You can Lead a Tour to Israel
Have you ever thought about leading a tour from your church to the Holy Lands? But you didn’t pursue it because you didn’t know how to make it happen?
It’s another pastor-skill that you just don’t learn in seminary.
I’m wrapping up my third tour this week and thought I’d share the know-how I’ve gained over the years to make it easy for you to lead a group of people from your church on a life-changing Israel tour.
Solve the Problems that Hold you Back
1. Is it safe?
Yes. Tourism is a big deal in Israel and the place is crawling with shiny buses filled with pilgrims from around the world. We feel safer in Israel than any other country we’ve visited.
And no. International travel is never perfectly safe.
The State Department has travel restrictions on the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. The Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights are easy to avoid, but you need to go into the West Bank to see Bethlehem and Jericho. Your tour guide and bus driver will see that you do it safely. You and the hundreds of other visitors who go to the Church of the Nativity that day.
Exercise the same safety precautions we use in the U.S.A. And of course, ask God for a safe trip.
2. Is it affordable?
The trip should cost around $3,500 per person for 10 days. That includes airfare, hotels, meals, transportation, and sightseeing. People will want to bring money for shopping, incidentals and tips.
The tour company will cover the cost of the trip for the pastor and spouse who organize the tour.
3. How do we know what to see and when to see it?
You can’t see everything in one trip, but you can see all the important places and some of the optional sites.
The tour operator will have experience and opinions on a good tour schedule.
I’ve learned more about what to see and when to see it each time I go, and I have definite preferences based on my experience. I’ve included the schedule I used on this most recent trip as a download.
4. Who organizes the tour?
As the pastor, I choose the dates that work best for me. The tour operator then builds the itinerary around my schedule and preferences.
The agency makes all the travel arrangements for the trip: air travel, hotels, the bus.
And the agency hires the tour guide. Every tour in Israel is required to hire a licensed tour guide. These guides know the Bible and Israel’s history, they speak many languages, and are always learning more. And they know everyone. Qualifying for a tour guide license is rigorous. This may surprise you, but most tour guides know more about the Bible than most pastors.
You may recruit a volunteer tour coordinator from your church to work with your members before the trip: answering their questions, and helping them connect with the tour operator to book the flights and make payments. It takes the details of the trip off your shoulders.
You, the pastor, cast vision for the trip, coordinate with the tour operator, and prepare to do some devotional teaching on the tour.
5. What about accommodations and meals?
Hotels are 3-star or 4-star. 4-star is more comfortable and has better food; 3-star makes for a less expensive trip.
The hotels serve breakfast and dinner buffets every day. The food is Mediterranean-style: meats, vegetables, and salads with enough exotic options to keep foodies interested.
Lunches are organized by the tour guide. There are good restaurants near all the major sites that are set up to feed busloads of hangry pilgrims. Be sure to request a variety of local favorites. No one wants falafel every day.
5. Should I go on a tour before I lead a tour?
It would be helpful, but not essential if you do your homework beforehand. There is a recommended reading list in the download at the end of this post.
6 Steps to Organize a Holy Lands Tour
1. Pick a tour company.
It’s an important decision. Get this right and everything will be easy. Pick a less capable organization and you’ll find yourself resolving issues that shouldn’t have been problems in the first place.
The best way to find a good tour operator, of course, is by recommendations from people you know. I’m recommending the group we used this year. They have done an excellent job. Your tribe of churches may work with preferred operators.
What to look for in a tour company:
- Christians – for their understanding of the sites that are important to you.
- Experience – how well they know Israel, how well connected they are.
- Integrity – this may be hard to gauge, except by word of mouth.
- U.S. Based – planning is easier if their time zone is close to yours and the calls aren’t international.
2. Set the dates.
Plan a year ahead. You need time to choose your tour operator, to publicize the trip, to give people time to decide to come, save up, and to make their initial payments, and for the operator to book travel at good rates.
Spring is the best time to go. The hills are green. The temperature will be in the 60s to 80s. There may be some rain, but importantly, you want to avoid the heat that drains a traveler’s enthusiasm.
If you go in springtime, work around the timing of Easter that year.
October and November are are also good months to go. The weather is the same as spring; the only difference is that the hills aren’t green.
Which days of the week are best?
It’s easier for your church members if you depart on Friday night or Saturday morning. For the preacher, leaving on Sunday night or Monday is more convenient.
I like to arrive home on Thursday of the following week. It’s better not to preach that weekend while jet lag rages.
In addition to the dates of the trip, work with your tour operator to set these dates in your early planning:
- When you will do publicity.
- When the deposit and payments are due.
When you put it on the calendar, it becomes real.
3. Publicize the trip to your congregation.
Making a pilgrimage to Israel is a step of discipleship for the members of your church. Their lives will be changed as they see the places that Jesus walked, so don’t feel reluctant to talk about the trip. It’s good for your church.
Tell them why you want to go and why you want them to go.
Use these means of communication:
- Announce the trip during announcements in weekend services.
- Preach it by connecting it to a relevant point in your sermon two or three times.
- Use the video, webpage, and printed brochure that your tour operator provides.
- Post lots of social media that links to the web page of your tour.
- Have an information meeting to tell more about the trip and to answer questions. Have your tour operator present, or Skype in.
You should allow about six months to talk about the trip and give people time to decide before the initial deposit is due.
