4 Roles of the Youth Worker on an International Short-Term Mission Trip

short-term mission-tripThis week I’m getting the opportunity to go behind the scenes with Praying Pelican Missions during their busiest week of the summer, shadowing Haiti Operations Director Jim Noreen. (He is overseeing 7 ministry sites around the country with about 170 participants in country.)

As of tonight I’ve seen every team and had a chance to interact with all of the individual trip leaders, who are usually a youth worker from a local church or someone in a similar paid position at a local church back home.

It’s been semi-monumental to connect with each team as Haiti isn’t exactly the easiest place to get around. 

Here’s how the visits have gone. We’ll show up at a ministry location, usually during a meal. First, we’ll greet the team and then specifically spend a few minutes with the trip leader to see how they are doing. Next, Marko and I split off to find a few students to plop down in the middle of and get to know them. There’s no real agenda for that time… just getting to know one another, making small talk about their experience so far. We both love hanging out with students so that’s really fun for each of us. In the meantime, Jim is usually checking in with his staff and the host, working through any problems that may have come up, or just making sure to spend some time encouraging them. Last, in almost every stop we’ve gone back and hung out with the youth leader a bit more before letting them get back to their ministry stuff.

As I’ve met these youth leaders it’s become more and more clear how important their role is for the trip itself. Even though PPM handles all of the logistics for the trip, from transportation to food… even programming, the role of the youth leader is vital in very specific ways towards the success or failure of the trip.

4 Roles of the Youth Worker on an International Short-Term Mission Trip

  1. Curator – Since the youth worker has a long-term role in the students lives, she acts as a curator of the experience. Her lead-up time is crucial to recruiting and fundraising… but also that curator role continues to flesh itself out as she both experiences the trip herself and makes sure to help her students see stuff they might not normally notice. For instance, in Haiti its very easy for first-time visitors to just notice how different everything is from the States. The first day can be overwhelming because everything feels chaotic compared to home. Things seem dirty, broken down, hopeless even. But the curator can help students see the beauty in the chaos or find places of hope amidst the mess.
  2. Translator – A good translator doesn’t transliterate everything they are hearing. Instead they hear things in one language and translate the real meaning into the other language, which is often times not a word-for-word translation. The same is true of a youth worker when her students are on a short-term trip internationally. She can help her students understand what they are experiencing, what they are feeling, and help translate the experience into something back home. I’ve found that we are so adaptable as humans that we can sometimes falsely translate things by building up false assumptions OR we can just take the experience in so quickly that we don’t even create the space to translate it at all. 
  3. Protector – I remember an older pastor pulling me aside early in my ministry career and reminding me that a shepherd (same word as “pastor”) carried a staff. And one purpose of the staff was to protect sheep from harm. A good youth worker will protect her students on an international mission trip. I don’t just mean safety. I also mean knowing when a student has had enough of something, or pulling the reigns in when something starts going a direction they aren’t comfortable with, or even being the one to confront another student on the trip or have a difficult conversation with a staff person from the mission agency. That doesn’t mean they have to be in control, but they do have to know when to let things go… and when to step in to protect. At the end of the day they are aware that their role isn’t just to keep people safe and trust everything will work out. Instead, it’s to make sure that the experience shapes their students spiritually in a way that represents the church, the youth ministry, and that students family.
  4. Reactor Core – It’s perfectly natural for participants on the trip to take non-verbal cues from their leader. If she has a lot of energy the whole team will have a lot of energy and visa versa. An experienced youth worker will recognize their role and manage it in full knowledge that everyone on the team is feeding off their attitude, work ethic, level of seriousness, level of spiritual engagement, etc. It’s easy to go on a trip and think that all of that is going to come from the mission agency. (And just kick back) But the simple reality is that you are the energy source. When your team is going well, it’s usually because of you. But when it’s going bad, it’s probably also because of your leadership as well.

What are other roles youth leaders play on international short-term mission trips? Leave a comment and add to the list with your ideas.






3 responses to “4 Roles of the Youth Worker on an International Short-Term Mission Trip”

  1. tonytsheng Avatar

    great post adam. i would add one thing, when its feasible: i think our students today are desperate to know stories of the leaders they work with. whether it’s hearing from a site host or from someone with the missions agency or even their own student ministry leader, they want to know how those people got involved in this thing. they want to hear about calling and purpose and destiny. they want to be taught about hearing and obeying from god and matching meeting the worlds needs.

    so all that to say, sometimes when it fits, the youth worker needs to be an interviewer, giving good questions to the leader and helping the kids get it.

  2. Andrew Breton Avatar
    Andrew Breton

    Partner and Trust Builder- Often times the leader directly communicates and coordinates with the indigenous ministry partners on the ground. Here lies the need for tough and honest conversations around expectations, projects and long-term partnership. For example, Kenyan Christians have a hard time saying no to Western Christian ideas. They are a shame based culture, never wanting to bring shame to any person, never mind a visitor for a bad idea. It takes years to build trust to ask the tough questions of what is the most effective, sustainable and Kingdom building way for short term missions to exist in a particular context. These patient conversations put the “partner” in real partnership.

  3. Gene Avatar

    I think the two most important roles of the youth leader takes place off-site. It is that of TEAM BUILDER and INTERPRETER (this later is NOT the same as the role of Translator).

    The members of a short-term mission trip are not just a collection of individuals, they must be a team. They must become a cohesive unit with a common purpose. The TEAM BUILDER is responsible for molding the group into a team BEFORE the trip, and s/he must also build into the group the sort of character and attitude with which s/he hopes to see the group respond to the circumstance they encounter. Once the trip has begun, too many new things come at those for whom this is a first time experience for them to process it except in ways they are already predisposed. If they are predisposed in everyday life to go “YUCK” at the sight of food they are unfamiliar with that is exactly what they will do on the mission site. Repeat that with every youth having 100+ new experiences, and such an attitude will most certainly eat away at the team. An unfocused (or split-focused) group cannot be as effective as one that understands why they are there. They are representatives of the BODY of Christ, they cannot do this if they are focused on themselves as individual members rather than the body as a whole. That wholeness needs to be understood as not just the people who accompanied them on the trip, but those they are living and working amongst as well –there is too much of an us/them attitude in short-term mission experiences, the effective TEAM BUILDER works to change this even before the group s/he leads says good-bye to the folks at home.

    The INTERPRETER does more than just translate the experience. The INTERPRETER helps the youth find meaning in the experience in ways that apply to his/her own life. As an INTERPRETER the youth worker leads the team to share their experience with others that help to make a connection between the ministry done on the mission trip and the ministry of the parent organization that sent them. Translating might be to teach that construction materials on a mission-site will be scrap tin and cinder block rather than cut lumber. But interpretation will be to explain why and how it is that such a choice fits the situation in which the construction is done and the people who utilize it live. Further, the INTERPRETER helps to put the experiences of the trip into the context of the youth’s ongoing life once back home. Will the trip be more than just an isolated event, or will it become something that shapes the youth long-term?

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