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May 08

Mission Trips Part 2: Looking At Small Mission Teams

I’m continuing my blog series on mission trips, looking at the other side of the coin of team size.  Yesterday I shared the pros and cons of a large mission team, so today I will share about the advantages and disadvantages of a small team.  It has been my experience when I talk to people about this particular subject that their preference is often shaped by previous experience.  Someone who grew up experiencing small mission teams will tend to lean towards leading small teams.  I cannot stress enough the importance that we have to ask the why before we determine the size.  If we simply act out of our preferences, we could be missing what God wants to be doing in us and through those we lead.

Here are some pros and cons of leading a small mission team:

SMALL TEAM PROS

Small teams typically have more INTIMATE COMMUNITY:  On a small team everyone can get to know each other more quickly, and more deeply because you are literally with a small group of people for an extended period of time.  You find out about what you team likes, dislikes, personalities, struggles, strengths, weaknesses more early on in the development of the team.  All team members will know everyone on a small team.

Small teams are easier to MOBILIZE:  It is much easier to mobilize a small group when it comes to logistics, planning and when the team needs to make last minute changes.  There can be more flexibility in scheduling, work projects and interaction with the people that a team is serving.

Small teams are necessary for SPECIALIZED PROJECTS:  A smaller team will be great for specialized projects, such as medical teams, strategic partnership development, leading seminars, etc.  One team from our church is a dental team that will provide free dental care.  Obviously that doesn’t require a large team, but it also requires a team with specific gifts in order for the team to really be effective.

SMALL TEAM CONS

Small teams can be CLIQUEY:  Because of the intense experience that a team experiences together, it can create exclusivity within a larger group.  Several years ago our student ministry would send out multiple teams each summer.  What was observed was it became more about who was on what team, where the better location was, who the better leaders were.  The end result was the ministry had four or five teams with very little interaction with each other for a six-month period.

Small teams can’t compensate for PERSONALITY DYNAMICS:  If you are on a small team, you are forced to learn to get along and live together.  In once sense I see this as a strength, but it can be brutal if there is a personality conflict between two people that can’t be resolved.  In a large team that can be solved by separating the two people.  In a small team that is not necessarily an option.

Small teams make it hard to be more INCLUSIVE:  If we put a cap on our team on the size of our team, we can run the risk of accepting people that are easier to work with and who we want to be with, and not including those who may really benefit from the experience.  It may not be intentional, but we naturally establish biases when we get to choose who we want to work with or be with when we opt for a small team.

So, which is better?  The answer is neither.  I have seen great large and small teams, and have seen horrific small and large teams.  Beyond asking the “why” of doing a mission trip, the leading has to consider other variables as well, such as limitations (what can the leadership realistically handle?), resources (how much can the team afford/raise?), and expectations (does the mission partner need or want a specific-sized team?).

In our context, we created a hybrid strategy.  Our “why” is helping students become lifelong followers of Christ.  I want to see as many people on a trip as possible (inclusivity) for the purpose of them have a life-changing experience, owning the value of serving others, and establishing the habit of giving up time and resources each year to reach others for Christ.  But we want to create better intimacy and mobility within our team.  So our strategy is to have one location with the ability to divide into small teams to work, lead VBS, visitations, etc.  The team will train, travel, live and experience the trip together, but will also divide up for greater effectiveness.  We won’t go to a location that doesn’t have a need for a large team.  It is not a perfect strategy, but in the last three years we have had over 200 people in our ministry have a mission trip experience that has been life-changing, service-oriented, and has made an impact for our mission partners.

Question to further the discussion:  What is your strategy for mission trips?  For team size?