Prepare for a Short-Term Missions Trip

Practical tips to help you avoid unexpected emergencies.

You’re traveling on a short-term mission trip in Mexico when your van suddenly swerves, crashes into another vehicle and rolls over. Several members of your team are visibly injured by the collision and rollover. They need immediate assistance. Are you prepared to handle this emergency?

This is the type of situation a mission team leader hopes never to confront. However, it’s one of the scenarios church leaders must consider before sending people on a mission trip for any length of time.

They need to know how to contact emergency medical services, how to perform first aid, and how to summon help in a non-English speaking country, among other things.

While it’s not possible to anticipate every potential crisis on a short-term mission trip, thinking through some of the risks can help you prepare for emergency situations. Here are some guidelines for preparing a successful and safe short-term mission trip.

Recruit Experienced Leaders

You’ll want the people leading your mission trip to be experienced in mission travel and familiar with the locale where you will be traveling. You’ll also need enough of them to adequately supervise your group, especially when traveling with minors.

Leadership screening requirements should include a criminal background check, reference checks, cross-cultural “sensitivity” training, participation in previous ministry trips, and familiarity with the project locale.

Screen Participants

Develop a thorough screening procedure for people who want to participate on your short-term mission trip. Some eligibility requirements to consider include: good health, verification of personal health, life, and property insurance; parental approval for minors, and a willingness to assume the risks associated with a mission trip. If a significant amount of your trip involves work with minors, such as running a Vacation Bible School or ministering to children (as opposed to construction work), additional background screening would be recommended. Such screening typically includes an application noting prior work with children, reference checks, and a criminal history review.

Explain Risks

Thoroughly explain the known risks to all participants and the parents of minors involved with the project. Legally document each participant’s assumption of risk. You can obtain sample forms from a number of sources, including your insurance agent. However, don’t use any forms until your church attorney has reviewed and approved them.

Obtain Insurance

Medical coverage
Obtaining foreign medical insurance for every traveler is important, since many domestic health insurance policies don’t cover medical expenses incurred in a foreign country. If they do, they reimburse travelers at a lower rate than in the United States. Air evacuations, which average $35,000, are seldom covered.

In addition, medical treatment abroad isn’t always comparable to that at home. It’s often available only at private facilities and may be costly. You may spend hundreds of dollars—upfront—to be admitted to a hospital. Hospital staff may not speak your language, and the doctors may not have the skill, tools, or medication that your condition requires for treatment. You may need to be flown to another city, country, or even back to the United States for treatment following an accident or illness.

It’s important to buy a travel insurance policy that covers hospitalization, medical care in case of illness or accident, emergency air evacuation for medical reasons, and repatriation of the body in case of death. Some countries require proof of adequate health insurance as a condition for entry.

A copy of your insurance certificate and contact details should be carried with your important travel documents.

Auto coverage
Determine if you need local auto insurance. Mexico and other foreign countries may require the purchase of a local auto policy. If team members will be driving, be sure to purchase one. Failure to obtain the appropriate coverage could lead to uninsured exposures as well as serious legal entanglements with local authorities.

Foreign liability coverage
This coverage can protect your church or ministry from liability-related claims about emotional injuries caused by your missionary team. It’s especially helpful if you’re working in an area hostile to Christians or Americans.

Trip cancellation coverage
If your travel expenses are high, this coverage may be important. Your expenses would be reimbursed if you cancel your trip for a host of reasons, including sickness, injury, or loss of job.

Expect Medical Emergencies

If possible, recruit someone with medical training to serve as a team member. Illness and injury are serious threats during mission trips, since quality medical care is not always available.

Before you arrive at the mission site, know the location of the nearest hospital or medical facility. Establish an emergency plan in advance, including how you plan to transport an injured participant to the nearest treatment provider and how to communicate with non- English speaking medical providers.

Create a Communication Plan

When emergencies happen, such as the van crash in Mexico, you need a way to relay information to relatives and church leaders, quickly and accurately. Designate one contact person at home to relay information to families, the congregation, and reporters. This is critical. You want accurate information, not hearsay, to be communicated. Having a contact person at home allows you to focus on the situation at the mission location.