4. Decisions and deposits are made.
It’s busy in the days leading up the the deposit deadline because people will have questions. They may need some reassurance or clarification from you. Some people may not be able to do all the walking the trip requires.
Your tour operator will handle all the financial transactions. People can pay online or send a check.
5. Hold a trip meeting.
Have a meeting sometime after the first deposit is made so people who are coming can meet each other, and so you can cast vision for the importance of the trip in their spiritual lives.
They will also want to know how to prepare for the trip and you can answer their lingering questions.
6. Confirm final arrangements.
In the days leading up the departure, work with the volunteer trip coordinator to answer questions, confirm travel arrangements and double-check documents.
Your tour operator will tell you what they need and will work with your people.
Timeline for a Holy Land Tour
12 months in advance
- Pick a Tour Company.
- Set the dates.
- Recruit a volunteer trip coordinator in your church.
- Publicize the trip to your congregation.
- Hold an informational meeting for those considering going – at 6 months.
3 months out
- Hold a orientation meeting for those who are going.
Tips and Recommendations
1. Leave at night.
Book a flight that leaves in the evening and flies through Europe. Sleep on that first flight. When you wake up adjust your watches to Israeli time, and make the flight from London, Frankfurt or Istanbul to Tel Aviv. Go to bed when you get to the hotel that evening.
2. Stay in just two hotels.
The first one is in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Stay there for 3 nights. Check out on the morning of the fourth day, put the suitcases on the bus, and travel from the Galilee down to Jerusalem via Jericho and the Mount of Temptation.
Your group will feel more comfortable returning to a familiar hotel and you will spend less time packing and moving luggage.
3. Try to have a Christian tour guide.
You can work with a Jewish guide because he or she will probably know the New Testament better than you and your group can lead the praying, but it is easier if the guide is a brother or sister in Christ. Our guide on the last trip was an Arab Christian, and we recommend him. Email me to request his name.
4. Make the most of lunch.
The buffet in the hotels starts to feel pretty routine after a few days, so use the lunches to give a more varied eating experience. St. Peter’s Restaurant near the Church of the Multiplication serves some scary looking local fish. Even if most in your group aren’t adventurous enough to eat them, they should at least take a picture. We also like to eat lunch at Tass Saada’s restaurant the day we go through Jericho: The Green Valley Restaurant.
Eating experiences you want your group to have as you travel across Israel: falafels and shawarma, pita, hummus, tomatoes and cucumber salad, chicken, Jerusalem bread, dates and baklava.
Pre-arrange with someone who can sing who signs up for the trip to lead singing.
Sing often. Whatever hymn or chorus comes to mind as you stand at the site where Jesus was born, or in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, or as you sit in the temple at Capernaum. It’s worship of the most authentic kind.
6. Pursue the perfect itinerary.
You can see enough in ten days.
Your tour operator will have ideas, but they will want what you want. You can use my most recent itinerary as a starting point. Search TripAdvisor for input as well.
I include Caesarea Philippi in the north because the image of the Gates of Hell where human sacrifices were made as a backdrop to Christ’s declaration that “on this rock I will build my church” is a powerful picture of a church that prevails. I skip the Mount of Transfiguration because it takes so long to get to the top and it’s similar to the Mount of Beatitudes.
You will develop some personal preferences over multiple trips. Each time I go, I rely on our tour guide for one or two things I haven’t done before. This trip we went to the newly opened site, Magdala, a recently discovered first century village, and we saw the tunnels under the Wailing Wall, and the Antonia Fortress.
Absolute musts: the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Mount Carmel/the Valley of Armageddon, Nazareth Village, baptisms in the Jordan, the Wailing Wall, the Old City of Jerusalem, walking the Via Dolorosa through the Old City, Gordon’s Calvary, Gethsemane, the Shrine of the Book, swim in the Dead Sea, Mount Scopus for a view of Jerusalem (with communion) on arrival in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the newest site, Magdala, and 5:00 church service at King of Kings Church.
Choose some: Caesaria Maritima, Joppa, Caesaria Philippi, Meggido, renewal of wedding vows in Cana, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the Upper Room, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple Mount, the Holocaust Museum, Masada.
7. Read before you go.
Plan to invest some time to prepare to lead this trip. Your tour guide will have enough to say, but be ready to bring the Bible into every site. You will skip between Old Testament stories, the Gospels, ancient history, and first century culture.
Your preparation if you haven’t led a trip to Israel before:
- Learn about the sites that you will visit.
- Choose the Bible passages that happened at those sites.
- Know what is significant about that place or that passage.
- Refresh your memory by reading an overview of the history of the people and the land so you understand the context.
Encourage your tour group to do some reading about Israel:
- Search on Amazon for books about Israel and read what interests them.
- Watch the old Peter O’Toole movie called Masada.
- Read the Gospels and Joshua through 2 Kings in the Old Testament.
Many people choose to be baptized again in the Jordan River. It’s a meaningful experience in the midst of their pilgrimage.
This time I had the privilege of baptizing six women from Philly and Jamaica, and most of our tour group. Baptisms are one of my favorite things anywhere, but especially in Israel.
Consider using the Tour Operator we used:
Goodshepherd Travel. Call Elias at 1-406-261-7791.
Get this book for your preparation:
Blessings on your pilgrimage!
Start Here to learn more about the resources available for you at PastorMentor.