Note to the Reader: The term single is being used in this article to account for anyone who teaches and lives overseas as a person who is currently unmarried or has never married.
Living and working as a single in a foreign country involves many challenges but is also tremendously rewarding.
The Cultural Challenge
The challenges that singles who work overseas face are many and may include living in a traditional family-oriented missionary culture, traditional church settings where marriage and family are considered the norm and overcoming attitudes that you are flawed or incomplete. The rewards are many also including freedom of mobility, availability and single-minded devotion to the work of the Lord.
For the single, the adjustments will be similar to anyone else living overseas but also different in some areas. For example, in many countries around the world, marriage is considered the norm for an adult for both men and women. It is possible that nationals of the country you are living and serving will make you feel uncomfortable or even challenge you why you are not married. For example, during my time in the Philippines when some of the nationals find out that I was in my 40’s and not married, it was both puzzling and humorous to them. According to Lim:
“To be unmarried in the South Asian context can sometimes bring shame both on the individual and on his/her immediate family. For example, sometimes unmarried men and women are not respected in the communities where they are working. Workers are only considered “adults” if they are married and have the responsibility of taking care of a family of their own thus demonstrating that they can handle life” (Lim, O Donnell 89).
For single women, depending on where they are serving, the adjustment may be even more difficult because of the stereotyping of gender. Unmarried and married women may face sexual harassment almost anywhere they go overseas. Adeney states, “The problem of sexual harassment is worldwide and knows no cultural boundaries.” He goes on to suggest that women can resist various forms of sexual harassment by following the local customs of politeness and modesty. “The most effective non-verbal communication is to conform to the local conventions of modesty” (p. 198). While Adeney writes this in the context of Muslim culture, it is helpful for single women to keep this in mind no matter where they go. Keep in mind there are no perfect formulas on how to behave in every situation. Of course, you can go to extremes to live beyond approach and display evidence of paranoia. And again, the cultural dynamics will vary from country to country. Hopefully, you will get some orientation from your sending organization.
Some of the Challenges for Teaching at an Overseas Christian school.
If you happen to be serving in a missionary school, it will not take long, to see that missionary culture revolves around the nuclear family. This is normal and to a point healthy. The missionary school is in fact there to serve the missionary family. However, one may find the bias toward the nuclear family so strong that they feel left out, abnormal, or feel like a second-class citizen. Many single people going to the mission field may be aware of this because it is not necessarily unique to the missionary community but is also common in evangelical communities in the United States.
Overemphasis on the family is sometimes called “family theology.” Hsu addresses this issue when he states, “It is difficult to argue against the married state and the happiness of children, but these were not the number one priorities of Jesus.” Family theology is not biblical theology” (p. 46). However, this emphasis on the family in the missionary community is not going to change for you. For some singles, the adjustment may be difficult, and if one is not careful, resentment can build up. Here are a few ideas that you might want to consider making the adjustment easier:
1.) Serve God by serving families: Look for ways to serve and spend time with a family. You will find out that some families may make certain false assumptions about you, like you have plenty of extra time on your hands or, for single ladies they may see you as an available babysitter. (Fern Horst, False Assumptions). Don’t be thinly skinned about these assumptions but look for ways to help and build relationships with families. You do not have to offer to babysit, but it can be a blessing and a great help. Some of your strongest relationships may be with families, not other singles.
2.) Be a good listener. People on the mission field are looking for someone who will listen to them. Don’t be surprised if some married people will envy your single state and look up to you as a leader. They may very well be able to talk to you in a way that they cannot talk to a married person. A cautionary note needs to be mentioned concerning meeting with a member of the opposite sex who is married. It is perfectly normal and healthy to have such friends, however, in some cultures (actually in most) this should be avoided for appearance’s sake.
3.) Reach out to the host culture. If you’re in a setting like a missionary school or home office, it’s easy to feel isolated from the host culture. Look for ways as the Lord gives the opportunity to get involved in a ministry with nationals. When it comes to an understanding of other cultures, Adeney puts a great deal of emphasis on friendship and experience.
4.) Live a life of devotion to the Lord. Paul the Apostle clearly states that when it comes to serving the Lord, there is an advantage to being single: “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concern about the things of the world, how he may please his wife and his interests are divided (1 Cor 7:32-34). It should not be assumed that just because you are single and on the mission field, serving the Lord will be easy. It is just as easy for a single person to get up caught in the “the things of the world” as it is for a married person. Many a single missionary has been hindered by Satan and is now out of service on the mission field because of a moral indiscretion or poor testimony. Let the Lord use your singleness for His purpose. According to John Stott, “the liberty of singleness is that people experience the great joy of being able to devote themselves with concentration and without distraction to the work of the Lord” (Hsu, 86). As a single missionary, let others see your total devotion to the Lord as a testimony to the fact that it is possible to live as a single on the mission field and remain a complete person in the Lord.
Biggest Challenges and Biggest Rewards
According to a 2007 survey of 65 single missionaries (21 responded) living overseas, some of the biggest challenges’ singles face are the following:
• Being away from family
• Having to do everything by yourself
• Feeling restricted (For women not being able to go out at night alone)
• Perception by host culture that you are unfulfilled or incomplete because you are not married.
