Growing up I had a tendency to think that women on the mission field had no dress sense! Now I am part of that demographic I am beginning to understand that one’s wardrobe gets so full of culturally appropriate clothing that you can risk looking rather dowdy when you get back home! I wonder what other assumptions we have made about those on field; the single ladies who disappear off to live in places you’ve heard of but maybe not seen. I’ve been chatting to some of the single men and women who serve cross-culturally and trying to adjust my own preconceptions.
As you read these questions, perhaps you’d like to think about the kind of answers you would expect before reading on and seeing how singles abroad are feeling.
1. What are some of the challenges that you find toughest to negotiate being single on field?
2. What benefits do you feel you may enjoy being a single on field?
3. Can you think of any occasions when being single has been particularly helpful, tough or even amusing?
4. What preconceptions do you think your team mates may have about you living as a single on field?
5. What preconceptions do you think your home church or supporters may have about you living as a single on field?
6. What message would you like others to hear about how you feel as a single on field?
7. Have you had any really good or really terrible advice given to you as a single on field?
8. Did anyone speak to you about how it might be as a single before you came on field and was their advice helpful?
9. Is being single on field predominantly painful or freeing for you? (Choose other words if these don’t match your feelings)
10. Do you feel that your gender as a single has affected your experience on field, when returning home and/or others expectations of you?
I wish I could ask you what you think before we continue! The answers came from European and American workers; from the global south, male and female; varying ages, lengths of service and denominational backgrounds. My research is limited so think of this as a taster menu for you to do your own exploring at a later date.
HOW DID THEY ANSWER?
Connection There was a good balance of people feeling the hardships while also seeing many benefits. I was interested to see that the balance away from hardship and focussing on the positives swung more heavily towards those answering from the global south. Unsurprisingly loneliness and isolation were flagged as issues but this was not exclusively in terms of not having a partner. There were responses about missing family and friends of course but some of the more subtle areas of loneliness were around feeling under-valued, excluded and misunderstood. A significant number of people felt that their voices weren’t heard, both on field and when returning to their sending countries. Why do you think this might be? Some voiced the feeling that families and couples are given more priority, perhaps because the needs of children overseas are easier to understand. It was felt that couples are given more kudos with more than one person stating that they are viewed as less mature because of their single status. If there can be an encouraging negative it was this; a good number of people listed their inability to share truth with men as a challenge of singleness. I found it cheering to see how many people were looking towards to needs of the unreached as a challenge to negotiate rather than all of the difficulty centring on themselves. With that acknowledged though, who could have a heart for UPGs and not feel stirred to pray for more men to respond to the call to go, when there are such a small number of people currently able to reach out?
Decision making Singles can feel the weight of having to make big decisions alone. Women can be hassled by forthright and unwanted male attention in a way that is still shocking however embedded you might be in your host culture. There are assumptions of the low morality of western women that can feed into this discomfort that would be called out as sexual harassment in the west. Joining a new team can also be unsettling as you leave behind peers of a similar age and life stage who know your history and then you begin again with people who may mean well but don’t know you as you want to be known.
Flexibility We are grateful to have fewer home responsibilities enabling us to be more flexible with our plans and freer with how to organise our time. The cost and logistics of daily life are clearly simpler and we are so happy to be able to accept invitations into people’s homes with greater ease, we imagine, than those managing a family. Being single allows us a level of autonomy which is freeing and more opportunities to be sister or brother to our local friends. This is especially true of cultures where being in someone else’s home gives them honour. The flip side of having more flexibility is that sometimes those with families can make unfair assumptions that the single people on field have an easier life or much more free time where one person can be trying to complete all the tasks at home and work.
Opportunities A mixed blessing of being single can be the additional care from locals who don’t want to leave you on your own. This can deepen relationships but can create awkward conversations around why we are not married, why we won’t marry someone from their family or why we have never had any children. This can be amusing or painful depending on who you are, how many times you’ve been asked and the level of your desire for these things. There are also times when people trying to marry you off can lead to explaining what it is to make godly choices. These questions can be more acute for women in a patriarchal society where the role of women is strongly tied to the home and not having a male ‘covering’ can be seen as unsafe.
Assumptions So what preconceptions have single workers encountered? Some can be familiar the world over and others more specific to being overseas. Too many people stated that there are assumptions regarding their single status; some assume that the single life is what is wanted and that single people have chosen to permanently sacrifice the chance of marriage in order to serve the Lord abroad. For others there is an assumption that a single will want to marry and even that you will find someone on field. Repeatedly stated was the desire for greater understanding and communication. Stated assumptions were very varied; people think I must be very brave, they assume I will be less effective as a single person and they assume I have someone to process my day with. The larger lesson seemed to be around listening well rather than tackling a common problem. Surely the most shocking response for one woman heading overseas was to be told; ‘It would be more useful to send a chair to the mission field than a single woman.’
Gender Gender definitely featured as an issue for both men and women. Women felt they had less of a platform to be heard, especially when returning to sending churches that could be apathetic and disinterested. Women felt they had additional calls on them for family responsibilities especially with ageing parents than their male counterparts or brothers. The complexities of a patriarchal host culture added stress and expectations on female workers. It was felt that there were fewer opportunities in leadership amongst women. Men also felt the weight of not being married in a host culture as marriage, with its emphasis on collective decision making, made singleness a difficult concept to grasp amongst locals.
WHAT DO WE LEARN?
Given the large proportion of people who did not get much good advice on what to expect as a single on field, I was glad to hear people’s advice that they would want to share with others. The responses were reassuringly balanced. On the deficit side; it is lonely, exhausting and the load is heavier than for couples. I need more support, please rethink your assumptions and I don’t feel heard. Don’t be exclusive and I can’t share the load with anyone. In spite of their various challenges, we should celebrate our single workers as they readily see that being single helps them rely more heavily on God. I was told that the single life is very achieveable with God’s grace; that it’s great and fun being single. There is freedom in singleness, there is time to seek God alone, it’s a chance for learning and it’s all part of the opportunity to learn. Suffering was mentioned and I am deliberately not categorising this as a negative or a positive; we are called to sacrifice and suffering is not necessarily an evil. A great piece of wisdom was; ‘If you have peace as a single at home, you can have peace as a single on field.’
So what can we learn from this snapshot? Single people do feel the smart of solo decision making, not having someone else to pick up the slack and missing out on communal life. Teams in country and friends back home may not be able to provide husbands and wives but the stated difficulties could all be relieved with better communication and mutual understanding. Singles have lots to teach the wider church about resilience, faithfulness and obedience. Take time to listen to them, be interested in their experiences and learn from them. Please be advised that nothing I have written is intended to undermine the value of couples and families who can provide great wisdom, company, covering and fellowship to other workers.
* This article was first published by the Unreached Network (https://www.unreached.network/more-useful-to-send-a-chair) and has been used with the express permission of the author.