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Creating walls of support and feedback for students on short-term missions
[Excerpted from Kara Powell and Brad Griffin, Deep Justice Journeys: 50 Activities to Move from Mission Trips to Missional Living (Grand Rapids: Youth Specialties/Zondervan, 2009).]
I (Brad) once shared a short-term mission trip with 14-year-old Amanda from our church. Amanda stood out because she walked into our trip more obviously broken than most kids, and seemed more than a little hesitant about the cross-cultural realities we faced every day. To be honest, I was more than a little hesitant about her, and not long into the trip I heard another leader mention that Amanda seemed really disengaged.
But Amanda didn’t walk alone through her experience. Laura was there, too—an adult who had been Amanda’s small-group leader and was intentionally tracking with Amanda during this trip.
Our work was focused around teaching sustainable micro-gardening in our host community—not overtly spiritual stuff. I didn’t have great confidence in the transformative potential of this experience for Amanda. Yet the night before we packed up to head home, Amanda shared about a profound faith experience. The previous evening Amanda had talked with God. She’d lain awake for several hours praying and wrestling with God’s presence in all she’d seen and experienced—and then offered her life to God. She confessed to us that she was anxious about what that might mean for her back at home. Our team prayed with her, reminding her she was not alone in her faith journey.
Two months later, Amanda stood in front of our congregation and shared about God’s movement in her life before and since that trip, and was baptized as a public declaration of her faith in Christ. But Amanda didn’t make that declaration alone, either; Laura was there with her, participating in Amanda’s baptism. And we were there, too—adults and students who pledged to keep walking with Amanda.
Amanda’s story represents two fundamental pieces of the short-term missions puzzle: Support and feedback. Laura consistently offered Amanda a sounding board for her questions, and our team provided a safe place for her to be vulnerable about her stumble into faith. Back home, friends at church and our youth pastor added further pieces to the puzzle, voicing their encouragement and being patient with her struggles.
As we explain in the introduction to our curriculum, the model behind these deep justice journeys is the experiential education framework originally proposed by Laura Joplin, [[Laura Joplin, “On Defining Experiential Education” in K. Warren, M. Sakofs, and J. S. Hunt Jr. eds., The Theory of Experiential Education (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1995), 15-22.]] and later modified and tested by Terry Linhart. [[Terrence D. Linhart, “Planting Seeds: The Curricular Hope of Short Term Mission Experiences in Youth Ministry” Christian Education Journal (Series 3, 2005), 256-72. For the purposes of this curriculum, some of the terminology in the model has been modified.]] In the center of the model is a cycle (Joplin pictured it as a hurricane) of challenging experience paired with reflection.
This cycle of experience and reflection does not exist in a vacuum. Surrounding experience and reflection are support and feedback, two parallel walls that hold up the process. Support provides safety for students to keep trying even when they flounder, and feedback helps students form appropriate judgments and offers new insights to their experiences along the way.
Here’s how it works: As kids are being purposefully stretched by their encounters on your justice journey, they are constantly assigning internal meaning to those experiences. The conversations in their heads never stop as their brains work overtime to process the often-disjointed perspectives of reality they tumble through each day. While the goals of reflection and debrief are to help decipher these messages and give them lasting meaning, support and feedback provide the backdrop for this whole drama. As it unfolds, trusted adults are somewhat like stage managers, giving cues and offering encouragement.
Setting up scaffolding
Lev Vygotsky (pronounced vuh-GOT-skee) was a developmental theorist who studied the social processes of development in children and adolescents. Vygotsky developed two interrelated concepts that help us think more deeply about support and feedback: Zone of proximal development and scaffolding. [[Vygotsky’s work is well-described and illustrated by Jack O. Balswick, Pamela E. King, and Kevin S. Reimer in The Reciprocating Self: Human Development In Theological Perspective (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 90-97.]]
The zone of proximal development refers to a range of tasks and concepts that are just beyond a student’s current field of mastery, for which they need some assistance from another person to learn. So in the case of a student on a justice journey, this zone could include anything from installing drywall to working with young children to sharing one’s faith in front of a group (and in the case of many justice journeys, all three challenges in the same week!). But rather than depending entirely on that student’s personal competence, intelligence, or grit to figure this stuff out, Vygotsky asserts that relationships are the key to building skills in this zone. It’s through relationships with adults that kids gain the support they need to safely explore and tackle tasks just beyond their mental, physical, or emotional reach.
Similarly, scaffolding serves as the safe structure around the emerging adolescent that supports growth and fosters co-learning with adults and other kids. Just as scaffolding on a building allows workers access to each part of the structure as it rises, adults become the steadying force that is carefully added (when kids are most in need of that support) and removed (when they need to be set free to try on their own).
Please don’t miss the imagery here: Just as scaffolding is made up of many interlocking pieces in order to balance the weight and surround the building, so no one adult can provide all the scaffolding in a kid’s life. To truly thrive, every adolescent needs an interlocking network of caring adults. In STM and justice encounters, this is especially true. In the midst of experiences that challenge and stretch them, kids need safe people and places to support the overwhelming amount of processing taking place.
Keeping this imagery in mind, below are a few tips for building webs of support under kids as they stretch their justice wings:
1. Maximize support channels
One mistake we often make when creating support structures around students is failing to capture the potential available to us. Support can take many shapes and sizes, and part of our role as leaders is to maximize this network for our students before, during, and after the justice journey.