• Knowing you are in the will of God and doing the right thing.
• Building relationships/friendship with the nationals and the people you work with.
• Making a difference in the lives of the students and being part of God’s plan to reach the world with the gospel.
An essential part of the survey that should be noted single missionaries being asked if there was one piece of information, they could give to other single missionaries who were planning to work and live overseas what would it be? Here is the response:
It is not surprising to hear that most singles stated that one’s walk with the Lord was the most important aspect of being a single on the mission field. The saying, “knowing one is in the center of the will of God is more important than being married” was stated more than once. Also, advice was offered for building relationships and a network before you go and having an accountability partner while one is on the mission field.
Some Closing Thoughts
Despite the challenges and prejudices that exist in many cultures (Including that of the United States), in general, the Bible teaches that being both conditions of married and unmarried is a gift from God. There is no such thing as the “gift of singleness” as is often taught in the church today. Being single is a condition to be thankful for and when or if you get married you are merely exchanging one gift for another. According to the Bible, both states have challenges, and both are good.
If one is single and feels led of the Lord to serve overseas, it should be said with some assurance that it is the right and obedient thing to do. (Matthew 28: 18,19) This needs to be stated because there are some single Christians in the local church who are unsure about going to the foreign mission field because of their singleness. For those singles that feel that way, it’s reassuring to keep in mind that when Jesus gave the “Great Commission” he did not mention marital status. Also, keep in mind that maybe the greatest missionary of the Christian church “Paul the Apostle” was not married. The list of single Christian missionaries that have had an impact on the church and the world is quite extensive. Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Lottie Moon, to name a few.
In many cases, it was their single status that allowed them to have the impact they did. Being single on the mission field can be handled with grace. It helps to keep in mind what Doris Sala, wife of popular speaker Harold Sala, recently emphasized at a singles conference in Manila, Philippines: “This is not a couples world, it is God’s world.” And since it is God’s world, he would like to use the single man and woman to further His kingdom.
The following are twenty suggestions for living and working as an overseas missionary. Single missionaries have a wide variety of experiences and circumstances, so they are not meant to be all-inclusive. The suggestions are partially based on the input and wisdom that was gathered from the surveys and interviews conducted in 2007 and partly from articles and books on being single on the mission field. They are also taken from 25 years of personal experience as unmarried living and working overseas.
20 Suggestions for Living and Working Overseas
1. Adopt a Family
Live and spend time with a family. In some cases, singles living and working overseas will move in with a family, which will help with making initial cultural adjustments. There will more than likely be families you will feel more comfortable with than others, and you will find some families who will become cherished friends. However, be careful not to make assumptions. Some married couples with children may not be comfortable with singles or may not have the time to give to single co-workers. Raising children is time-consuming!
2. Build a Relationship with A National
Building a close relationship with a national in the country you are serving can go a long way in making your culture adjustment smoother. According to Bernard Adeney “Friendship is the key to knowledge and wisdom in a foreign context” (p. 54). Adeney believes that through getting involved in the lives of the people and experiencing their culture we can observe, “by seeing that there is another way of seeing, we see our way of seeing for the first time” (p. 24).
3. Live in the Now
“Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt of every situation you believe to be the will of God” (Jim Elliot). For singles, it is easy to get the nagging feeling that something is not quite right without a spouse. Some people might even suggest that you are not complete. This is contrary to God’s Word! We are complete in Him (Col. 2:10). We have been given everything we need to live an honoring and godly life now (2 Pet. 1: 3). Marriage may or may not happen. As singles, we need to make the most of every opportunity that God has given us in the here and now. (Eph; 5: 15, 16).
4. Create a Personal Mission Statement
Creating a personal mission statement is a healthy process that will help you identify your gifts and desires. It may also help give you direction and vision on where and what organization you would like to serve in overseas. However, it needs to be a flexible document that is looked at periodically. Depending on your goals, for a single person, creating a personal mission statement can be a dynamic process.
5. Get Involved in the School Community. “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community, let him who is not in community beware of being alone” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Don’t isolate yourself from the missionary and school community. Reach out where possible and as the Lord gives opportunity.
6. Use the Gifts God Has Given you
Discover where you are gifted and allow God to use those gifts for the furtherance of his Kingdom. Follow your desires and your spiritual gifts. Fill needs where possible but don’t let your self to be marginalized because of your gender or singleness. If job opportunities come up and you feel like God can use your gifts in that particular area do not be shy about applying for the job. There are plenty of useful assessment tools on the market that can help you in this area.
7. Be a Life Long Learner
Opportunities may be available for you to further your education while on the mission field. Some universities offer online programs and courses at discount rates for those working overseas. For singles who are working at missionary school where there are frequent and extended breaks, you may be used that time to get a higher education degree. Pursuing higher education also may include an opportunity to travel and see new places and meet new people.
