What singles need to know before going

A few times recently we’ve been asked by single Christians how they can prepare themselves for serving overseas in addition to the normal things that everyone has to do to be ready.

It’s a great question which shows an awareness of the challenges of being single on the mission field and a desire to avoid making mistakes rather than having to learn from them.  Many of the things about being single in your home culture will be even harder on the mission field, so here are some of our top suggestions:

Be secure in your singleness.  If you are looking out for every opportunity to find the perfect human being who will make all your dreams come true, you’re going to be distracted from your mission and find only disappointment.  You also may be vulnerable to the local people who may ask you to marry them.  Nothing wrong with that, and I know several cross-cultural marriages that are very strong, but they’re also hard work with many practical challenges.  And some of those people may be marrying you in a cynical attempt to get a western passport, and your money and influence.  Just saying.  Work through Janet Fraser-Smith’s book Love Across Latitudes before you get too far into a relationship.

Have a good biblical theology of singleness – singleness is not merely a state of waiting till you can get cracking in ministry with your partner.  It is a God-ordained opportunity to use your life to serve and glorify him.  After all, if you need to be married to get on with your ministry, why didn’t Jesus do it?  Having a good biblical perspective on this will help you through difficult times.  The best resource we can recommend is Barry Danylak’s Redeeming Singleness.

Make sure you know what you need to thrive and make sure you get it.  When you go to live in a foreign country, your whole world is turned upside down.  Lots of things you depend on for routine and security are no longer possible.  So work out what it is that you really need and find strategies for getting it.  So for example, if you move to a big hot dusty city and you need a little bit of countryside every now and then, go and sit in the garden of a large hotel and have a cup of tea surrounded by the flowers.

Be ready for loneliness and isolation.  You may have experienced this already, and while sometimes in the mission field there is great camaraderie on mission teams, you may also find there are times when you’re serving in isolated settings, or simply when your friends go on home assignment, meet as families for special occasions, and you go home alone to an empty flat.  If possible, have people you can call 24/7 who are there for you, and be open and honest with a small group of friends about the challenges you’re facing.

Make sure you have good supportive relationships.  It has often been observed that married people going to the mission field take their best friend with them; single ones leave their best friend behind.  So work hard at maintaining those relationships back home and building new ones in the field.  Work hard at learning the language so you can build friendship with locals.

Be ready for pressure to marry.  If you think the western world is hostile to those who are single, be prepared to be considered downright weird!  You may find yourself lower down the social ladder than your married co-workers.  People may openly ask what is wrong with you, or what your parents did wrong to be unable to find a partner for you.  Singleness is often seen not merely as unusual, but wrong!  People may be very quick to offer you their child or cousin even before they really know you.

Don’t expect too much of your new co-workers.  You may think that they’re going to become your new family, but some of them may have got married young and be completely unaware of the challenges you face.  Others will be busy with their own family and ministry, or have different expectations of their role on the team.  But you may also find yourself thrown together with people you would otherwise have overlooked who become great friends!

Be prepared to be flexible.  You may find that because you’re single, you may have to share accommodation with complete strangers.  It doesn’t always work out and that’s an opportunity to grow.  You may be asked to go to remote villages where there aren’t hospitals or wifi (“because it’s not fair to send the families there”).  It’s an opportunity to remember you’re there to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:28).

Expect sexual harassment.  If you’re a single western woman, some cultures may think you are available and take advantage of you because you have nobody to protect you.  Devise strategies and routines together with your co-workers for your own safety and protection.  See some of our suggestions here!

Be aware that social opportunities may be limited.  Depending on where you serve, it can be difficult because of transport, security or surveillance to easily meet up with other people your age, even for social encounters let alone dating.  While this may be hard, remember it’s not why you’re there!

Having said all that, this guide is preparing you for the worst, not the best.  Your singleness is a wonderful opportunity to throw yourself into life in the mission field in a way that your married co-workers will envy.  The flexibility and freedom can work in your favour and though there are challenges, many of the single mission workers who told their stories in our book Single Mission effectively said “Yes, it’s hard but it’s worth it.”

You will probably not be alone – up to 40% of mission workers are single although in some places the teams can be made up mainly of families.  But you may feel alone, so it’s good to be prepared.  You can do this by reading our blogs about singles, reading Single Mission, or participating in one of the retreats we occasionally organise at Penhurst Retreat Centre.  And keep an eye open for our new book on thriving as a single mission worker which is being written at the moment, which will be announced in a blog here when it’s ready!