Responsible Service Trips: A conversation about doing it right!

Listen to this conversation with Krista Dutt, author of the book,  “Merge:  A Guidebook for Youth Service Trips”, hosted by Kathy Neufeld Dunn, conference minister for Western District.  In this conversation, Krista talks about why service trips are foundational to faith formation, best practices, and why the term “mission trip” isn’t the preferred word choice.  Brought to you by The Gathering Place–an online community for spiritual formation, resourcing, and networking faith formation leaders in Mennonite Church USA.

We Are People on a Journey

“We are people on a Journey” (Somos el pueblo que camina) – it’s an appropriate theme for an 18-month learning experience our congregation embarked on last year. We were fortunate to be awarded a matching grant through the Center for Congregations (funded by Lilly Endowment) which is allowing us to engage our youth in several learning and faith-formation activities. One of these was a learning tour last fall to the US-Mexico border, led by Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes staff.

At their best, short term mission, service, or learning trips have the potential to be life-changing, faith-growing experiences for youth in our churches. So the question is: how to shape a trip so that it becomes a positive experience for the youth, the leaders, and those whom we encounter and serve?

I think a key factor is for both planners and youth to assume the role of “learner”.

There are many ways to do this; I’ll mention two.

First, from the perspective of the youth leaders, consider the interests, life experience, and maturity level of the youth. It makes sense to shape a trip for junior high students differently than for those in high school. Seek input from the youth. Listen to the questions they are asking (about current events and faith), and solicit their ideas for how to make the trip possible. Our planners used that information to shape the focus and preparation for our border trip.

Second, one way to help youth take on the attitude of learner is to ask them to name ahead of time what they hope to gain from the experience and the interactions they will have. Not only will this help them identify their own goals, but it gives you as leader a “heads up” about what their expectations, hopes and interests are so you can pay attention to that during the experience.

One goal for our journey to the borderlands was that it offer a way to build inter-generational relationships within the congregation. So instead of the youth group going with just a couple sponsors, for this trip we had a 1:1 youth to adult ratio and intentionally assigned all participants into a youth – adult pair. This was useful in keeping track of each other when moving from place to place. In hindsight, I think we could have utilized those pairs in a fuller way during debriefing and processing time in order to deepen the relationships. Even so, it was great that participants aged 15-17, 35-45 and 60-75 could all hear each others’ observations and perspectives on what we were experiencing.

An important piece of any short term mission, service or learning project is follow up once you are home again. Give youth an opportunity to thank the congregation and to share what they saw, heard and felt. Some may surprise you with how articulately they summarize the experience. Don’t forget to consider other mediums for sharing such as drawing, poetry, music or actions.

We feel fortunate that this trip gave our youth a wider perspective of the world and God’s work in it. The experiential learning format helped them understand more concretely the economic, social and political issues surrounding immigration. And I hope seeing examples of resiliency in the people we met will be an encouragement to the youth as they face their own challenges. “Short term missions” are really about empowering all of us to walk the long term journey together with compassion and faith.

Some practical tips:

  • Connect your short-term project to the larger life and mission of the congregation.
  • Begin planning well in advance; four to six months is not too long, especially when passports, plane tickets, immunizations, and fundraising are involved.
  • Try not to cram too much into each day. There is something to be said for keeping youth occupied, but balance activity and input time with time for processing as well as rest (including a designated ‘lights out’ time).
  • Do your best to prepare the youth for what they will encounter. Most youth in our group had never flown or been out of the country before. So for us this included everything from being clear about expectations for behavior and participation, to learning about the language, culture, issues (etc) of the setting to which we were going, to helping them know what to expect and do when going through airport security and border crossings.
  • Pray lots. Laugh. Give thanks.



Rebecca Kauffman spent her formative years on a farm in northern Alberta, Canada, and was nurtured in faith by family and two small-town churches. Significant mission / learning experiences for her include Mennonite Voluntary Service in NYC, Mennonite World Conference in India, and an MCC learning tour to Columbia and Venezuela. She is a graduate of EMU and AMBS, and has served as pastor at Paoli Mennonite Fellowship in southern Indiana for 5 years. She and her husband, Andrew, enjoy gardening and hiking in the woods.


Preparation Never Ends

It seems that every time I lead a service trip of some kind, I hear something like “I feel like I learned and gained much more than I gave.” This might sound like a selfish confession for someone who volunteered their time and resources to serve someone they have never met. But self-giving love is supposed to be reciprocal. When we truly give of ourselves we have space to receive the gift of God’s love from others. However, I also think that we get pulled in to what the dominant culture teaches that material riches are the only kind of riches that matter. Through service to those who are not materially rich, we are awakened to the value of being spiritually rich no matter our material possessions.

