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?