How to turn a week-long service trip into a year-long process of transformation
Photo by John.
If you’ve served in student ministry for any amount of time, it’s likely that you’ve participated in some type of mission, service, or outreach trip with your students. It’s also likely that some of your students came home from the trip saying things like:
“God changed my life.”
“I will never be the same.”
“I’m not the person that I was before.”
As youth workers, we have to celebrate when we hear students articulating moments of positive growth and transformation. However, we also have to grieve when we don’t see the growth and transformation manifested in their lives long-term. I’ve heard plenty of students and volunteers make pronouncements like this after an experience, only to profess a few weeks or months later that their lives are the same as they were before the trip and that the feel as if they’ve “lost” something since they returned home.
Or, if we’re all really honest, I bet some of us have had these experiences and uttered these words, only to very soon find our own lives looking and feeling very much like they did before the trip.
If we want to be faithful to our calling and faithfully steward the time, resources, and students we’ve been trusted with, we have to be asking: “How can service trips have the most possible impact on the lives of the people we’re serving AS WELL AS the students and volunteers who participate in the experience?”
In a three-part blog series earlier this year (read part 1, part 2, and part 3) I shared the story of the history of our service trips, our transition process, and the new opportunity we innovated for our students and volunteers. However, the greatest of all of the lessons we’ve learned over the past eight years is the following:
The service or mission trip experience we provide for our students should last longer than the week we’re out of town.
I am convinced that it is our responsibility to pastor our volunteers and students through a year of transformation, by creating environments for individuals to prepare for, debrief, and process their experience on the trip. 1 Part of what makes jumping from one cause to the next so unhelpful for everyone involved is not just the lack of a relationship with those we’re attempting to serve, but also the lack of time necessary for students and volunteers to actually experience transformation because of their participation in these experiences.
For example, as we planned our trip to Detroit, we mapped out a year of simple and tangible ways our students and volunteers could helpfully prepare for, experience, and process this trip. I’ll share some examples from our own process in the context of a “Before-During-After” framework you can utilize in your own ministry. 2
5-6 months BEFORE
Send students, volunteers, and parents basic information via email, snail mail, social media, and during large group programming about the upcoming trip. Include an invitation to join an information meeting the following month. In our context, this would always include links to pictures, stories, and highlight videos from previous service trips.
4-5 months BEFORE
Offer a trip information meeting that is open to all students, parents, and volunteers. Provide basic information about the trip details, trip costs, where you’re going, why you’re going, and details related to the application process. During our information meetings, we try to have several former students or current juniors and seniors who participated on the trip in the past to share a few brief stories and encouragements from their trip experiences.
3 months BEFORE
Every student (and possibly every volunteer) who wants to participate on the trip should complete a handwritten application. Provide a clear application deadline and method of submission, the purpose of the application, criteria by which students will be selected to participate on the trip, and when and through what medium students (and parents) will be notified if they’re not selected to participate.
However, the application process should be less about providing you a tool to decide who should be going on the trip, and more about the beginning of the individual preparation and reflection process for the trip. We generally prefer handwritten applications rather than online applications because it is easier to verify if the student actually composed his or her application on their own.
Because Identity, Belonging, and Mission are the values of our ministry, our application invited students to consider questions that provide space to reflect on these ideas. In our ministry we consistently create environments for students to ask and answer the questions: “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” (Identity), “What is my place?” and “What is the Church?” (Belonging), and “Why and I here?” and “Why was Jesus here?” (Mission). Any questions that you can offer that will provoke students to reflect on their beliefs about who they are, their spiritual lives, and why they want to participate on the trip will be a helpful contribution to the process of transformation.
Depending on your context and the advanced commitment need (e.g. to plan international travel, raise funds, or meet a deadline based on an external agency you’re partnering with), the application process may need to begin farther out than three months.
2 months BEFORE
Pre-Trip Meeting #1
Your first pre-trip meeting might focus more on team building, trip logistics, raising financial support, and a deeper perspective on why you’re all participating in this particular trip or cause.
During the first meeting for our Detroit trip this year, we did a brief Bible study related to “The Greatest Commandment” (Deuternomy 6, Leviticus 19, Luke 10, Romans 13). We asked students and volunteers to come to our next meeting having thoughtfully considered the following homework:
Describe a person/group/demographic of people that you feel biased towards negatively – A group of people you don’t like, that you judge, and/or that you’re afraid of.
Without making the experience feel too much like school, “homework” helps focus content of your meeting into one particular “take away” for your students and volunteers, and gives them a constructive way to focus their energy and excitement for the trip towards your next trip meeting. Some leaders also require students who are participating in an “away” trip to serve in some way “at home” locally during this preparation phase.
1 month BEFORE
Pre-Trip Meeting #2
The second pre-trip meeting should continue with team building, space for students and volunteers to share their thoughts and feelings based on the homework given at the previous meeting, and then a deep dive into information about the culture you’ll be encountering and the people you’ll be serving.
For us, this included a number of short videos and films related to the history of Detroit, the Muslim community in Dearborn, and creative solutions individuals are proposing to lead Detroit into the future. We invited students to consider the following questions and ideas to reflect on in preparation for the next meeting:
An impression…(How does this make you feel?)
I didn’t know that…(Something you learned)
I wonder if…(A question you have)
We then specifically asked them to research a specific problem or crisis Detroit is facing and a specific solution people are proposing to help Detroit solve this problem. Depending on your context, you might ask every participant to read a book related to the community or people group you’ll be serving among and then discuss it at your next meeting.
Some groups like to include scripture memory into this preparation phase as well, and in most contexts some time needs to be allotted for planning and carrying out fund-raising efforts.
