This time of year, my work mailbox gets clogged with one thing: advertisements from mission trip organizations, all promising a “life-changing experience” for my kids. With so many organizations out there, how can you sift through all the information and choose the right organization to facilitate your youth ministry’s trip?

There is no magic formula for choosing the “right” mission organization. However, here are three things I look for when choosing what the one my ministry will serve alongside each summer.

1. Affordability. Even though I work in an upper-middle class suburb, the truth is, some of my students come from families that are struggling financially. Because I never want finances to prevent a willing student from participating in a potentially life-changing experience, I look for mission trip organizations that are reasonable in cost and that cover all the costs during the trip itself, including food, housing and any materials we’ll need as we serve. I also look for mission trip organizations that are good stewards of their resources. To determine this, don’t hesitate to ask for a copy of an organization’s budget and specifically for individual site budgets to see exactly how its money is being spent.

2. An organization’s respect for the communities it serves. There’s a lot of criticism about short-term mission trips, one of the most frequently heard is that some do more harm than good to the communities they serve. For this reason, I look for mission trip organizations that highly value the communities they serve by partnering with local community organizations (whether secular or Christian) that are already doing positive work in the community. I also look for organizations that stay in a community all summer in order to develop relationships, those that maintain a presence in the community throughout the year, either by hosting short-term groups year round or by staffing sites for year-long development work. I also seek those that return to the same community year after year in order to foster on-going relationships with those who live there. Additionally, I look for mission trip organizations that support the local economy — and thereby act justly — by buying their supplies from locally owned stores or bringing groups to locally owned businesses and restaurants.

3. An organization that “gets” that missions is not just a one-week thing. I’ve been on enough mission trips to know they truly can be life-changing. However, for that to be true, mission trips actually have to spark lasting change in a student — not just during the week of the trip, but after they return home. I’ve found that change has a greater chance of lasting when mission trip organizations have service opportunities and programmatic elements that raise questions that spark conversations between students and leaders, choose age-appropriate service projects that connect with students’ passions, are reproducible in their communities, help students wrestle with what it means to live justly (Micah 6:8) and specifically challenge students to continue serving after they return home.

While this list is far from exhaustive, when I use these three criteria to choose a mission trip organization to facilitate my ministry’s trip, more often than not my teens truly do have life-changing experiences that foster a lifetime of continued service at 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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