The Road to Heaven: When Good Intentions Meet Best Practices in Short-term Missions and Church-based Community Development



best intentions-02.jpgOnce upon a time there was a member on an international short-term service team that had really enjoyed his time in El Salvador. He wanted to say goodbye with one last gesture of kindness. He decided that on his final work day, as he left the community, he would throw candy to people from the back of a truck. When the moment came, however, the treats did not bring about a happy scene; Fights erupted between children--some had caught nothing while others too much; Packs of stray dogs nipped and skirmished trying to get their share; One full bag of candy landed on the roof of a home, broke through the thatch, and knocked over a clay water pitcher that spilled on a man working at his sewing machine. Needless to say, it wasn’t quite the farewell this team member intended.

While this story is slightly embellished, it demonstrates something ENLACE has learned in almost 25 years of working with short-term service mission teams:

Unintended and negative consequences can result when
best intentions are not paired with best practices.

The number of people in the United States going on short-term mission trips is growing every year. As Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the writers of Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, report, there were 120,000 short-term missionaries who went abroad in 1989. That number increased to between two and three million by 2010, and the number has grown since. According to Robert Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, the likelihood of a U.S. church member to go on a short-term mission trip at some point in her or his lifetime could be as high as 25%.

This virtual “tidal wave” of U.S. short-term missionaries who may or may not be effective, has led some to wonder if “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is an apt description of this phenomenon. They wonder if teams would be more effective remaining home and sending the money they’ve raised directly to organizations on the ground. And this is a good question to ask. Every organization that works abroad with short-term mission support, should be asking it.

ENLACE has been asking this question ever since we hosted our first team back in the mid-1990s. While working with churches and organizations that work internationally can be a double-edged sword, overall the experience has not just been helpful, but it has been vital. “Our international church partners play a key role in helping our work go forward.” says ENLACE El Salvador Team Coordinator Karen Chavez. “In our case, the service teams pray for and resource community-led initiatives while also mobilizing volunteers that work alongside a regional consortium of local churches. Without their collaboration, we couldn’t do the work we do.”

ENLACE believes that facilitating service teams is one important component to fulfilling its mission and vision provided that two key “best practices” are maintained. The first involves the identification of projects and the second, the identification of beneficiaries.

Supporting Roles: Project Identification and Short-term Missions
Executive Director, Ron Bueno, founded ENLACE in 1993 and has observed that poverty is a result of broken relationships between God, self, others and the rest of creation. “The church,” says Bueno, “is the most effective tool of restoration. And it is vital that short-term teams support the local church in its efforts. Identifying projects or beneficiaries on their own or giving cash or other gifts when they come to work undermines the local church’s role and in the long-run seriously hampers sustainable poverty alleviation and other aspects of the church’s transformation work.”

ENLACE’s role is to prepare the local church to connect with its community and short-term service teams are incredibly helpful when they perform a supporting role to the priorities identified by local churches working with their communities.

Respecting the Experts: Beneficiary Identification and Short-term Missions
We believe that local churches working with their communities know best the needs of their own communities. Local leaders who are working night and day with great heart, devotion and an incredible amount of sacrifice, are the experts. ENLACE comes alongside them to help fortify their efforts and expand their capacity to serve. ENLACE relies on locally elected community committees to manage all aspects of the projects they have identified. It is these committees that identify local families in the greatest need of housing, water, latrines, eco-stoves, etc.

If a visiting team (or any outside group) identifies and/or provides funds directly to an individual or family (at the time of the visit or later after pursuing independent interaction) it often damages the efficacy of the church and community’s established committees while diverting limited resources from a community-wide, integrated approach that is meant to help the greatest number of people in need. And ultimately, it is the poorest in each community who lose.

“We don’t just want 10 families who were lucky enough to be seen at a church event to get water,” says Gersón Sánchez, ENLACE’s Church Coach Supervisor in El Salvador. “We want to fortify the church’s ability to create and manage projects, and help it to grow into a role of problem-solver within its community so that everyone gets access to water, to home gardens, to health care, to waste management now and for many years to come.”

ENLACE’s approach is committed to maximizing available resources to help the greatest number of people in need in a particular community. If short-term service teams identify their own beneficiaries, they disrupt that effort and produce grave consequences for those who are poorest.

The Road to Heaven
Having the best intentions for others is absolutely necessary to bring wholeness to the world. If we don’t care for the plight of poor, if we do not choose to be God’s hands and feet, how else will the “kingdom of heaven be close at hand” as mentioned in the gospels? But empathy without a long-term perspective is only half of the equation. When we are affected by the suffering of others, we sometimes would rather provide a quick relief--even if that act is perhaps superficial--in order to feel better ourselves. It’s like giving someone with a toothache a lollipop instead of arranging a dentist appointment.

Instead, ENLACE believes and is committed to a better way, a better road. This “road to heaven” is only paved when we walk with each other in humility and truth. We must choose to take on a supporting role as local churches work with their communities and respect the long-term and broader community vision that champions the poorest. Best practices in short-term service teams hinges on these commitments and ultimately reflect God’s love and promise of wholeness.

For more details on how to plan an effective short term serving trip, download this free resource: "How To Make a Long-Term Impact With a Short-Term Serving Trip"