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God of the gap-years

10 January 2020

Want time away to develop new skills and grow closer to God — but not too much time? Johanna Derry looks at short-term options

Core members at L’Arche, Kent, enjoy the sunshine with their live-in assistants

Core members at L’Arche, Kent, enjoy the sunshine with their live-in assistants

THERE are trends that relate to gap years and career breaks, including in destination or activity type. In response, charities and NGOs, including Christian ones, have to evolve to keep attracting people to their programmes.

For example, taking a whole year out can be prohibitive for some, both in time and money, and, in the past few years, Klaas-Jan Duursma, who runs the Year4God platform, has noticed an increase in the number of short-term opportunities being promoted on the site.

The 2011 safeguarding scandal concerning Oxfam in Haiti prompted another change, the mobilisation director at Global Connections, Jo Jowett, says. “There was a trend a while ago where the aim of lots of short-term programmes was to give people on mission a good experience. That’s changing now, to rightly focus on the needs of, and benefits to, the hosts and recipients of that programme.”

Tearfund, for example, will place volunteers only with overseas partners who request help, the global volunteering-team lead, Hazel Swan, says. “These are people who live locally, know the local issues, and are totally committed to making a difference in their communities.”

Safety is another area in which mission organisations are adapting. From 2018, sending organisations have been required to abide by the same regulations that apply to package-travel deals: requiring, among other things, three kinds of insurance, and more detailed information about what participants can expect concerning accommodation and food.

Global Connections has taken due diligence one step further, awarding sending organisations which fulfil their “Code of Best Practice” (CBP) with accreditation, judged on criteria that include due diligence on legal issues, field management, pastoral care, and post-assignment support and evaluation with both participants and recipients of trips.

Trends will continue to change. Last year, the Global Connections short-term mission forum received an open letter from a group of young people to request that project organisers provide flight-free options for volunteers wishing to serve on international short-term projects.

“For organisations sending people exclusively overseas, it’s not practical to be flight-free,” Mrs Jowett says. “But we expect people increasingly to ask about how environmentally responsible organisations are, and this will no doubt become part of our expectations of best practice, too.”

For all the changes, the call to short- and long-term mission persists. Whether in the UK or overseas, the various programmes remain a way in which people can serve others and pass on the gospel: experiences that are truly transformative for everyone.

‘God takes the little we have to offer’ 

Pippa Cotterill, 32, spent her gap year as a trainee instructor for a Christian outdoor activity centre, and then developed her career there.

WHEN I was 18, between A-levels and university, I worked as a trainee instructor for the Fellowship Afloat Charitable Trust (FACT), based in Tollesbury, Essex. That year impacted me in ways I never imagined.

Pippa Cotterill

For a start, I completed my Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Dinghy Instructor award during my time there, which meant that I could teach the official RYA sailing courses. Gaining that was an epiphany: I realised that I had more to offer than my academic ability based on my A-level results. Better still, I knew that I could share that same affirmation to every person I took out sailing.

The year also helped me to develop socially: everyone is welcome on board the boats, and I became pretty good at talking to anyone from any background. It is a skill I’ve needed a lot, especially when I worked for a homeless charity.

The year also developed my work ethic, teaching me that you often get out what you put in. Ten years on from finishing university, I’ve actually spent the past eight years working at the centre in various posts. I now head up sail training with my husband, who I also met while working here.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that God takes the little we have to offer, and multiplies it into something far more significant, especially when we work together as a team with a common purpose.

Carla Henderson, 19, went on a six-month placement with Interserve to an Arab country, where she taught in a refugee school.

MUSIC is a huge part of Arab culture, and I knew that the children in the school enjoyed singing and dancing. But, when it came to the first music lesson I did with my classes, I was unsure how a more theory-based lesson would go down.

The fact that each child was beginning from the same starting point meant that they could learn and grow together: in that first lesson, they created their own simple rhythms which we clapped and banged together as a class. It was special to watch them enjoy something new and be creative with their skills. In fact, my expectations of the children throughout my time there were often blown away.

Probably the biggest lesson I learnt, however, and the message I took back to my church fellowship, is that life is so much more exciting when it’s given over to God. For so long, I had subconsciously had a plan to get a degree, find a job, and settle down. The more I came across other inspiring missionaries who had been open to God’s plan for their life, and had seen amazing works done through them, the more I realised how boring my original plan was.

Carla Henderson

My time abroad has definitely widened my understanding of what it is possible to do with my life. I’m more open to going overseas again for a longer time period. God has also ignited a passion for social justice in my heart, which I’m considering using in the third sector and campaign work in future.

I’m more aware than ever that I do not want to get attached to any secure plans that could obstruct hearing what God has in store for me. I have been reminded of Jeremiah 29.11: “For I know the plans I have for you.” God knows the plan that he has for my life, but he’ll never force this on me. The onus is on me to accept his plan.

After working with domestic-violence victims in the UK, Lucy Davies, 36, applied for a Global Fellowship opportunity with International Justice Mission (IJM).

IN GULU, northern Uganda, I was part of a team working with the public justice system to set up a domestic-violence pilot project. We were told many times, from many sides, that what we were doing was impossible. Our first arrest was a turning point, not just for ourselves but for the community.

I realised that God can, and will, use everything; we just need to be available. I also learnt that I’m more capable and more fallible than I thought. I saw my own fallibility through my limiting beliefs, but also my own expectations and unconscious bias. I saw that my way was one way, but not the only way.

Lucy Davies

There’s an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” In Ugandan culture, people often come before tasks, and there’s a greater emphasis on community: whatever food there is is shared between those who are there. If I saw some of my local shopkeepers at lunchtime, they’d invite me to come and share from their plate.

In our office daily prayers, often people would start by thanking God that they woke up that morning. When you start the day grateful to be alive, that gives a different perspective to everything in your life. I was constantly reminded that everything is sacred, and that everything is a gift.

It made no logical sense for me to take a year overseas: I had a good life and job in London. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t the easy option, but what a wasted life an easy life is.

As a result of my fellowship year, I extended my time in Uganda with IJM. I’m back in the UK now, working with refugees. It’s easy to give clichéd answers about how that time changed me, but it did. It’s given me greater focus and courage in how I want to use the time and resources I’ve been given.

Tom Ackroyd, 20, spent five months with a team from Crosslinks in The Gambia last year, teaching in a school and helping with other community projects

IN THE GAMBIA, we were placed in Sere Kunda. It’s the country’s largest city, urban and sprawling. Life can be tough. But I found everyone unconditionally welcoming, friendly, and hospitable, both at the school I taught at and in the communities we went to, even when they had so little. That was a humbling experience.

During our time there, we took part in a mission week at the University of the Gambia. We went round in pairs, at first with a Christian student and then without, knocking on students’ doors and asking if they would like to hear us explain what we believe as Christians.

Tom Ackroyd

It was terrifying at first. But it became so interesting. Many of the students were Muslim, and we were able to discuss things within each of our religions, including where we disagreed; to ask and answer questions. We prayed with some Muslim students for God to give all of us truth, and to be able to know him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget those conversations, or those prayers.

I’m now studying at university myself, which has presented many challenges. But I’ve seen the way Gambian Christians live for the gospel so clearly and bravely; so now I have the opportunity to do the same.

My gap year showed me that, in lots of ways, my faith had been dead. Having grown up in a Christian home, it was easy to know a lot, but my heart attitude to God needed to change, and he needed to be at the forefront of my life. The year strengthened my faith and helped move my heart to a place where I can know, love, and serve the Lord, and be a witness to his grace by living differently.


Organisations that want your help

Arab World Ministry (AWM) of Pioneers

AWM-PIONEERS promotes the gospel with people of the Arab world across North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the UK. As well as long-term work, AWM-Pioneers offers short-term teams, tailored placements, and training internships.

Who: Evangelicals, aged 18 and over, who are interested in cross-cultural mission.

When and where: Placements can be organised throughout the year, but short-term teams typically run at Easter and in the summer.

Cost: Varies; typically £100-250 a week for UK groups, overseas groups depend on airfares.

Contact: www.awm-pioneers.org, or email charlotteb@awm-pioneers.org.

European Christian Mission (ECM)

ECM works in more than 25 countries in Europe, planting churches in areas where there is little or no Evangelical presence. ECM offers short-term opportunities, ranging from two-week trips to two-year placements, supporting the work of its long-term missionaries.

Who: Individuals, couples, or teams aged over 18.

