THE short-term mission field is expanding — and not only for young people looking to fill gap years, or older professionals taking career breaks. Now many Christian organisations are advertising programmes that enable families to go on mission trips overseas, for anything from five days to two years.
Shaun Murphy, the trips manager of Soapbox Trips, says: “Six or seven years ago . . . people were telling us, at New Wine and other Christian events, that they would like to go out with us [and that] they’d like to take their children with them. We suddenly thought: ‘OK, let’s do it.’ It was very exciting.”
Hannah Hitchin, a Serving in Mission (SIM) regional mission mobiliser, concurs. “We have certainly seen a trend recently towards people wanting to get a taste of mission before committing to anything longer term, and that includes families.” Sending children overseas with their parents is quite new for SIM, she says, “but it’s something we are passionate about doing. Children can be a big asset in mission.”
Can they not also be a liability? A really high-maintenance child can present problems, OM’s short-term mission manager, Ginny Drake, concedes, “and there’s the whole thing about sleeping in a strange bed and eating foreign food.” Younger children, however, tend to adapt very quickly, Miss Hitchin suggests. Mr Murphy agrees: “Actually, children can be more adaptable than adults. They go with the flow a lot more, and it’s an adventure for them.”
Teenagers can be more difficult, the short-term ministries co-ordinator for New Tribes Mission UK, Mandy Caley, says. “They’re like: ‘Whoa, we’re going where? How long for?’ They can miss their friends, their music, their rooms. But it definitely depends on the family.”
According to the 2018 edition of Serve Short-Term, the free annual directory published by Global Connections (a network of more than 300 UK churches and agencies with a vision for international mission), some 27 Christian agencies now offer short-term opportunities for families. These range from days to a couple of years, spread across at least four continents. Some agencies will even send families to countries not named on their websites, because the situations are too sensitive.
The mobilisation director at Global Connections, Jo Jowett, finds this development very encouraging. “There is tremendous value in a family together experiencing mission, even if it is just short-term. It can completely change a child’s outlook, potentially for the rest of their life.”
Almost all short-term mission opportunities are self-funding, although TeachBeyond UK reports that a growing number of the schools it partners with now offer part of a salary. And the procedure for applying is generally the same for all: make an enquiry by phone first, then complete the form on the agency’s website. Agencies will interview both parents (and will require up to three references for each), and will usually want to meet the children as well. All the usual checks will follow, including DBS. None of the organisations listed below insist that the children who go on its trips should have made a Christian commitment themselves.
To order a free copy of Serve Short-Term, visit www.globalconnections.org.uk/publications/serve-short-term
OM offers some of the shortest-term opportunities for families. The outreaches on its “Go” programme range from five days to five months, while those on its “Go Longer” programme are five months upwards. Both trips can accommodate children, Miss Drake says, but the short trips can involve them as well. “We don’t want children just to be hangers-on. Often, they can be as much of a blessing as their parents. Even a baby can start a conversation.”
Mostly, she says, families are engaged in “frontline ministry”. That could mean joining in with “village outreach” in Moldova, organising a day camp for children and visiting elderly people in their homes, or going to Israel to “saturate the Jezreel Valley with prayer, worship, and gospel literature”.
Recently, OM sent a family out with three children under the age of five. “If the parents are up for it, and their referees agree that one of our trips would be a good fit for their family, we would certainly make it happen for them.”
Travel essentials: Anyone going on an outreach trip receives a detailed pack with country-specific information, help with logistics, and email and phone support before going. There is email evaluation and telephone debriefing on return. When out in the country, participants are taken care of by the local OM team and the outreach leader.
Cost: Costs vary per trip. As an example, OM has an outreach in Hungary where a family can be part of an international team who help with an “English camp” for local children (20-29 July), priced at £380 per person, under 15’s half price and under 5’s free.
A sack race, part of a games day put on for Dalit children in a village near Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India, an example of the kind of activities families get involved in on a Soapbox Trip
All the families that Soapbox Trips has sent overseas to date have been on one-week trips, although longer trips are possible.
