Packing Your Bags: Preparing for Short-Term Missions

So, you’re getting ready to go on a short-term mission trip? Perhaps it’s your first time and you don’t quite know what to expect. Imagining what food you might eat. Practicing phrases such as “hello” and “where is the bathroom?” in an unfamiliar language. Making sure your bags are packed just perfectly.

But making sure your bag is ready isn’t the only preparation that is important. “If all you do to prepare for your mission trip is pack a suitcase, you might be missing the “mission” part of your trip. Just like you wouldn’t go on a trip without first packing the right clothing and gear, you shouldn’t go on a mission trip without first preparing your mind and heart.” (*)

As you prepare to go, whether it’s your first time or one of many, consider these practical tips and spiritual insights not only from my own, personal experience, but from others who have gone before, both near and far.

1) Remember that long-term missions and short-term missions will look different

It’s good to consider what your expectations are from the beginning. What is the purpose of this trip? Are you hoping to learn more about missions? Will you be serving through evangelistic outreach or physical projects, such as building a church? Are you hoping to have a quick vacation and then return home?

Short-term teams can be a blessing to the local churches and missionaries they go to support. In turn, short-term trips also offer an opportunity for those on the team to learn more about foreign missions by seeing it first-hand. My own call into foreign missions was confirmed on one of these trips. However, we must recognize that it is the long-term work that is most effective in seeing change. While there are many benefits to short-term trips, when they are done effectively, following the lead of the local churches, missionaries, and ministries is most important.

A friend once told me, “Do not expect your short-term mission trip to look like long-term mission work, as you will leave disappointed. If you come understanding that your job is to support the local church and long-term missionaries, do what you can to serve their ministry in the way that they think is best, then you will truly bless them.”

I’ve personally been guilty of bringing my own western perspective into a culture, believing I know the best way to improve the lives of the people in it. However, over the years, I’ve been humbled by the communities that I’ve had the blessing to serve, coming to realize that it is the local Christians who will best understand the culture and needs of the community.

We do not come as saviors, but as servers. JESUS is the Savior, and He has invited us to be a part of the story.

A part of what HE is already doing.  As we come to serve the community, the most effective thing we can do is work alongside of local missionaries and churches, which will ensure that we are fulfilling the needs of the community in a way that empowers the local people and that the work we are a part of will be sustained after we leave.

2) Prepare Your Heart Through Prayer

As time gets closer for you to leave, ask God to show you His heart for the nation or city that you will go to on your trip. Take time to pray, listen to God, and process together. What is God saying to your team? What is He saying to you personally about this trip? What is His heart for the nation? This may also lead you to do some extra research, such as understanding the spiritual strongholds of the community, which will better help you pray before you go. Just as you check off a list of what to pack, making sure your heart is prepared should be at the top of that list. Foreign missions might not always, and most often won’t, look as glamorous as you thought it would, but if your heart is focused on God and the reason why you are there, you will not only be a blessing to the missionaries and/or churches that you serve, but grow personally through the experience, as well.

3) Be flexible

For those of you who have traveled frequently, especially to South American and Asian countries, you quickly learned that knowing this beforehand saved a lot of misunderstanding later. In some places of the world, relationship with others is valued above accomplishing a task quickly. Some people adjust to this easily, while others feel uncomfortable when things don’t go as planned. Schedules often change or are pushed back because a neighbor stopped by for a visit or a meeting took longer than initially thought. Other times, you might be asked to do something that you hadn’t prepared in advance to do, such as sharing a testimony at the local church. Being there to serve often requires us to go with the flow, and be flexible in whatever situation. If you are aware of this, it will help you from feeling frustrated and create a more positive atmosphere for your team, even in times when lack of sleep, unfamiliar food, or language confusions threaten the balance. In fact, you may experience joy in these cultures that put higher priority on relationships, which forces us to slow down and live in the moment with the people around us.

