Nurturing singles

crowd_aloneIn his book Being Single (2005, Darton, Longman & Todd), Philip B Wilson makes the following statement based on his research:

For many Christians who are single, church is not a welcoming or a comforting place to be.

The same could be said of many sending agencies as well.  Failure to nurture single mission workers can result in a cohort of lonely, unfulfilled and spiritually stagnating people who feel marginalised and who often believe the only answer to their unhappiness is to find the right life partner.

Given that many single people are destined to remain single for the rest of their lives (particularly women, who in most agencies and churches significantly outnumber the single men), any community which fails to affirm and accept singles risks hurting, stressing, alienating and possibly even rejecting a substantial part of its membership.

On behalf of single people everywhere, Syzygy has come up with a few suggestions to help both church and agency consider how they can promote wholeness for singles and avoid inadvertently creating a culture which assumes marriage is good and anything else is therefore bad.  Here is our list of the top five dos and don’ts.

Don’t:

  • Use the word ‘family’ indiscriminately, as in “We are a family church” or “We want to attract more families”.  While church should be family in the widest possible sense (Luke 8:21), using the word too loosely can repel those who are not a happy part of a nuclear family.  It is good to affirm families, but in doing take care so not to denigrate the rest of the church.
  • Expect marriage to be the answer to every problem that single people have.  It isn’t the answer to the problems of married people!
  • Marginalise single people so that they are kept on the fringes of the community.  They have as much right to belong as everyone else.  Affirming them creates an environment in which all people can be valued.
  • Assume that single people are lonely and unfulfilled until they ‘settle down’.  Many of them have a vibrant relationship with God, a fulfilling career and ministry, a good social life and they are very happy in their singleness (Matthew 19:12).
  • Matchmake without permission.  Single people can be offended by the assumption that they must be in want of a partner, even if they’re not in possession of a good fortune.  While matchmaking can be done out of care and compassion, it can communicate that you assume there is a deficiency in the life of a single person.

jump-727739Do:

  • Promote discipleship.  The closer we all grow to God, the more we realise that our real fulfilment is found in loving and serving God, and not in finding the right partner.
  • Pray that single people might be fulfilled in their singleness.  We frequently pray for God’s blessing on couples and families, so why leave out the singles?
  • Foster a caring, sharing community in which all people can develop meaningful relationships with others and nobody feels left out or uninvolved.  Encourage people to look out for one another’s needs (Philippians 2:4).
  • At significant seasonal events (e.g. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving) and on Sunday lunchtimes, encourage the community to open its doors to others rather than exclude them.  Single people often find it really hard to go home after the joy of church fellowship to eat a ham sandwich by themselves.
  • Welcome single people into leadership.  Because singles are often thoughtlessly lumped in together with young people due to their assumed ‘interim’ state , their giftings and abilities can be overlooked and they are often used simply as drones who are there to provide a labour force.

Syzygy continues to blog about the needs of single people, not because their needs are greater than those of people in relationships, but because their needs are more likely to be overlooked and unmet.  Syzygy is in the process of writing a book together with Dr Debbie Hawker which hopes to address these needs, and Tim is leading a retreat for single mission workers at Penhurst Retreat Centre in September.  Click here for more details.

Working towards a healthy sexuality

SEX is written in large letters throughout western society. In a reaction to the buttoned-up days of yore when the whole issue was swept under the carpet resulting in a lot of repression, the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s got everything out in the open (often literally!) where it has remained ever since. Many churches today shy away from even discussing these issues, for fear of seeming old-fashioned or intolerant. This by default allows the secular world to set the church’s priorities and values concerning sexuality. So Christians can easily find themselves in situations where they are sexually compromised, due to lack of clear teaching and adequate support.

This is a challenging issue for mission workers, and particularly for single ones, who may have to grapple with issues of loneliness, isolation and lack of emotional intimacy in a world which makes sex sound like it’s the answer to everything. So single mission workers can become vulnerable to inappropriate relationships, use of pornography or fantasy, and confusion about their sexuality. Many of us resent the lack of opportunity to engage in sexual activity and to have children, which leaves us feeling guilty, weak and demoralised.

So how do we, together as a Christian community, work towards a healthy sexuality for all?