Soapbox Trips’ volunteers are usually involved in practical work such as construction or maintenance, but its family trip itineraries are designed with children in mind: they may help to run summer clubs, for example, and share the gospel through drama and Bible teaching. Children may be drafted in to help to organise games and other activities, or take part in visiting and praying with local families.
The youngest child that Soapbox Trips has so far taken, Mr Murphy says, was six or seven, “though we leave it to the parents’ discretion”. Family placements are available in South America, Africa, Asia, or Eastern Europe.
Travel essentials: Soapbox Trips have been recognised by Global Connections as operating under their Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission since 2007.
Cost: Volunteers are expected to pay their own way, but the cost of its trips is probably comparable to an all-inclusive family holiday in the same country.
Serving in Mission (SIM)
Serving in Mission organises two-week “explore” trips, whose primary purpose is to give people some exposure to world mission. It aims to make some of these family-friendly.
“We are running a ten-day trip to Greece in July to work with migrants and refugees, and some families have expressed an interest in joining that,” Miss Hitchin says. “The following year, one of our team will lead a trip to Senegal with his wife and three boys, and the idea is that another family or two could join them.” There is no minimum age for children: one family went out a couple of months after their second child was born. SIM is open to the possibility of tailor-making family trips overseas.
Travel essentials: SIM runs a “family-specific orientation” once a year, which includes orientation specifically for children. Most of its short trips take place in school holidays. But, if families want to go out for six months, or longer, SIM teams overseas will assist a family in connecting them with a school that is known and trusted.
Cost: Greece trip costs approximately £800 per person, including flights and orientation.
Mercy ShipsThe Barki family, from the US, have regularly volunteered on the Africa Mercy
Tearfund sends families out each year on short-term placements with partner organisations in Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Thailand. Typically, they go for two weeks.
“We wouldn’t call these trips ‘mission’ trips,” Tearfund’s marketing and engagement manager, Anna Taylor, says. “They’re not about doing humanitarian work so much as having an experience. People see it as an alternative to a family holiday: they could take their kids to Disneyland, but taking them to another country to see how people live there, and how our partners work, can be quite a bonding exercise. People come back changed — and some of them get the bug for international development.”
Applicants are asked what they do for a living, in case it is useful, but the placements do not require particular skills. “We wouldn’t want to turn anyone away, as long as their motive for going was honest.” If there is appropriate care for their children, parents “can get stuck in” on any task that does not need specialist training, and children have the choice to get involved, too.
Travel essentials: Tearfund is signed up to Global Connections’ Code of Best Practice. It stipulates a minimum age of seven, but may take children as young as five. Families wishing to apply for trips going out this August must apply by 1 March. Pre-departure training takes place 14/15 April.
Costs: These vary. As a guide, however, Tearfund estimates a family of three: £2600; four: £3400; five: £4200; six: £5000. Costs include pre-departure training, insurance, debrief, a medical package, admin costs, and in-country travel, accommodation and food. Flights, visas, and vaccinations cost extra.
United Society (USPG)
USPG actively promotes opportunities for families in its tailor-made short-term placement scheme, which is now “Journey With Us”. Habib Nader, who manages the society’s global-relations programme, says that its approach is unique because “every volunteer is catered for as an individual. When we have married couples with children, we make every effort to find them a placement in which every member of the family will find personal engagement and fulfilment.
“It may mean more work for us to meet their individual needs and expectations, but we have the entire USPG partnership of churches around the world, which offer our volunteers hospitality and the most amazing opportunities.”
Placements can be anything up to a year, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean. No professional skills are needed (though volunteers are welcome to offer their skills, or to try their hand at something new), and the emphasis is on “participation, sharing, and fellowship”.
Travel essentials: All USPG volunteers receive pre-travel preparation, as well as debriefing and resettlement support (for as long as it is needed) on return.
