Short-term missions (STM) is about participating in God's plan for the world.
It's grounded in the desire to share God's love and support and benefit communities overseas.
Good intentions, like the ones above, are a great starting point for short-term missions but we must be careful not to stop there. If our good intentions are to translate into good outcomes for all involved, it's important we also stop and consider the ethics of short-term missions.
Without thinking these things through, our short-term missions and volunteering efforts might not contribute to the lasting change we deeply desire, and in fact we may actually hurt the communities and people we aim to assist.
This section of the website will outline the four key considerations that make up the ethical framework and help you apply them to your short-term missions program or trip. By doing so, you'll be better positioned to identify and avoid the common pitfalls that often lead to unintended harm.
Ethics is basically the study of what constitutes 'good' and 'right' conduct and is a central theme in the Bible. Ethics is first introduced in creation which God declared to be 'good' and through the law God established with Moses to show the Israelites how to live 'right' with God and others. Jesus simplified the ethical code when he declared the essence of the law was to love God and love others. His command to put God and others ahead of self is the ultimate call to ethical living.
As ethics is concerned with conduct, it involves looking at what is 'good' and 'right' with respect to the four key areas that inform our conduct in any given setting; motivations, guiding principles, goals and methods. This leads to four key considerations that together make up a basic ethics framework:
For any short-term missions trip or volunteer placement to be considered ethical, the answer to all four of these considerations must be a resounding 'YES.
Our STM trips must be built upon on the right guiding principles, driven by the right motivations, outworked through the right methods and designed to achieve good goals.
If any one of the four aspects of the ethics framework is not 'good' or 'right', then the practice is unethical.
But there is one important question remaining – 'good' and 'right' for who?
There is where it gets tricky. There is always more than one person or group involved in a short-term missions trip or volunteer placement. So, when it comes to determining what is 'good' and 'right' in short-term missions, whose perspective should we consider?
Actors in a short-term missions trip
Typically, when planning a trip – as a sending organisation, sending church or individual volunteer – we'll assess the 'good' from our own perspective. While this is entirely normal and totally understandable, it won't necessarily ensure our STM trips are ethical.
For STM to be ethical, the goals, motivations, method and principles applied must also be 'good' and 'right' when considered from the perspective of the least powerful person in the equation, which is often the local communities that teams interact with; in particular, children.
If the trip and its activities are not in the best interests of this group, then STM becomes an outworking of privilege rather than a reflection of ethics.
Power, privilege and Short-term Missions
The fact that you can access this website and are considering travelling overseas on a STM trip indicates that you are in a position of relative power and privilege. This is shaped by a range of factors, many of which are outside of your control.
Power and privilege is not something we can separate ourselves from; we carry it with us wherever we go and that includes onto the mission field.
We needn't feel guilty about this; we just need to be aware of it and ensure that we're not prioritising the goals and motivations of STM teams or facilitating organisations over the goals and motivations of local communities.
For example, if we're not careful, we may unintentionally prioritise:
- what volunteers want to do OVER what local communities actually require;
- the lasting impression the program will leave on the team OVER the sustainable impact it will have in the lives of local people;
- what will result in a 'feel good' experience for volunteers OVER what will empower local communities; and
- what encourages more giving OVER what enables real learning.
While we all want STM trips to be a good experience for teams and volunteers – and it's not wrong to want this – we must ensure we don't seek to achieve this at the expense of what's 'good' and 'right' for local communities.
When we do, local communities become the 'means' of creating a positive experience for a team and STM trips become another expression of inequality rather than the demonstration of love and justice we desire them to be.
The Ethical Dilemma of short-term missions
The ethical dilemma of STM is that what is often most motivating for teams and volunteers – getting directly involved in programs and having direct contact with vulnerable people, especially children – is often not in the best interests of local people and communities. In fact, it can often undermine long-term development and lead to harm for those we are trying to help.
If we are committed to ethical STM and the best interests of others, we need to recognise the dynamics of privilege and power and work hard to flip the hierarchy. We must be willing to prioritise the best interests of local communities over creating experiences for our teams.
This will ensure that STM programs are 'good' when considered from the perspective of those who are not in a position of power. This makes it a true expression of ethics. Here's what we need to aim for:
- Good intentions do not automatically translate into good outcomes.
- It's for this reason we must:
- recognise the hierarchy of power and privilege; and
- privilege and carefully consider the ethics of overseas missions and volunteering.'
- For our visit to be ethical, the motivations, principles, goals and method must ALL be good for EVERYONE involved, especially local communities and families.
Banner Image: Children in Families