An international security expert provides five valuable tips for planning the safety of short term mission trips.
"My experience in the security sector has given me a good appreciation for planning. Those groups that literally “wing it” on international trips put themselves in harm’s way without proper preparation. God gave us brains to think and plan. Let’s use the gifts God has given us! Safety should always be a priority in your preparation process when traveling to places your group is not familiar with. So, I have five easy and practical recommendations for those of you planning a team mission trip to another country".
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These five tips will increase your mission team’s safety and help your team members enjoy their ministry experience.
Here’s the full transcript:
This person should research security issues in each of the locations you will be visiting. Then, in your planning meetings in the months before your trip, he or she should brief team members on safety issues and what to do in emergency situations. Remember that safety issues include theft; loss of valuables and travel documents; medical emergencies; accidents; getting lost; abduction; civil strife; as well as physical violence. Sources for this security research should primarily be local contacts you will be partnering with and the consular websites of embassies (and not just “Grandma Google who knows everything”.) Your mission team’s security person should also be tasked with developing contingency plans for possible disruption of each segment of your itinerary. Emergency preparedness should include a muster station meeting point at each waypoint of the trip… so that each team member knows where and how to get to — if they get separated from the group. Also consider communication protocols including regular check-ins if members of the mission team are working at different locations. Each team member should be given the address and phone details of a local contact in case they are separated from the group and get into difficulty. Here is one of my frustrations dealing with international professionals on an overseas trip who forget to use their God-given ability to plan. You probably have also heard these crises stories of those travelers with medical conditions… who forget or ignore their asthma, blood pressure, diabetes, mental health, or other medication. If you are leading a travel group, be prepared for this. It happens too often. The ministry team’s security person should request a clarity statement on medical conditions from each of your team members before departure. Insist that a copy of medical prescriptions should be given to the team leader. And, please give instructions to all team members on how to handle their colleague’s medical condition if there is a health emergency.
Knowledge about the destination country of your mission trip plays a major role in ensuring the safety of your team traveling in the areas they plan to visit.
Keep in mind that countries are different when it comes to culture—some countries are conservative socially and they require people to follow certain dress codes and social behaviors. Consider having your team purchase some appropriate items of clothing locally when they arrive. This helps your team blend in with the local public and signals that you are familiar with the country and you are not a tourist. Ensure that you familiarize yourself with the customs and laws of the place you plan on visiting because ignorance of these expectations excuses no one—not even well meaning Christian service workers.
Remember that the cheapest fare is not always the best approach to getting somewhere. Avoid multiple carriers to getting to the destination. You don’t want team members to be delayed and luggage lost if they miss a connection. Some of those connecting airport stopovers can be brutal, especially if you haven’t slept well in the past 24 hours. Why do that to yourself for the sake of saving a few hundred dollars? And, you want your team to arrive rested and in good spirits, don’t you? If possible, have your mission team members arrive on the same flight at destination so that clearing customs and onward arrangements can be made as a group. Arrange lodging and local transport with your partners before the team arrives. The team travel planner should also help each member prepare a “leave-behind pack” that they will give to a key contact at home. The pack would include a copy of their itinerary and tickets; contact information at each location in case of emergency; and, photocopies of their prescriptions, passport, credit cards, and any other ID that might get stolen and need to be reported.
International travel and transition to new cultures and ways of living will be stressful for your team. Assume that individuals will have personal crises and that conflict will arise amongst your team members. Just plan for it. It will happen. It always does. A pastoral care person on your mission team with experience in listening and counseling could be the safe “go to” person for team members to resolve these issues. Also, plan to hold regular ten-minute “stand-up” meetings to brief before, and debrief after, a site visit. Ask each person if they have unresolved issues or concerns about the visit or their state of well-being. And, before the trip in your planning process, decide as a group what the policy will be, and what conditions will trigger, the need to encourage a troubled member to leave the mission and go home early.
Imagine a situation on your trip where your team is visiting a local partner and each team member pulls out their camera or phone to snap photos and videos at the same time. Is that the impression your mission team wants to leave with your host partner? It also advertises first world wealth and first world insensitivity to bystanders and criminals who may be observing. Before you go on the trip discuss this as a team and try to assign one or two people to be the group photographers. And be sensitive to your local partners. Ensure that they secure the permission of those they photograph. And, very important — discuss with your mission team members the dangers of posting personal and travel information on their public social media accounts. Inconsiderate social media posts could also endanger relations with partners. For safety reasons alone encourage your mission team to delay posting status updates until after the trip, or at least until after the team has left a location. You don’t want to help criminals easily locate you and know where you will be next. OK, those are my five recommendations for planning short term mission trips. Please discuss these together as a group and prepare for any circumstance you might encounter. It is worth it… so you can be effective and have a fulfilling adventure… and come home safe.