When and where: There are short-term opportunities in more than ten European countries. Start dates are flexible and depend on the availability of host teams.

Cost: Short-termers must cover the costs of travel, accommodation, living expenses, and DBS checks. ECM missionaries can give guidance on the budgets required.

Contact: www.shortterm.eu, or email personnel@ecmi.org.


CROSSLINKS works in five continents to help to make Christ known. Short-term volunteers serve alongside established mission partners in Bible-based ministry.

Who: Anyone who is active in their church, aged over 18.

When and where: Placements are flexible and vary, but, typically, teams go to the Gambia, South Africa, and Kenya. Individual tailored placements can be from a few weeks to two years.

Cost: About £3000 for a gap-year placement. Individual placements vary.

Contact: www.crosslinks.org, or email dbartholomew@crosslinks.org (groups) or cchan@crosslinks.org (individuals).

OMF International (UK)

OMF INTERNATIONAL is active in East Asia. Its short-term mission programme, Serve Asia, includes church-planting teams, sports ministries, teaching English, helping the urban poor, student and youth work, media production, medical work, and prayer journeys.

Who: Anyone who is active in their church, aged 18-65.

When and where: Two weeks to 12 months abroad, in countries including Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Singapore.

Cost: £500-2000, depending where you go and what you do.

Contact: www.omf.org/uk/serveasia, or email UK.SACoordinator@omfmail.com.

Church Mission Society (CMS)

CMS is a community of Christians who pray, learn, and act together in their call to mission. It works in more than 40 countries overseas.

Who: Anyone who is enthusiastic about mission and being part of a Christian community, including those who can offer professional skills, aged 18 and over.

When and where: CMS offers gap years, short-term mission opportunities of between four months and two years, and three-year long-term mission placements overseas. The Wonder programme is a gap year specifically designed for those exploring Asian contexts in Asia or in the UK.

Cost: Varies, but for placements of a year, typically between £4500-8000 (plus a one-off contribution of £350 for support, training, and DBS/health checks).

Contact: www.churchmissionsociety.org, or email vro@churchmissionsociety.org.uk

Baptist Mission Society (BMS)

BMS works with some of the least evangelised people in some of the most fragile places on earth through seven key ministries: church, development, education, health, justice, leadership, and relief.

Who: Action Teams is an overseas gap-year programme for 18- to 23-year-olds. BMS’s volunteer programme is for Christian professionals looking to contribute to the work that BMS is involved in with its partners.

When and where: Action Teams include one month’s training starting each September, followed by six months overseas (in Africa, South America, Asia, or Europe), and then a two-month UK mission tour. Volunteers can go at any time during the year, after one week of training and completion of the BMS application process.

Cost: Action Teams cost £4800. Volunteer placements vary, depending on duration and location.

Contact: www.bmsworldmission.org/serve, or email opportunities@bmsworldmission.org .

People International

PEOPLE INTERNATIONAL serves the Church in Central Asia, the least reached region of the world, with Christian compassion. It offers “Go Look See Do” teams: two-week team trips enabling people to explore short- or longer-term service in Central Asia. There are also opportunities for professionals to take up posts in various parts of the region, as well as tailor-made trips.

Who: Christians aged 18 and above.

When and where: Opportunities from two weeks to two years in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, North Caucasus, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tatarstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Xinjiang-Uyghur.

Cost: Go Look Do See approx. £1000 (including transport and accommodation). Longer-term missions vary.

Contact: www.peopleintl.org.uk/opportunities.

Challenge Team UK

CHALLENGE TEAM UK recruits, trains, and sends teams of four young adults to tour secondary schools with an hour-long interactive presentation. Team members have chosen to save sex for marriage, and explain in an entertaining way why this lifestyle is beneficial.

Who: Adults active in their church, aged between 18 and 25.

Members of Challenge UK make their presentation at Eastbourne College, in East Sussex  

When and where: Tours take place in February, March, and November. Challenge Team UK is currently seeking recruits to tour full-time (Monday to Friday) from February half-term to the end of March.

Cost: All expenses are paid (travelling costs and accommodation included). In addition, each team member receives a bursary.

Contact: www.challengeteamuk.com, or email info@challengeteamuk.com.