First, we need to recognise that although many of us have strong unfulfilled desires to be spouses and parents, our primary identity is not in our family (or lack thereof) but in Christ. While family in its broadest sense is a huge part of our relational existence, our identity as children of God is even more significant. This is what Jesus modelled. He does not appear to have had any problem with his singleness despite the fact that it was even more counter-cultural in his day than it is in ours. If our awareness of our identity in Christ is not giving us a strong sense of self-worth and positive self-esteem despite our circumstances, we need to discuss this with a friend, pastor or counsellor. When Jesus said that he came so that we could have overflowing life (John 10:10) he was not speaking only to those in ideal domestic situations.

Secondly, we need to expose the lie that we are sexual beings. Believing this Darwinist half-truth makes us vulnerable to all sorts of sexual influences and makes us feel somehow incomplete if we are not having a fulfilling sex life. The truth is that God created us to be relational beings, and sex is only one of the capacities we have for relating. If we concentrate too much on this one, it downplays the other valuable ways we have of relating to others. We need to have healthy, open, honest, safe, accountable relationships with others – single and married, same sex and opposite, young and old – if we are to maintain a strong social community which leaves us feeling valued and esteemed. If we can achieve this, sex ceases to be so significant as a short-term bolster for our self-esteem.

Third, we need to be emotionally intelligent. When we become aware of urges which we can’t control, we need to ask ourselves where they are coming from. Some might be purely physical impulses which need to be mastered, but these can be complicated by a raft of self-esteem issues. When we are tired, unwell, lonely or fatigued, we often want a ‘shot in the arm’ to raise our spirits. This can take a variety of forms: alcohol, chocolate, retail therapy, recreational drugs and sexual activity. These are short-term fixes which may leave us feeling better for a bit, but don’t resolve deeper issues which affect our behaviour. We need to be aware of what we are feeling and what positive things we can do about it.

In practical terms, what does this all look like? Here are some suggestions for ways in which we can work towards a healthy sexuality:

  • Maintain a healthy spiritual life. It’s harder to give in to sexual temptation if you’re walking with God.
  • Learn Bible verses which promote self-esteem. Write them on post-it notes and leave them in handy places.
  • Be accountable. Find a friend who you can confess to and pray with.
  • If you feel you need a safety valve like masturbation, ask yourself whether you control it, or it controls you.
  • Install an internet accountability monitor on your computer.
  • Be an active part of community. Even if you’re an introvert, you need friends.
  • Avoid unhelpful locations like red-light districts.
  • Don’t mistake strong, supportive same-sex friendships for romance.
  • Be physically active. A tired body will be more likely to want to sleep than find sexual fulfilment.
  • Find resources. Our friends at Member Care Media have some excellent podcasts about healthy sexuality (www.membercaremedia.com, click on Emotional Health and then Addictions and Dependencies).  Every Single Man’s Battle by Fred Stoeker and Stephen Arterburn is a good book for men to read.

Syzygy is willing to talk confidentially to anyone who needs advice on this, and can recommend a number of experienced counsellors if necessary. For more information email info@syzygy.org.uk

Making your mission single-person friendly

Decision time?

Many mission agencies benefit hugely from the input of single mission personnel.  Their flexibility, focus and availability are a huge blessing.  Many of our new recruits are young single people seeking to serve God in mission, and they throw themselves wholeheartedly into their work.  Over the years, many will get married, but there is still a sizeable minority who don’t.  Irrespective of the unique personal needs arising from being a single person in mission, which can be very demanding, sending agencies can often inadvertently contribute to crushing the feelings of single mission workers.  By making assumptions about the flexibility of singles, they can unintentionally contribute to stress and burnout.  Sometimes they can take advantage of singles to such an extent that, in a different context, it could be seen as discrimination or even abuse.

For example, it is often taken for granted that single people should share accommodation, while married people are entitled to their own homes.  While this is logical in terms of finance – and perhaps single people find it hard to raise sufficient support to pay for solo accommodation – it can also be very demoralising in the long term.  Imagine how it might feel to be an introverted 45-year old single woman in this position.  While couples much younger than her are given their own home as a right, she is expected to share with a succession of randomly allocated strangers with whom she may not actually get along, and so never has a place called ‘home’ that she can retreat to?

Here are some other areas where your agency may need to reconsider how it treats single mission workers:

Up country – send the singles?

Deployment – when considering deployment issues, does your agency make decisions about who to send up country on the basis of whether they have children who would have no access to good education there?  It may be sensible to ask the single people to go, but is it fair on them to ask them to make sacrifices you wouldn’t ask of mission workers with families?  Next time you find yourself saying ‘It wouldn’t be fair to ask so-and-so because he’s married/got children’, ask yourself whether it’s fair to ask others just because they haven’t.  Is that manipulative?

Status – How does your agency consider the status of single workers?  Are they perceived sub-consciously as short-termers because they haven’t ‘settled’, and therefore are not consulted, trained or promoted?  How many single mission workers are represented in your leadership?  Are there tasks you think they can’t do just because they’re single, as I was once told by an agency director?  Single people have many godly gifts and professional skills, which coupled with a deeper exposure to the local culture which married people may not be able to achieve, can mean they are an extremely valuable resource in leadership and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Workload – do you, perhaps subconsciously, assume that because single mission workers don’t have to go home to their families they can absorb a heavier workload?  Do you deliberately give them more work so that they don’t have to go home and be lonely?  Perhaps it’s better to have a conversation with them about what is a sustainable workload which allows them to make the decision on what they do with their out of hours time.

I am certain that there are no mission agencies out there which actively and knowingly discriminate against single people.  Yet in our prioritising of practical, economic and achievable  targets we may inadvertently be taking advantage of the numerous single mission workers who feel overlooked and undervalued by their agencies.  This can add to stress that they have to deal with and can indirectly lead to burnout and attrition.

It would be a good practice to open a discussion with them and find out how they feel, and to regularly ask ourselves the question of how we might plan to be more inclusive and empowering in the way we treat them.  Sending agencies have come a long way in recent decades towards being more inclusive to women and non-Europeans, and now need to become more inclusive to singles.

Serving as singles

Several people have asked me recently to comment on the issue of being a single mission worker.  Singleness, obviously, is not confined to that group of people, but can be significant issue for them because the isolation and stress of having a missional vocation can be compounded by being single.  The coping techniques they adopt can be harmful or self-destructive and can lead to emotional damage, so it’s an issue that needs a lot of understanding and support – particularly from mission leadership and married co-workers!

There have always been single people in Christian mission.  Saint Paul may have been single – we certainly don’t read in the Bible about his wife, or those of Barnabas, Silas and Timothy.  Many of the mission workers in the middle ages were monks or nuns who had taken vows of chastity.  I’m not aware that Aidan, Patrick, Boniface, Francis or Ignatius of Loyola were married.  In the 19th century many men like Livingstone and Studd left their families behind for long periods, and while they were comforted by letters from home and memories of their family, they were effectively single for long periods.  At the same time many courageous and formidable women took the gospel to some of the most inhospitable parts of the world.  Some of the 20th century’s  most significant mission workers were single women.

Single mission worker Jackie Pullinger

Today, there are many single mission workers worldwide: unmarried, divorced, and widowed.  The significant majority of single mission workers are female, some estimates indicating that the proportion may be as high as 80%.  This reflects the overall gender imbalance in the church at large and in this context the single males don’t usually stay single for very long.

There are many challenges in being a single mission worker.  Finding friends who can take the same week off work to go on holiday with, being asked to share our homes with short-termers (“no pressure, of course”), or generally being expected to be more flexible about our work assignments than families (“It wouldn’t be fair to them; they’ve got the kids to think about”).  Conversations can quickly become negative as we focus on such issues, and yet there is much to give thanks for.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

There is a great flexibility which comes with being a single worker.  Having more time to devote to work, church and friendships is not the only advantage.  There is freedom to travel, and flexibility to manage our lives without the legitimate demands of partner and children.  It’s also significantly cheaper.  When I worked in Zambia, my colleagues were regularly amazed that I’d fly to Harare or Johannesburg for a long weekend, something that was completely unaffordable for a family of six.

Syzygy is going to do a series of blogs for single mission workers over the next year or so.  These will include a theology of singleness, avoiding becoming a workaholic and embracing our sexuality positively. The aim is not to have a pity party, or to help people stop being single, but to encourage single mission workers to concentrate on the One whom they serve, and to embrace the wonderful opportunity he has given them.  Most of all we will focus on Jesus, the archetypal single mission worker, who was tempted in every way just as we are, and yet is without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  If singleness was good enough for him, why should we complain that it’s unfair on us?