This year I will celebrate my 15th year of a five-year commitment to DOOR – I know! Prior to working at DOOR, I spent a decade working with youth – as a volunteer to begin with and later as a paid youth pastor. For the first few years at DOOR, I remember the experience of sitting on the other side of the table. I had become the person assuring group leaders that they had made the right decision to send their youth our way.
In recent years, I have begun to think about what kind of a group leader I would make, given what I know now. Here are some questions I would ask and the answers I would listen for from the service or mission agency, if I ever found myself arranging the service-learning experiences for a local church again.
1. Tell me about the person who will be directly responsible for our experience? In DOOR’s context this person is the city director. All of our city directors live in the cities that they are responsible for. This sounds simplistic and even obvious, but whether you are planning to stay in North America or go international, you want to make sure that the person who is planning your experience has a sense of the culture and context in which you will be serving. There is no kind of experience that replaces working with someone who calls the service location “home.” I know of programs who “parachute” – send in directors for short periods of time to lead mission/service groups. The best advice I can give – do everything you can to avoid partnering with these kinds of programs.
2. Who are the people that will speak into the lives of the participants? You want to bring your group to a program that gives space for local leaders and pastors to speak. This means that you may hear things that you do not agree with – you may even be uncomfortable with what is said – but that is OK. If you are going on a mission/service trip just to reinforce what you already believe to be true, then you are going for the wrong reasons. Entering another culture provides you and your group the opportunity to experience how God works in unexpended ways.
3. What kind of projects/activities will we be doing? One of the greatest temptations for trip leaders is just to go and do some good – everything from evangelizing the locals to building a house. This plays into our natural desire to accomplish something – being able to say, “There was no house here when we started and now there is a house.” It also provides us with a way to quantify what we accomplished – “Thirty people made decisions to follow Christ.” The desire for measurable results is understandable – it is just not always appropriate. Ask any pastor or elder – ministry takes time. Mission/service trips, from a day to a year, are mostly about exposing participants to the call of God on their lives. They are more about what God does for participants, not about what the participants can do for others.