Are singles treated like children?

Struggling to grow?

Speaking at the European Member Care Consultation last week on helping single mission workers thrive in the mission field prompts me to post a little taster of what I’m talking about.  In some ways singles are like plants: we want to grow, but sometimes the conditions aren’t right.  Some things stop growth – like shade, stony soil, poor drainage, and competition for nutrients will stunt the growth of plants, so there are certain things which make it harder for single to thrive.  In this short blog I want to consider the extent to which single mission workers are (sometimes inadvertently or unwittingly) given the impression by colleagues, both expat and national, that they are second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven.

Sometimes they are not really respected, just because they are single.  In many of the cultures where we serve, marriage and parenting are highly esteemed, which means that those who are still single aren’t really thought of as grown up.  I was once told by a Zimbabwean: “What do you know?  You have no wife – you are just a boy!”  While we can’t do much about the local culture, we don’t have to let local Christians have their views shaped by secular value.  Can we teach them something of the sacrifice single mission workers are making?  How they are trusting in God (not in many children) for care during their old age?  How they depend on God alone for comfort and encouragement since they have no ‘soulmate’?

And it’s not only local culture which can give the impression that single mission workers are not really valued.  Sometimes the sending agencies inadvertently include even long-serving singles with short-termers, probably due to the assumed ‘temporary’ nature of their singleness.  But this just undervalues people.  One single woman told me:

I am a 37 year-old woman with 37 years of life-experience and 32 years of being a follower of Jesus.  Yet too often I am treated like part of a youth group and left out of important decision-making discussions in which married couples with similar or less experience/abilities are included. 

Too often singles are left out of important discussions.  How many singles find their way into leadership positions?  The church or agency might claim they are valued, but too often their absence from leadership structures betrays that they are often considered to be no more than children.  Sometimes they’re even asked to look after the toddlers while the ‘adults’ have an important meeting!  But where there are couples present for the important meeting, surely one of them should look after their own children, rather than disempowering the singles.

So questions for churches, sending agencies and receiving teams:  Have you personally encountered any of these challenges?  How did you feel?  Are you aware of single mission workers you are responsible for who are facing these challenges?  How can you support them effectively?  Can you change the organisational culture to demonstrate you value them?

Syzygy is leading a retreat for single mission workers at Penhurst Retreat Centre where issues adversely affecting them will be unpacked, and suitable responses considered.  Please do let people know about it!

Growing mission workers

My garden - afterMany years ago, before I worked for Syzygy, I worked as a gardener.  I learned all about plants, how to nurture and care for them, know the right place to plant them, and how to protect them from harm and help them thrive.  Careful preparation and nurturing led my plants to thrive and I designed and built beautiful gardens.

Since leaving that behind and working instead with mission workers, I have come to the conclusion that mission workers are rather similar to the plants.  They need careful preparation.  They need to be put in the right location for them to thrive.  They need protection and support – and occasional pruning so that they can produce more fruit!

One mistake that uninformed gardeners can make when growing trees is to stake them too firmly.  Aware of the possibility that strong winds might blow an immature tree over, gardeners can be tempted to tie their trees up so tightly that they can’t even move.  Which leads to a problem: the trees never need to develop sturdy roots.  So they grow up vulnerable, and not even the stakes can stop them blowing over.

A better technique is to stake them loosely – firm enough so that they can’t blow over but loosely enough to allow them to wobble in the wind.  The tree’s response is to send its roots deeper to stabilise itself.  Which results in a stronger, more resilient tree, able to weather storms and find water in times of drought.  It endures for decades, growing large, providing food and shelter for others, and sustaining the environment.

This, to me, is the essence of member care.  Not wrapping people up in cotton wool and protecting them from every potential hazard.  That only creates vulnerable mission workers.  The strong mission workers are those who have endured some hardships and setbacks, been supported and encouraged in the midst of this experience, learned some lessons and carried on.

Many churches and agencies have people who want to provide good member care, but don’t know where to start.  They care, but feel they don’t have the skills, or don’t fully appreciate their issues.  So here are our recommendations for getting into member care:

Go to the European Member Care Consultation – this biennial meeting takes place next in March 2016 in Germany and will provide workshops for beginners as well as masterclasses for the more experienced.  Book soon as the early bird discount expires next week!  Follow this link for more details.

Become part of your national member care network – many countries have member care networks.  You can find out about some of the European ones on the website of Member Care Europe; other continents can be found at the Global Member Care Network.  Such networks provide confererences and training for their members.

Read some books – we particularly recommend Neal Pirolo’s book Serving as Senders and Larrie Gardner’s Healthy, Resilient and Effective.  You can find more books on our reading list and we’ve recommended several which we find useful in other blogs.

Study for an MA – want to take it further?  Redcliffe College does an MA in member care which is ideal for refining your skills.