On a trip last year to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Molly McEntire heard words that made her start to think differently about the effectiveness of international mission trips.
The nudge came when a local resident told her, “It often feels like Westerners want to keep us poor to be able to continue to do stuff that makes them feel good.”
“That really struck me as, ‘Wow! What impact are we having?’” said McEntire, mission training and volunteer coordinator for the Florida United Methodist Conference.
She started asking questions about best practices for this important ministry.
Are we empowering others? What types of partnerships do we have with overseas organizations or the residents? Are the communities we serve becoming dependent on us? Will they thrive and be empowered after we leave?
McEntire said planning is vital to ensure the church’s work on a mission trip has a sustainable positive impact.
|A group of laity and clergy serving in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Group led by conference staff member Icel Rodriguez|
“I think it is so important to talk about partnerships and making sure those partnerships are healthy,” she said.
“We’re also thinking about the mission experience for our teams and what we are teaching our teams. We want to have a healthy impact on the community we are serving. We connect them with nonprofits (overseas) that are healthy.”
McEntire, who has been employed by the Conference for 2½ years, has many years of mission trip experience. She lived in Kenya when she was 18, working for the Methodist Church there, and has returned about a dozen times. She also has traveled to Haiti, Cuba, Costa Rica, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
Through training sessions she conducts with FLUMC teams before they travel overseas, McEntire hopes to help them get involved in what she called “healthy models of mission.”
Churches that are looking for resources for future domestic or international mission trips are encouraged to contact McEntire at the Conference office. She’ll conduct the training – anywhere from one to four hours – at your church. She suggested that teams include her on the agendas of regularly scheduled pre-trip team meetings.
McEntire helps churches through several steps of preparation to ensure successful mission trips. Her main points:
Learn and understand your role as a team leader or member.
Advice for recruiting a team and getting financial support from friends and relatives.
Destinations – Interested, but not sure where to go? The Conference can provide information about ideal places for teams to work. Proper planning also improves safety precautions, she said.
Impact – Making sure teams have a healthy impact on the community they serve. Are they empowering those regions?
The Conference keeps track of partnering organizations that hire locals to continue the work after mission teams leave. That’s a key aspect of the sustainability model. Empowering people is the goal.
During 2019, 158 domestic and international mission teams registered with the Conference. About 1,600 people on more than 175 mission teams registered in 2018.
And yet, many teams go on trips without registering.
“Our churches who use the travel insurance are automatically covered, but we want them to register so we know where they are traveling. If we get a call from them for an emergency or the insurance calls us, we can yes, they are with us, and they can use the insurance or crisis emergency management assistance,” McEntire said.
“Not registering causes churches to have a more difficult time when an emergency happens.”
|Intergenerational team from St Luke's serving in Costa Rica with Aqua Viva|
Some team members go on mission trips, not knowing whether their emergency medical coverage extends outside the United States.
Also, many teams register but do not undergo training.
Only about 20 teams scheduled the Conference’s training sessions in 2018. McEntire said it’s disappointing when churches do not take advantage of these free resources.
“Not everyone signs up for it,” she said. “We’re not here to control our teams. One of the main things is we really want our churches to start thinking about the impact that they are having on the community in which they are serving.”
First United Methodist Church of Jupiter-Tequesta members were glad they took the training before their mission trip last March to Immokalee, Florida. Missions and small groups coordinator Stephanie Lovell said one of the ways McEntire assisted them was by teaching them “how to have a healthy impact on the communities that we’re serving.”
Lovell added that one way McEntire did that was by providing useful resources, including “When Helping Hurts.” Lovell and other church members read the book, and now the church is forming a small group Lenten Bible study related to that book and “Poverty Inc.”
“It’s a beautiful way to look at serving and understanding the backgrounds of not only the people we are serving but also knowing the backgrounds of the missionaries that are there,” Lovell said of the book. “Poverty Inc. is also a powerful documentary.”
McEntire also provided the South Florida church information about as UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief), Global Ministries, and Zoe Empowers, a nonprofit organization that works overseas with orphans and vulnerable children living in extreme poverty.
“A lot of our congregation was not familiar with what UMCOR is, what it does, how it’s affiliated with the Methodist Church,” Lovell said. “She broke all of those things down for us and laid out the structure and how it works and how we can get involved.”
|Food and clean up supplies distribution and collection at First UMC of Lakeland after Hurricane Irma|
In addition to the free insurance, the Conference offers international crisis management assistance, in which 24/7 assistance and guidance is available for a variety of issues that may arise during travel, including lost passport or luggage, civil unrest, or other emergencies.
“We really want to help make a difference in people thinking about the impact (of their trips), and also staying informed,” McEntire said. “We have so many great resources available through the Conference that people are not taking advantage of.”
Online safety resources and country-specific information also is available. McEntire shares information she receives about global hot spots.
She’ll even share fundraising ideas.
Holy Spirit equips us
Forrest White began as director of missions at First UMC Lakeland in July 2018 after serving five years as United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) coordinator for the Virginia Conference.
White said good trainers do more than share information.
“I believe we are called not only to equip but also to encourage team leaders and team members, reminding them that the Holy Spirit equips us to be witnesses through our servants as Jesus promised the first disciples in Acts 1:8,” he said.
“I’m a strong believer in including Mission Theology in training events. It is God and our relationship with God that compels us to serve and to witness to God’s unwavering love whenever we go out to serve.”
A common refrain from team members when they come home from international mission trips, humbled and feeling refreshed and excited, is that the experience likely had a larger positive impact on their own lives than that of the locals they served.
Proper training about best practices will ensure that this self-effacing comment is never actually true.
--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice