[Scroll down for the Five Healthy Practices]
November marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of my venture into ministry. When I set out for Germany in 1991, buoyed by the idealism of youth, I assumed I’d be on the field for a couple of years, then return to the States to live out the milestones I thought were imminent: marriage, children, career, retirement… (“Idealism,” remember?)
In my twenties, as my two-year commitment to Black Forest Academy grew into a twenty-year investment, I realized that each extension meant a deferral of my matrimonial dreams. In my thirties, I acknowledged that I was likely trading the chance of motherhood for a ministry to which I felt undeniably called. And in my forties, I finally found peace with the choices I’d made and the consequences now mine to carry.
My life has been rich with meaning and bright with rewards. I thank God for the gift of serving him as a single missionary.
I’ve long asserted that “all of life is a trade-off.” The sentiment is personified in single missionaries.
Singleness is neither a curse nor a handicap. It is merely a different sort of life, and it can be just as ripe with purpose and joy as one lived in tandem.
Mismanaged, it can also be maiming.
It was in my second year at BFA that the symptoms of unacknowledged strain began to push their way to the surface of my consciousness. I shoved them down again and again, preferring to focus on the sweetness of my ministry than on the sourness of its pitfalls.
When the toxicity of all I was ignoring finally burned its way through my capacity to cope, I was nearly beyond help—depleted and weak, but still determined to stitch the shreds of my calling into a ragged patchwork that somehow looked like healthy ministry.
I was doing important work, serving God and MKs with unbridled passion, but had hobbled my wellness by ignoring my needs. My ministry nearly ended after just two years overseas.
So it’s with eyes wide open to the blessings and challenges of being unmarried on the field that I write this article, contemplating as a “mature single” (the euphemism of it all!) what I wish I’d known in those early years and what others have taught me as we’ve walked together, intrepid and often clueless, in the footprints of Amy Carmichael and Lottie Moon.
If you’re reading this as a non-single person, you may harbor the delusion that life is easier for us: no spouse, no children, just the luxury of time and energy. (The grass is seldom greener than on the other side of the marital divide.) But the flipside of so much freedom is that our workload is unshared and emotional support often scarce.
We do the laundry, process losses, file the taxes, make life decisions, grocery shop, deal with conflict, set a budget, cope with broken dreams, paint the kitchen and plan for retirement all on our own. We have to be our own advocates and helpmates.
Though the benefits of serving single are undeniable—flexibility, autonomy, mobility—the challenges are real, and it’s in addressing them that we’ll free ourselves to be more fully and joyfully engaged in the work to which we’ve been called.
My early years were emotionally blissful—at least, I thought they were. The ministry was galvanizing, my students were stimulating and fascinating. I hated when vacations came around, because it meant a break in the daily routines that thrilled me.
But festering unseen under the enthrallment of new-missionary zeal were emotions I had neither the time nor the focus to acknowledge. Corrosive stresses, acidic conflicts, gnawing needs. All real. All ignored for the sake of happiness and greater functionality.
As single missionaries, it’s important for us to regularly perform self-assessments—and to do so more frequently in times of transitional stress, like when first arriving on the field, changing roles or losing a mainstay-friend.
It is a healthy practice to regularly evaluate our states of mind, faith and emotion, to celebrate achievement, identify pain, and find healthy ways to balance hard with good.
Gratitude might help to counteract some struggles. So will the counsel of a trusted colleague, a getaway with God, Skyping with a friend or a Schnitzel and fries. If we’ve assessed our “condition,” we can actively seek solutions.
One of the most basic needs of humans is to be known. To be seen. To be heard. To be acknowledged. In the world of ministry, where a frenzied pace and a mountain of obligations can preclude connection,
“being known” may require that we actually make ourselves known.
It’s hard. We fear that expressing our true selves will make us too vulnerable. That uttering needs will make us look weak. That requesting assistance will label us incapable. Realistically speaking, as human beings, we’re already all three. Weak, vulnerable and incapable.
If we can learn to reveal more of who we are, to pursue “being known” rather than waiting for it to find us, we’ll not only gain in “relational courage,” but possibly in depth of friendship as well. Both are well worth the risk.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions—and so is the road to burnout.
Two years into my stint in Germany, I was burned out and running on fumes. To be honest, I had been since I’d stepped foot on the Old Continent and said “yes” to every request I’d received. Though I loved my work, I can vividly remember driving home after school and wanting to crash my car into a tree. I was that done.
The Christian world glorifies self-sacrifice, but I can assure you that in its extreme, it’s much less noble than we think.
Sadly, the alternative—setting boundaries, protecting one’s time and weighing one’s welfare against the demands of ministry—can be perceived as weakness to those who measure The Call by the toll it takes on The Called.
There will be people who tell us that saying “no” shows lack of commitment. There will be others who doubt our integrity because we dare to set parameters. But if Jesus himself could step away to be with his Father while engaged in life-saving ministry, surely we can resist the pressure to take on one more thing—as urgent as it may seem—if it means sacrificing our health and sabotaging our ministry.
It is good to “be all in”—to engage fully in the work to which we’ve been called. But we must also be self-aware enough to know when one more thing will tip the scale from challenging to harmful. In those cases, we’d do well to seek counsel, communicate clearly, then stand by what we’ve decided, regardless of the scrutiny and judgment of others.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, whatever our relationship status, if someone occasionally said, “Here’s a handful of cash—go out and do something frivolous.” Buy a new pair of shoes. Sign up for Netflix. Get a massage.
As singles and sole managers of our funds, it can be hard to give ourselves permission to spend money on unnecessary things.
We may feel guilty “wasting” the donations of supporters on something as eternally insignificant as a pedicure or the latest Marvel movie. (See THIS article on the hot mess of “Guiltitude.”) It may seem shallow from the outside looking in, but eight single women I spoke with in Chiang Mai all agreed on this one point: you’ve got to treat yourself—reasonably and without guilt.
It can be a life-brightening and self-honoring practice.
Who needs a worst enemy, when we’ve got ourselves? The mission field is often portrayed as a sort of overseas Heaven, light on flaws and heavy on halos—and we too often attempt to live up to the myth.
But there is nothing—not even ministry—that makes us immune to sin.
We’re going to fail. We’re going to wrestle with envy. We’re going to be tempted by dishonesty. At some point, we’re going to struggle with laziness, frustration, rebellion, greed, slander and immorality. Just as we would in non-missionary settings.
If we can free ourselves of the expectation of perfection, we’ll be much more able to recognize and tackle our flaws when they arise. We are, after all, inescapably human. Striving for righteousness doesn’t mean hiding our failures. It requires that we acknowledge our propensity to sin, then throw ourselves on God’s mercy and guidance as we strive daily to anchor our identity to Him.
Are we flawed? Yes. Struggling? Often. But loved and redeemed by the One who made and intimately knows us.
I am a single missionary, and I have spent twenty-five years joyfully engaged in a work I love. In many ways, I was able to do more and be more flexible because of the marital status others might consider “lesser completeness.”
While it hasn’t all been easy, I have grown to love God and myself more, deriving joy from the victories and wisdom from the failures.
There is indeed completeness in knowing God and loving others. It isn’t the same as the twoness of marriage, but it is equally (though differently) fulfilling and good.
My thanks to “all the single ladies” of GIS, who met with me in Chiang Mai, for their valuable contribution to this article!
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