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What’s Happening in Short-term Mission?

By Roger Peterson
March 2006

Should short-term mission be granted status as a new, bona fide missiological strategy? New it’s not—but bona fide, and potentially strategic it can be.

Yet before we ponder either the age or strategic possibilities of what Ralph Winter (U.S. Center for World Mission) termed one of the “least anticipated major mutations in modern mission,” let’s first try to wrap our fingers around a definition. Short-term mission has always been set apart from career or long-term mission by the distinction of time. But how much time—two weeks? Two months? Two years? That’s subjective, and best determined on a case-by-case basis with a given sending entity and receiving field. A better definition would still encompass time, but rather than prescribing a fixed number of weeks or months or years, would use the term “temporary.” A better definition would also add the terms “swift” and “volunteer” to more accurately describe what short-term mission really is.

Short-Term Mission is Temporary
A short-termer’s on-field work is intentionally temporary by design. Although long-term career work can be cut short for various reasons, traditional long-term career missionaries tend to view their on-field contribution in primarily one location over the course of their lifetime. Short-termers view their on-field contribution as temporary, fully expecting to return back home and re-engage in whatever primary activity they left behind.

Career missionaries often buy the equivalent of a one-way ticket, because they’re not sure when or if or how they’ll return back home. Short-term missionaries almost always buy round trip tickets, because they know exactly when they’re coming back home.

Temporary is not meant to suggest either good or bad. It is meant merely to help provide understanding of what short-term mission is and isn’t, and therefore how it can best be used as an innovative strategy when long-term career strategies are not a workable option.

Short-Term Mission is Swift
Perhaps the greatest asset short-term mission brings to the table is its ability to swiftly, rapidly place missionaries on-field. Traditional career missionaries often spend years in pre-field training. Short-termers can be deployed within just a few weeks or months—and some within just hours.

Certain types of work may require extended training for maximum effectiveness, such as Bible translation or frontier church planting within an unengaged unreached people group. But many types of strategic mission work in certain fields do not require multiple years of preparation. Jesus tells us that many fields are “ripe unto harvest” right now, and simply need laborers—now! Not theologians, not ripened missiologists, not seasoned thinkers—but laborers, people willing to sweat, work hard and do whatever needs to be done. (Remember, Jesus’ only requirement for missionary service is empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Everything else—no matter how much sense it makes or how good it sounds—is man’s requirement.)

When a field is crying for laborers, it sometimes takes years to form and send career missionary teams. Unfortunately some career teams fall apart during their pre-field preparation, bonding and deputation process. Worse yet, some crumble the first months on-field, producing virtually no kingdom return on the hundreds of thousands of dollars supporters invested in their intended efforts. But in just a few months short-termers can be recruited, trained and sent. And there are times—many times—when the rapid, swift short-term strategy is actually the better financial strategy to employ.

Short-Term Mission Usually Consists of Volunteers
Most short-term missionaries are not paid a salary or wage. They are volunteers who donate their time. Long-term career missionaries receive a salary (a fixed guarantee or raised monthly support). From the United Stated Internal Revenue Service’s perspective, all long-term (paid) missionaries are either employees or subcontractors, and are taxed accordingly. They’re professionals—and not volunteers—by definition.

A paid professional also suggests a certain competence and expertise in the person’s place of business or work. Because of more extensive training, long-term career missionaries are often screened and placed because of this expertise. On the other hand, short-termers often do not have the same extensive training, and do not therefore have a professional level of competence with respect to comprehensive missiology. Therefore it is usually correct to define short-term missionaries as non-professional volunteers.

Yes—short-term is also done by paid professionals. But most of the time, short-term mission is done by non-paid, non-professional volunteers.

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Roger Peterson is CEO of STEM Int’l. He is also chairman, of FSTML (Fellowship of Short-Term Mission Leaders) and chairman of SOE (US Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission).