Short term mission trips can be a great – or a terrible – experience.
For everyone involved.
As a high school and college student, I was part of several teams that went to other countries. As a missionary kid and now an adult missionary, I’ve been on the receiving end of teams many times.
Below are some practical tips my family and I have accumulated over the years regarding short term teams. Some of these are specific to Ukraine, but many would be applicable no matter where you’re headed.
1. Get some training.
Ask the organization or church on the field if they recommend a particular training, book, or organization that prepares short term teams. We know some great ones, if you’re looking. I can say that without fail, the teams I’ve served with who were extensively prepared were the most effective and the ones who got the most out of their trip.
2. Don’t be afraid to say no.
Sound harsh? I’m sorry, but there are some people who aren’t ready or called to go on a short term trip. If the team leader recognizes that, it’s better to say, “Not this time” before that person is completely out of their comfort zone and negatively impacting the team or the work.
3. Prepare physically.
Traveling takes a toll on anyone’s health. Long flights, lots of exposure to germs and infection, eating unfamiliar foods, dealing with jet lag…all these can lead to falling sick on your trip. Do the best you can to prepare ahead of time. Take vitamins to boost your immune system. Get plenty of rest. Develop the habit of staying hydrated. Find out if you need any vaccines for a particular country.
4. Prepare financially.
Notify your bank as to where you’re traveling. Otherwise, you might find yourself with a blocked ATM card as soon as you use it overseas. Bring cash, too. In many countries, smaller stores, vendors or restaurants still use cash only. The locals can recommend how much to bring.
5. Be ready to walk.
In Ukraine, as in many other countries, we walk a lot and in all weather. Pack or wear shoes that are comfortable for you. If your health restricts you from walking much or at all, be sure to discuss this ahead of time with the locals, so they can plan accordingly.
Find out what the weather will be and pack appropriate shoes and clothes for being outside in that season. Bring an umbrella.
6. Eat local foods.
Missionaries and other locals love to share their favorite traditional foods. Don’t be afraid to try them, and please don’t just look for an American restaurant every day. Venturing into new foods can be daunting for some people, but it’s an important part of the cultural experience. If you’re curious about Ukrainian cuisine, check out my post about some of our favorite dishes.
Ask the locals to help you avoid any street foods or other places that might be too hard on your stomach.
7. Personal space? Ha.
Get used to people standing close to you. VERY close. And if you’re waiting in line…well, there isn’t much of a line system, so be prepared to stand your ground at all costs. And don’t be alarmed if you see a public bus with someone’s briefcase or purse hanging out the door, which couldn’t fully close due to the 93 people who shoved into a space meant for 30.
8. Try to learn some of the language.
You might feel silly, and in all honesty, you might be butchering the phrase you’ve so meticulously repeated over the weeks before you left home. But your effort speaks louder than your words. People will respect that you care enough to try.
They will also be glad to practice their English.
9. Toilet etiquette.
Squat pots. Don’t be intimidated. Get your pants past your knees and just squat. You don’t have to undress in the stall (that’s been done by short term team members). But you might be prepared that your early attempts will be hit or miss.
So bring hand sanitizer and wet wipes.
Also, most places in Ukraine ask you not to throw toilet paper in the toilets. It can cause backups.
10. Watch the attitude.
Don’t complain about things that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable. If you’re struggling, remember that this is a short term trip, and you’ll be home soon. Make the most of every experience you have.
11. It might be different. That doesn’t make it dumb.
Every culture has its own peculiarities, including your own. Those peculiarities in a foreign country might seem strange to you. The local people will do things differently; that doesn’t make it wrong or dumb or less efficient. Within cultural context, they might make perfect sense. When you consider a people’s history, a light bulb may come on for you as to why things are the way they are.
Come to learn. Ask questions. Keep an open mind.
And above all, respect. Respect the people, their culture, history, and traditions. And believe me, when you do this, you’ll return home a richer person.