One of the comments I hear regularly from church leaders who have sent out teams on short-term missions (STM) trips is that after the initial excitement has passed, there seems to be little change in the lives of the short termers. The church leaders then ask, “How do we capture and preserve that growth and excitement?” In my opinion, it is during the debrief process that growth in the life of the short-term missionary is either preserved or lost.

Debriefing to preserve growth

Preserving growth and change following an overseas assignment doesn’t happen automatically—and that’s true whether you’re talking about a manager with a multinational corporation or a member of a two-week short-term mission team. In his article published in the Oct. 2005 EMQ entitled “The Long-term Impact of Short-term Missions,” Randy Freisen says, “We must do more to debrief and follow up with STM participants.” But sadly, too many short-term missionaries come home and never have a chance to debrief and explore how their cross-cultural experience has changed them and how they can embrace those changes as they reintegrate into their life in North America.

Friesen identified several negative results in the lives of the short-term missionaries he studied. One that I think is particularly troubling is that “most participants experienced a significant decline in their relationships with the local church during the mission program as well as during the year following their return.” He theorizes that the decline in relationship with the local church “could…be an indication that the experiences of the participants while on missions were not processed upon their return home, leaving participants feeling disconnected from their local church.”

Debriefing for a STM team

The debrief for a STM team is best accomplished when it is done over an extended period of time and in a variety of different venues. The SEND International Team Leader Training Manual for SEND Teams breaks the debrief process into four stages and compares those stages to the reentry of a space shuttle.

Stage one takes place while the team is still on the field and is like the shuttle engaging its retro-rockets to start reentry into earth’s atmosphere. Stage two, a couple of weeks after the team’s return, is the reunion when everyone gets together for a fun party to laugh, share pictures, etc. Stage three is the more serious, in-depth team follow-up…one month after returning.  And stage four is the one-on-one meeting between each team member and the team leader, about one to two months after returning home.

During stage one the team spends time discussing how they feel about leaving their STM assignment and returning home, resolving any residual conflicts in the team, praying and worshiping together, and affirming each one on the team: for example, “I saw the spiritual gift of ________ in you when…” or “I saw Jesus shine through you when __________.” Stage two is simply a time of sharing and reminiscing with each other and can include the participation of family and friends who weren’t on the trip. In stage three the team members, as a group, discuss any reentry stress they may be encountering and encourage one another in their struggles. During stage four the team leader meets with each participant to make sure he or she is managing any reentry stress effectively and to discuss the team member’s next step(s) in light of the STM experience. In this encounter the team leader presents the plan for the hand-off and discusses who the team member will be handed off to, as described below.

The Debrief isn’t complete until the “hand-off” is complete

Debriefing by itself doesn’t accomplish reintegration, however. Reintegration isn’t complete—the preservation/restoration process isn’t complete—until STM participants are fully functional in life and ministry, using everything they’ve learned throughout the STM process and applying all the positive changes that the Spirit has brought into their lives as a result of their STM experience. The role of the team leader isn’t finished until the short-termer is handed off to whoever would be the next discipler in that person’s life. “The discipleship baton is getting dropped on the track and some of the runners are dropping out of the race” (Friesen, 2005).

The hand-off process brings the team leader’s role as primary discipler to an end and incorporates others who should also be included, depending on the specific results of the trip in each participant’s life. If a short termer demonstrated specific gifts and abilities on the trip, then those need to be recognized, encouraged, and integrated into ongoing ministry in the sending church. For example, if a team member exhibited some skill or gifting in youth ministry while on the trip, the home church youth pastor should be apprised of this observation. If the participant has not been involved in youth ministry at the church before, steps could be taken to integrate the returning short termer into the youth program. If the participant has been previously involved with the church youth, giving the program director an affirmation of this person’s value in that arena can only serve to bless and encourage both that ministry leader and the short termer, and potentially spur him or her on to further good works.

Or, in another example, perhaps some significant gifting in the area of cross-cultural ministry was observed. As part of the Stage 4 hand-off the team leader could address that with the short termer and suggest that this person engage in a local cross-cultural outreach or perhaps connect with some mission agencies to explore long-term ministry outside of the US. Then the team leader should help the short termer connect with the appropriate person to help them continue to explore how this gifting might best be used. This process should be repeated until each team member has been handed off to the appropriate ministry or discipler.

On the other hand, if issues or problems surfaced in the life of the short termer during training and/or the STM trip, these also need to be addressed to allow for restorative growth and change. In that case the local pastor, church elder, or a professional counselor might be the appropriate person to receive the hand-off. Failure to make this hand-off could leave the short termer in worse shape spiritually than if they had never gone on a short-term mission trip at all. One researcher calls failure in this area unethical. It is only at this point, when the next discipler has been identified and connected with the returning short termer, that the responsibility of the team leader(s) in the life of the short-term missionary comes to an end and others take up that responsibility outside of the STM venue.

Growth preserved

In each case the discipleship baton has been handed off, growth has been preserved and integrated into continuing ministry (or plans for any needed restoration have been initiated) and, hopefully, those short termers won’t be one of those that Friesen identified who “experience a significant decline in their relationship with the local church.”