Protect Travelers’ Health

Contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to learn health precautions related to your project destination and to determine which vaccinations are required.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also provides details of vaccine-related entry requirements for several countries, types of malaria risks, frequent updates on disease risks, and news of disease outbreaks. Request information on malaria risk, prevention of mosquito bites, possible need for appropriate preventive medication, bed nets, and insect repellent.

Learn whether the local water will be safe to drink. If it’s not, determine how you will provide safe drinking water for participants.

Ask participants to have physical and dental checkups four to eight weeks before your trip, since most vaccines take time to become effective and some vaccines must be given in a series over a period of days or weeks.

Team members who have chronic health problems should carry extra prescription medication in case of delays in returning home. This medication should be stored in original prescription bottles, in case customs officials want documentation for the drugs.

Encourage travelers to eat yogurt for two weeks before they leave. This builds up friendly bacteria in their systems, so they can tolerate more foods and drinks.

Collect Important Documents

The team leader needs to have a “Master Folder” that contains vital paperwork and information. It should include:

  • Photocopies o f team’s passports and visas
  • Passport-sized photos of each traveler
  • Emergency contact information for each traveler
  • Information on special medical needs
  • Medical release forms
  • Insurance company contact numbers
  • Back-up money in case someone’s wallet is lost or stolen
  • Airline itinerary listing travelers’ names, in case airline tickets are lost or stolen

In addition, each traveler should make copies of his or her passport, credit cards, driver’s license, vaccination certification, airline tickets and traveler’s checks. These should be left with someone they trust at home who has access to a fax machine. This will help you replace documents in case they are lost or stolen.

Photocopy your group’s travel arrangements and leave them with a contact person at home, so your team can be reached in case of an emergency.

If you’re planning to drive, get an international driver’s license before you leave. It’s required for traveling on some of the better quality roads, and many foreign car rental services insist on one.

Bring signed medical release forms for each traveler. If English isn’t commonly spoken, consider carrying signed duplicates that have been translated into the language of your host country.

Obtain a liability release form for every traveler.

Consider Political or Social Unrest

Before leaving, know whether there are any conditions abroad that may affect your safety or security. Visit the U.S. State Department’s Web site,, to learn of any warnings issued to U.S. travelers.

In addition, determine the location of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Find out what services or advice officials there can provide.

Deter Theft

Though most luggage comes with locks to help secure zippers and latches, these locks tend to be flimsy and easily broken into. Instead, use electrician ties, available at home improvement stores, to secure your luggage. They’re very tough, and if they’ve been cut off, you will know that someone has tampered with your luggage.

Use your business or church address, rather than your home address, on the luggage tags.

Encourage travelers to carry valuables in concealed inside pockets or in sturdy bags with the straps across their chests. Discourage them from bringing along anything they would hate to lose, including expensive-looking jewelry, unnecessary credit cards, their Social Security card, library card, or similar items they may normally carry in a wallet.

Beware of Miscommunication

One of the fastest ways to ruin your team’s witness abroad—and possibly the work of long-term missionaries—is to offend the people you meet. Something as simple as crossing your legs or slipping your Bible beneath your chair can be taboo in another country.

Be aware of how you gesture while communicating in the country you’re visiting. Gestures may have different meanings in other countries than they do in the United States. For example, in Bulgaria, nodding your head means “no,” and shaking your head from side to side means “yes.”

Hold orientation sessions for team members that include information about the traditions, history, and cultural norms of your receiving country. If possible, invite a native or a former missionary of that country to discuss this topic during one of the sessions. You could save your team from embarrassment and possibly prevent harm to the reputation of career missionaries. Visit or obtain a copy of “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands” to learn more about overcoming cultural barriers to communication.

Have a Safe Trip

Short-term mission trips are a wonderful way for men and women to fulfill the Great Commission. Among other things, these short-term trips can reach lost people for Christ, encourage Christians in the field, and spark a love of missions in people who would never consider themselves “missionaries.” Careful planning can help your church ensure that travelers return home safely, with a desire to travel again.

Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company is one of the leading insurers of churches and related ministries. For free resources, visit

To learn more about keeping mission teams safe, purchase the downloadable resource Planning Safe Missions Trips, available on

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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