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Are Our Summer Mission Trips Doing More Harm Than Good?

Dr. Laura Horvath | Director of Programs and Global Engagement for Helping Children Worldwide | Updated: Aug 08, 2023
Are Our Summer Mission Trips Doing More Harm Than Good?

Are Our Summer Mission Trips Doing More Harm Than Good?

The flights are booked. The bags are packed. Last-minute preparations have been made. With a desire to serve others, it’s that time of year when Christians across the country are going on summer short-term mission trips.

Some will be running a Vacation Bible School, some will help teach or offer medical care, and many will find an opportunity to work with orphaned and vulnerable children along the way. But more and more of us are pausing ahead of these trips to ask one important question: How effective are short-term mission trips really?

The answer is clear. When done in the right way, a short-term mission trip can have tremendous benefits. But therein lies the issue — we haven’t always approached them correctly, especially when we consider what’s best for children.

I’ve personally experienced and contributed to the good and, regrettably, the bad when it comes to serving vulnerable children on short-term mission trips. The organization I now work with, Helping Children Worldwide, used to believe working in residential homes, such as orphanages, was the best thing we could do for the kids. But we later realized our presence, although unintentional, often did more harm than good.

Following best practices for ethical missions, our short-term mission teams now have one goal: care for the caregivers — the consistent, loving, and trusted parents and adults within their community who are day in and day out in the lives of these vulnerable children.

Transitioning to Family-Centered Care

Throughout Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, children all over the country were separated from their families or orphaned. Toward the end of the war, in 2000, with the goal of feeding children living on the street in the city of Bo, a local church in Sierra Leone partnered with a U.S. church in Northern Virginia. After an overwhelming outpouring of support, the Child Rescue Centre was formed to care for over 40 of these vulnerable children. A few years later, Helping Children Worldwide was founded to provide broader financial and strategic support to the residential home.

But research has shown that most children living in residential homes, just like the one we were running in Sierra Leone, have at least one living parent or other family members willing to care for them. And we know a family is vital for a child’s physical, cognitive, and social growth and development. So in 2016, we began transitioning the children safely back into families. The Child Rescue Centre became a Child Reintegration Centre (CRC), with programs focusing on supporting the same children but within the context of their families and the surrounding community.

A Necessary Shift for Short-Term Missions

As our care model for children shifted, we realized our mission trip model needed to shift, too. In the past, teams of U.S. Christians who wholeheartedly desire to follow God’s command to care for the orphan would arrive to run activities, play, and care for the kids. All of these children, who have been separated from their families, have experienced some form of trauma. Bonds would form—but then the Americans would leave. Then, another group would arrive, only to leave again a few days or weeks later.

Children need safe and secure attachments to the caregivers in their lives to thrive. Research supports the importance of attachment and the difficulty for children in residential care to maintain this kind of connection with a caregiver amidst a constant flow of new faces. The ongoing attachment/abandonment cycle, too often perpetuated by short-term mission teams, re-traumatizes the children we want so badly to help and protect.

There is a better way. Empowering and supporting trusted and permanent caregivers can actually heal trauma and create lasting change for a child. This is the work we want to be a part of.

A New Model for Short-Term Missions

Following best practices, our teams now encircle families and caregivers from the CRC programs. For example, U.S. teachers come to listen and collaborate with Sierra Leonean teachers to develop curriculum together, U.S. medical teams share knowledge with indigenous professionals, and IT or financial training is offered to those who work at the CRC.

On family fun days, U.S. teams have a “stay in the wings” mentality. One step removed from the action, they no longer run the games and activities, but check the kids in, run errands, and help clean up after the fun is over. This model supports children by strengthening bonds with those who love and care for them consistently.

American Christians must reevaluate the efficacy of their short-term mission trips, especially when care for orphaned and vulnerable children is involved. With a posture of humility, churches should ask if they are doing more long-term harm than short-term good for the children they want so badly to serve.

“God sets the lonely in families” for a reason. Jesus wants us to have a picture of him—the one who knows and loves us and is always there.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/pamela_d_mcadams

Dr. Laura Horvath is the Director of Programs and Global Engagement for Helping Children Worldwide.

Are Our Summer Mission Trips Doing More Harm Than Good?