A friend once said, “I have an ambivalent relationship with my singleness. I don’t want it to define me and yet it does.”
Although single missionaries comprise a significant portion of the missionary population, focus in member care remains on couples, children, and families. Some people mistakenly believe only singles can minister effectively to singles. Providing good member care is not dictated by marital status but does require awareness and empathy. In this article, I will provide some foundational information for those providing member care for single female missionaries*.
Stages of Singleness
Most single women, like married women, experience different life stages. These are observations that I have ascertained from my own personal experience as well as years of attending seminars, giving seminars, reading articles, writing articles, participating in surveys, giving surveys, as well as counseling other singles. In my experience, singles generally can be divided into stages by decade.
Twenty- to thirty-year-olds often don’t consider themselves singles; they are “pre-marrieds”: a preparatory interlude before their married lives begin.
Thirty- to forty-year-olds are more likely to consider themselves “single” and it is not usually a desired label. The already miniscule pool of eligible Christian men has diminished greatly, especially on the mission field. For me, to choose to leave the field felt like disobedience to God but to choose to stay felt like an eternity doomed to loneliness. These are the most difficult years for the singles I’ve known and the time when depression is most likely to begin, especially with a growing awareness that the biological clock is ticking.
Most women I’ve been in contact with find that forty is more freeing and focused. They are more comfortable and confident in themselves and what they want to accomplish. This is a time when, if they have stayed on the field, missionary women accomplish much and begin to mentor younger women.
Emotionally, 50′s seem to be the second most difficult time for the single women I have known. On top of the challenges of menopause and hormonal changes, friends’ children are graduating, getting married, and having children. This past home assignment has been especially difficult for me as I look to the concerns of aging relatives. Realizing I have no children of my own, fears and worries arise about retirement and finances. However, on the work front, it is a rewarding and fruitful time, and a time to continuing mentoring others.
The sixties bring retirement and those concerns but in general, I see my single friends at this age as happy and eager to finish well.
Although the stages of singleness might be different for each person, the single missionaries I have known have several common issues we struggle with at different times in our lives.
The number one issue we contend with is loneliness. This does not just mean needing more friends, but it means desiring someone with whom to process the banalities and stresses of life and ministry. It means desiring family time and physical touch; and wanting one-on-one time. It means yearning for someone who cares more about us than anyone else.
Many of us don’t take vacation because we don’t know who to go with and don’t want to go alone. In my twelve years as a career missionary, I’ve taken three vacations: one alone for a week to Thailand, one with another single for a few days and another for a week to Guam. Every other “holiday” was work- or medical-related. Holidays are also a difficult time; but again the struggles differ from person to person and seasons of life.
We want to be invited to dinner and to family events and holidays but are afraid of invading families at this special time. However, sometimes, those family events can also be unbearable; attending baby showers or even visiting homes with babies, for me, when I was in my late-30’s was extremely painful. Some of us want to invite families over but feel overwhelmed by what kids will or will not eat and/or the expense of inviting a family out to dinner.
Some of us feel burdened by the need to do everything couples have to do (laundry, shopping, paperwork, cleaning, etc.) but having only one person to do them. When we face certain areas such as computers, cars, or finances where we feel incapable, many of us feel especially strained. Not having someone to keep us accountable in the ways we spend our time is also a struggle for some.
Gender Identity Issues
We encounter gender identity issues as well. Once a little girl asked me, “Are you a mother?” No. “Are you a wife?” No. “Are you a grandmother?” No. In desperation, she asked, “Well, what ARE you?” As a 35-year-old woman, that was a tough question. But I knew the “right” answer and was able to say, “A daughter, a sister, a friend, a missionary, a teacher, an aunt, a niece . . .” but there were tears in my eyes as I responded. Men identify themselves through what they do; but women often identify themselves through relationships, which is a challenge for single women.
In work settings, as women who are called to function in a male-dominated culture of pastors and missionaries, pastors and assistant pastors, we find ourselves “hiding” or “denying” our femininity in order not to tempt or distract our co-workers. We find the need to become “asexual” or “androgynous” and yet struggle with the feeling of being the “work wife” of the missionary or the pastor. There are also the dilemmas of car rides or travel to meetings or camps with married co-workers.
We minister in churches that have sōnennkai (men’s group), fujinkai (wives’ groups) and seinenkai(young peoples’ group) and nothing else! Where does a 40-year old single fit?
And, in our personal lives, some of us feel anger towards God for giving us a natural desire for sexuality and yet giving us no appropriate way to express this God-given desire.
In ministering to single women missionaries, understanding all of the above is important. But in the end, we are all individuals and we desire relationship and understanding.
I recommend getting to know each single person and providing a forum for singles and marrieds to discuss their struggles, desires, and needs. Although similar issues and life stages exist, singles are all individuals and can’t be lumped together. One-on-one time with each single person, getting to know her, is fundamental to caring for that person.
Listening is important. We also often feel we aren’t heard. Once, at a two-week member care seminar I attended, no sessions were offered on singleness. When we asked, the leaders (not singles!) squeezed one in. When they asked if we would like to include married people or not, we asked for two sessions but were told there wasn’t enough time for both. Such dismissive experiences cause us to feel we are not valued. Listening to us individually and giving us an opportunity to be heard are vital for the emotional health of the singles in your organization and the first step in essential member care.
*Although a few single male missionaries serve in Japan, and widows and divorcees also carry their own struggles, this article is written from the perspective of a never married, single female missionary.
Karyn Zaayenga is a 40-something single from the US. She is the author of Hitoribochi de Akenai Yoru Ni, a book for Japanese Christian singles.