Reentry: The Importance of Debriefing After a Mission Trip

BY: Hank Hilliard


by Hank Hilliard

Several years ago I was playing golf with John, a former youth group member who had gone on to college. John shared a story about his little sister Kate. He had driven Kate to a friend’s house for a birthday party the previous night. Because John’s car was old with a worn paint job, Kate had him drop her off around the corner from the party so that none of her friends would see her getting out of the “piece of junk” as she called it. This was funny, but at the same time I was disappointed. Kate had just returned from the high school mission trip where she spent a week serving children from a very poor neighborhood in an urban setting. I had hoped the mission experience would transform our youth from stereotypical superficial suburbanites to deeper caring, understanding, sacrificial disciples.

John’s story was a wake-up call. I realized that taking youth to work in food pantries and tutor inner city children for a week was not having the impact I intended. So I began a journey to design the mission trip to be a meaningful and transformative experience.

I turned to the scriptures where I found in Luke 9:1-10 an account of the Twelve being sent on a journey of healing and preaching: a mission trip. Verse 10 reads “When the apostles returned, they described for Jesus what they had done. Taking them with him, Jesus withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.”

Return and Report

Upon returning from the mission trip Jesus called the disciples together to give him a report. After a brief conversation Jesus takes the disciples away for a retreat. I imagine this was intended to be a deep debriefing session.

It is important to process and debrief these kind of experiences in order for them to have  the intended impact. It is during debriefing that learning, growth, and application take place. Imagine participating in a team-building activity such as a low ropes course where you struggled through difficult challenges, only to have the facilitator say at the end of the experience, “Let’s go eat lunch!” You would be missing one of the most valuable aspects of the experience: the debriefing.

Jesus knew the importance of debriefing the disciples’ mission trip experience. Jesus may have had them report how things went, what they learned, and their successes and struggles. They probably laughed over stories of getting lost or spending the night with a strange family. They certainly shared about miracles of healing. They may have discussed personal conflicts they had with one another.

Retreat and Reflect

In 1979 53 U.S. citizens were held hostage in Iran for 444 days. When finally released, the U.S. Army flew them to Germany for a week of medical attention and debriefing before reuniting them with their families. The Army knew that it was important for victims of captivity to have time to prepare for reentry into their regular lives.

Going on a mission trip is by no means similar to being held hostage, but the principle of reflecting upon your experience applies. While on a mission trip, youth will encounter stressors such as unfamiliar circumstances and removal from their normal routine and comfort zones. It is important to go through a process of recovery and debriefing in order to have these experiences stick and to prepare youth for their return to every day life.

Before returning home from a mission trip, spend time both as individuals and as a group reflecting on your experiences. Pick a comfortable place and limit distractions. Allow time for all youth to share stories and answer one or more of several questions about the trip, their experiences, and what change they hope this experience has on their life.


Slowing a NASA space shuttle from the orbital speed of 15,000 miles per hour to about 215 miles per hour at touchdown is quite an extraordinary challenge. Just as a successful shuttle reentry is difficult, so can reentry into our daily lives following a mission trip. Participants may ride a roller coaster of emotions as they process the experience and attempt to integrate what they learned into their reality.

Jesus’ retreat with the disciples in Luke 9 came to an abrupt end. Reality called. Reentry was imminent. The crowds invaded their quiet retreat and Jesus welcomed them. The disciples, however, were not so ready to reenter their world. When the day was almost over, the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowds away so that they can go to the nearby villages and countryside and find lodging and food, because we are in a deserted place.” (Luke 9:12) The disciples were not ready for reentry, but reentry had come. Jesus embraced this as an opportunity to invite the disciples into a miracle. Instead of sending the crowds away, Jesus instructed his disciples to feed the people.

Our everyday lives are packed with busy schedules, commitments, and responsibilities. One valuable aspect of the short-term mission trip is that it allows participants to get away from the demands of daily life in order to focus on serving others, building community, and growing in faith.

Mission trips are like faith booster shots to many young people, providing inspiration and motivation for youth to serve selflessly and explore God’s call. However, we should not pack the experience away like the ragged bandana we wore each day during the trip until the time comes to sign up for next summer’s trip. Instead, we should use the mission experience to springboard us to a life awakened to opportunities to serve and be a part of God’s work in the world every day. Just as Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowds, Jesus calls us to not reserve serving others to the annual mission trip, but to serve others every day and meet the immediate needs of others.

The short-term mission trip has been the target of criticism in recent years. Critics claim these trips are little more than vacations with a little work mixed in, which itself is self-serving. However, with preparation prior to the trip and intentional debriefing aimed at helping young people apply the learning and growth the experienced, the short-term mission trip can be an important part of the discipleship process, helping youth expand their world view, grow in faith, and provide a foundation to build life-long service.


Hank Hilliard is the Director of Youth Ministry at Franklin First United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn. Prior to his current position, he served as the Director of Young People’s Ministries Development for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, where he helped local churches develop more effective youth and young adult ministries through speaking and teaching, producing original resources, and building networks of support throughout the Church. Before joining GBOD, Hank served for 13 years as the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn. Hank and his wife, Amy, have two sets of twins—Tanner and Kendall, and Connor and Will.


Tony Akers2:48 pm

This is great. Thanks Hank!

Darryl Willis7:38 pm

Good article. As a person who works recruiting adult teams for short term trips (and a former 18 year youth ministry veteran), I can attest to the need for good debriefing. I would like to make a comment, though, about the criticism being leveled at short term missions. Often such criticism can have validity. If we are going with our own agenda in mind, if we go with an attitude of superiority (look how <i>we</i> are going to help <i>you</i>), or if our presence is more of a logistical burden on the local church than a help then short term mission trips are problematic. If we end up doing work that should be done by the local community we may be robbing them of dignity and creating an unhealthy sense of dependence upon them. A good approach can be found in the book <i>When Helping Hurts</i> by Corbett and Fikkert. Using a trip to educate students and to give them a larger world view is highly beneficial. The pre-trip meetings are essential to this process as are the debriefing meetings. In our ministry we work in secular settings where we are invited. We do not burden our hosts: we pay our own way and hire our interpreters (paying a reasonable wage common in the culture). While we teach children biblical character, ecological lessons, American culture (at their request), etc. We are viewed as part of a cultural exchange that educates and broadens the global perspectives of the children we work with. In other words, we are not doing work that local churches and Christians should be doing. Short term mission trips can be beneficial for both those going and those hosting. But one should do serious research to make certain hosting churches and groups are not just creating busy work that would be better and more effectively done by the local community, to make certain that no unnecessary burdens of time-loss and expense (hosting can be very expensive for the local people) are placed on the local Christians, and to have a clear-cut goal that serves a legitimate need as expressed by the local community.

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