Only 72 hours remain before the team departs. My wife and I volunteered to lead another mission trip to Haiti for various reasons, all of which seemed great at the time—that was in January. Today, as we begin to creatively pack (okay, cram stuff into) our suitcases, a few big issues keep running through our minds. Based on stories from veteran trip leaders, accounts from other church point people, and our own experiences, we wrestle with five questions that stand in the way of full-throttle excitement.
Most, if not all, leaders in our situation encounter this quintuplet of no-answer-until-you-go queries. If you plan to lead a trip, you'll face them too, so embrace the comfort of knowing you're not alone. If you recruit people to serve as mission team leaders for your church, plan how to best support the person(s) by knowing what questions rattle and hum in his or her head.
The Big Five:
1. Will God show up and will the team realize it when he does?
The correct theological response is that God is omnipresent, so he doesn't need to "show up"—he's already here, and there. But this question reflects a longing for a moment, situation, or circumstance so unexplainable that credit clearly goes to God making something extraordinary happen. On a mission trip years ago, God tapped me on the shoulder one night. All alone, just the two of us, he told me that my days in the corporate world were over and a full-time ministry adventure was the direction I needed to go. On another trip I sat next to an upset young boy, neither of us able to speak the other's language. This boy held my pinky finger, and I shared his tears: a holy moment when I truly believe I encountered a Matthew 25 Jesus, who looked exactly like a three-year old Haitian boy.
Similar stories happen all the time on mission trips. As a leader, I long for someone—everyone—on our team to experience such an encounter. If the closest the team gets is an energetic devotion time, I'll feel disappointed.
2. Will the team bond?
Long travel. Close, uncomfortable living quarters. Hard work. Strange food. Hot temperatures. Disease-carrying mosquitos. These aren't things we look forward to. But according to James' epistle, hardship eventually morphs into a bunch of positive attributes. I hope he's right, although he doesn't put a timeframe on that formula. How others react to the situations we'll experience, and to one another, is out of my control. Lord, I pray for #1 to happen early.
3. What about health, safety, and travel?
We can investigate, plan, and confirm only so much. Then it's out of our hands. Last year's trip started with missed flights and delayed luggage that finally arrived thoroughly soaked from torrential rain. Fortunately, the team took it all in stride and became closer right away. Wait, that means #2 happened—and early.
Stuff like that doesn't happen two years in a row, right?
4. Will our team have THAT person, and how will I handle him or her?
Common knowledge says that every team ends up with a difficult person, one that makes life miserable for everyone in close proximity—especially the leader. If you've been on a mission trip, you know exactly who that person was on your team. If you've been on a mission trip and you can't think of who it was, it quite likely was you. Maybe our devotions should focus on the book of James.
5. Do I really have what it takes to lead this trip, or have I done well faking it?
What happens when everyone realizes I don't know everything, can't fix problems, and really want to have some time away from them so I can connect with God? Okay, a lot of time away. On the trip, that longing to spend time with God keeps a leader well-grounded in reality. Because to not wish for an extended moment to breathe deep, relax, and debrief with the One we ultimately serve, whether at home or away, could mean that I've made this trip about me—and how well I do as a leader.
Instead, I'll do my best and give myself grace when things go off-plan. And they will. Exactly how, I won't know until it happens. But this I do know—instead of worrying about a leadership scorecard that doesn't really exist, I'm going to spend my energy looking for that young boy.
"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"
David Staal, senior editor for Building Church Leaders and a mentor to a first grader, serves as the president of Kids Hope USA, a national non-profit organization that partners local churches with elementary schools to provide mentors for at-risk students. David is the author of Lessons Kids Need to Learn (Zondervan, 2012) and Words Kids Need to Hear (Zondervan, 2008). He lives in Grand Haven, MI, with his wife Becky, son Scott, and daughter Erin.