Youth For Christ (YFC)

YFC is committed to seeing young people’s lives changed by Jesus. Their “Year Out” programme seeks to show Jesus in a way that is relevant to every young person in Britain. The Year Out can be based at one of more than 60 UK centres, at the participant’s home church, or touring the UK as part of a dance crew, band, or media team.

Who: People between 17 and 25 with a wish to explore the gifts God has given them, and to deepen their relationship with God.

When and where: 1 September to 31 July, training in the West Midlands but based in a centre, church, or touring team in the UK.

Cost: £1495-£3100, depending on the specialism chosen — plus pocket money as required. Bursaries are available.

Contact: www.yfc.co.uk/theyearout, or email yfc@yfc.co.uk.

Pais Movement

THE Pais Movement is a non-denominational mission organisation working in 14 countries. In partnership with churches, it offers an apprenticeship year of training, discipleship, and Bible study. Apprentices can choose to train in youth ministry, with a further option to specialise in sport, music, or performing arts. There are also gap-year apprentice opportunities in media, personnel, finance, training, and communication.

Who: Anyone aged 18 and above.

When and where: Training begins in late August. The year ends the following July.

Cost: Host families provide food and accommodation, and host churches cover transport. Apprentices need only pocket money for expenses such as toiletries and leisure activities.

Contact: paismovement.com, or email england@paismovement.com.

Yorkshire Camps
YORKSHIRE CAMPS Training Team offers a year spent living and working with the charity at its base at Netherside Hall, in the Yorkshire Dales. It offers residential holidays for children aged seven to 18; training-team participants help to plan and run the camps, taking charge of games, activities, and Bible studies with the children. Some house and grounds maintenance is involved, as well as a Bible college training course, and schools work.

Who: Christians aged 18 to 25.

When and where: Placements run from three months to a year.

Cost: Yorkshire Camps asks for a voluntary contribution (of up to £2500) for the year.

Contact: www.yorkshirecamps.org.uk, or email team@yorkshirecamps.org.uk.

Rock UK

ROCK UK is a Christian charity providing outdoor adventures. Its instructor training programme is a one- or two-year adventure programme with on-the-job training.

Who: Christians aged 18 and above.

Rock UK instructors plan, run, and instruct activity sessions such as raft-building

When and where: The programme starts in September with three months of intensive training in the Scottish Borders. The remainder of the year is based at one of four UK activity centres: in Northamptonshire, Kent, South Wales, or the Scottish Borders. For those doing a second year, an overseas mission trip is included.

Cost: There is no course fee. Rock UK provides accommodation, activity kit, and food. Personal expenses such as mobile phone, clothes, travel, and leisure spending, however, are not covered.

Contact: rockuk.org, or email job.enquiry@rockuk.org.


FACT (Fellowship Afloat Charitable Trust) is a Christian residential outdoor activity centre, a ship based off the Essex coast, which provides adventurous activities in the context of a Christian community. Gap-year team members live on board, gaining experience of living in a community, as well as on-the-job training and interpersonal development (including activity instruction, hospitality, and communicating faith).

Who: People with a Christian faith, an outdoors nature, ideally some sailing background, and a wish to serve.

Anna, a FACT instructor, dares a group of London schoolchildren to stand up in their kayaks

When and where: Based in Tollesbury, Essex. Gap-year trainee instructors start placements at the beginning of each academic year. Sometimes, six-month placements are also available in the spring.

Cost: Full board and accommodation, essential personal protective equipment and clothing, and a monthly allowance to help to cover other living expenses are included, as is all the necessary training and opportunities for qualifications.

Contact: www.fact.org.uk, or email Andrew Eastham at jobs@fact.org.uk

A Rocha UK

A ROCHA is a Christian charity that works for the protection and restoration of the natural world, and is committed to enabling Christians and churches in the UK to care for the environment. The charity has several internships (six months to one year) and shorter volunteer opportunities available in the UK.

Who: Anyone interested in developing conservation skills.

When and where: Placements are around the UK, with their own projects or working with key partner organisations.

Contact: arocha.org.uk, or uk@arocha.org.


L’ARCHE is a worldwide movement in which people with and without learning disabilities live together. One-year placements are available with the community as live-in assistants, giving participants an experience of community life, and the opportunity to build relationships with people with learning disabilities. Assistants receive professional and personal development, including retreats, accompaniment, and an assistants’ training programme (including sign language and understanding autism).