Costs: Costs vary. As a guide, USPG suggests average costs for a single volunteer placement in India is about £2000-£2200; Africa and South East Asia about £3000-4000; Latin American £4000-£6000 (excluding flights).
New Tribes Mission (NTM) UK
NTM UK has a “Skilled Associates Programme”, which sends out people who have solid training or experience (in teaching, IT, dentistry, carpentry, “or running a guest house or being a good mother,” Mrs Caley says) to reach the least-reached people on earth.
“You could end up in the middle of nowhere, but usually the mission centres, where people go to serve, are secure compounds, and most of the staff speak English. . . I don’t know anybody who has taken out children short-term who it didn’t work out for.”
The agency is very much in favour of sending out families, and does not set a minimum age. Last year, Mrs Caley recalls, a family with four teenage children went to Brazil for a year, to a school for missionary children. “The father worked on maintenance, the mother worked as a teaching assistant, and the children attended the school. They were a tremendous help and encouragement to the school, but it was also a rich experience for them. I don’t think they will ever be the same again.”
“Associates” can work in a support position for anything from six months to four years, as long as they have backing from their home church. NTM also offers a three-week “toe-in-the-water” trip every year. In 2018, this will be to Papua New Guinea.
Travel essentials: NTM UK is signed up to Global Connections’ Code of Best Practice and has a ”very experienced team” who do three days of orientation with children. They can also arrange a Skype call with people who have already gone out. Guidance will be given on travel routes and appropriate insurance.
Cost: Costs vary according to family size and destination, but NTM UK recommends that a single traveller budgets for about £750 a month for living expenses.
BMS World Mission
BMS World Mission offers short-term placements that generally put professional people with specific skills alongside its longer-term mission workers overseas, for anything from three months to two years. They could be teachers, doctors, accountants, or project managers — and they also welcome families for placements of one year and over.
BMS’s short-term personnel facilitator, Sarah Whybrew, says: “We can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to find them a placement, but certainly we will look at the possibilities. There are some countries, like Nepal, that would be great to take children to, because there’s a large expat community and a really good international school.”
Travel essentials: BMS is signed up to Global Connections’ Code of Best Practice. Families serving with BMS do one of the following: home schooling, local schooling with home schooling, or/and mission/international schooling. All families go through training and preparation, and a period of orientation and language-learning in that country. On return, they have a BMS debrief.
Cost: For a couple without children, estimate £10,000-£15,000 for a year overseas. If they are living simply, £15,000 may be enough for a family for a year. In some contexts with schooling costs, high rents, and flights, costs can rise to over £25,000 per year.
Mercy ShipsA typical family cabin on the Africa Mercy
Church Mission Society (CMS)
CMS has discontinued its two-week “Encounter” trips, owing to falling demand. But its “Short-term Programmes” range from four months to two years. The longer ones cater for people who either have transferable professional skills, or who have been doing something in their spare time that they would like to develop (such as working with vulnerable people, or preaching); and this is often where there are opportunities for families.
CMS’s strapline is “The call is for all”, the vocational recruitment manager, Susann Haehnel, points out; “and so, when a family goes, we very much want to make sure that the children, too, have a sense of excitement, and feel just as much part of this as their mum and dad.”
CMS sees the presence of children in mission as a positive thing: “It communicates really beautifully the biblical concept that the Church is a family. When you send a family unit, they become a living image of that metaphor.”
The agency does not stipulate a minimum age, but encourages people to think through the impact that going overseas will have on their children. “It isn’t just a matter of whether they feel called and are up for it,” Miss Haehnel says. “We tease out their expectations to find out whether they are actually realistic.”
Travel essentials: CMS is signed up to Global Connections’ Code of Best Practice. They prepares families with a two-week residential course, which takes place twice a year. Debriefing and support is provided on return.
Cost: Families contribute to the cost of the two-week prep., and to the short-term trip overseas. Overseas costs vary greatly, however; for example, living costs in Brazil are almost as high as they are in the UK.
