The Messy Economics of Short-Term Missions

A short-term mission may never be a perfect endeavor, but that doesn’t mean we would not dig into the messiness of the issue and work to find a way where everyone can benefit. Too often short-term missions are the easy target for church people to criticize and give a reason for not going. As those who go on short-term missions trips, we need to be aware of the nuances that are involved and find ways to navigate these issues.

One of the major arguments against short-term missions deals with economics.

Short-term missions team takes jobs form local people.Yes, this is a true statement for many projects short-term mission teams do. When we bring our team to build a house, orphanage, medical center or church chances are we may be taking jobs away from local people. Let that sink in a little. Even though it may be painting a wall, pouring concrete, or building a house, chances are there are locals in the community that would love to get paid the minimum wage for that job.

Another argument is that short-term missions teams should just send money to the organization or ministry instead of spending so much money on travel. 

These are good and valuable arguments. But I want to offer a different perspective, one that may not be so popular.

When we consider economics on a short-term mission trip, we also need to consider some different factors than the ones mentioned above. One thing we know for sure is that Americans, especially teenagers love spending money. The United States is one of the largest consumers of goods in the world. When a short-term mission team comes to a community, they are spending their money at local restaurants, grocery stores, lodging, construction supplies, and souvenirs. The overall economy of the town increases because of these short-term missions trips. Though these short-term missions teams may be taking construction jobs, other jobs open up in the construction and service industry. The money spent by Americans and American teenagers on souvenirs, candy, and food alone have a direct impact on the local economy.

The more significant issue with this argument is based on financial logic. Nearly all non-profits and ministries that are working to meet the real tangible needs of people are working on a shoestring budget. If a ministry could afford to hire local workers to do their construction projects, they would gladly do it. But many just don’t have the financial means to pay for the project supplies and the labor. They don’t have the needed money to further their vision of what they want to accomplish in reaching their community, so they rely on and depend on short-term missions teams to provide the needed resources. Many, if not most, organizations and ministries want short-term mission groups because of the financial benefit it brings.

Many people then reply, “Well, just send money and don’t go on the trip.” Yes, it is true that most organizations and ministries would instead you just send money to help their organization. How often does someone start supporting a ministry or organization without emotional or relational contact and investment? In the long run, experiencing the ministry leads to more long-term financial commitments. If people can touch, feel and see what the ministry is doing to reach people by going on the trip and joining in the vision, they can make a connection that leads to monthly support or future fundraising projects. 

We recently took a church and their pastor on a spring break short-term missions trip to Mexico. They were introduced to a medical clinic that was being built to meet the physical emotional and spiritual needs of the local community. The community did not have access to any affordable health care for even basic needs. The clinic had been operating out of two very small closets in the local church. Four years ago they were able to purchase land and began building a medical clinic through mainly short-term missions teams. Because short-term missions teams came to help, many continued to help fund the building of the clinic after they left, resulting in hiring more local labor.

As the pastor of this church heard about their vision and why they want to build the clinic he inquired about how much money they needed to accomplish the clinic. They were short of their financial goal to complete the project. The pastor went home and bought the project to a foundation that he was a board member of. After much discussion, the foundation decided to fund the rest of the project. Almost immediately the medical clinic hired more local labor to help finish the project.

By connecting people on trips to the vision of the organization, a relationship develops. Americans can see inspiring possibilities of hope, and ministries can get the funding they need to bring change to local communities. And this is not limited to big givers. Many of the students and adults we have taken on our short-term missions trip are now monthly supporting children in the communities they served. Without the trip, these students and adults would not be sending money on a monthly basis to support these ministries or advocating for them back home at their local church. A reciprocal relationship has long-term benefits for everyone involved.

Again, short-term missions will never be perfect because broken people go and lead these trips. In fact, it will be messy at times, but we need to find a way forward that meets the needs of everyone involved.

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Phil Steiner
President Be2Live
philsteiner77@gmail.com

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