Support can come from other people sharing in the experience—other students on the team, adults, local hosts—or it can come via the church family back home. Support comes in multiple forms, including finances and prayer as well as verbal and emotional footings. Knowing that their community has invested money, trust, and prayer into the ministry of their team is an incredible witness of God’s faithfulness to kids in the midst of their justice work.
We also limit the support channels provided for students when we cling to a narrow perspective of who makes a “good” adult volunteer on a mission trip. As in other aspects of youth ministry, youth workers often look for only the youngest and hippest prospects to help lead justice experiences. But in following this strategy, we may miss out on folks who bring not only different life experiences, but also a different level of safety for students.
Grandparents are one example. It had never occurred to me to invite grandparents along on a student mission trip until Julie asked if hers could join us for two weeks in Costa Rica. In many ways Bob and Jean were the heroes of that trip. They offered an ultra-safe presence to kids and adults alike, and their years of wisdom steadied us without smothering us. Don’t be afraid to step outside the realm of “normal” when you begin to build a support team for your next justice-oriented trip—you might be surprised by who you find ready to journey alongside your students!
2. Create opportunities for risk
Whole books have been written about learning through our failures, so we probably don’t need to convince you of that. But as leaders we sometimes forget to allow kids opportunities to risk failure as part of the learning process.
Our role as adults giving support and feedback includes creating space for risk. In order to be willing to step into a space of risk, kids have to feel safe. One of my early mentors in leading wilderness trips trained us to continually assess where participants fall on the OSV scale as a way to gauge our environment for healthy risk-taking. OSV stands for Oriented, Safe, and Valued. I encourage adult leaders to periodically ask (sometimes out loud, but often internally):
- Is each person oriented? Do they understand where we are, where we’re headed, and what’s going on?
- Does each person feel safe? Physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally, have we pushed too far beyond the bounds of comfort for anyone (or everyone)?
- Does each person feel valued? Have we communicated in any way that anyone’s voice is not important or that her safety doesn’t matter? Have we devalued the image of God in anyone by our actions, words, or attitudes?
These three simple guidelines help us assess whether we are creating safe and supportive environments for students to take healthy risks as they interact cross-culturally and make efforts to serve others.
3. Reflect back what you see
As kids dive into cross-cultural experiences or take on near-heroic tasks (“Let’s build a house in a week!”), they need accurate information about not only what they’re seeing but also what they’re doing. Sometimes the most important insights you can share with a student are your observations about how that person is working, interacting with others, or exhibiting particular character traits.
When reflecting, it is important to be as specific as possible. It’s more valuable to hear, “Tim, your encouraging comment to Sandy about the way she led games with the kids showed real selflessness, especially since you’d wanted to be the game leader,” than to hear, “Tim, you’re a really nice guy.”
4. Level the playing field
Feedback is best received when there is what Joplin calls an “equalization of power” between the participant and the leader. This doesn’t mean we should negate our leadership in the midst of stretching experiences, but it might mean revisiting how we lead during those moments.
Kids will be more likely to hear and apply our feedback when we share power with them as much as possible. This might mean we bring a few students into the decision-making meetings about the work project at hand. It might also mean we spend as little time as possible during our trip doing “leader-type” things and way more time doing servant jobs. When kids see us digging the sewage drain, mixing the concrete, or washing the dishes after a meal, they gain a new perspective on what it means to lead. Such leveling of the playing field often renders students more likely to hear us when we offer the feedback they so desperately need in the midst of their work.
What support is NOT
Recently a friend told me about a mom and son he’d seen at an airport. They were eating, and the son was being spoon-fed by his mother. But the boy was not an infant—he was an early adolescent, perfectly capable of feeding himself. His mom was feeding him because the young man was too busy playing a video game to stop and eat lunch. Seriously.
That mom needs some help with boundaries. And perhaps she needs help understanding the difference between support and, well, perpetuating immaturity. In other words support is not an escape hatch for reluctant young fledglings to duck back in the nest and hide, comfortably sucking on worms. It’s more like a safety net 10 branches down, carefully positioned to catch if necessary, but only after the little bird has actually jumped and stretched its wings a bit.
During your justice journey you (or other adults on your team) might find it tempting to bail kids out whenever they hit a challenging moment, a cultural wall, or the consequences of a bad decision. While there are certainly times we should bail out our students—especially if their or others’ safety is jeopardized—we must walk a fine line between being the safety net and being the spoon-feeding parent.
The recovery tent
If you’ve ever been part of a long-distance running race, you’re probably familiar with the “recovery tent.” Race planners with any kind of experience know that once runners hit the finish line, all kinds of (often painful) things can happen to their bodies and minds: cramping, nausea, disorientation, chills, and sometimes even more drastic experiences like heart failure. So the recovery tent was designed to supply post-race athletes with appropriate food, foil blankets, lots of water, and medical attention.
In a similar way, after a day—or a week, or three weeks—of serving cross-culturally, students need a recovery-tent environment to catch their breath, find some nourishment, and attend to their wounds. We have the responsibility to build a team of trusted adults who can create that type of recovery-tent environment around the students in our care. When we do, the Amandas on our teams will have opportunities to experience something significant in the recovery tent at the end of the day. Hopefully it will be one of the ways our kids will come face-to-face with God during their journeys.
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