By Helen Brook, discipleship adviser for Church Mission Society
To start, let’s address the elephant in the room. Short-term teams can be paternalistic, have disastrous unintended consequences and waste money. There are many stories of how teams have built buildings that didn’t need building, painted walls which local people could have painted and created difficult situations for long-term partners to clear up afterwards.
Yet, and thankfully, there are also many teams where participants have been transformed by their experience, where long-term partnerships have been developed and where relationships have flourished.
What makes the difference between the former and the latter? How do we ensure that team visits are done well and what does ‘well’ look like?
David Zac Niringiye, retired assistant bishop of the diocese of Kampala, Uganda and former CMS Africa director, speaks wisely when he says, “Come and be with us, with no agenda other than to be with us.” Much that can go wrong with a short-term team stems from our attitudes and motivations for going. Are we going with hands full of ‘stuff’, high expectations of what we may accomplish and unaware of our cultural bias? Giving teams time to think through their expectations and attitudes is vital. I love this quote from an Aboriginal activist group in Queensland in the 1970s, because it cuts right to the heart of some of the assumptions we sometimes hold, namely that the West is resource-rich and can ‘do something for poor people’:
“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you recognise that your liberation and mine are bound up together, we can walk together.”
We all have needs, brokenness, flaws and gifts to give, whatever our socio-economic or cultural background. First and foremost we need to be prepared to learn – learn from being in a different country with a different culture and worldview – and allow our assumptions to be challenged.
Start as you mean to go on by planning each step of your team visit with your host, developing a relationship which is interdependent and reciprocal. Put yourself in your host’s shoes: if a team wanted to visit your church what would you want to know and what attitudes would you want the group to show? One of the key questions would be, “Do you want the team to visit and when would be good for you?” This may sound obvious but it can be overlooked in the excitement to plan a visit that fits with school holidays.
It’s also good to be mindful that the host organisation you are visiting will be conducting its work as normal; follow its lead particularly with regards to the type of activities and events you can join. Think carefully about the long-term effects of your visit: working in an orphanage for two weeks may be an eye-opening experience, but what is the effect of numerous visitors on the children’s well-being? Understand the host’s perspective and develop a good relationship and communication method from the start.
There are many mishaps we can make in a different culture; at best they can be seen as amusing by hosts and at worst they can deeply offend. Start learning about the country and culture while in the UK: eat in an Ethiopian restaurant, visit a gurdwara, invite a local Albanian to a team meeting. Prepare your teams on not only the culture, history and language, but with some cross-cultural skills they’ll need such as observation and reflection.
Many churches have long-term links overseas; team visits can be great opportunities to develop these partnerships, particularly in countries where relationships are built through face-toface interaction. Such visits can also provide an opportunity to think through the nature of your partnership, which may involve giving financial support. Finances and accountability can be a tricky topic and can create an imbalance in relationships. Giving money is great, but it’s vital for us to remember that there are many other gifts we can give and receive, including friendship, different talents and sharing ideas. Churches in the global south are vibrant and growing and there are valuable lessons we can learn and use in our own communities; it’s therefore important that our learning and reflection doesn’t stop when people get off the plane. Have time with your team to de-brief, consider their experiences and how they may apply this to their own context.
As Christians we aren’t isolated; we believe in a global God and we are members of a global body of Christ. Short-term teams give us an opportunity to develop relationships, become aware of our cultural baggage and discover how following Jesus is worked out in other cultures, giving us insight into this glorious, complicated and vibrant world. “We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ” (Andrew Walls).