Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)
Read the online article here
Making Mission Trips Meaningful for Parents and Families
The impact of a mission trip in the life of a student never ceases to amaze me. If I am honest, every mission trip I lead also has an impact on my own life. There is something so powerful in serving others that I often feel guilty for getting more out of serving than I feel like I give. Over the years I have learned a lot from leading mission trips, more often from mistakes I make and stealing the good ideas of others rather than my own creative insights or brilliant revelations. In fact, I am not sure I could name one. I have found that one of the great gifts I can give a student, their family and the church I serve is to do things that make the mission trip experience meaningful for parents (and families) as they send their students off on this adventure with me. Here are some things that I have done over the years that have enhanced the mission trip experience for parents and families.
Practice #1: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
I tend to be an over communicator and while that can be annoying to some, many parents are appreciative of this aspect of my personality, especially when it comes to mission trips. Our mission trip process starts with information meetings, which anyone who would like to go on the trip must attend with a parent. This expectation alone has not only enhanced my relationship with parents and made the mission trip more meaningful for all, but it also has prevented a lot of stress and headaches. In addition to our informational sessions, I make sure to send regular email communication about the mission trip to parents. This includes giving parents a copy of the itinerary and the packing list at the very least two weeks ahead of the trip, but in most cases three to six weeks before the trip. After the trip, I make sure to send out a follow up email so everyone knows about the expectations, events and other follow up that happens after the trip.
Practice #2: The Follow-up Breakfast
Teenagers are notorious for the lack of information they share with parents. I had one student refuse to tell their parents anything about the mission trips for months after the trip. In fact, I had to tell the student that I would ban them from any future trips if they did not talk about the mission trip with their parents. Every summer I have a breakfast where we invite parents (and depending on the church, the whole congregation) to come and hear about the mission trip. I usually prepare a simple slide show and have some youth (and occasionally adult leaders) share about the mission trips from that summer while also sharing a few words myself. Parents are always thankful to see and hear about the mission trip experience from the perspective of their youth as well as others. The great thing about doing this is it is very little work for a lot of return.
Practice #3: The Prayer & Packing Meeting
One practice I stumbled upon due to my own need to plan is what we call the prayer and packing meeting. For every mission trip, the youth and adults going gather the night before we leave. During this time, parents come with their youth and the youth bring their luggage (except maybe for their pillow and personal bag for the ride/flight) to the church. After checking all the bags (for size or weight depending on whether we are flying, driving or both), we load the bags up in the vehicles we will be using the next morning. Then we share a time of meeting and worship. We cover final details, answer questions, and hand out emergency numbers. Then we spend some time in prayer and pray for those going on the trip by inviting parents and family members to come and lay hands on the youth going on the trip. It is a very meaningful send off. We then share communion before disbursing. It is not only a meaningful experience; it’s a gift to parents in another way. It prevents the late evening (or 1:00am) argument between parents and their youth when the procrastinator packing has not started and the parent is running to Wal-Mart to get deodorant. I remember one parent thanking me for this evening when I first came to the church stating, “this is the least stressful day before the mission trip we have ever had.” Sometimes it is the small stuff that has the greatest impact on parents.
Practice #4: Letters
A meaningful tradition for youth, families and friends is to have families and friends of youth going on the trip write secret letters of encouragement to them. Every year I ask parents to help provide 2-4 letters (without their youth knowing) to give them just past the halfway point of the trip. This is always an emotional and powerful experience as I give the letters to students and give them some time and space to read the letters from home. Parents have very little opportunity to tell their children how they fell, especially when they are teenagers. Most of our students have no idea how their parents really feel about them, so reading a heartfelt letter from home is always meaningful and has a great impact on students, parents and families. I have seen siblings moved in powerful ways just by being able to write a letter to their brother or sister. One of the most powerful experiences with this tradition came on one mission trip where I got word that a student’s grandfather had died. I shared the news with the student who was heartbroken. The next evening I passed out the letters as usual, knowing that one of the letters this student was going to receive was from his grandfather who had passed away. Word cannot express the power of that moment for the student and his family.
While none of these practices are complicated or deeply profound, they can have a powerful impact on your youth, parents and families. Thinking carefully about how to involve parents and families in the mission trip experience will not only enhance the mission trip experience, but it will also serve parents in a way that will benefit your ministry more than you might ever realize.
Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 14 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (marcusjcarlson.com).