Going to an area theme park or attraction such as Six Flags can help volunteers diffuse built up stress and relax before heading back to their homes and churches.