4) Embrace Uncomfortable Situations as an Opportunity to Grow

From my first mission trip until this day, I still encounter situations that feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but that have also broadened my perspective of the world. We are quick to remove ourselves from unfamiliar situations, but it’s good for us to stop and think why it is that we feel uncomfortable. Perhaps we are seeing a new way of thinking or a different culture that challenges what we know, and rather than removing ourselves from it, there is something more that God wants to teach us about Himself and the world around us. When we come as a learner, we will find that other cultures have a lot to teach us.

5) Do some team building

Whether you are together a few weeks or a few months, it’s helpful to prepare as a team before you go. Get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. How can you serve and love one another on this trip? All may go smoothly, or you may faces challenges. Either way, you are in it together, and when the team is walking in unity, there will be no greater testimony to those you are going to reach. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35).

6) Be culturally sensitive

Whether you have a team orientation before you leave, or the local ministry will provide orientation for you, make sure to take these guidelines to heart. Be aware of how you dress, cultural dos and don’ts, and how you can best communicate with the people. After talking with a local church leader here in Thailand, she told me, “We are blessed when teams show their respect and trust towards local leaders and churches, humbling applying things they learned from orientation while they are ministering. The short-term is part of the long-term effects.” I’ve sadly heard of reports of short-term teams that have hurt relationships between the local people and the long-term missionaries because they weren’t culturally sensitive or didn’t follow the lead of their hosts. Do some research before you come, or set-up an orientation with the partnership ministry, so that it will best help your team adjust upon your arrival. This leads me to the next point.

7) Read Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier

This is an incredible resource for anyone traveling out of the country! It’s not that long, and yet it has a lot of good stories and information about what different cultures around the world look like. As we serve in a different culture other than our own, it provides some really good understanding that will help your team be more sensitive to the people around you!

8) Be careful not to over-pack

I have learned this from personal experience. In an effort to be prepared, I often packed too much in the early years, but found I usually never used half of what I brought. Bring the absolute necessities, knowing you might have a chance to buy toiletries or do laundry once you get there. Communicate with the partner ministry in advance to see what’s available. It’s also ok to wear the same shirt or pants multiple times. Packing less means it will be easier for you to travel around, and even give you space to bring back a few souvenirs.

9) Always have tissues

That being said, it’s never a bad idea to always carry a pack of tissues on you. There might be a toilet, but there is no guarantee of what that toilet will look like or if there will be toilet paper available. Keeping a small pack of tissues in your backpack or pocket could save you in a desperate situation.

10). Bring a camera, but be sensitive

Having a camera is a great wait to capture moments that you are going to want to remember! Beautiful sights. Interesting food. New friendships. These photos will help you recall things you experienced once you return home. However, be sensitive to whether or not it is an appropriate time to take a picture. We don’t want to bring more harm to the people we are trying to serve by taking and sharing a photo, one they might not be comfortable with a church back home seeing. We want to see individuals empowered, not created into victims. Our primary purpose is to serve. At other times, for protection issues, the local ministries or missionaries may not allow photos to be taken. A good rule is this: before you take a picture, do you know that person’s name? Do you know their story? If you are unsure whether it is an appropriate time to take that picture, ask the local missionaries or church.


A Practical List

Below is a list of items that long-term and short-term mission workers have named as their top things to bring. Consider them for your trip!

Outlet converters Special snacks from home A book to read on down time  Baby wipes Flashlight Notebook to record your experience  Ear plugs Face mask for sleeping Battery-operated personal fan     Stick deodorant Sunscreen Mosquito net (depending on the country) Thank you cards to give to your host Hydroflask (quality water bottle) Travel pillow  Quick dry towels Compression bags (for packing)

Now that you’re all packed and the time is drawing closer for you to board that plane, train, or bus, go with expectation for what God is going to do, not only in the ministry, but personally in your own life!

And lastly, don’t forget your passport at home.

(For more packing info, check out

Pictures: Calsidyrose. Gulf of Mexico. 2009. Photograph. Flickr Commons. 29 June 2017. (top photo); Chattygd. 32/365. 2013. Photograph Flickr Commons. 29 June 2017. (bottom photo)

*Palmer, CJ and Teri. Spiritual Prep.