Lessons I have learned

Scenario: Your church or mission wants to send a short-term worker or team this summer and they have asked you to be in charge.

How do you approach this big task? You know that hosting short-term workers and teams is important for the future of missions, but you want to make sure it is meaningful for the Japanese and the short-term worker.

Over the past 20 years as a short-term coordinator, I have learned that there is no magic formula to success when it comes to running a short-term program. There are as many ways to host as there are people hosting. But here are a few guidelines that will help make the task easier.


First, I make sure that I am ready. I start with prayer: I ask the Lord for wisdom, guidance, and a servant’s heart. Am I prepared—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually? If I want the workers to serve the Lord, I need to set the example. Once I am ready, I can help others.

The airplane example of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others is a good analogy. Then I am ready to start working with those who come.

Pre-field worker or team preparation 

A good short-term ministry program starts long before the short-term worker or team arrives. Pre-field preparation makes a big difference.

1. Application process

When a church or mission wants to send someone to serve, there needs to be some preparation on their end. With individuals, most missions have a screening process. However, most churches do not.

When a church tells me they want to send a team, I recommend that they make everyone go through an application process. The application should include questions that make the applicant think about what they are coming to do. For example:

What skills and talents do you bring to the team?

What are your expectations for this mission trip?

The goal of these questions is to ensure they want to serve and not just be tourists.

The application also helps the team leader and you (the host) know what talents, skills, and interests each team member has. This helps with scheduling—if no one has any music talent then the team will not work with Gospel choirs.

If I request the team, then I set the purpose of the team and give the sending church an idea of what to look for in team members. For example, if I need a team to do children’s ministry, I would expect the team members to like working with children.

The application should also cover medical conditions, medicines, limitations (e.g. diabetic), allergies, and preferences (e.g. vegetarian by choice).

2. Budget (per person)

Here are some items I include on the budget:

Food: US$25/day (all prices in US dollars). Some can manage with less but this gives you wiggle room, especially if the team eats out most meals.

Lodging: $15/day. If they are working with a Japanese church, the church should help with housing. Homestays are nice but not practical for the size of most teams. If the church provides accommodation I still include that as part of the budget, then give it to the church as a gift.

Transportation: $10–15/day. Consider if the team will use public transportation, or will someone drive them around? If the team is in the Tokyo area I calculate this according to where they are staying and where they are serving. Also include the cost of transport to and from the airport (this might include shipping luggage costs).

Administration: $50 (one-time fee). Our mission has an administration fee. If you don’t have a set fee I recommend that you put this in the budget to cover some of your costs in hosting. You can set your own amount.

Miscellaneous: $50 (one-time fee). This could include phone or internet rental, unexpected materials or supplies, and items like name tags for team members.

This comes to a total of about $50–60/day—a low but doable budget.

The sender needs to add to the above budget:

Insurance: The team needs travel insurance that covers their stay in Japan.

Airline tickets: It is their job to find tickets, not mine.

3. Schedules

The schedule should include the following:

As many different types of ministry as you can. Give them a mix of experience beyond the ministry they are doing. Some suggestions:

• visit a Hallelujah Gospel Family (HGF) choir rehearsal
• do an English Café
• feed the homeless
• clean wheelchairs with Wheelchairs of Hope
• attend a Japanese church service
• distribute tracts or flyers for a ministry outreach
• spend time with other missionaries in your mission (visit their ministries or have them share about their ministry)
• teach English
• prayer walks
• teach a special skill, e.g. a craft
• university campus outreach
• work project for the Japanese church or the missionary

Free time: Remember that God rested on the seventh day. If the team or individual is serving longer than 10 days, I would include a day off for each week they are in Japan. They decide what they want to do, whether sightseeing in places like Disneyland, shopping, or rest.

Orientation: On the first full day in Japan. Because of travel fatigue and jetlag, I don’t recommend doing this on the first evening.

Devotions: Scheduled time for team and personal devotions. If it is not scheduled, it usually doesn’t happen.

Team time: Encourage them to have a daily team time, which can include a daily debrief.

Debrief: Either on the last evening or last morning.

I like to know where the team is staying each night, where they will eat, and who is responsible for their meals.

4. Testimony

Each team member should write a simple testimony three to five minutes long. Include how they came to Christ and a Bible verse that helped them in their walk with Christ. Ask them to send it to you ahead of time and you can give these to the church or missionary they will be working with. This allows time for translation and a chance to pick the testimony that will have the most powerful impact.

5. Pictures

Each team member should put together an album with 5 to 10 pictures that tells about them. It could be family pictures, pets, interests, activities, places, etc.—whatever best tells their story. When they get a chance to talk to Japanese people, it can be used to start a conversation and help break the language barrier. If they want to do it on their phones, put the photos in a separate folder for easy retrieval.