8. Keep a Journal
Keep a journal while on the mission field. Being faithful to a journal is easier for some than it is for others, but it may be something that will be very valuable to you in the future. Consistently writing your thoughts down is therapeutic. Journals can take many forms; some will be more public others, whereas others will be more private. The important thing is to have some a personal record of your time overseas.
9. Create a Budget
It is important to stay out of financial trouble while serving overseas. Many singles living and working overseas today are choosing to live alone rather than have a housemate, which makes having a budget even more important. Having a budget will also help you keep track of the exchange rate in the country you are serving. For a new first timer’s it is also easy to fall prey to the illusion that foreign currency is easier to spend. Foreign currency is real money, and the cost of living has gone up in most of the world.
10. Don’t Assume Missionary Families Do Not Understand You
Some married missionaries and overseas workers get married later in life after having been single on the mission field for many years. They can and do relate well to singles on the mission field. Some do not understand what singles are going through and may make some ridiculous assumptions about you. But do NOT assume all missionary families are like that. Given a chance many married missionary couples can be of great help, and some will even love and make you feel as though you are a part of their family. Give them that chance to be a blessing.
11. Do Not Allow Yourself to Be Ruled by Fear
Be cautious but not fearful. God has not given us the spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). For a single living in a foreign country, there are reasons to exercise caution and discretion. However, being overly fearful may cause you to isolate yourself unnecessarily. Your school or mission organization will give you the dos and don’ts of where you are living, so do not allow fear to ruin your time on the mission field.
12. Communicate Your Needs
Communicate your needs to your supporters, family, and friends back home. Some people in your home church or hometown may want to help you but are not sure how. One single I know let her need for a car known by asking for support in her newsletter for a separate vehicle fund. The ability to communicate needs on the mission field has become much easier today with the advent of e-mail, blog sites, and web pages.
13. Enjoy Solitude
According to Hsu “Solitude accomplishes a transformation of our loneliness. Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude” (p. 115). Solitude is not aloneness or privacy but a place of discipline where we cultivate our relationship with God. It is coming to a place that through His word and prayer we grow in our knowledge of Him and come to understand we are not alone (2 Pet. 3:16).
14. Be Free to Marry
Being single is a not a spiritual gift but a state in life. If you are free to be single, you are also free to get married. Getting married is simply exchanging one gift for another. Despite all of the rhetoric, it is not uncommon to find your mate on the mission field. There are plenty of married missionaries who have that testimony. Conversely, there is no guarantee that you will find your mate in your host country. Some singles went back to their host country with the attitude that they were going to make a deal with God and return to the mission field married only to find themselves still single and no longer on the mission field.
15. Commit to Purity
You do not magically become a mature Christian just because you are going overseas. Whatever places of temptations you had at home you bring them with you when you come. Peter encouraged us to be watchful. (I Pet. 5:8) Paul told us to flee youthful lust (2 Tim. 2:22). We need to be diligent about staying away from areas where we may compromise our sexual purity. Staying alert is especially important for single men. Many missionaries and overseas workers both single and married have been disqualified from missionary service because of a sexual indiscretion. Commit yourself to purity on the mission field.
16. Hold Yourself Accountable
A big part of the commitment to purity is to find someone to hold you accountable. According to Joshua Harris” No matter how strong you might feel right now or how many victories you’re presently experiencing you won’t make it very long on your own” (Harris, Not Even a Hint, Guarding your Heart against Lust, p. 133). We are all subject to sexual temptation. It is not easy but reaching out to a trusted colleague or friend that will hold you accountable is important. “ Don’t wait for others to approach you. Be the one to take the first step” (p. 136).
17. Be Careful About Stereotyping Genders
Some singles on the mission field have the attitude that if I were just married some of my practical and physical challenges would be met. The truth is however that not all women can cook and not all men can repair automobiles. It would be helpful if you are a single man to take some cooking classes or if you are a single female to learn how to fix things around the house. We all need to find a balance between being too independent and too helpless.
18. Take Care of Yourself
Taking care of yourself is a broad statement and is a general rule for everyone from every walk of life. However, for the single living and working overseas it is important to get the right amount of sleep, diet, and exercise. Depending on where you are serving, it is easy to fall into bad eating and sleeping habits. For example, in many third world countries around the world, it is not always easy to get fresh fruits and vegetables. There are strategies and ways to best deal with these situations. Check with the veteran missionaries that have been in the country for some time, and they will probably be able to advise you in these areas.
19. Keep a Sense of Humor
With all of the cultural adjustments and frustrations you will encounter on the mission field it’s important that you do not take yourself too seriously. More than likely you will encounter some embarrassing situations living in a foreign country. It can make for some very humorous stories and laughable moments. Instead of allowing it to frustrate you back off and laugh.
20. Be Flexible
It is more than likely you will hear this phrase more than once during your missionary orientation. Being flexible is essential to surviving on the mission field. Singles may have an advantage over married couples in their ability to be flexible. Expect the unexpected and show flexibility.
Adeney Bernard T, 1995, Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.
Hsu, Albert Y, Singles at the Crossroads: A Fresh Perspective on Christian Singleness, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1997
Horst, Fern, A Life Worth Living, 1999, http://singleness.org/vincent.shtml