For TeachBeyond UK, “short-term” means two years, ideally, or at least one. Applications from couples with children are welcomed.
“Often the key question for missionaries is: ‘What about our children’s education?’ But, in our case, that isn’t a problem, TeachBeyond UK director, David Midwinter, says. The agency works in partnership with Christian schools in almost 50 countries around the world, and international schools need teachers and support staff such as librarians, nurses, and chaplains. Most teach in English and many use a British or American curriculum (and work towards similar standards to schools in the UK).
There are challenges in taking children out to the mission field, Mr Midwinter observes, but there are benefits as well, because they learn so much about other cultures. “We would probably advise people against going out for the very first time with young children, but we judge everything case by case. Some families just take to it like a duck to water.”
Finding a placement for a couple is “more of a process than a normal job application,” he says. “We nearly always have two or three conversations with people before they get as far as applying. Then we assess their suitability, and then we have to match them to a school that will be the right fit.”
Travel essentials: TeachBeyond UK is signed up to Global Connections’ Code of Best Practice. As Teach-Beyond UK’s work is in partnership with Christian schools, most children enrol in the school where their parents are working. The agency works with families to prepare them for what to expect, and to ensure support on the ground so as to to meet and to help with adjustment. Resettlement support is also provided.
Cost: For some schools, missionaries must raise their own support, but, in others, some or all of the salary is provided. As a guide, a family of four living in the Philippines would need approximately £2000 per month.
Mercy Ships can accommodate a small number of families on board its floating hospital, Africa Mercy, but prefers them to stay for at least two years to allow them to settle in. Children are an invaluable part of the ship’s community, Mercy Ships’ human resources director, Ally Jones, says. “Without them, we would just be a bunch of professionals who would never stop working.”
Life on board can be a remarkably rich experience for children, he says. “The ship is a floating village and it’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child.” Children have the benefit of being exposed to different cultures, as more than 30 different nationalities work on board throughout the year. On the other hand, parents need to think about the realities of life on a ship, with 400 people living within 150 metres of each other. The cabins are not large, and are “quite an intimate environment” for a family.
Travel essentials: Mercy Ships has a fully accredited school on board Africa Mercy, and provides education from nursery age to 17/18. A family transition co-ordinator works with families coming on board, and may connect them with a family on board with similar age children before they embark. They work with all volunteers on their re-entry to the UK, and offer debriefs.
Cost: Currently, each adult would typically pay $350 per month (approx. £260) for a two-year commitment. Schooling costs less than $50 (approx. £38) a month up to 11 years; less than $100 (approx. £75) per child at 11+.
Rebecca Paveley offers some case studies:
Bolivian adventure: Andrew and Lisa Peart, and their two daughters, pictured in the city that they are living and working in with CMS
Lisa and Andrew Peart are currently living in Bolivia, with their two young daughters, and working with CMS
LISA: We had thought and prayed about going on a mission trip for some time; our vicar put us in touch with CMS. We didn’t know where we wanted to go: Africa was not on our hearts, but I can speak Spanish and so I had thought about Bolivia, though I didn’t really know anything about it. When we met CMS, and Bolivia was mentioned, it seemed right. We came out with no fixed agenda of what we wanted to do, and it’s been exciting to see where God wants us to be, and how he wants to use our skills.
Right from the start, we told our girls what we were thinking of, and they were excited about it. They didn’t really have a clue, they were only five and seven at the time, but they said “yes” and they kept saying “yes”. Leaving their friends was hard, though.
They go to a school here that speaks English and Spanish. They are happy to be here, and getting a dog over here has been a real turning point for them. They are learning that life here is tough, and they have their eyes open to both wealth and poverty.
ANDREW: We have been here for a year now, and we are coming back next summer to see friends and family. We are praying about it, but we think we will probably be here for another two years.
For us, this has given us time together, whereas before we didn’t have much time together because of work. It has been wonderful to experience all this together — though there have been strains, and sometimes we have to go and work in the church office; so we aren’t together all the time. But it’s been a shared discovery, we are all experiencing this life change together, and we will never forget it.
