Ten Questions for Debriefing after a Mission Trip

Real life change comes as people return home and reflect on their experience.

July 20, 2012 — Your church group has just returned from a fantastic mission trip to some far-flung corner of the world, or from someplace much closer to home.

But once people get home, CNN, Twitter, soccer, school, work, and church activities have a way of crowding out the spiritual focus that, just a few days earlier, seemed certain to shape their lives.

That’s why it’s important to have an effective debriefing plan in place even before leaving home.

Roger Peterson, author of Maximum Impact Short-Term Mission, says that the debriefing process, a time of reflection after your short-term mission, is more important than the actual mission. While not discounting the work that’s been accomplished, real life change comes as people return home and reflect on their experience.

Over the years I have served alongside thousands of people on mission trips in Mexico and attended countless conferences sponsored by denominations and mission organizations. Here’s what I have learned: the most effective people in God’s kingdom are the ones who take seriously the need to stop, reflect, and consider what God is saying to them through their mission.

Tim Dearborn, director of faith and development at World Vision International, says that in order for people to really gain insight from this debriefing time, they need to know what to look for. This means letting your team know ahead of time what you expect of them on their return.

Here, then, are ten potential debriefing questions adapted from Tim Dearborn and Dr. David Livermore, author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open. Share them with your team before you leave, and then make sure you carve out time upon your return to reflect on them.

1. What did I learn about myself on my short-term mission?

2. What did I learn about God?

3. What did I learn about the people, the church, and the Christian community in the area where I served?

4. What did I learn about how culture impacts the ways people live and understand the gospel?

5. What did I learn about justice, economics, poverty, and politics during my short-term mission?

6. As a follower of Christ, what did I learn that can help me be a more fully devoted disciple?

7.How might my faith be different if I had grown up where I was serving, as opposed to in my home community?

8. What did I learn or experience that will change the way I live and represent Jesus in my home community and church?

9. What have I learned about my own Christian calling?

10. How can I continue to support the ongoing work in the area where I served?

There you have it. Ten questions to consider as your team returns to your home church. But let me go one step further and give you a bonus question: What difference would it make if you lived each day with the same intensity and focus on Jesus and others as you did on your mission? And then ask your team this follow-up question: What keeps you from living life at that level now?

For most of us, the lessons learned from serving on short-term mission trips may take years to fully grasp.

But that’s okay. It’s a journey.

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I'm with you, until you get to question 5.  I haven't seen very many short-term mission trips in which one would learn much that is useful about these things.  I rather think that an individual's prior beliefs in these categories tend to provide a framework in which the trip is experienced, often tending to justify those prior beliefs rather than challenge them, regardless of what the prior beliefs are.  

I would prefer to discourage any attempt to come to long-term, big-picture types of conclusions on the basis of such brief involvement.  There are people who have been involved for decades in some of these places who aren't really sure what should be concluded as so many varied factors, local and global, impinge on it.  Far better to encourage a sense of humility at the complexities involved.

So maybe just 9 questions...

I disagree with the exemption of question 5.  Learning takes place at all levels of understanding and at various stages along the way.  It is important to constantly reflect on these types of issues in order to begin to grasp them.  One must develop some opinion or conclusion in order to further investigate it and in doing so broaden overall understanding.  It is a significant part of the learning process.  Great questions to reflect on and so important to do so.

In general I would agree with PNR.  A close acquaintance has travelled extensively on short term "mission" trips and returned with confidant assessments of that country that by reading decent current events magazines such as the The Economist, I know to be false.  They were shown what the residents of that controlled environment wanted them to see.

Their short term "mission" trips ran in excess of $50,000.00, my subscriptions amounted to a couple hundred.

Another observation is that one becomes somewhat wary of assessments by those connected to the STM industry.

My children did not go on them--where we lived in the inner city of a fairly large city gave them all the opportunity they needed for cross-cultural experiences and with a far greater depth than STM's that I have observed (and I have relatives in the business).

I agree wholeheartedly with PNR.  Mission trips are not the venues or formats whereby one should construct opinions and direction as to justice et al.  These should be built over years of nurturing.  One week should not be the only candle whereby the room is lit.

Great affirmation for the list. 9 out of 10 isnt bad...but dont throw #5 out all together. Especially if the short term trip is seen as part of the life journey (as indicated by the authors closing statement). STMs can certainly introduce the goer to deeper/greater thoughts of justice, economics, poverty, and politics. It's not the "trip" that we learn from - its the conversations and the listening and learning with nationals. An STM that emphasizes learning as much or more than laboring is essential. Thank God for the Best Practicecs of STM (in Canada) and the Standards of Excellence (in the U.S.) that have come out in the past few years.   And, don't forget, North America is now a host/reciever of short termers...followers of Christ are coming here "to do missions" from Asia, Africa, Latin America...

Thanks for the thoughts Dave... Great discussion here... see more on debriefing at www.stmtoolbox.org. It's our theme for August. I think debriefing the experience is critical to making the investment worthwhile.

Many of these questions are the types that do not lend themselves to easy answers.  For me, you cannot serve on mission without at least considering the fundamental questions of justice and poverty.  These issues are so central to how many people experience the Gospel that to not touch on them would, in my opinion, be worse than trying to consider them.

Certainly, as some have suggested, these subjects are very complex for a short-term mission, but hopefully with a good in-field missionary working between the goer guest and host receiver, some light, and possibly motivation for further reflection, can be possible.

Remember as Jerry pointed out, it is a journey...