Working with Short-term Outreach Teams (1)
Since 1985, when I first arrived in Swaziland, I’ve been working with short-term outreach teams. Usually things worked out fairly well, but at other times it was terrible. A certain university in South Africa had a long-lasting relationship with Swaziland and up to 1996 we received four teams from the university during their annual winter break. Each year, after the team left, my wife and I tried to analyse the visit, trying to find out what was good and what was bad and more especially why certain teams worked well and others not.
One of the amazing discoveries we made after all the teams that we had received, was that the team leader played a fairly insignificant role when it came to the success of the group. This does not mean that the team leader is not important. Obviously, someone has to take responsibility. What we did find was that the team leader had a much greater role to play when it came to creating a feeling of unity among the group than in real leadership. The best leader we ever had (two years running) was a student who had virtually no typical leadership characteristics. When problems occurred within the team, he would go around, give each member a bear hug and tell them that he loves and cares for them, and afterwards everyone smiled and apologised for saying bad things about others and then they went on with their work.
The worst leader we ever had was a student with exceptionally strong leadership capabilities, even being one of the elect few among almost 20,000 students who served on their university’s Student Representative Council. However, in spite of his exceptional leadership qualities, he wasn’t able to create a feeling of unity among his team and because he himself was not willing to accept authority, it became one of the worst teams we ever had in Swaziland. The day they left, we breathed a sigh of relief and said: Hallelujah! 😉
Much more thought needs to go into the issue of short-term outreaches. After 1996 I had a discussion with representatives from the university from which the students came and my advice to them was that they needed to rethink these outreaches and perhaps, after more than twenty years, they had to ask themselves the question why they are coming to Swaziland. Was it because of the traditional bond between the university and Swaziland, or was it because they were really making (or undergoing) a difference?
Eventually a decision was made to stop these visits.
Looking back at those times I often wonder how we could have done things differently. Our biggest problem was that many of the students created the impression that they had come to Swaziland on a fairly inexpensive vacation. Anyone willing to come, was accepted gladly on the team. Their costs were minimal. However, when they arrived in Swaziland they expected expensive meals. In fact, they ate food that we would rarely if ever eat in our own home. (This changed later after we had a long and deep discussion with the students about this.) Their work consisted mostly of visiting schools (which I had to arrange beforehand), meeting children before school during assembly, introducing themselves, singing a few songs, perhaps doing a short skit or a puppet show, selling Bibles and then driving off to the next school. During the afternoons they would go to the local market and mix with people.
I also had the impression that they mostly considered the children standing in front of them to be unbelievers. During the skits and the puppet shows they were always sharing the news about Jesus who had died for their sins (granted, this is amazingly good news) but the next year they would visit the same school and bring the same message as if they had never spoken to these children before. This also got me thinking about the purpose of a short-term outreach.
I’ll continue with the topic tomorrow, but I would be glad to get some feed-back from people who had possibly been on a short-term outreach or who had received such teams and how you feel about them.