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The Keys to a Quality Debriefing

By Steve Moore

Experienced short-term mission leaders know what God does in the hearts of team members is just as important as what he does through them. Every team leader wants the members of the team to come home changed, to have a vision for the world and to act out the next steps God has shown them. A quality debriefing experience is the key that unlocks the potential of long-term life change for most team members. As a team leader, planning and executing the debriefing sessions is like putting the key in the lock. It is up to the team members to “turn the key” as they engage in the process with you and open their hearts to God’s next steps. Here are ten proven principles that will help you prepare for a quality debriefing experience.

Ten Principles

1. Make it a priority from the start.

You can’t wait until your ministry is over, bags are packed and the team is standing in the airport waiting for the flight number to be called to think about debriefing and expect it to be productive. Decide in advance that you are going to provide your team with a designated time to process the whirlwind of events and activities they have experienced together.

2. Plan to hold your debriefing sessions in your host country.

Most short-term team members have an internal switch that goes off as soon as your plane touches the ground back home (for some it’s just being in our airspace that does it!). Team members tend to become preoccupied, focused on reconnecting with their friends, family members and favorite fast food meal upon returning home. There is a measure of honesty, vulnerability and team chemistry that is nearly impossible to recreate outside of your host country.

3. Schedule your debriefing sessions with your in-country contact during your logistical planning stage.

Your host contact will want to get every minute of ministry and service out of your team. And so will you. Make sure you tell your contact in your advance correspondence that you will need up to six hours of time for debriefing two days before you depart for home. It is always easier to carve out time for debriefing before you arrive in the host country than afterwards. If you wait until you arrive to bring it up you may discover they have your team scheduled by the minute until you depart. Don’t take a chance with what you have determined is a non-negotiable.

4. Emphasize the importance of debriefing throughout the trip.

Team members will develop their perspective on debriefing by observing the way it is profiled by the team leader. If it seems important to you, it will be important to them. Seize opportunities during the trip to highlight the fact you will be addressing important issues during this strategic time.

5. Select the location for your debriefing sessions carefully.

Often in-country contacts suggest you combine a visit to a tourist area with the debriefing sessions. If this seems to be the best use of time, make sure you go to a secluded area away from potential distractions to hold your debriefing sessions. Be sure to instruct your team members in advance that priority one is debriefing and priority two is free time at the tourist site.

6. Be realistic with your time allotment.

Quality debriefing sessions cannot be rushed. This material will digest better if prepared in a “relational crock pot” than in a quick fryer. And every team member will add a unique flavoring of their own. Be inclusive. You may be surprised to discover some very sensitive issues surface as team members begin to process the experiences of the trip. Team members will be reluctant to open up and address more than superficial concerns if they know you have planned to do the entire debriefing in one hour. You should tell them to plan on four to six hours to be safe. Plan to make a day of it.

7. Use a team member evaluation form and next steps commitment card.

Some team members simply will not verbalize issues they are facing. Purposefully solicit feedback from your team by way of a written evaluation form. Challenge team members to begin thinking about their next steps by way of a next steps commitment card. It is usually best to have team members return the commitment card after they return home. Too often the emotion of the moment distorts the perspective of a team member with regard to next steps.

8. Emphasize the priority issues.

A good debriefing session goes beyond getting your team members to talk to you. You will need to direct their attention to priority subjects that go deeper than their felt needs. Most teams need to discuss issues such as misconceptions about missions (making sure the team sees the big picture), exaggerating team experiences and disillusionment upon returning home. Team members should also be empowered to learn the priority lessons God has for them and how they can communicate these lessons with others.

9. Make sure the team is ready to strike while the iron is hot.

Team members will encounter the most strategic opportunities to share about their trip within the first 48 hours after they return home. Team members who decide to wait until they get home and rest up to rehearse what they will say about the trip will likely miss out on the best opportunities God has prepared for them. Push your team members to process the information before they arrive home.

10. Meet one-on-one with each team member.

In addition to group debriefing sessions, you should plan to meet with every team member before you return home for a personal appointment. Review the evaluation form in preparation for your meeting and think through the ways the team member has contributed to the efforts of the group. Give them an opportunity to share issues they were uncomfortable sharing in front of the group. Speak words of affirmation, encouragement, and correction into each team member’s life.

Application Questions

1. Is debriefing a non-negotiable element of your short-term mission plan? Under what circumstances would you be willing to cancel your debriefing sessions?

2. Read Luke 17:7-10. How could this passage be used to shape the perspective of your team members in preparation for the trip home?

3. Will your team members be given opportunities to share in a church service upon their return? What responsibility do you have as the team leader to help them prepare?

4. Many teams meet regularly for weeks prior to leaving for their short-term mission trip. What value would you see in meeting regularly for a number of weeks after the trip? What subjects would you want to address?

5. Most team members will raise over $1,000 to go on a short-term mission trip. Would including a line item for debriefing/follow-up materials, even if it adds $15 to the cost of the project, keep any of your team members from participating?