“can we come visit?”

I’ve blogged a lot lot lot in the past about short-term mission trips (and thought about it even more than that), but I haven’t written about it since we’ve been long-term missionaries ourselves.

(See: this post. It also has some links to more helpful reads.)

DISCLAIMER: These are my own personal thoughts about our own unique situation/ministry. This is not a blanket statement about all missions organizations/short-term trips. There’s no one right way to do things.

(And, just for the record, this is one of those processing-out-loud posts. No definitive answers. No solutions. Nothing set in stone. I’m totally open to your thoughts, opinions, experiences. And I reserve the right to change my mind.)

(And also? I think I’d rather be hated than misunderstood. Here’s praying this all makes sense and my heart/intentions come through clearly.)

(Now that I have all the cover-my-butts out of the way…)

(It will still not be enough, but whatever.)

Deeeeep. Breath.

We have had a lot lot lot of people say to us recently, “Ooooh! We would love to come see what God is doing in Cambodia!”

And I have mixed reactions to this.

Let me try to explain.

A dear friend asked me not too long ago, “Would you rather have people come visit you in Cambodia or use all the money they would’ve spent on the trip to help fund your ministry instead?”

HOLY COMPLICATED.

I CANNOT ANSWER THIS QUESTION.

But I will try.

The short answer: We would LOVE for you to come visit us. It will be money well spent. IF we already have a relationship with you & you pray regularly for us and/or already support us financially. IF you have already invested in this ministry and plan to keep investing.

Does that seem harsh?? (It kind of does to me.) (And I am a lover of conflict avoidance and want everyone to like me please.)

But here’s the deal. For you to get over here to us (and back to your home), plane tickets alone will cost you $800 to $2200 per person. (pleeeeeeease do your best to get the cheapest tickets you possibly can–expensive flights make me cringe cringe cringe as we work to stretch dollars over here)

Let’s say your ticket is $1500. Let’s say six of you want to come. That’s $9000. Our operating budget (for the center, not our family) is $12000/year. The cost of your plane tickets alone (not to mention all the other expenses) could run our center for NINE MONTHS (or more).

So, am I saying don’t come? Am I saying save a bunch of money and then send it to us so we can run our center?

No. (mostly no)

(And, let’s be honest, not a whole lot of people are going to save and save money for a trip, then cancel it and send us the money instead. They just aren’t. And we don’t expect them to.)

I’m saying this. PLEASE do not spend a ton of money to “see” the work being done here for a week and then do nothing to help support it the other 51 weeks of the year. (I have seen this happen soooooo many times.) We’re here for the kiddos and families of Cambodia, not for Americans with their own personal, fleeting, “feel good” agendas.

Our family felt pretty strongly about that when we were the ones doing the short-term trips. Once we got back from our first visit to Cambodia, we immediately started making/selling things and sending the money to support HPC and other ministries in Cambodia/Thailand. We spread the word about these organizations at every opportunity.

We kept in touch with people back here. We prayed for them faithfully. Any time we put money toward our plane tickets for our next trip, we also sent money to help fund what was going on over here in our absence.

And we didn’t have money lying around. We made sacrifices. Lots of them. But it was a joy because we knew we were blessing people we loved.

We know that money is a strange and fluid and doesn’t-play-by-the-rules kind of thing. We know that God owns it all and can make it appear out of nowhere.

We know that sometimes you can spend big chunks of it on something important (like language school or plane tickets) and then work really hard to save pennies in other areas (food or your electric bill).

You cannot put a price tag on some things. You just can’t.

A mission trip is one of those “some things.” There is just sooooo much God can do on a mission trip (and in the days, months, and years following) that you just can’t quantify. God can take it and multiply it in a million ways.

But that doesn’t mean you go on one of these trips recklessly, selfishly.

I feel like you kind of have to earn it. (to be honest, we did not “earn” our first trip to Cambodia by any stretch–I wish we would have–we did try to make up for it after)

Let me explain by embarrassing our friends, Chris and McKenzie, for a minute. They came to visit us for a week last June. Our very first visitors. We were thrilled.

First of all, they have supported us with their love, encouragement, prayers, and friendship for a very long time. Second, they literally put food on our table during our darkest days of Gabe’s anxiety/depression. Third, they are involved in loving their own neighbors at home. They moved into a neighborhood in Columbus, OH (on the OSU campus) that’s primarily international students from Asia and have been reaching out to them in a million different ways.

(About #3, some people ask, “Why would you go on a mission trip to another country when there are plenty of people to help RIGHT HERE AT HOME?”

That is a very valid question. And, in my opinion, the most “worthy” short-termers are those who are faithfully serving in their own communities the other 51 weeks of the year.)

Fourth, Chris and McKenzie support our family monthly. Fifth, they had spent five months in India/Thailand previously and were visiting dear friends in Thailand on this trip as well. Two birds, one stone. Sixth, they brought us TONS of stuff we can’t get here in Cambodia. Such a blessing.

(Note: we do not expect you to be Chris and McKenzie. Heck, NO ONE can be as awesome as Chris and McKenzie.)