For our children, their ability to accept change has been so amazing: they just get stuck in. It’s really enriching to know they can cope with change at a young age, and it has also made them very sensitive to the lives of others and the hardships other people face.
Susan Murray, with two of her four children, on their mission trip with Tearfund to Thailand
Susan Murray and her husband, Kenny, took their four children on a two-week family trip with Tearfund last summer
EIGHTEEN years ago, I went with Tearfund to Nigeria, so I knew the value of working in different countries and cultures. When I heard that Tearfund offered family trips, I jumped at the opportunity.
We have four children — Jack, 15; Olivia, 13; Theo, ten; and Louis, eight — and my husband Kenny and I wanted to broaden their horizons, to offer them an enriching experience.
We chose to go to Thailand, as we had never been to that part of the world. We went out for three-and-a-half weeks (two with Tearfund), during the school summer holidays. Within the first 12 hours, my son had hurt his knee and was in hospital, but we coped.
We went to work with the hill-tribe communities near the border of Thailand with Myanmar. The mission was teaching the communities agricultural skills to help them grow sustainable organic crops. Our work was practical, helping to package seeds for farmers; clearing ponds.
The children loved it; they found it very stimulating — though the climate was very challenging, due to heat and the mosquitoes (I think we got through 30 bottles of insect repellent while we were there). The children seemed to thrive on it all; even though the beds weren’t comfortable, and it was too hot at night to sleep, they didn’t complain.
We were blessed by the fact that we were staying in a Christian community, we joined in with the local church for their worship and Bible studies.
When we left the mission, to go for a holiday in another part of Thailand, it was a major culture shock. We felt we were being fleeced for money all the time.
The communities said they felt encouraged by our coming there. [And] I am thinking about another trip this year. We would be interested in a longer mission trip, too, if we could find a way to keep our kids in the education system they know. If it were possible, I would like to go to South Africa on a mission trip with the children at some point.
Rebecca Paveley reports on pre-trip training:
PREPARING for a short-term mission placement requires meticulous planning, although most mission agencies — particularly those who have subscribed to the Code of Best Practice in Short-term Mission — will offer comprehensive pre-trip training.
The mission personnel manager for the Church Mission Society, Philip Bingham, said: “We take short-term people on a 12-day training . . . [which] includes time on matters such as culture shock, and practical matters from health and IT to insurance and banking.”
While the arrival of ATMs in most countries in the world has made it easier for people to manage their finances on a placement, CMS advises having back-up bank cards, in case a card is swallowed by an ATM. Participants should shop around for bank accounts with low charges, too, for overseas ATM withdrawals. “Websites like www.moneysavingexpert.com are very useful for that,” Mr Bingham says.
Overarching all the security advice offered on pre-departure training is the country-specific advice provided by the Foreign Office, which is subject to change at any time. A change in Foreign Office advice will always have to be followed, or there is a risk of invalidating insurance cover.
Jo Jowett, from Global Connections, which created the Code of Best Practice for Short-term Mission, said: “The code sets a good standard for participants, but they should always ask lots of questions, too, of the mission agency.”
To reach the Code standard, a mission organisation has to demonstrate that it provides good cultural training, orientation, and a debriefing. “This is particularly important for family with children. If a family lands in another culture where the family dynamics are very different, they could easily put their foot in it.
“Orientation sessions should cover issues like helping with phones, money, what you should leave behind, and the security situation in the place you are going, as well as expectations of behaviour and relationships.”
Organisations that have been awarded the Code use a broker arranged through Global Connections for their insurance, but participants must take out insurance to cover flights and baggage, as they would on any holiday.
The challenge of preparing any family or participant for a short-term mission placement is to keep alive the vision that made them want to go on the trip.
“Organisations have to balance keeping people’s vision to contribute . . . with balancing their expectations, so participants can have the best possible experience’ and bless and serve the communities they go to.”