6. What to bring

Many airlines now allow only one checked suitcase, so each person needs to make the best use of their baggage allowance. They need to pack clothes for both ministry time and free time. Let them know if they need to dress a certain way, or if certain kinds of clothing are not desired. You can set the standard. Many people in other countries are getting tattoos; if a team member has a tattoo, they should bring a light shirt, sweater, or long pants that will cover the tattoo when needed—even in the summer.

On-field orientation

1. Go over the schedule.
2. Get to know the team and what they expect.

I like to ask questions like these:

What do I need to know about you, to help you better serve in Japan? How would you describe your personality (e.g. extrovert, introvert, need space, need quiet)?

What are your hopes or expectations for this time in Japan?

What are your greatest fears about your time in Japan?

These last two points can lead into a short devotional and prayer time. We give our expectations to the Lord and ask him to help us with our fears.

3. Convey expectations I have for the team.

No whining!

Try it!

Food: I say, “If you are not sure you will like it, take only a little. Taste it, and if you like it take more. If you don’t like it, don’t make a scene.”

Culture: I give everyone the opportunity to experience a public bath at least once. Besides the public bath, you might prefer to recommend other “must-try” Japanese experiences.

I warn them that if they are doing something offensive to the host or culture, I might ask them to stop and/or direct them to do something else. They should not protest but just trust me and obey, and we can talk about it later in private.

4. Culture

I give each team member several written pages. This includes key Japanese phrases, church vocabulary, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed both in English and Japanese, and more. I like to take the team on a field trip to Asakusa Shrine/Sensōji Temple and compare it to going to the temple in Jesus’ time.

5. Transportation

I teach the team how to get around using public transportation. Part of my orientation is what I call the Tokyo Tour. It includes the above-mentioned visit to Asakusa, riding the trains (teaching as I go), lunch at a ramen shop in Shinjuku, and seeing the city from the observation deck in the Tokyo Metro Government Building. Finally, I task the team with finding their way back to where they are staying.

6. Garbage

I like to say that one of the testimonies you have in Japan is how you deal with trash. If you don’t sort it, it will not be picked up; the Japanese or the host will have to go through the garbage and sort it before it can be thrown away.

7. Devotional

I either lead a devotional or have the team leader do so.

8. Prayer

I like to begin and end with prayer.

9. Encourage them to journal

Include not just what they saw, but also what they thought and learned, and “God sightings.”

Other guidelines for hosting a team

1. If you are with the team 24/7, I recommend that you get away from them now and then.

It gives you a break and lets them figure out how to be on their own. If you teach them how to get around, then on their day off, they can go to 10 different places and you can have a day off too.

2. Use teachable moments—answer their questions.

Share your story with the team. What led you to become a missionary? Teach culture points as you go. Show them the fun things in Japan. Take them shopping at a ¥100 Shop. When they get home, have a show-and-tell time. The team will want to go to the shop again, to get what they missed.

3. Try to include a day or meal with a Japanese family.

This works well when you are working with a church plant or a Japanese church, or teaching English (a great way to learn English is to host the foreigner).

On-field debriefing

Just as important as orientation is a debrief time. I like to schedule about two hours.

1. Prepare them to return home

Part of this includes what to expect when they get back. They will have hours of stories to tell, but their family and friends usually have an attention span of about five minutes. So, they need to plan what to say. Remind them that the Lord called them to go and called others to stay. So, listen to what others at home have to say, and ask if anything happened while they were gone.

2. Thank-you letters

This is an opportunity to start thinking about sending thank-you letters to people that supported their trip or writing a report for their church. They don’t have to plan it immediately, but they could start thinking about it.

3. Discussion time

What did the team learn about Japan (both people and culture)? What did God teach them? The team speaks and you listen.

4. What’s next?

What would they like to do with their experience? I recommend that they write a letter to themselves that they will open in six months. They can challenge themselves, recall what they learned, and use the time to see if God is leading them to return to Japan. If Japan is still in their hearts in six months, what should they do about it?

5. Prayer time

Use the schedule and have them pray for the seeds that have been planted, the people they have worked with, the churches, ministries or missionaries they worked with—specific names, if possible. Pray for Japan and the ongoing ministry of winning Japanese for Christ. This is the act of leaving everything in God’s hands and asking him to bless their efforts and the seeds they planted. Then pray for their church and the people that will hear their testimonies when they return. Pray about their return to regular routines. I look at this as a time to prepare them for what he has for them back home.

We all want a successful experience with short-term teams—a win-win for the short-term workers and their hosts. I hope these suggestions are helpful as you plan your program.

STM photos provided by Karen Ellrick

Janet Brown (WorldVenture/Japan Baptist Fellowship) first came to serve as a physical education teacher at the Christian Academy 34 years ago. She has now served as JBF’s short-term coordinator for the past 20 years.

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