pro tips for leading student mission trips

10 Pro Tips for Leading a Student Mission Trip

By Doug Franklin May 9, 2019

Whether you’re bringing your students on a LeaderTreks Trip or partnering with another organization, we all want to have successful, safe and fun mission trips this summer. We’re eager to build more meaningful relationships, see our students learn about themselves, and even witness some students make a life-long commitment to serving others.

So how do we take this good week of service and turn into a special week that will help students grow deeper in their faith?

Here are 10 Pro Tips to do just that:

10 Pro Tips for Leading a Student Mission Trip 

1. Have a Purpose for the Trip

What do you want your students to look like when they return? How do you want them to be different? Once you have answered this question, develop a theme for the trip that articulates your overall goal. Then you’ll be able to create intentional experiences with your end goal in mind. Be sure to share your plan your adult volunteers, cast vision to parents, and inspire students with the purpose of the trip.

2. Stay Connected to God

You can’t impart what you do not have. If your spiritual tank is empty, you can’t expect students to fill theirs. We must work first and foremost to have intimacy with Christ before, during, and after the trip. Acts 20:28 says, “So guard yourself and God’s people.” Giving to others starts with having something to give; it starts with you having a deep, personal relationship with God.

3. Train Your Volunteers

I’ve led over 200 student mission trips, and the #1 problem I’ve seen is adult volunteers. Most volunteers don’t know what role they’re supposed to play while on the trip. We can change this by offering pre-trip training, setting clear expectations, and having a clear purpose for every adult volunteer on trip.

Just a quick note: I’ve found over the years that the one group we forget in planning our mission trip is the adult volunteers. The truth is we seldom have any problems on mission trips with students, but we often butt heads with adult volunteers. While there are different reasons why, I’ve found most fall into two categories: 1) Adults want logistical roles and not relationships with students (sometimes they just don’t know how to build relationships with students), and 2) Adults want to rescue students and not challenge them. It is very difficult to train adults on the actual trip; so I focused the pre-trip training on helping volunteers have more impact with students through the experience.

“I’ve led over 200 student mission trips, and the #1 problem I’ve seen is adult volunteers.”

4. Remember Your Volunteers’ Spouses

A great way to show care for your adult volunteers is to not forget the spouse at home. Send a note with a small gift card and thank them for their sacrifice. When we care about what our staff cares about we grow their commitment and we grow our leadership.

5. Inspire Spiritual Growth

A mission trip is a great place for a student to encounter God in a new way. Students will likely feel a need for God while on the trip, and this is a great opportunity for you to inspire spiritual growth by introducing them to spiritual disciplines. Set aside time on the trip for devotions and prayer. Provide a tool like a Bible Study Guide or Prayer Journal that students can use. You might even encourage students to continue spending time with God at home by giving them a Post-Trip Journal.

6. Find Teachable Moments

Teachable moments happen when you mix a student’s experience with the truth of God’s Word. On mission trips, students will encounter many different experiences, and they will be challenged to think in new ways. Look for the moments to help them make applications for changing their lives back home. We have the opportunity to help them connect the dots between real life and God’s Word.

7. Challenge Students

The best way to challenge students is to start from the top. Usually we want to challenge the students who don’t “get it,” but challenging your high-performing students is much more productive because it gives those who are struggling a model to follow. Challenge can be as simple as asking students: Is there a better way? How can we improve tomorrow? These questions will require students to think about their performance and how they can grow.

8. Get Sleep

Trips become increasingly ineffective as team members become tired. I am amazed by how many teams come on trips with the idea they are going to stay up all night. Years of experience have proven this to be true: Students can’t be challenged or learn if they haven’t had enough sleep.

“Trips become increasingly ineffective as team members become tired.”

9. Boundaries = Love

Don’t give students what they want; give them what they need. If you raise the level of expectation, your students will rise to meet it. If you set low expectations for your students, they will meet that as well. Start now before the trip and ask more of students than you think possible. Challenge their potential and see what happens.

10. Going Is Not Enough

We must be intentional with a student’s mission experience in order to see transformational change happen. Often we think that it’s great the kids are doing a service project. This is shortsighted. We don’t just want them to go, we want them to grow. By being intentional with the mission trip we could see students return with a desire for a daily quiet time, or we could see them want to spend their whole lives in service to the needy. God can do so much through our students; let’s not sell Him short. Plan a time for students to process what they’re learning. Make space for them to debrief their mission experiences each day. And don’t forget to debrief the trip as a whole.

Need more help to getting ready for this year’s trip? LeaderTreks also provides the following free resources to help you prepare to lead a transformational trip for your students.

find the right trip assessment If you’re just beginning the trip planning process, you know that choosing mission trips for teens can be a daunting task. With so many great and unique organizations to research and choose from, finding the right trip can easily become an overwhelming, high-pressure experience. It’s not enough to pick mission trips for teens based on the price tag or the destination; you’ve got to assess potential ministry partners based on what they value and how well they avoid causing harm to the local community. Use the Find the Right Trip Assessment to help you find the right trip for your group.

If you plan to create your mission trip from scratch rather than go with an outside organization, check out the Mission Trip Builder. The Mission Trip Builder is a How-To Guide for Mission Trips designed specifically for youth workers. You have an opportunity to craft a short-term mission trip experience to be a greenhouse for student development, but you need to be intentional in the building process. This tool will help you build an intentional mission trip experience for your students, one that will give them the best chance for growing into strong and healthy Christ-followers.

Before he returned to his Father in heaven, Jesus gave his followers one last command: to spread the good news of his death and resurrection to the whole world. If we truly understand the joy of following Jesus, we are quick to set aside our own desires in favor of our mission to care for the least. This Pre-Trip Devotional is a great resource for pre-trip training for your mission team. The goal of this lesson is to help students understand the difference between living out their own preferences and living out of God’s purposes.

If you’re heading out on your trip and you’re looking for ways to keep parents connected, try using Helping Parents Connect. This resource is designed to enrich the journey that parents experience while their student is part of a mission trip. Helping Parents Connect asks questions to get parents thinking about how they can best connect with their student before the trip, during the trip, and after the trip. It is a tool designed to get them involved from the beginning and to help them grow with their kids through this experience. Download Helping Parents Connect in the Mission Trip Prep Kit. 

About the Author

Doug Franklin

Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners  who never leave their side. Doug grew up in…  Read More