The trip’s not over until debrief and handoff are complete
February 2015

By Don Johnson — One of the comments I hear regularly from church leaders who have sent out teams on short-term mission 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 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.

Debrief 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. 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.

In his article, “The Long-term Impact of Short-term Missions,” Randy Freisen identified several negative results in the lives of the short-term missionaries he studied. One particularly troubling finding: “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 a short-term team

The debrief for a short-term team is best accomplished when it is done over an extended period of time and in a variety of venues. The SEND International Team Leader Training Manual 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. During this stage, the team spends time discussing how they feel about leaving their 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, 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. This stage simply includes a time of sharing and reminiscing with each other and can include the participation of family and friends who weren’t on the trip. 
  • Stage three is the more serious, in-depth team follow-up, one month after returning. In this stage, the team members, as a group, discuss any reentry stress they may be encountering and encourage one another in their struggles. 
  • Stage four is the one-on-one meeting between each team member and the team leader, about one to two months after returning home. The team leader makes sure each participant is managing any reentry stress effectively and discusses the team member’s next step(s) in light of the short-term 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.
Debrief isn’t over until the “handoff” is complete

Debriefing by itself doesn’t accomplish reintegration. The preservation/restoration process isn’t complete until short-term participants are fully functional in life and ministry, using everything they’ve learned throughout the short-term process and applying all the positive changes that the Spirit has brought into their lives as a result of their missions experience. 

The role of the team leader isn’t finished until the short-termer is handed off to 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,” Freisen writes.

The handoff 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 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 him or her continue to explore how this gifting might best be used. 

On the other hand, if issues or problems surfaced in the life of the short-termer during training and/or the 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 handoff could leave the short termer in worse shape spiritually than if he had never gone on a short-term mission trip at all. One researcher calls failure in this area unethical. 

Growth preserved

It is only at this point, when the next discipler has been identified and connected with the returning short-termers, that the responsibility of the team leader(s) in the lives of the short-term missionaries comes to an end. By engaging them throughout the four steps of debrief, they will be set up to capture all that they learned through their short-term experience, putting it into practice for the sake of the Kingdom.

A short mission trip can change how you view yourself, the world, and our God. Our missions coaches can connect you with a great opportunity to serve short-term!

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Don Johnson
Don Johnson serves on the board of the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission and teaches SEND's training for short-term trip leaders.