On a recent mission trip, I interacted with adult leaders from across the country.

One was permanently attached to her phone. She called her office every 10 minutes to see if a crisis had developed she alone could solve—from 800 miles away. Another was overbearing, completely dominating his work crew at the expense of his team. Another complained constantly—in the van, the showers and at meals. Her mood spread among the group as a cancerous growth. Still another had no qualms about yelling at students—as long as they were students from churches other than her own.

As I observed how the behavior and moods of these leaders affected the students around them, I was reminded of the power adult leaders have to make or break a student’s mission experience. Knowing this, here are 10 things every mission trip adult leader should know.

1. You set the tone. Students will mimic your attitude. If you’re positive, they will be, too; if you’re negative, they will be, too. Never share complaints (even justified ones) with students. Instead, discuss concerns with other adults. Then work together to problem solve.

2. There is good, even in the midst of an awful day where nothing goes as planned. Find it. Name it. Focus on it. Choose joy. Trust God to use imperfect days in the lives of you and your students.

3. Your world at home will not collapse without you. So disconnect. Set down your cell phone and laptop. Communicate value to students by being with them, free from worries about what’s happening at home. If you must call home, do so once a day as quickly as possible away from your students.

4. Mission trip schedules are really just an ordered list of what you’ll be doing in a given day, not specific times at which you’ll be doing them. When large groups of people serve and travel together, things happen. People get lost. Dinner takes longer than expected. A discussion runs longer than expected. Be flexible. Focus on who you’re with and what you’re doing rather than on the time. Be in the moment, trusting that everything that needs to happen will.

5. Sometimes leading is best done from behind. When you’re at a work site, before volunteering for a job yourself, ensure students are serving. Help them find jobs and encourage them. Once they’re working, serve alongside them.

6. Students need encouragement. Catch them doing things right. Tell them what you saw specifically and honestly. Speak your hopes and dreams into them.

7. No one likes to be publicly shamed. Because most students know when they’ve screwed up, there’s no need to point out their failure to a room full of people. Instead, talk privately. Communicate your feelings without lashing out at them. Walk your student through what needs to be done to repair damage and reconcile. Be a vehicle of God’s love and grace by offering forgiveness and allowing your student to start fresh without fear of having his failure haunt him.

8. Authority is derived from relationships, not position. Don’t try to discipline a student you don’t know. Regardless of your intentions, this will only make the student disrespect you. If you have a legitimate concern about a student you don’t know, talk to his or her adult leader. Trust that leader to deal with the issue in a way that honors God and the student.

9. You are not the point of a youth mission trip, even though you’ll likely benefit from it. Focus on your students, who are the point. Sit with them. Be with them. Ask them questions about what they’re seeing and experiencing. Then listen.

10. Relationships matter more than work. Be people-focused; not task-oriented. Invest in students. Get to know who you’re serving. Help students do the same. The most important hour you spend at a ministry site probably won’t be spent painting or weeding; it’ll be spent in a God-infused conversation with a stranger you’ll remember long after you’ve returned home.

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About The Author

Jen Bradbury serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. She’s the author of The Jesus Gap. Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal and The Christian Century, and she blogs regularly at ymjen.com. When not doing ministry, she and her husband, Doug, can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their daughter, Hope.

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