Our next visitor was Gabe’s mom. NOTE: YOU GET A FREE PASS TO COME VISIT IF YOU ARE OUR MOM. (or dad or sibling or niece/nephew–we are praying and praying God provides a way for more of our family to visit)

But, more than being Gabe’s mom, Janelle can also check off all the things on the Chris-And-Kenzie-Are-Awesome List. Supporting/loving us, helping us get out of financial doom, serving in her own community, spending a month each year in Kenya, bringing us scads of stuff.

Our next visitors: our pastor and his wife from Ohio, Rich and Shalla. Again, they did ALL THE THINGS on the list. In addition, they are the ones responsible for “sending” us here and getting our church in Columbus involved in supporting us in lots of ways. They took care of us here and reported back to the church on our behalf. It’s a long-term deal, bigger than just a trip.

And, before any of those visitors, our dear friends, Pam and Britt, came with us for two weeks for emotional support when we first moved to Cambodia. I can’t even tell you how their presence eased our transition to our new home. Can’t put a price tag. We were the best of friends back in Ohio, and they still love us and care for us from afar. A visit from them would be like balm to our souls.

Before you check out and say, “Forget it. I’m not your mom or your pastor or one of your best friends. There’s no hope for me. I don’t want to visit you anyway,” hold on.

We would LOVE to have you here. We would LOVE to see your faces. We would LOVE for you to see with your own eyes what God is doing in this beautiful place we call home.

We really, really would.

We just ask that you make more of an investment in the work here over the long haul, rather than just a one-time (really expensive) one-week trip.

Is that fair?

I’ve had several conversations with my friend, Alli (who also happens to be the Director of The Hard Places Community) about this. She reminded me that our first priority is the children of Cambodia. If a person or team wants to come visit, and they end up being a big strain on our time, energy, and finances (taking away from our time, energy, money for the kids), with very little to no return for the ministry, then we’ve got to say no.

The kids come first.

We just can’t say yes to everyone. And the people who are committed to investing in the ministry/our family? Get first dibs.

My friend Kari’s dad says he would rather people visit their ministry in Haiti than just send money because, once you’ve seen the need firsthand, you will be compelled to continue supporting.” But, Kari adds, “They are also very selective in receiving guests though. The fad of missionary tourism is very draining. They have a job there and it isn’t running a guest house and catering to the whims of sightseers.”

YES. Yes yes yes. No missionary tourism please. That is not in our mission statement.

We’ve been at HPC Phnom Penh while several teams of short-termers were there, and I want to praise two in particular. One group, New Mercy Church, from New Jersey knocked themselves out with some AMAZING Kids’ Club prep/teaching that gave the staff a much-needed rest AND was so much fun for everyone. (and they send a team every January and invest in HPC throughout the year)

And The Stirring (a church in CA) put on an incredible spiritual retreat for the staff that breathed life back into everyone’s spirits and changed some lives in big, big ways. (they, too, come back year after year and invest heavily in HPC)

If you want to come, find out what the ministry really, truly needs, then do your best to meet those needs. Invest in the ministry, in the missionaries, the kiddos. Before you come. After you leave. For as long as you can.

This begs the question: exactly how much do I have to do to “earn” the chance to visit you?

Okay, that just doesn’t sound right. But I don’t know how else to say it. Let me put it this way. 1.) PRAY about it. Make sure it’s something God wants you to do. 2.) TALK to us about it honestly. Ask us questions, get feedback.

And 3.) Here are some ways (you don’t have to do them all) you can start getting involved from where you are before you make the trip over:

–Pray for these kiddos and our family and the work God is doing here in Siem Reap.

–Follow along on social media (Instagram/Facebook/blogs) so you can stay up with what’s happening and know how to pray/send encouraging words.

–Support our family and/or HPC Siem Reap financially if/when you can. (if you’re not in a position to do this, it’s okay–but it probably means you can’t afford plane tickets either)

–Participate in the Walk Against Traffick we’ll be holding this summer (details soon!!) in Ohio. (and, if you’re far away from Ohio, you can do a walk of your own in your state!) The money raised will go toward operating expenses for the center.

–Do your own fun big-or-small fundraisers to help us buy things we need for the kids.

–Tell people about what’s going on here in Cambodia.

–Get involved when we post special giving opportunities like the Amazon Wish List (newly-updated because y’all BOUGHT IT OUT) or Christmas gifts for kiddos.

Bottom line: WE WANT PEOPLE TO COME!!

We just want you to prayerfully, carefully think it through first and commit to investing in the work here.

Cool?

This is going to sound reeeeeeally harsh, but the kids here don’t “need” more Americans to come sit on the floor and play Memory Match with them. Your visit should meet actual needs and have long-term results.

(But I said that already.)

(Oh my gosh. TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED WORDS. PLUS. What on earth?)

Any thoughts? Questions? Something to add? Disagree with?

I’ll be doing a follow-up post based on your comments and everything I left out, like the negative effect a constant stream of too many visitors/strangers can have on the kiddos we work with.

(Did you really make it all the way to the end??)

13 thoughts on ““can we come visit?”

