Lessons learned (and relearned) from years of service and mission work, both locally and abroad:



By Erin Mc Adams, MD

Indiana, Mississippi, Jamaica, Cameroon, the Philippines, Swaziland… these are all locations with beautiful people and cultures that I have been privileged to lead or participate in mission/service work to (and some of these locations multiple times). Most people who have ever done any type of service work have likely wrestled with their pre-service ambitions and post-service realizations, and I am no exception to that. Each experience has been enlightening and challenging, and taught me a thing or two about how (and how not) to serve, and some topics to consider for the present and future, in no particular order…


– Go where you are invited. (I do believe there are exceptions to this point, but I won’t get into them at this time.) Now obviously, at some point a person had to step foot on soil abroad (or locally) as an un-welcomed guest. So generally speaking, many present day opportunities and invitations to partner with local and international service teams have little-to-nothing to do with us individually. We are blessed by the people who have gone before us, built relationships, and opened up doors for us. So what I mean is that when you aim to serve with others, you should do so as a true partner with them, embracing the ideas of those you are “serving” with their invitation to do so, and showing up when your presence is desired.


– If you are welcomed, go back, time and time again. Build relationships, and allow the trust that is cultivated and desires that are exposed through this service to guide the future. Consider the depth of relationships in your own life. While people can have intense, short-term experiences that create inordinately strong bonds with others, most relational growth occurs over not just months, but years of life-on-life interaction and support. Why would this be any different for service-focused work? Relationships require longitudinal effort, time, and presence. This ties into my next point…


– Relief work has a time and place, and IS important. But long term growth and relationship building requires a focus on development. If the destination of your service is not in an immediate crisis requiring only acute care, consider what the long term needs are of the community, ESPECIALLY from their perspective. Ask them! What can be done in the immediate future to plan for growth in the distant future? What can be done to ensure these efforts continue beyond your one week, one month, or one-year experience?


– What service are the local people interested in seeing done during your time with them, and what can they offer of their own resources (time, talents, goods) to make this happen? Again, while there is a time for relief and “handouts”, most of the time the focus in service should be on development and “hand ups”. Come alongside ideas and goals for the people you are traveling to see (whether near or far); where there is interest and buy-in from the people you are serving (with), sustainable solutions are possible.


– Try to view poverty more holistically than by just quantifying and qualifying types of goods a country may have. Yes, it is possible to have a poverty of goods (some refer to this as absolute poverty). But what else is present in the community that can support the areas of desired growth? Is there a poverty or abundance of education? A poverty or richness of faith? A poverty or prosperity of health care? A poverty or plethora of employment opportunities? If the people and community you are working with desire an increase in basic goods (water, food, shelter), perhaps an abundance in one or more of these other areas may provide the answer for the next steps to take toward sustainable solutions toward this problem.


– BE FLEXIBLE, and humble, willing to believe that your way/opinion is not necessarily right. Consider this not only as you prepare for the work, but as you are knee-deep in the projects with the people you are blessed to be working alongside, and also as you complete and/or return from this experience. If you were raised in the United States or one of many other westernized countries, you may have been conditioned to believe more work, longer hours, deadlines, and individualism are what drive economic growth, and professional and personal gains. Do not be naïve enough to think that the entire world does or should view things through the same lens as you. If your service work takes place in a country that allows events, rather than a clock, to drive time for the day… learn to be okay with that. When you meet people who would rather see their family unit (which can be much larger than you might define) be taken care of, rather than one person break away to pursue individual desires, fight the urge to think that is wrong. When you spend months planning one aspect of how your service time should be spent, but the local pastor (who has far more weight in community decision-making than you could have imagined) directs your time otherwise, BE FLEXIBLE.


– Participate in the culture. I don’t mean just read books about where you will be and the people you will be working with. Although, this isn’t a bad idea before you start your experience. I mean whenever possible, share meals with the people you are meeting. When offered food you could not otherwise identify and probably haven’t tasted before? Accept it graciously. Whatever the thing is that the local people do for enjoyment… do that thing. Oh, and that thing that you grew up doing (like waving or receiving objects with your left hand), if that is seen as rude by the people you are with, make an effort to NOT do that thing. Culture greatly influences our thoughts, our perceptions, our motivations and beliefs. What better way to understand the people you are meeting than to spend time doing what they do?


This blog is in no way inclusive of all lessons learned regarding service work, but it does cover some of the recurrent themes from my experience. Perhaps these thoughts will be helpful as you go forward to invest in service across the globe.


Erin McAdams, MD is a second year Family Medicine Resident at the University of Utah School of Medicine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s