The idea of learning through serving is something that our congregation has embraced. This has become the reason we take the youth group somewhere for a week each summer. We approach trips with DOOR, SWAP, to the US/Mexico Border, and even MCUSA Youth Convention the same way: as an opportunity to learn about what God is doing in the world and in our lives, and to join in with those already serving where God is leading them in their community.

Service trips are a faith formative event to build toward. You cannot over prepare. Preparation hones our hopes and desires for the trip and keeps us more focused while we are on the trip. A packing list and medical release forms are not enough. The leader must provide many opportunities for the participants to be spiritually, emotionally, culturally, and historically prepared (I have witnessed the spiritual payoff when a youth points at a historical marker and says “I know what that’s about”). And even if not everyone attends every prep meeting, those who have will have a positive influence on those who have not.

What I do to prepare and my list of suggestions is too long for this blog, but here are several tips that float to the top:

Involve youth in the discernment of the service trip location. When youth are involved from the beginning, the trip has a different level of ownership from the beginning. For the last couple of youth conventions, the youth that go to every possible seminar and learning experience earn the right to become the discernment group for the next year’s service trip destination. I make a list of 10 potential locations, and we meet together and discern where God might be leading us by taking into consideration costs, fundraising, connections to the congregation and how a particular destination helps us know our community better.

Start with the needs of your community. Who is stuck in systems of oppression? Who is the scapegoat for your community’s problems? What community issues are people in your congregation addressing? Find a service trip location that helps you understand and explore these same issues and needs. You could consider staying at home and serving with these agencies for your summer trip, or you could do youth group service nights with agencies in your community as a way of preparing for the service trip. This gives you a way of connecting the trip to your daily reality when you get back home.

Expand on the strengths of your congregation. Are there people in your congregation that are experts in what you plan to do? Learn from them. Have them talk with the group before you go. Or better yet, invite them along.

Is there a minority group in your congregation that needs their presence highlighted in a loving way? Consider how the youth’s summer service trip can highlight the unique image of God that minority group brings to the congregation.

Pick a theme passage. Grounding a trip in scripture is a must. It defines your purpose and your motivation for why you are doing what you are doing. Spend some time in prayer and look for a passage that has a potential connection to the service trip. We read this passage together at the beginning of all our meetings. Think of it as a Lectio Divina that goes on for several months, from initial planning through debriefing.

“Why are you doing this trip?” This is an essential question that you as a leader should not answer alone. Talk with the group about this so that the motivations of the youth come through in what you as the leader say about the trip in fundraising and other promotional materials. This is also a question that each participant needs to answer for themselves. And the more times they have to answer this question to people in the congregation the better.

Over the past 5 years we have done this through our fundraising. We invite adults in the congregation to invest their resources, time, stories, and prayer into the youth and the trip. The Investors and youth gather for two meetings before the trip where they sit around tables and talk about our hopes for the trip, stories of serving and cross cultural experiences, and where we see God at work in our daily lives. When we return, the youth share with their Investors about where they saw God at work during the trip and various stories from the trip, and then together we all brainstorm where God might be leading us as a congregation to put our learnings into practice in our home community.

Curiosity and the adolescent desire for independence is sometimes the only motivation for some youth who want to get away from their parents for a week by going on a service trip. Even this “unholy” motivation is a gift to the process of faith formation within your congregation and within each youth. Experiential faith formation through service trips is a powerful tool. Preparing well before you go means that you don’t have to spend the first three days getting everyone onboard with what you are doing and why. So take the time to deepen the impact of the trip for the youth, their families, and the congregation by preparing well.



Daniel Yoder is a Pastor of Christian Formation at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana. He is a graduate of Hesston College and Tabor College and is currently a student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He and his wife Talashia live in the southern “suburbs” of Goshen where they are raising their 2 boys, 14 chickens, and 12 different kinds of fruit.

The Inconvenient Truth of Service


Is service supposed to be comfortable? Is it meant to make you “feel safe”? Does it need to be politically correct? Can service be mutual?

Whatever your answers are to these questions, one thing is for sure, service should reflect Jesus and it won’t be convenient most of the time. This is what service in the city means. It’s messy, it’s uncomfortable, it’s inconvenient, it’s politically incorrect, it’s not safe, it’s not about us but it’s about people, it’s about love, it’s about solidarity, it’s about Jesus. Service in the city is also beautiful, diverse, full of life-long lessons and a revelation of God’s character you can’t get anywhere else.

