High School Service Trips, Part 1: Navigating transitions from one experience to another

Photo by Kris Arnold.

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series!

Too often in youth ministry, we tend to jump from one cause to the next. This gives our students missional whiplash, and I suspect prevents us from supporting the “cause” as much as we think we are.

I wouldn’t be able to recognize this reality except for a relationship that our ministry stumbled into nearly eight years ago. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, our church began an immediate and active presence in Waveland, Mississippi – the community most devastated by the storm. As an extension of the initial disaster relief Mars Hill provided, our high school ministry sought to get involved in any way we could.

If you had asked me in 2006, I would have guessed that our high school ministry would raise some money and make 1-2 short-term trips to Waveland. Then we would move on to the next opportunity for our students. However, our students were captivated by early estimates stating it would take ten years for Waveland to recover and rebuild from Katrina-related destruction. Every time we heard someone’s “Katrina Story” or met a family that was still rebuilding, our students and volunteers responded with an attitude of, “We’re not done yet.”

What started as disaster response and a short-term opportunity for our students evolved into a six-year relationship from 2006-2012, including seven short-term trips where 350 individuals contributed 12,000 hours of service work towards helping Waveland rebuild. Our “Spring Break Trip” unexpectedly became known as “Mississippi,” and our relationship with this region became part of the DNA of our high school ministry.

But in April 2012 it became clear to our staff, students, and volunteers that our ongoing commitment to this relationship was coming to an end. Local leadership in Mississippi extended the invitation for our continued presence and work in the region, but they were excited to tell us that most Katrina-related relief work had been completed. This news created mixed emotions among our students and volunteers: joy on behalf of the people we were serving, satisfaction for a job well done, and grief because it was time for the relationship to change.

This difficult but clear sense of “release” from our long-term commitment propelled us into a year-long process of discerning what was next. Because of what our high school ministry had learned from our relationships in Waveland, it wasn’t as simple as finding the right next “opportunity” or “cause” for our students participate in. We were interested in the next relationship we wanted to invest in, with the hope of mutual transformation.

Because there was such a high level of investment in this trip among students and volunteers, and because so much about our church had changed since 2005, I knew this discernment process would bring both challenges and opportunities. There were multiple opinions about what the future should hold, and our church leadership had since very precisely focused how our congregation would think about mission, the causes and relationships we would join, and how we would use our community’s resources.

For the first time in our ministry, we needed to create an intentional mission transition strategy. Beginning the week after we returned to Grand Rapids from our last trip to Mississippi, I outlined a nine-month “transition process” to help guide this discernment of completing our work in Mississippi and determining our next partnership.

Here’s what that transition process looked like:

  • One-on-one meetings with volunteers and students who had participated in a minimum of two of our service trips. This time was spent listening to what they valued about our experiences and what they sensed God was inviting us to consider for the future.
  • A series of conversations with our outreach pastors, trying to navigate the tension between our community’s missional values and the unique needs and opportunities presented by a short-term service trip for students and volunteers.
  • A series of conversations with our executive ministry leadership team, asking for guidance, support, and advocacy in this process.
  • A series of conversations with several elders with experience in youth ministry or missional outreach in our congregation – to listen, learn, and share stories.
  • Identifying a small team of staff, interns, and volunteers committed to helping divide the work related to researching and vision casting for our next trip opportunity: making phone calls, visiting potential partners, and building consensus within our community.

After all of this work, what became clear to me was that before we could make decisions about future opportunities, we needed to outline a core purpose for a high school outreach trip. We also determined that we wanted to weave the core values of our student ministry – identity, belonging, and mission – into the fabric of the trip. The four following ideas rose to the surface from those transition conversations as we began to articulate a trip purpose:

  • To reflect the missional philosophy and emphasis of Mars Hill outreach initiatives
  • To provide meaningful, age-appropriate, and intergenerational service-work opportunities for high school students and volunteers (A focus on “mission”)
  • To engage high school students in spiritually appropriate and missionally focused education, awareness, and debriefing (A focus on “identity”)
  • To invite high school students and volunteers into meaningful relationships with each other (A focus on “belonging”)

We built consensus surrounding these values among groups within our community, leading to a lot of energy and enthusiasm towards the future. Once this purpose was identified and communicated more broadly, making a specific decision about the future of service trips in our high school ministry became clear.

Check back in for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll talk more about the details of what happened next.

Questions for your own context:

  • In your short-term missions and service work, how have you balanced the tendency toward “missional whiplash” with seeking out long-term relationships?
  • What have you done to evaluate longer-term relationships and/or repeat service locations? When do you know it’s time to move on? How do you involve local hosts in that process?
  • Can you—or better yet, can your students—articulate why you’re going on your next trip? If not, what would it look like to put together a purpose statement that folks can rally around?

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series!