1 week BEFORE
Pre-Trip Meeting #3
The final pre-trip meeting is an opportunity to continue team building, provide any remaining logistical information, and give students and volunteers space to share their reflections from the previous meeting and the information they gathered in response to the homework.
By allowing students to research the problems and solutions Detroit is facing, it empowered them to feel a small level of personal solidarity with those in Detroit before we ever arrived. It also “primed the pump” for them to have some categories for and ways of understanding what we might encounter in person. We’ve learned that if the staff “teaches too much,” or the students get a lot of information from a person in a position of authority before the trip, it is possible they will assume they are “experts” during the trip – which limits their ability to learn and process new ideas.
In preparation for departing for the trip, we invited students and volunteers to begin practicing transforming their opinions and judgments about anything new or different they encounter into a question.
The homework was to practice a game about our responses. The rule was that anytime you encountered something that made you want to say, “I don’t like…” or “That’s weird...”, to instead ask, “I wonder why that is?”
At the end of the day on every service trip I’ve participated in, the last thing I want to do is talk with anyone, let alone a large group of people. Everyone is usually physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. However, what I’ve discovered is that given the proper environment, students and volunteers are craving the opportunity to make sense of all they experienced that day. I’ve come to believe that when we don’t provide this space for our students and volunteers, we significantly minimize and limit the opportunity for transformation to take place in their lives.
Because of this reality, you should make it a priority to schedule 1-2 hours of debriefing time into every evening of your trip. Have your group sit in a circle together for this conversation, make sure that everyone is included and everyone has a voice (which is more challenging but no less important with large groups.) Despite your own fatigue, it’s up to you and your volunteers to lead this exercise by example and to create a safe and respectful space. Tell students what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re going to do it. By the end of the week, students are usually familiar enough with the process that they can lead the conversation for the group.
Several years ago a friend of mine introduced me to a simple debriefing process called “E.D.I.T.” (Experience. Describe. Interpret. Transfer.). In practice, it looks something like this:
Part 1: Experience: Experience the day.
Experience the trip. Do what you planned on doing.
Part 2: Describe: What did we experience today?
Collaboratively re-tell the events of the day. Allow one student to speak at a time. If they miss a detail, a student can interrupt, fill in the detail, and continue re-telling the day. Allow this process to unfold until the story has been told all the way to your present setting.
Part 3: Interpret: What questions did today’s experience raise?
Allow students to ask questions about the experiences of the day. In most cases, don’t provide answers to the questions, but allow the group to sit with the questions and allow them to lead to other questions. A few questions can help get the conversation going:
Part 4: Transfer: In what ways am I different or do I want to be different because of today’s experience?
It is highly unlikely that anyone will experience or be able to articulate transfer or transformation while you’re on the trip. However, giving space for students to respond to this question on the trip will prepare them to be able to more confidently answer it after the trip.
1-2 weeks AFTER
Post-Trip Meeting #1
Invite students and volunteers who participated on the trip, their families, and anyone else from your church community to a large group gathering. During this meeting, invite students and volunteers to share stories from the trip, some of the questions they’re asking because of the trip, and how they’re different because of the trip. This meeting is essentially another venue for students and volunteers to participate in the E.D.I.T. process, having had some time to reflect on the trip and the opportunity to share this information with the group of people who supported their participation in this experience.
During our trips, we usually divided students and volunteers into “work teams” or “work families,” and allowing each group the opportunity to share with the larger group (and any guests) has worked well. This meeting is a great time for any mentors or prayer partners from the congregation to listen for clues about what they might want to follow up on individually with students in the coming weeks.
4-6 weeks AFTER
Post-Trip Meeting #2 + Writing Letters
This meeting should only be open to students and volunteers who participated on the trip, and is specifically focused on the “Transfer” aspect of the E.D.I.T. process. For clarity, what we mean by “Transfer” is the concrete and tangible ways individuals have experienced and desire to experience long-term life transformation. Essentially, this meeting is an open conversation for students and volunteers to share what “re-entry” into their normal lives has looked and felt like since they’ve returned home. Reserve the second half of the meeting for students and volunteers to write themselves a letter that will be sent to them at a future date. We usually guide them towards the “D.I.T.” part of the E.D.I.T. process. Encourage them in their letter to describe the trip, share the questions they’re asking because of the trip, and how they hope to be a different kind of person because of the trip.
2-4 months AFTER
Small Group Conversations
As the school year began and our small groups formally re-gathered after the summer break, we gave our small group leaders a short list of questions to ask any of their students who participated on the trip. The fact that our trip was in June made the fall a perfect time to reengage students about the trip. These conversations could take place in one-on-one situations or in the small group setting throughout the fall, with the goal of inviting students to describe the experience, share interpretive questions, or share what from this trip has been transferred into their lives in a different environment and with a different group of people.
5-6 months AFTER
Send the Letters
Sometime between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we mailed the letters students wrote to themselves in July. With a little extra time outside of school and with family during the holidays, we wanted students to be reminded of the experience, how they experienced change in their lives, and the kind of person they were hoping to become just a few months earlier.
OUR ROLE AS YOUTH WORKERS
We can’t measure or know the long-term impact service trips will have on our students and the world, but our role as youth workers is to do everything we can to steward the unique opportunity we have with our students because of these experiences. The students and volunteers at Mars Hill thought they were signing up for a week of service in Detroit, when actually we were inviting them into a yearlong process of learning and transformation. By resisting the temptation to jump from one “cause” to another with our students, not only do we better honor the relationship with those we’re attempting to learn from and serve, we also create environments for our students to experience long-term transformation and change. If we want our students to continue to become the kind of people who are making a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God, we have to be willing to do the hard work of maximizing the experiences on these trips for everyone involved.