Dan Reeve has been president of CSM since September of 2008. Before coming to CSM, Dan served seventeen years as Urban Mission Director for the Evangelical Free Church Urban-Intercultural Mission. He is passionate about serving the often-forgotten people in urban America and raising up the next generation of urban leaders. Dan and his wife, Kimberly, reside in Brooklyn, NY.
So often, short-term mission trips can do more harm than good.
There - I said it!
A lot of us currently working in the short-term mission field are reading a very import book these days entitled “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. The book reminds me, as the head of a short-term mission organization, that despite all the good intentions - most of us don’t even realize that we’re not really helping.
All too often, I've seen how we, the Church, can hurt the poor in our “good works” efforts when we...
- Fail to see that the real problem isn’t the need to paint a peeling wall, but reconciling broken relationships with God, ourselves, others and even with God’s creation.
- Try to do “relief work” - when what is really needed is Restoration or Development. (And when we don't stop to learn the difference between “relief”, “restoration” and “development”).
- Look for needs we can meet, but neglect the assets and people already in the community that we could potentially collaborate with.
- Get wrapped up in the moment - telling people we love them and then flee back home.
- Fail to “empower” existing, long term ministries.
- Fail to leave resources in a community, rather than solely take resources out.
- Do not include the local church.
It’s understandable that we make these mistakes, after all, we’re only trying to help. After years of being a local urban pastor on the receiving side short-term mission groups, I have learned some lessons on how helping can truly help.
Here are 11 suggestions that I'd recommend using as a guide when serving short-term...
- NEVER go serve where you’re not invited. Plain and simple. So many times we go to a community assuming that we are wanted and that we know what is needed. The result is sometimes resentment and other times damage to the ministry that has been there building rapport and long-term development.
- Don’t go where you’re not needed. There are so many opportunities to serve the poor and often-forgotten, so make sure that what you have to offer really is needed.
- Go to be servants, not saviors. God uses servants like Jesus!
- Go with a plan to build genuine and lasting relationships that are mutual and develop reconciliation between God, others, people themselves and God’s creation.
- Look for assets in the community you seek to serve. There are already many ministries, churches and social service groups that have been serving that community, often for many years. Reach out to them and ask, “can we help you”?
- Leave more resources in the community than when you came. CSM uses small “mom and pop restaurants” for dinners, enabling these small community assets to be successful.
- Don’t be a burden to the ministry you partner with. So often, we ask a very busy pastor, social worker or social service staff to lead our groups, taking them away from the vital work their doing. It’s better that you find out where you’re needed, learn how to do it and support the staff that’s there, rather than being cared for by over-worked ministers.
- Learn the difference between relief, development and restoration and which ministry is most needed and can be served with your group's gifts and capacity.
- Don’t fool yourself into believing that you are building loving relationships in just a few short days. Those relationships can happen if you have a plan for on-going partnerships, but please don’t tell a child you love them and will write them and then not do it.
- When possible, work with a church that is doing holistic ministry. The greatest need of often-forgotten people is intimacy: frequent and informal contact with people who care. The Church is the very best provider of intimacy in a wholistic way.
- Remember that the Gospel is good news that can be shared by proclamation, testimony, teaching, acts of mercy, connecting people with those who know Christ and a host of other venues.
John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association, reminds us constantly of this poem by Lao Tzu. It sums up my thoughts on how we can best "be a help" to those we serve:
“Go to the people.
Live with them.
Learn from them.
Start with what they know.
Build with what they have.
But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say 'We have done this ourselves.”