netfishing_optWe had just arrived at the Disney resort and my husband David had taken our young twins to the pool. I was listening to CNN while unpacking our bags.

Cyclical drought in Malawi was threatening the lives of 500,000 people.

The words stopped me in my tracks and brought me to my knees. It was the moment when a 30-second news story literally changed my life.

When I opened the hotel door to my dripping-wet, blue-lipped children, David saw my tears and asked, “Who died?”

By then I had already made two phone calls. One was to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the other to the U.S. ambassador to Malawi, but no one had answered, of course. It was a Friday night.

Over the next few weeks I had conversations with other relief agencies that Passport has worked with over the years. No one seemed to be aware of the situation in Southern Africa in the country I had called home as a girl.

Hurricane Katrina had just drowned New Orleans, and a massive Tsunami had hit Banda Aceh. The world was busy responding to overwhelming global need.

So, I turned to the only resource I felt was available to me: Passport teenagers. We didn’t ask them for money. We asked them to raise the awareness that 500,000 Malawians were at risk of hunger, disease and starvation.

When people, especially teenagers, are offered a way to make a difference in the world, they will respond. That’s why it is critical for leadership to be careful with how we engage people in mission.

Determining how to respond requires a lot more than a willing heart. It requires prayer, preparation and, I believe, a long-term commitment to sustainable solutions.

If you are looking to engage others in a new mission opportunity, consider the following:

Listen for the invitation, first from the Spirit of God and from your context.

What makes sense for you? What skill or resource is really needed, and can you provide that?

Look for others who are already doing this work and consider joining them in thoughtful, financial and prayerful ways.

It is a much better stewardship of resources, and others have probably already learned things you might not need to repeat.

Critically consider the motive behind a response and the long-term outcome of interaction.

Is this actually helpful, or does it just scratch a personal itch to do something?

Be open to shifting priorities of long-term engagement.

I thought accessing safe water was as simple as drilling wells, but it is much more complicated. Sanitation is the critical other side of the coin.

Build in accountability.

Have an oversight board for prioritization and accountability as a system for checks and balances related to reporting outcomes.

Identify what the end goal might look like.

Think through to the end of the work. What will it look like once you’ve worked yourself out of a job? At what point can this work succeed when the funding or personnel are no longer there? Avoid systems of dependency.

The invitation to respond to Malawi was startling but obvious. I wasn’t really looking for something else to do with my time. A dramatic need presented itself, and a very specific set of windows opened up to allow for thoughtful response.

The sheer lack of water partners on the ground at the time was further indication that this was a surprising void, but moving from crisis response to long-term solutions is critical. For Watering Malawi this means that the next time there is a drought, perhaps fewer people will be as dramatically impacted.

Ten years later, broad-scale water initiatives are finding a foothold in Malawi. Smaller and more stable non-government organizations have been birthed along the way. This delicate infrastructure informs Watering Malawi’s long-term mission.

Is what we are doing still helpful? Sure, but if one of mission’s strategies is to work ourselves out of a job, then at some point Watering Malawi has to be willing to step aside and allow for the work on the ground to continue without us.

Determining an exit plan is not failure; it is part of a healthy process.

U.S. students and their communities will continue to raise awareness and funds while learning about global water poverty. Ultimately the Malawian men and women administrating the work to access safe water are sharing Living Water with their neighbors. NFJ

By Colleen Walker Burroughs

Colleen Walker Burroughs is vice president of Passport, Inc., and founder of Watering Malawi.