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Sorting It Out

Simple Questions for Debriefing Short-Termers

By Marti Wade

When it comes to short-term mission trips, debriefing may be the key to making sure lessons learned are remembered, tensions and disappointments are dealt with, and best of all, God is given glory for what he has done. Yet, in spite of the best of intentions, teams that meet weekly for months before the trip may find themselves confining debriefing to a Saturday morning with donuts, but not much follow-up or accountability. The debriefing process often gets skipped, slighted, or squeezed.

Leading or hosting a team, or just find yourself in a position to minister to those who go? Consider these simple plans for putting the debriefing opportunities you have to good use. Debriefing can be effective whether it includes the whole team or happens one on one; the important thing is to give the team members the loving attention they need to sort out what happened to them. Anyone committed to listening can do a mission trip debriefing.

Asking the Basic Questions

If you have just one debriefing session, try this. On paper or in person, in a big group or one on one, ask your short-termers three to six basic questions:

  • How was your trip?
  • What was the best thing about it?
  • What was the hardest part for you?
  • What did God teach you?
  • What are you going to do about it, and when?
  • Share an answered prayer.

Taking the time to think through these questions and topics will help short-termers process what happened. Plus, they will be better able to give a meaningful answer when others ask the same questions. It pays to be prepared. A good goal: be able to effectively describe the experience in a sentence or two.

Add a few more sessions to your debriefing plan if you can, especially if you’re debriefing a whole team.

Remembering What God Has Done

Have each team member spend twenty minutes journaling: “What have you seen God do for you on this trip? Think about the miracles, answers to prayer, and the ways God worked above and beyond your expectations. Don’t forget how he got you here, prepared you, and brought in your support.”

Ask team members to share their answers with the group so everyone can thank and glorify God for what he has done.

Working through the Hard Stuff

Many troubling things can come to the surface on a short-term mission trip. Short-termers may come face to face with their own weaknesses and failures. They may feel disappointed or disillusioned about their team or their hosts.

Try to provide a safe environment to discuss things that were difficult, especially if these struggles reinforce lies they may believe about themselves, the world, God, or other people. One-on-one debriefing interviews, conducted by someone who was not part of the team, can also help identify conflicts and relationship problems that still need resolution.

Locking in the Lessons

Use this handy worksheet to help short-termers identify and lock in the lessons they are learning and prepare to share them with others. It’s a simple, step-by-step process that any of us might find helpful for making sense of a potentially overwhelming experience.

Staying Connected

Chances are the ministry your short-termers were involved in did not begin and end with them. Take a long-term view and ask: “What are the ongoing needs and opportunities? How can you, your family, or your church continue to contribute or stay connected with this ministry?” If you spend time talking about next steps, make sure to include an invitation to stay connected with the field.

One good way to encourage participants to take those next steps is to have them write themselves a letter reminding them what they experienced and what they intended to do about it. Provide some designated time to compose these letters. Then collect them, with a promise that you’ll mail the letters back to them in six months. Other debriefing sessions might focus on reentry and reverse culture stress, team affirmation and prayer, mobilizing others, preparing a presentation or report, and evaluating the program.

The longer the trip, the longer the debriefing should be. A ten-day trip merits a full day of debriefing, and several months on the field deserve a multi-day debriefing. Is there that much to talk about? Once you get started, you’ll usually discover there is.