I did a survey asking missionaries who work with volunteer teams, “What is the most important skill or lesson that volunteers should to have for a successful volunteer project?” The missionaries were surprisingly unified in their answers: almost all of them said “flexibility.”
There are a number of reasons for this. Often plans are contingent on a number of things working properly that in reality don’t, e.g. public transportation schedules, people showing up on time, expectations communicated clearly, everyone being healthy, etc. Also, there is a hidden reality; sometimes field missionaries ask for flexibility because they haven’t carefully planned well for the volunteers.
In any case, the number of variables and decisions that need to be made on the spot with incomplete information, may create stress for everyone. For volunteers who are used to tight structure and flawless execution of plans, there will almost certainly be opportunities to complain. Poor attitudes will be poison for everyone on the trip. Below are three essential attitudes to have on a volunteer project along with some tips for developing them:
- Be flexible. Be more surprised if the proposed schedule for the day is followed than if it is not. There are many factors that cause this to happen; getting anxious about them or complaining about them don’t help anything. Tip: practice looking at each event as an adventure designed by God to help you to grow or give you an opportunity to serve. Even review the opportunities for service that you had during the day and thank God for them. Embrace, rather than resist, trying new foods, new friends, new routines, etc.; all should be seen as opportunities to learn and grow.
- Follow instructions. I know it seems self-serving for missionaries to say that it is essential for volunteers to listen their instructions, but volunteers need to know that a missionary’s decisions are based on factors that you can really only understand if you live there. Missionaries don’t always have time to explain the reasons behind every decision. Tip: for just a few days that you are working on the project, trust that God is working through the missionary and accept that you don’t have to know the reason behind every decision.
- Be a learner. This attitude in an antidote to a temptation to be a “teller” that some short-term volunteers have. Sometimes volunteers feel like their job is to “tell the gospel” and they forget the value of learning. Tip: instead of telling people how it is at your church or in America, short-term volunteers should practice asking questions about the families, values, dreams, and lives of the people that they meet. This investment will help volunteers to have more credibility with their local friends and often provide opportunities to share a message of truth.
Other posts in this series: