This feature article is written by: Andrew Shaffer. He is a graduate of Mississippi State, Samford and Truett Seminary. He has worked in youth ministry one way or another since 2000, and has been bitten by an otter.
It’s mission trip season! And we know what that means, time to start planning for the next one!
Depending on various factors, the planning stages can feel like there are either zero options or just too many. So let’s discuss some of those aforementioned options and see if we can’t jump start this year for you. Of course the hump to get over in writing an article is that I don’t know your church and I don’t live next door to you, so relating former trips and people I’ve worked with would be (to a degree) rather pointless. I will address a few organizations, but only you know your church well enough to know what opportunities will fit.
Also, keep in mind that, theologically speaking, these organizations will be all over the map – so they may fit right in line with your group, they could be a little outside your purview, or they may land way outside your comfort zone.
Before we get started, there are a few things we need to cover.
First – Know your group. Who are you taking? Youth/parents, mostly/all adults, in/experienced workers, etc. We need to consider this because it influences several aspects of any trip. Such as: housing, needed amenities, work projects, entertainment, and even how much cash you’ll need on hand. For our purposes, however we’ll make the assumption you’re heading out with mostly students who are comparatively inexperienced workers.
Second – Know your scope. Are you ready and willing to ferry a group across the globe? Do you want to plan and customize every aspect of your trip, or would you rather “plug and play”? Do you have a group that can be pushed, or should you start out comfy?
Finally – Know your budget. Your participants will pay a fee, I assume. You may have some sweet endowment or a fabulous budget to work with, but trips cost money. Understand what you’re working with and ask about fees, contribution costs, food, lodging, all that good stuff before you get too far into planning.
On to the ideas!
The big ones! You know, these are the sparkly, big ticket trips that attract all sorts of folks. These can cover a broad range from hard work in spartan accommodations to semi-luxe digs for a cultural immersion experience and everywhere in between. So how do you know what’s right? Research!
There are lots of concerns when you’re traveling internationally, and most of those begin after the airport. What do we do about materials? What’s the best way to get around? What ‘other stuff’ are we going to do? And if you’ve never been or there’s a language barrier… where are we even going and how do we talk to folks?
That’s why a good contact takes care of most of these issues, so where does one find a contact? More contacts!
If you already have an international partnership of some kind at your church, slam dunk. There’s your contact. If not, well why not? Kidding, but you need one. Contact your association, friend’s churches, and other folks to put you in touch. Then start asking questions.
If you still don’t have any ideas, contact some of these good folks or start looking here:
Or contact your state offices about partnerships. For the record, creating a partnership has plenty of benefits for the entire church. Participants and even folks to don’t go on the trips begin to see the relationships created and learn to see (if they don’t already) how missional partnerships are two-way streets rather than just “helping trips”.
Once you have a solid contact, ask what they would like to do and figure out if that’s your jam. Just because you have a partnership doesn’t mean your goals and abilities will always line up. So revisit your participants and abilities and compare them with the needs of your partnerships, don’t force it.
Despite all the variables and unknowns for international trips, take comfort in knowing that most people/groups who host trips take care of most of the details. So working out what you want to do, who you’re working with, and how you’re going to get there (along with the financials) will be the bulk of your work.
Coast to coast, these are pretty challenging to plan because there is much more to consider: distance/travel, activities, lodging, and all the in between. On the plus side, they’re all in the US (or adjacent) so the idea of being “over there” is less of a concern. I would still recommend research. Get to know the area, taking a scouting trip, get to know the folks you’ll be working with, and plan for the size of your group (this will make sense in a bit if it doesn’t). In my experience these are the biggest challenge to plan (despite the flashiness of international trips), because most of the time it’s all on you. No pressure.
So what do we do? Don’t look for destinations first – unless all you want is a destination – figure out what fits your group, or how best to push your group. First, we figure out what we’re doing: choir trip, construction, VBS, all of the above?
Ask folks, look for current partnerships, and contact your state/local associations, field personnel around the US, or even folks in churches to get ideas that would fit.
Here are some jumping off points. Keep in mind these folks won’t necessarily be was you’re looking for, or line up with your group theologically, but they’re good places to begin.
Now for accommodations! You’ve got your partner/goal, and you’ve gotta sleep somewhere.
- Hotels – This one’s easy, you can cram several folks in a hotel room (within reason of course) to cut down costs, and hey free breakfast!
- College dorms – Most colleges will provide group rates for dorms that stack up pretty well against most hotels, and they’ll offer meal plans in cafeterias to add on to the plan.
- Local Churches – Depending on the size of your group, plenty of churches have space for crashing. If you’re small enough, or if they’re big enough they may even offer to house you DNow style. Check around, people know people and are good connections.
- Hostels – Yes, really. Hostels can get overlooked but depending on your situation they can be a great deal. Many offer breakfast, and most have an available kitchen for cooking meals on-site. They usually offer group rooms so you aren’t stuck with randos, and meeting rooms are available (just expect some guests to join you). https://www.hihostels.com (obviously available worldwide as well)
Make sure to consider transportation. If you have a bus/van that may work fine for your group, but depending on how far you go that may not be an option. If it’s a large enough city, mass transit is the best (with a large group it’s like herding cats, but still worth it for the price). Check into van rentals, and even borrowing from local churches.
Lastly but not leastly, scout out entertainment options. Manage your downtime and program in time to relax. Look for local flare/flavor that you may not have at home. Restaurants, theme parks (ugh), museums, etc. Ask local folks where the best things to see are, and if it’s a large enough city look for something like https://www.citypass.com or https://www.smartdestinations.com for ideas and deals. Always ask for a group discount!
The easiest, and most challenging of them all! It’s right down the street (or within a days round-trip) but it’s not as shiny and there are either 1.too many options or 2.not enough options – depending on where you live.
I don’t live where you live, and you don’t live where I live (probably) – which means I can’t just list all the great stuff around me. I mean I could but that wouldn’t necessarily help you. So step #1 again, talk to folks. Who’s doing great work in your community that you can get on board with? How can y’all work together? What’s your jam?
Local churches will usually share folks they’ve worked with, and there are a few consistencies all over that you can look into.
Food Banks – There’s a national organization that communicates pretty well, and most of us have a local chapter somewhere nearby. Most of them welcome volunteers (although many have age restrictions), but a rare few seem to make it as difficult as possible to help out. http://www.feedingamerica.org
United Way – Possibly the best source of local nonprofits that you can get on board with – or work directly with them. https://www.unitedway.org United Way partners with all sorts of local and national nonprofits, so your local chapter will have good info on who to get in touch with and how if they don’t have some good ideas.
Habitat for Humanity/ Habitat Re-Store – Habitat is another organization that has affiliates all over the place, and odds are there’s one near you. They have regular builds, and any of their Re-Store locations would potentially have projects for you. Most builds will have age restrictions, but depending on what you’re doing and where they may be able to find ways around those. https://www.habitat.org/volunteer/near-you/find-your-local-habitat
One last idea:
Create and “un-trip” (or call it something cooler)! It’s not as glamorous or shiny as going around the world or across the nation, but it’s a great way to get a bunch of folks from the community or other communities involved with efforts around town.
Do something DNow style, invite out of town groups, or just make a week out of it – create a list of projects around town with various organizations and have people take them on at the same time.