DOOR has 30 years of experience in providing service-learning opportunities in five cities across the nation. And each city can reveal God’s love and character in many different ways. For example, participants at Door may be asked to find their own meal (with no resources on them) for one night during their service trip in order to get a glimpse of an ordinary meal of a person living homelessly, the same population they are serving that week. During those uncomfortable two hours of their lives, participants will discover God’s generosity and protection among those who call the streets their home.

In that case, we ask groups to receive their help since it is their blessing and service to them, hence mutual service. Mutual service affirms people’s value as human beings who are capable of helping someone else who is usually the giver, server or provider of resources. It becomes a humbling and unforgettable experience for our groups as they are served by our community members. Not to mention, so many stereotypes of people living homelessly are broken and replaced with humane and accurate definitions.

At DOOR, we are about people. Service is about people. Nothing will impact your life like a human connection with someone who is completely different from you.

Service in the city gives DOOR staff the opportunity to highlight the community hosting our groups. One addition we’re proud of at DOOR Denver is the gentrification tour of the La Alma/Lincoln neighborhood, where DOOR and First Mennonite have resided for numerous years. Before the tour begins, groups participate in a gentrification skit that gives them a timeline of how gentrification enters an underserved neighborhood over the span of 15 years.

Neighborhoods that were deemed dangerous and unsalvageable have become a trendy place to live for middle-upper class folks as coffee shops, doggy daycares, eclectic restaurants and cross fit gyms replace dilapidated buildings and homes. To an outsider, the changes seem welcoming and beneficial for the once, eyesore community it used to be. To a resident who has lived in the community long before the changes were a governmental plan to bring back the wealthy to the city (the gentrification of five surrounding neighborhoods), one might feel like it’s not the neighborhood they used to know, as friends and relatives have been displaced and the new business additions don’t feel inclusive to the culture of the community. Nonetheless, service is learning about the changes that affect community members and learning our role in systemic powers and dominant culture that create these unfortunate changes for our neighbors.

So where does faith and God tie into service in the city? First of all, God is already here. He is doing an amazing job in each of our cities and we invite folks to see the urban side of God. The side of God that may look messy and inconvenient on the outside but will surprise you with kindness and love on the inside. The side of God that makes it uncomfortable to talk about homelessness, racism, human trafficking, immigration, police brutality, injustice, but is necessary for the church to offer healing and reconciliation to its members and people of our nation. The side of God that will challenge concerns of safety and entitlement as a service worker but will be a patient teacher in helping us see the bigger picture of his kingdom on earth.

We invite groups of all ages to join us to serve and seek the face, hands, feet, heart and voice of God in the city! Our doors are open to all!




Cindy Cervantes is a Denver native and the associate city director of DOOR Denver for the past six years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in non-profit management and at-risk youth at Metro State University of Denver. Cindy has traveled with performing arts troupes as a break-dancer, has organized Hip-Hop community events, is planning to start a fashion line and hopes to begin selling her artwork across the nation.




March Playlist

Mission Trip Jams

As a music lover since the womb, I am always listening for the message of a song before I decide if I want to add it to my personal playlist. The trickiest playlist to add to for me is my workout playlist. Thankfully, lots of Christian artists have stepped up lately to give us a great beat along with a great message.

This past summer, I drove my youth to Denver, CO. A 16 hour drive there and 16 hours back. I knew that we would need a full playlist for the ride. I challenged my youth to send me their favorite songs to add to the playlist BUT they had to have a quality, appropriate message in them. At first, they told me it was “impossible” because every secular song talks about sex or drinking or drugs or violence somehow in them, to which I agreed that MOST do, especially songs that have a really catchy beat and melody. (Single Ladies?? One Direction?? Sam Hunt?? We could go on…) After the first 3 hours of the drive filled with awesome, uplifting and current Christian music that I had filled our playlist with the months before, they were annoyed and sick of them and found renewed energy to search for appropriate secular songs.

I’ve had moments where I am very discouraged by what I hear on my radio across the genres at times. BUT as followers of Christ, we need to strive to not participate in any enjoyment of the things that Jesus went to the cross for. This is something I am constantly striving to correct myself at and that includes my music playlists.

Sure… “It’s just a song, Ashley” my youth say….but these are the places where it starts. It starts on the surface level with movies, tvs, jokes, etc, and then seeps into our lives from there. I’m confident that there are still musicians out there who can share a song worth listening to EVEN IF it’s not by a ‘Christian’ artist.

For this month’s playlist, I went back through our mission trip playlist and grabbed 16 secular songs that, for the majority of the songs, got the youth to smile and jam out together despite their different tastes in music, or at least got a “yea, its fine” from the biggest cynic in the back. Granted, you will still have youth that you just can’t please with any music you chose, but I think it’s our duty to at least give them examples of how to interact with the culture around us, without giving up the Gospel.

