Do short-term missions trips really help?


I had my first conference call for our trip to Haiti last week.  Three out of five of our group members called in, and we had a chance to talk to each other, and to the group leaders, about the upcoming trip.  Most of it was helpful information to assist us in preparing for our trip, travel information, and knowing what to expect once we get there.

One of the things that I asked, that was not (initally) answered to my satisfaction, was “what kind of work will we be doing once we get there?”.  The answer that I received has lead me to do some introspection about my motives for going on my trip, as well as some more reading on the pitfalls of short-term missions trips.

What I was told is that we will be flying in and getting settled on Saturday, April 9th.  On Sunday we will get to go to church in the mountain village of Chambone with the people who live there.  Monday through Thursday we will have an opportunity to experience the things that are going on at Heartline Ministries.  We will be visiting 1-2 schools that are associated with Heartline’s sponsorship programs, and likely one orphanage as well.  We may be involved in a maintenance project if there is a need, or sorting and stocking supplies.  In terms of our medical skills, their goal is for us to be able to find a niche within the ministry that suits our skills and our passions, so we can start to build lasting relationships with the organization, and be in ongoing partnership with them if we wish.  They frequently do missions trips at Heartline, but apparently this is their first medical team!

I am really excited to do all of those things.  From the start, I have really just wanted to help where it is needed, big or small.  But I admit I was a little surprised that there didn’t seem to be an area where I could just let loose with my mad, crazy, nurse skills.  I am very task-oriented much of the time (show me a nurse who isn’t!).  So when people ask me after my trip, “what did you do there?”, there is that part of me that wants to be able to fill in that blank with proclamations like “I administered 200 life-saving vaccines and debrided festering wounds!”, or something equally nurse-y.

There is actually a lot of buzz out there that talks about how short-term missions trips (medically or surgically-related trips in particular) can actually harm more than they help.  The premise of having a group of Westerners swoop in to offer their services for one or two weeks has not necessarily been shown to improve health outcomes in third-world countries in the long run.  Follow-up care is often inadequate to maintain any kind of lasting effect.  Moreover, these types of interactions often undermine the efforts of local health care workers, by giving the people the impression that adequate health care can only be administered by Westerners.  It does little to provide the people with a sustainable system by which they can continue to receive adequate follow-up treatment and care for chronic conditions.

I admit I have never taken this into consideration.  I have always been of the school of thought that “every little bit helps”.  But does it?  Some have argued that the money spent to transport and house a team of volunteers could go much farther if given directly to the host organization.

I read a very interesting article, published by G. Schwartz in 2004, which addressed the issue of wanting to be task-oriented in our approach in short-term missions.  In it he says,

“…in the preparation of short-termers, the anticipation of “doing good” for someone else is frequently overplayed.  Americans are to be commended for their willingness to help those whom they perceive to be in need.  Our worldview includes a substantial portion of charitable or philanthropic concern.  Some of it is driven by the benefit of a tax-deductible receipt, some by a spirit of adventure, but much of it is genuine compassion.  “Doing” (what we accomplish) is often in conflict with the importance of “being”, (who we are).  This important distinction could well be at the root of the problem.  Someone once referred to such people as “human doings”, rather than “human beings.”

He further goes on to say, “…the attitude that an ‘outsider’ can do the job better than ‘local people’ is often at the heart of how we as westerners view ourselves….Our challenge is to find a way to help that does not leave others with the impression they are too weak, too helpless, and too uninformed to help themselves.  “

It seems, then, that if we want to truly help those in need (at home or abroad), we need to find a way to do so that truly sustains them, builds their communities, supports and builds infrastructure, and honors each person’s humanity and dignity.

I guess that is what I love about Heartline, at least what I have seen of it so far.  And I guess that is what my team leader was trying to tell me on the phone, when she answered my question about “what” we would be doing.  Heartline’s focus is on building long-term relationships, strengthening the families and communities in the area, and showing love in practical ways.  I want to be a part of that.  Even if that means I don’t get to unleash all my mad crazy nursing skills.  I want to be a learner.  I think that missionaries who have given their whole lives to a work like this have much to teach me, and I would be wise to watch and listen.  “Do” less.  Listen more.  Be still.  I fully expect that I will receive much more than I give on this trip.  I hope to bring back with me a renewed focus for life in a first-world country, which itself is not lacking in opportunity to help others.

I started reading an excellent book this week, called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating poverty without hurting the poor… and yourself.  Wow.  So much content in here.  This book has already deeply changed the way I think about the world around me, and yet I feel the need to read it at least a few more times, so I can internalize it all.  I feel like really internalizing and implementing the things in this book would take a lifetime.

For those of you who have participated in short-term missions trips, medical or otherwise, I would love to hear your comments below regarding your experience, and your perception of the value of such trips!
Image credit:  Naypong Image by 9comeback at

Article credit:  Glenn Schwartz, 2004.  How short-term missions can go wrong.  International Journal of Frontier Missions, 20 (4), 27-34.



One thought on “Do short-term missions trips really help?

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