Planning a Short-Term Mission Trip – Part Three:  Do No Harm

This past weekend two things happened:  a friend asked me a question and I got a new compass.

I’ll be honest.  I really love hiking, but I have NO idea how to use a compass.  Now that I live in a region with lots of trails, I’ve been learning.  I’ve gone to classes, I’ve researched websites on hikes in the area, I’ve got maps and lists of trails I want to hike.  I’ve learned on short hikes how to pay attention to the blazes, the colored markers along the trail.  For short day hikes, my skill level is fine.  But if I want to hike new trails and do more exploring, I really need to understand how to use a compass and topographical map (the one with all the lines that mean how much you’re going to hike up or down – at least that’s my beginner’s understanding).

Saturday morning I watched some videos on how to use my new fancy compass.  I learned about true north, magnetic north and declination.   One of the most important things was learning how to set a course and triangulate.  This is called “getting your bearing on the map”.  Sometimes you need to know where you are, so you can get your bearing on the map twice, using two different points so that the lines cross and form a triangle – this is a more accurate way to find yourself on the map and continue on the correct course.  I recommend watching REI’s navigation videos on YouTube if you’re interested in orienteering.

What Does a Compass Have To Do With Mission Trips?

My friend and ministry colleague Audrua Malvaez asked me “how do you know when you’re doing harm on a mission trip?”  This question came about in her conversations with other youth ministry folks who have also led or been on mission trips.  The question of “do no harm” is part of United Methodist theological reflection.  United Methodists have what they call Three General Rules or Three Simple Rules to help guide their Christian life.  These are 1. Do no harm; 2. Do good; 3.  Attend upon the ordinances of God – or in contemporary English, stay in love with God through prayer, worship, Bible study, etc.  When John Wesley wrote the original general rules, he gave some specific examples.  Bishop Reuben Job wrote a contemporary update about 10 years ago, which helped people to understand the Three Simple Rules as a way to question ourselves about our Christian discipleship.  So my friend’s question is specifically about the first rule as it applies to mission trips – how do you know when you’re doing harm even as you’re trying to do good in the world?

This is where orienteering and mission trips intersect: trying to figure out if you’re doing harm while trying to do good requires triangulating.  When using your compass to verify where you are, you need to check with at least two points to get an accurate location.  When you are out doing good in the world, you need to check with other people to get a more accurate understanding of how your efforts affect others.  You need ask questions of the people who have received your team, questions of the people who live in the area where you serve, questions of your host church.

Getting Your Bearing on the Mission Map

Although the exact questions you can ask will be shaped by your experience and context, here are a few examples.  Before your mission trip begins, ask your team leader to be in touch with a local leader – for Methodists, this may be a district bishop or a district superintendent (these titles vary, so check on the information for your destination).  Ask the local leader to tell you about the area.  What are the general needs in the area?  Are the churches growing in some areas and not others?  Why?  What are the main economic factors in the area?  These questions will help give you one angle of answers to consider your bearing on your mission map.

Another angle of answers can be sought through asking questions during orientation.  Ask your team leader to schedule an on-the-ground orientation session.  This might be a local person who knows the history of the area or a local church leader who knows the people and concerns of the area.  Ask them to tell you about the history of the area, about the geography and culture of the area.  Ask them to tell you their family’s story – how did they come to live there, to work there?  How did the town get its name?  What holidays and observances are important to the people there?

Once you are at your destination, you can get your bearing on the mission map by asking questions of your hosts.  Whether this is an organization or a church, have your team leaders plan a Bible study and discussion with a group from the organization or church.  Ask the local people what projects have they done that they consider a success?  What projects are they proud of, and what work do they hope to do in the future?  What local needs do they see as a priority?  How can future mission teams come alongside them to be partners in their ministry?

Three years ago I was asked to lead a mission trip and told to include a vacation Bible school for the local children.   I had the opportunity to ask the pastor and lay leader of the church if they wanted a vacation Bible school and they both emphatically said “no.”  What they wanted was a team to come and learn about the work the church was doing, to worship together, and then to have two days of working on house repairs with local church members.  A simple question allowed the local leadership to set the agenda for the work, recognized their authority and expertise, and helped me to find my bearing on my mission map.

Many mission teams have evening devotionals or time to reflect on their experience.  This is another opportunity to ask questions and to get your bearing on the mission map.  How was your day?  How was God revealed to you through the people you met?  Were your skills put to good use?  What barriers did you face?  What changes do you think would make it possible for this mission trip to build relationships between churches?

The Map of Discipleship

Walking the path of Christian discipleship calls us to continually learn.  We are not to be satisfied with a superficial faith!  Just as I need to learn more if I want to hike new paths, so must I keep deepening my faith on my Christian journey.  Walking the path of discipleship is a joy.

Walking the path of discipleship also means sometimes we make mistakes.  We might miss one of the trail blazes and wander off the path.  We might misjudge the obstacles on the path and stumble.  We use our compass skills – talking with those who walk the path with us, asking questions and listening to get our bearing on the map.  Have we done harm while we were trying to do good?  We have to ask questions of the people we hope to serve in order to find our place on the map of discipleship.  They will help us on the journey.  And we will be empowered to help them too, as we all walk the path of Christ.


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