I’m sure there are many more appropriate songs out there, these are just a few to get you started! Good luck and I’d love to hear any you may have to add to our playlist here!




~Ashley Litwiller, pastor of youth and worship at Arthur Mennonite Church (IL)

New Theme! Short-Term Missions Done Right!

Ready or not, summer is just around the bend.

In our congregations, summertime often ushers in a new pace of life together, complete with new ways of relating to one another, and engagement of our faith.  Especially for youth groups, this generally means taking some type of “trip” together, whether that be going to camp, convention, or doing a service trip.

This summer is a convention summer (yeah!), and we hope that all of you will be bringing your youth and congregations to this especially insightful and important gathering happening at Orlando 2017  through the innovative think-tank discussions, “Future Church Summit”.  [Side note: Sign your youth up to participate in Step Up, a leadership development program to engage youth in broader church discussions.]

However, no matter if a “mission-trip” is in the works this summer or not, at some point in the future you might consider it for your youth or plan an intergenerational service experience.  How does one even go about getting started?  How do we create an experience that empowers both those who engage in service and receives it? What are pitfalls to avoid? How do we continue the conversation and formation after we return home from these life-altering experiences?

As Christians, as Mennonites, living out our faith in tangible ways is an important expression of our faith in Jesus Christ.  It makes a difference in what we profess with our lips and how we engage our bodies in service. But how do we engage with others in a mutual experience where true hospitality flows as we learn and are changed just as much (or more!) than what little we have to offer another?

This month The Gathering Place provides a very practical theme that guides you through embarking in short-term missions in responsible ways.  Each Friday, a new blog will be posted highlighting reflections from pastors and leaders from recent service experiences.  Other ways of engaging this theme are listed below!  We hope to see you around The Gathering Place this month!


Webinar: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.” Drawing from Lilla Watson’s charging words, Justin Chambers, former director of DOOR Atlanta, will explore the idea of missions rooted in mutuality. How do we prepare congregations to intentionally serve in communities unlike their own? Who are we called to serve? How do we continue conversations with our service group around new ideas discovered during their short term mission experience? Sign up to join The Gathering Place in this free webinar on Friday, March 10 at 1pm EST!


Podcast: In this tGP podcast, Rachel interviews Marty Troyer, affectionately known as the “Peace Pastor” where he serves at Houston Mennonite Church, Texas.  Marty recently wrote The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are and talks with The Gathering Place about how to enliven youth’s spiritual imagination to live out the gospel in your own communities. Maybe you don’t have to go to another country to do ‘missions.’ Maybe it is a lot closer than you think…


Study CircleThis month, we will discuss the incredibly accessible book, Merge: A Guidebook for Youth Service Trips. It will be hosted by Krista Dutt (author!) and Kathy Neufeld Dunn, conference minister for Western District. Join this practical discussion, Tuesday, March 21, 2pm EST.


Looking forward to gathering together this month!




~Rachel S. Gerber, denominational minister for Christian formation and editor of TGP


tGP Podcast: An interview with Marty Troyer

In this tGP podcast, Rachel interviews Marty Troyer, affectionately known as the “Peace Pastor” where he serves at Houston Mennonite Church, Texas.  Marty recently wrote The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are and talks with The Gathering Place about how to enliven youth’s spiritual imagination to live out the gospel in your own communities. Maybe you don’t have to go to another country to do ‘missions.’ Maybe it is a lot closer than you think.

March Study Circle–MERGE

What does it mean to do short term mission responsibly?  What’s the difference between responsible and irresponsible short term mission?  What’s the role of education in short term mission?  Who’s teaching whom?  And just how do you plan a mission trip anyway?  Are there valid alternatives to “going on mission” and/or complementary activities you can do at home?

Krista Dutt and Kathy Neufeld Dunn hosted  a conversation about these questions and others based on the hands-on resource, MERGE: A Guidebook for Youth Service Trips.  This study circle is intended for those who have taken youth services trips before and those who have never led such a trip. See video below to listen to the conversation.

MERGE weaves practical how to’s, biblical story, personal and group reflection, ritual and action goals after you get home to create a balanced, thoughtful experience for youth and adults.  In 2009, when Mennonite Mission Network asked Krista to write this book, this was the only resource that included ideas for pre-planning, as well as action plans for after you return home “down from the mountain top.”  This resource is intended to be a small part of a broader discipleship and faith formation ministry in your congregation.