  1. Sharon

    I really really appreciate this post and all the time and effort you put into it. I have missionary friends that I supported for several years before getting the opportunity to go and visit them in Colombia. I went with a team from their home Church. While we were there, we were mostly working. Helping fix things up at one of the kids centers. I am so glad that I visited, as it gave me a whole new perspective on what they were doing. Seeing the kids and the actual work my friends were doing, in person, was a game changer for me.

    I was on the Missions Committee at my Church (who also supported them) and was able to report back to them, as well as give a presentation to the entire Church on what they were doing. They are now Missionaries in BrazIl and there isn’t anything set up right now where it would work for teams to come and help, so I’m not even considering a visit until the time comes that I can be useful. As others have mentioned, I’ve heard negative comments about short term teams coming, I’m so glad for the 2 you mentioned that were such a blessing.

  2. Tara

    I really appreciate this post and your honest struggle to find a balance in saying yes to the right people at the right time and no when it’s appropriate. I have a lot of interactions with a lot of missionaries and some of them are very opposed to short term trips. I get it. They’re weary of the site-seeing “missionaries”. But at the same time I have seen short term trips rock worlds and change hearts and lives in huge ways! Like so many things I think it’s a game of balance and of trying our very best to listen to God’s desires. And I love that you’re encouraging people to do just that!

  3. Holly

    I love this!! It is difficult sometimes because I REALLY do want to go to Honduras, but then I look at the faces of the kids wanting to go to school and the houses that need built and think to myself, “Am I being selfish by spending this money on myself when I could just send it there?” It is a decision the needs to be prayed over and ask for God’s guidance. I love you openness Marla. Love you!!

  4. Mary Kate

    I love this post and hearing your heart! Thank you for sharing on what can be such a rough topic! This question may be for a different post – it’s about discernment for more to typical mission trips, NOT specifically folks who want to come visit you guys. I totally get your perspective on that. So, as someone who has helped plan short term mission trips, I wrestled with who we sent – some folks seemed more interested in a sightseeing trip (we said “no”) while others had heart stirrings that they struggled to articulate. (At the time, as a non-mama, I was so terrified about you taking the girls. See! What did I know about what God was about to do!? Zero.) But I never knew what the Holy Spirit was up to, and leaned more towards educating folks as best we could, and then if God provided the funds – sending. Can you share about what was God stirring in your heart BEFORE the 1st time you guys went to Cambodia? What compelled you to up and go? I think back to folks like you, and Jen and Sharon – future missionaries on their first trip who didn’t know what God was about to do. How do we help encourage people interested in missions to discern what God is stirring in their heart (certainly helping them understand all the “downsides” to mission trips, asking questions, etc), without shutting down what the Holy Spirit may be up to? Love you! Praying for your big week!! xoxox

    1. Marla Taviano Post author

      FABULOUS question, friend!! Will address it soon for sure!! One thought I have off the top of my head: require them to get involved in some kind of outreach in their own city for 6 months (or whatever) before they go. If they’re not willing to do the less-glamorous work of loving the homeless in Cbus, OH (or whatever), then maybe they’re not cut out to go to Cambodia (or wherever).

      And I’m so sorry you were so scared for the girls!! (but it made me laugh) Love you!

      1. Mary Kate

        Ha! Cracks me up, too. Didn’t occur to me at the time that God had something in store for your children, too. Lol. And I had (have!) a lot to learn about “perfect love casting out fear.”

    2. Marla Taviano Post author

      Another thing I just thought of, MK. I’m not against teams going to serve in other places without doing all those things I mentioned. We just can’t handle that here at our center. We’re a team of 4 adults (2 American, 2 Khmer) and 3 young girls. We each do a LOT of different jobs because our staff is so small. There’s nobody who has time/energy to coordinate teams (food/lodging/transportation/activities/cultural training/etc) at this point without taking away from our other roles big-time. (the center in Phnom Penh has an awesome person in charge of this kind of stuff) Make sense?

      1. Mary Kate

        Makes sense! To clarify my question – I think it’s – how do you give a potential missionary a healthy reality check and help them find spiritual discernment for their motives without discouraging them from following what might be a call from the Lord?

  5. Gail

    How interesting that you were compelled to publish this today! For the past 2 years, I have gone on a short-term trip to Haiti, and this year I am doing the pre-trip preparations for the group that is going. I am leading the group through Helping Without Hurting put out by the Chalmers Center. We were talking about ALL these issues yesterday. I appreciated hearing your candid view about visitors. I know your viewpoint is a little different than the ministry we work with in Haiti, but you brought up reminders for us to consider when planning trips in all contexts.

    1. Marla Taviano Post author

      Thanks for chiming in, friend! When Helping Hurts is so good. Serving With Eyes Wide Open is another great one.

      YES. All ministries are different. One reason we can’t have a ton of teams is that we just don’t have the manpower to manage them. Believe it or not, it’s a lot of work (at least in my experience) to coordinate a team’s lodging/food/activities/cultural adjustment. Another thing about Haiti is that plane tickets are about one-third the price of a ticket to Cambodia. That makes a big difference.

      Blessings on the trip!

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