Updated: May 7, 2020
After leading a Virtual Mission Trip in the wake of COVID-19, here's the important take-aways for you.
What's a Mission Trip Leader to do? Just a few days ago I completed my (and perhaps the) very first Virtual Mission Trip. According to the original plan we were scheduled to spend a week in Miami over Spring Break. We’d be working with Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrant Workers while visiting the beach and chowing down on Cuban food in our spare time. But in the face of flight cancellations and worksite partners closing down to volunteer groups, it seemed the only viable option was to cancel the trip. The kids were undoubtedly disappointed, even if they understood the rationale behind the cancellation. But the school district continued on with spring break in mid-April and the students faced the prospect of spending the week stuck in quarantine binging Youtube and Netflix. They probably wouldn’t have minded, but there was an opportunity here. The thought struck me about two weeks after the cancelation was declared - if teachers can move learning online (a titanic endeavor involving no small amount of stress - bravo to them), why can’t a mission trip be moved online? Fundamentally, I see mission trips as learning experiences. We’re asking participants to take a glimpse into the lives of others, and try to understand where God can be found in the face of injustice. Ostensibly we use direct service work to pursue these insights, though in reality the personal relationships and narratives from the people we encounter drive far more of the process than the shoveling and potato peeling. If we could offer similar experiences online while participants stayed quarantined, perhaps this would be possible. I was fortunate enough to work with great, flexible folks on the church's end who were willing to experiment and make it happen.
Virtual Mission Trip Day 4 program
Developing the program wasn’t all that difficult. Many of the resources gathered for background research and debrief prompts could be easily re-purposed. For a full primer on putting together a Virtual Mission Trip yourself - click here. All the programming could be posted to my Incredible Days website, with instructions on how to use it. Zoom was crucial, although another video conferencing software probably would have done just as well. The learning materials integrated articles, videos, podcasts, online games, discussion panels with non-profit professionals, and crucially, a day focused on advocacy where students spoke directly to their legislators. We also included some personal service projects to work on at home, although this is a smaller part of the overall program than with a traditional mission trip. The daily programming provided about 2 hours of content to the students. This included an evening debrief in their teams. Chaperones who were signed up for the original trip were gracious enough to come along on the Virtual Mission Trip and lead these small group sessions online. The trip closed with a participatory virtual worship service, which I thought was a strong finish. Overall, I think it went well.
The Pros and Cons Feedback is still coming in, and I have yet to sort through all of it. I myself have some unanswered questions about how this can be best done. I believe in the power of this type of program and I’m committed to exploring it further. I’d love to talk with you and hear thoughts. As the conversation continues, here are some key take-aways that may be valuable to you as you consider a Virtual Mission Trip. I think the learning was solid. I don’t have a good way to track whether any given participant did all the assignments, read all the articles, and listened to all the podcasts. But I’m confident that the ones who did got something meaningful out of it. I am concerned however that it may feel too much like a school’s online learning program for some students.
An automatically generated Wordcloud from our closing worship service
Related to the above, we had scheduled live panel discussions and nightly debriefs. Some participants did not attend these. Consistency is hard when the participant numbers are in flux. When everyone is sequestered together in a church basement on a traditional trip, it’s (relatively) easy to make sure you’ve got everyone for your projects, discussions, or worship. Remotely, the best you can do is remind them, text them, and then hope they show up. Some participants may have overslept. Some may have had family dinner run late, or needed to go to their jobs. Some may have forgotten or opted to pick and choose which pieces to attend. I can’t really say at this point, but it does add a level of challenge to the program.
Live generated wordcloud from final Virtual Mission Trip Worship Service
Also related to the above, we didn’t get all the kids who signed up for the original trip. Frankly, I didn’t expect to. Circumstances right now are fluid and stressful, but I was surprised that we only got less than half of the original number of participants to sign up. Maybe it was because of the short notice. Maybe folks just wanted a break. Maybe it felt too much like school. I don’t know how well we fostered intragroup relationships. One of the best parts of a mission trip is seeing the participants bond with each other and form new friendships. Intentional community building activities led by participants, small group debriefs, and daily check-in partners were all part of the program, but from this vantage point, it’s difficult to see if that truly worked the same way it does in person on a traditional trip. Having said all that I do think it was a good program, that the participants took something positive away from it, and that it provided some faith development, education, and continuity to their church experience in the midst of unusual and tough circumstances. We got strong responses and thoughtful reflections during debriefs. Some participants were clearly hungry for the social interaction they received. Virtual Mission Trips in the Future From a cost perspective, Virtual Mission Trips make sense. They can be put together at a fraction of the cost of a traditional trip, perhaps using some of the materials you already have in place. If you’re interested in doing that, here’s the primer I mentioned earlier. I also have to mention here that this is exactly the type of programming my company develops and offers. If you’re interested, check out Incredible Days. I also anticipate there could be a real use for this outside of traditional mission trip groups, even after quarantines end. You could provide learning and socialization time to your isolated seniors. Offer this as an alternative to your church’s retreat or camp program. Offer it as a family program over the summer to supplement your Christian Education program. Small groups or those just starting out with mission trips could plant the seeds and build a cohort by taking a Virtual Mission Trip. It can be done collaboratively with others- band together with neighboring churches for a group Virtual Mission Trip. It offers some advantages to those who struggle to access traditional mission trips. Those are just a few of the most prominent places I can see this finding a niche. As always, we are living into new ways to be communities of faith. We follow the Holy Spirit, sometimes in totally unexpected directions. I offer you these reflections with the hope that they will be a valuable tool for you as you consider Virtual Mission Trips and how they might fit into the tapestry of your ministry. I welcome your comments and feedback. I know I don’t have all the answers. As of today, I’ve led exactly 1 of these, but I suppose that makes me the most experienced person in the room, so please, don’t hesitate to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them. Blessings of good health and sanity to you in this trying time.