Scripture Emphasis:  Exodus

Content Summary:

  • Introduction & Timetable for the trip

Before You Go:

  • Trust – Building a Team
  • Inner Life – Preparing to Meet God
  • Awareness – Understanding Culture
  • God’s Activity – Joining in God’s Mission

During the Trip:

  • Faith in Action – Serving and Learning Away from Home

After the Trip:

  • Reflection – What Did We Just Do?
  • Integration – What to Do with What We Learned?

There is also a journal included in the guidebook that you may reprint for each participant. You can order your copy of MERGE here.

Kathy Neufeld Dunn is the Western District Conference Associate Conference Minister for Kansas supporting pastors and congregations in the region.  She also serves as the Resource Advocate for WDC, coordinating and leading trainings and other educational events for pastors and congregations.  Most recently she was the pastor of First Mennonite Church, McPherson, KS.  She’s also had the privilege of leading a Service Venture trip.  She and her husband, Michael, share their home with three cats.  Cats are easier to herd than youth or young adults on a service trip.  (Just kidding.)


Krista Dutt currently works alongside Anabaptist churches in the Chicagoland area for Mennonite Central Committee.  She worked as Chicago City Director and Program Director over a ten year period for Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR) which is when she wrote Merge.  She graduated from Bluffton (College) University and AMBS.  She lives in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago with her husband, Jim and son, Ben and a host of pets of their choosing.

Below is the conversation that took place on Tuesday, March 21, 2pm EST with Krista Dutt, author of the book,  “Merge:  A Guidebook for Youth Service Trips”, hosted by Kathy Neufeld Dunn, conference minister for Western District.  In this conversation, Krista talks about why service trips are foundational to faith formation, best practices, and why the term “mission trip” isn’t the preferred word choice.  Brought to you by The Gathering Place–an online community for spiritual formation, resourcing, and networking faith formation leaders in Mennonite Church USA.

Redefining the Sanctuary

A few years ago I visited a friend of mine in his new church.  He took pride as he showed me the newly constructed building and informed me of some of the work they were doing.  He then showed me a basketball court in their parking lot, and the pavement was faded as it was apparent the court got a lot of use.  My friend told me that the court was often filled with neighborhood youth and that one of the things that lead him to this particular church was the presence of these youth and that the mission field was right at their door.  As we turned to go back inside, my friend informed me that the door we were walking through acted as a “barrier,” as the youth rarely came through the door unless they had to go to the bathroom.  He longed for them to come in and be a part of their congregation, but there seemed to be little interest.  As I looked at my friend I told him I thought I knew what the problem was… he was looking at the basketball court as the mission field instead of viewing it as the sanctuary!


In Philadelphia we run a flag football ministry for urban youth ages 13-18.  Of our 250 youth only 32% attend church on a regular basis.  Yet something amazing happens each week on our field… youth memorize a verse before being able to play and after each game the youth circle up as a prayer is lifted up. Our youth are “unchurched” kids, and yet when you ask them what they like about the league they say things like… it’s a family, it’s a safe place off the streets, it’s a place you learn about God, you learn about the Bible, it’s a place I learned to be a leader, and where I was mentored. 

In Timoteo we are redefining the sanctuary.

Sure we still believe in the Church, as our league currently has 12 churches in partnership to make Timoteo happen, but we spend more time being the Church in real life than trying to talk our youth into conforming to us in our church settings.

Nowhere in Scripture are we told to be a missionary, because the word “missionary” is never used!  Rather God calls us to be a neighbor!  The term “missionary” can carry a lot of negative connotations in the city as it often means ‘a group of white teenagers coming in to do puppet shows and VBS’.  On the other hand, we are all called to be neighbors.  A neighbor is the call to walk as Jesus walked in real life, even in the ghettos of our world. No matter the context (overseas, urban or suburban), a neighbor represents the incarnate Jesus and we are called to show those living in the world a different way.


The football field as a sanctuary is a new concept for some, but for hundreds of youth in Philadelphia it is making sense.  The last 13 years we have seen lives changed, and leaders immerge.  The four pillars of Timoteo are: Jesus, Excellence, Empowerment, and Partnership.  It is ultimately Jesus, and His Kingdom values, that drives us to produce an excellent product for the youth in our community, as well as calls for excellence in our youth.

It is Jesus that has modeled for us a way of empowerment through mentoring and discipleship as we partner with people in our community to make a difference.





Chris Lahr has been with Timoteo since 2008. He oversees the overall organization of the league each season and coaches the BGA Panthers. Chris grew up in Indiana, but has lived in Philly since 2000 with his wife and three daughters. Chris received his Bachelors Degree at Eastern University and his Masters of Divinity at Asbury Theological Seminary.