Who: Anyone who seeks to join such a community. Comprehensive training is provided to equip participants fully.

When and where: There are ten communities around the UK (Inverness, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool, Preston, Brecon, Bognor, Ipswich, Kent, and London), and live-in assistants are asked to make a commitment of one year.

Cost: Live-in assistants have accommodation and food provided, and receive monthly living expenses.

Contact: www.larche.org.uk, or email info@larche.org.uk.

OM Ships International

OM SHIPS INTERNATIONAL operates the ship Logos Hope, a floating bookshop which travels from port to port throughout the world to provide opportunities for people to access Christian books and literature. In each port, the ship’s crew joins local churches to offer practical help and community care, whatever their circumstances, culture, or background. OM offers a two-month Step programme, or one-year or two-year opportunities on board.

Who: Anyone aged over 18, who comes with the support of a home church.

When and where: The Logos Hope sails from port to port across the world, and participants spend between one and two years aboard.

Cost: Volunteers raise their own funds to cover costs, which vary depending on time aboard.

Contact: www.om.org/ships/join.

Ministry Experience Scheme (MES)

MES is the Church of England’s gap-year initiative that gives young adults time away from the pressures of modern life to test God’s calling in their lives. On offer is practical ministry, the enrichment of theological understanding, and further personal development, all with ongoing support from peers and supervisors.

Who: 18- to 30-year-olds with a desire to serve God, discover more about their calling, experience practical ministry, grow theologically, and develop leadership skills.

When and where: Schemes can be found across the Church of England in rural and urban contexts, spanning a range of church traditions.

Cost: The year is free: accommodation and living expenses are included.

Contact: cofe.io/mes, or vic.wilson@churchofengland.org .

Community of the Tree of Life

THE Community of the Tree of Life is a house of prayer and residential new monastic community. Supported by Leicester diocese, the community is ecumenical and welcomes young adults from different Christian backgrounds, from around the world. The focus of the year is on developing a rhythm of life, missional service, and community, and applicants can integrate life in the community with courses offered by the Institute of Children and Youth Ministry and St Mellitus College, East Midlands.

Who: People who are seeking a space to experiment with their God-given gifts, explore vocational questions, and deepen their roots in God. The community is open to applicants who are single and aged between 18 and 35.

Novices and Companions from the Community of the Tree of Life, Leicester

When and where: September 2020 to mid-July 2021 in a purpose-designed community house in Leicester city centre, with up to 14 members.

Cost: It costs £8500 for accommodation, food, tuition, retreats, and living costs for the year. The community asks members to make a sacrificial donation to cover these costs.

Contact: www.leicestertreeoflife.org, or email info@leicestertreeof life.org.

Lee Abbey, Devon

LEE ABBEY is a Christian conference, holiday, and retreat centre set in a 280-acre estate in Exmoor National Park. The Christian community offers gap years and short-term work in youth and children’s work, outdoor pursuits, estate team, and administration, and worship internships.

Who: Christians aged 18-70.

When and where: Any time. Lee Abbey is located in Lynton, North Devon.

Cost: There is no cost. Accommodation, food, a small allowance, and discipleship training are all included.

Contact: www.leeabbeydevon.org.uk, or email personnel@leeabbey.org.uk.

Scargill Movement

SCARGILL HOUSE is a Christian retreat, holiday, and conference centre in the Yorkshire Dales run by a residential international community of volunteers. Community members make a commitment to follow a rule of life and to serve for a minimum of one year. Opportunities exist to work as part of the kitchen staff, housekeeping, administration, and estate work/maintenance.

Who: Anyone single aged 18-60.

When and where: Applications are accepted throughout the year. Scargill House is situated within a 90-acre woodland estate near Kettlewell, Yorkshire.

Cost: No costs are involved. All members of the community receive a monthly allowance, food, and a room.

Contact: www.scargillmovement.org.

Forthcoming Events

14 September 2020
Festival of Pilgrimage
From Christ Church Oxford: a chance to reflect theologically on pilgrimage and come away with practical ideas for your parish.   Book tickets

29 September 2020
Festival of Preaching
A one-day online version of our popular preaching festival. With Mark Oakley, Sam Wells and Anna Carter Florence.   Book tickets

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