A group of 12 teenagers from your church just convinced the senior pastor they can raise the money for an evangelistic outreach. They also convinced the missions committee to approve their trip to Tijuana, Mexico — and you’re in charge. Congratulations!
You’re now responsible for planning the upcoming church youth group trip to Mexico, with an agenda that includes:
- Helping the local folks build an addition to their sanctuary
- Touring a tortilla factory
- Conducting a church service in a local jail to evangelize some prisoners
What can possibly go wrong?
If you want to get a good night’s sleep as you tackle this project, the following tips should be avoided. On the other hand, if you want to ensure a successful, safe mission trip, take heed.
1) Get busy on pre-trip planning — designing the trip itinerary or considering political or social unrest, for instance. Before leaving, know whether there are any conditions abroad that might affect your safety or security. Visit the U.S. State Department’s website to learn of any warnings issued to U.S. travelers. Also check out another great resource.
Additionally, determine the location of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Find out what services or advice officials there can provide.
2) 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’ll be traveling. You’ll also need enough of them to adequately supervise your group, especially when traveling with minors. Churches must perform background checks on trip leaders, and trip leaders need to make reasonable efforts to supervise children at all times.
If minors are injured during a church-sponsored mission trip, they or their parents might sue the church for negligent selection of adult leaders or negligent supervision of the trip itself.
3) Screen participants. Set eligibility requirements, possibly including:
- Good health
- Verification of personal health, life and property insurance
- Parental approval for minors
- 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) — the additional background screening includes an application noting prior work with children; reference checks; and a criminal history review.
4) Explain the risks in writing (to parents and to participants). This should be a thorough written explanation of the known risks to all participants and to the parents of minors involved with the project. Legally document each participant’s assumption of risk. 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.
5) Collect important documents. The team leader needs to have a “master folder” which contains vital paperwork and information, including:
- Photocopies of 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.
Additionally, 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; that way, 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. Although English is commonly spoken in Tijuana, it is not always spoken. So, consider carrying signed duplicates that have been translated into Spanish.
Uncle Sam does care about your trip
When your mission trip or spending of any kind is directed at persons in other countries, the church must consider its responsibilities under the Patriot Act of 2001. This Act sanctions organizations and individuals who willfully provide funds to suspected or known terrorists. The Act requires all U.S. businesses to clear recipients of funds by making certain those recipients don’t appear on any special lists (such as the listings of suspected or known terrorists) maintained by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. This requirement means that the church must vet all of the intended foreign recipients of funds that will be disbursed as a part of the trip.
Listings can be found at: treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/sdn/index.shtml and state.gov/s/ct/rid/other/des/123086.htm. Additionally, the church might wish to familiarize itself with the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Anti-Terrorist Financing Guidelines: Voluntary Best Practices for U.S. Based Charities in structuring any of its activities.
The State Department and the Center for Disease control also issue travel warnings/bulletins which dictate you have a legal duty to, for example, check for such items as required immunizations.
While we’re talking about health, be sure that you collect thorough information about your group’s health and special medical conditions with a special eye for food allergies, special dietary considerations, and breathing or skin allergies and special medications which a group member might be trying to “import” into Mexico or may need to acquire while there. We strongly recommend using a details participant form with a thorough questionnaire.
In an upcoming blog, we’ll examine how another branch of the U.S. Government — the Internal Revenue Service — might take an interest in your trip!
Robert Erven Brown is an attorney licensed to practice in Arizona. He and his nonprofit practice group work with nonprofits and churches helping them manage key operations connected with their missions, visions and causes. As permitted by local Rules of Ethics, they collaborate with attorneys who are licensed in states other than Arizona. Bob is author of Legal Realities: Silent Threats to Ministries, which describes his Campus Preservation Planning© initiative — a comprehensive program designed to manage the wide array of risks facing non-profit organizations. He can be reached by email or by calling 602.744.5748. RHL is located at 201 North Central Ave., Suite 3300, Phoenix, AZ 85004.
This publication is offered as a public service by the Nonprofit Practice Group at Ridenour, Hienton & Lewis (RHL) for general educational purposes to provide accurate and authoritative information on general principles of law. It is not intended to provide, and may not be relied on as, legal advice. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, then 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.” This article may not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your local jurisdiction. No “informal” legal advice will be provided by telephone. Simply sending an e-mail to Mr. Brown will not create an attorney-client relationship. A formal attorney client relationship will not be established until a conflict check is completed and an engagement letter has been signed by both the attorney and the client.