In the last couple of months I’ve had the chance to travel to Guatemala, Peru and Uganda. I have to say it’s pretty amazing to go from the Amazon jungle to the source of the Nile River in just over two weeks! All these were to set-up or lead mission trips as our ministry expands its reach further and further outside the U.S.

Now, I’ve been leading youth and adults on mission trips since the early days of my youth ministry career back in the 1980’s. Almost all these trips have been construction based. Our trip to Peru was just such a trip as we built and repaired homes for a couple of widowed ladies. In the middle of the week we took a break from construction for a boat trip upriver to visit a jungle village that our Peruvian church partner has been working with for thirty years. We went almost forty miles into the middle of the jungle. The villagers met us at the shore and together we walked another half-hour inland to meet church leaders and exchange gifts. It so happened there were two nurses on our mission team and some of the village elders asked if they might look in on a man who was quite sick.

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It didn’t take long for one of the nurses to determine that, without hospital care, this man wouldn’t live much longer. As a team we didn’t hesitate to volunteer our boat as an ambulance. Within minutes I joined several men from the village to carry this gravely ill person wrapped in a blanket to the boat. As I looked down at this frail, sick man who was facing a two-hour trip on a boat and another half-hour in the back of a bus before he would be admitted to a hospital I was overcome with emotion. And struck by an urgent thought…

Have we properly prepared for all the risks associated with foreign mission travel? For the remainder of the trip this thought haunted me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we didn’t prepare. We had emergency numbers, knew where the hospital was and how to get there, we had first aid kits and we all had travel insurance. But was that enough? For all the months of planning, programming, recruiting and preparing for this trip only a small part of our time had been committed to risk management.

A week and a half later as our host navigated the twenty kilometers of dirt road to the small collection of buildings in the Ugandan village where we were to review a potential construction project I was very aware of just how remote our team would be.

Mission trips are a risky business. Whether you’re driving ten hours on the interstate system in the U.S. or heading four hours up an Amazon tributary on a one hundred foot boat, every time you take youth on a mission trip you’re assuming some level of risk. In some cases it might be a volunteer adult who thinks it’s okay to travel 95 miles an hour in a fifteen-passenger van loaded with teens (true story) or a teenager who rides bareback on an Indian pony only to fall off and shatter her elbow (also true). We youth leaders invite people to share their faith in ways that include power tools, ladders, road trips, air travel and lots of fast food and pizza!

I’m not here to say we shouldn’t do these things. In fact, I think we should take our teens as far from home as possible and engage them in all the adventure they can handle. But we dare not do any of this without thinking long and hard about how to manage the risks we’re inviting people into. We all pray that nothing bad ever happens on a mission trip but it’s the height of negligence not to consider all the possibilities. I’ve seen plans that even include standards for negotiating for hostages! On the other hand, paranoia is not my goal in writing this. I’m not here to frighten you or cause you to obsess about everything that could go wrong on your next mission trip. Please take what I’m saying here as encouragement. If you’ve taken reasonable precautions and put logical safeguards in place you can relax and enjoy all the positive things that happen on a mission trip. After all, the best risk management plan is the one you never have to use!

As you think about it…

  • What happens in case of a serious accident/incident on the road? (I once had a diabetic young man slip into a coma in the back of the van while returning from a youth gathering – everything turned out fine and maybe I’ll tell the whole story sometime)
  • How will you communicate (and with whom) in case of an emergency? (In that remote Ugandan village we’ll supply the team with a satellite phone)
  • How will you evacuate a team member if necessary? (This could also be an emergency at home. Once we had to send a girl home three days into our mission trip because her grandmother died. Research the best routes home, whether air, bus, car or train)
  • What emergency gear will you carry with the team? (A portable defibrillator may be overkill, but a well stocked first aid kit is a wise choice)
  • What does your travel insurance cover on a foreign trip? (Scary terms like "repatriation of remains" will come up, but you need to check it out)
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