Single Missionary Women and their Unique Challenges

        Author: ES (Research)
Single Missionary Women and their Unique Challenges
A Report by Executive Secretary (Research), June 7th 2004

Sample size: 20
Method of survey: interview - open questions
Nationality: Malaysian
Marital status: Single
Gender: Female
Vocation: Missionary
Age: 40-60
Period of survey: March - Sept 2003
In our present social context where there are many single men and obviously a lot more single women, it is of no surprise to hear that more than 60% of the world missionaries are single women. Single women have been involved in the pioneer work for centuries. They have enriched the world and the Church through the ages, especially in the hard ground patriarchal societies. These women are educated and well trained in missions and work as translators, teachers, doctors, and specialists in social works.


Based on the information given by major mission agencies alone in Malaysia, the percentage of single men and women engaging in long term missionary work is respectively reflected as follows:

Sending Agencies % of single women % of single men
Intercare 75 0
Operation Mobilization 45 10
OMF 32 0
Wycliffe Malaysia 38.5 0
(March 2003)

While we do not wish to compare the percentage between single Christian men and women in responding to the call of mission as vocation, the vast discrepancy between the two genders is alarming. This report intends to focus on the unique challenges faced by single women who have or had been serving full time in the mission field overseas for more than 5 years, and whose age ranges from 40 to 60. These women in survey may have found the situation beyond their control or perhaps have deliberately chosen singleness. Some of them might not have discovered singleness as a gift at the beginning of their journey, but a painful choice of loneliness. Many were perhaps once confused about their desire for a husband before finding contentment in God. Nonetheless most of these women, at the time of the survey, appeared to have reached the phase of contentment in regards to their marital status.

Although singleness may not be a major issue, the reality of life sets in still: single women have to plan for the future as singles. A single missionary woman (SMW) who has returned on furlough or home assignment may be lavished with fancy meals, special monetary gifts and even a treat to a short vacation by a faithful support. "But not many people want to listen to our experience," says a missionary. Many may think that generous giving is definitely the way since missionaries are 'poor' and have sacrificed to serve overseas. While some believe that God will take care of the peculiar needs, emotional struggle, future and retirement since it is He who sends, others may have not at all given a thought. An interviewee expresses that "in ministry everyone earns less than in the secular world. Although it is a conscious choice, that doesn't mean I don't feel the tension."

There is no doubt that God provides for all our needs, whether they be spiritual, physical or emotional needs, especially in a challenging vocation such as missionary work. Notwithstanding God’s sovereign provision, these women continue to face unique challenges or rather peculiar problems in their respective mission fields or even at home where the societies are marriage-oriented.

The Unique Challenges

Clearly, being a single woman in ministry has its advantages and disadvantages. While there may be unlimited potential to use one’s own singleness for God’s kingdom, the responsibilities are great. Research studies have indicated that depression plagues many SMW.

Single women, without a spouse to share joy and frustrations, need more than just financial security and prayer support. Some of them may feel the restriction of the culture even more than married women do. In addition, they are under pressure from well-meaning locals whose societies have low regard for single women. In certain cultures, e.g. Mozambique, women may be more respected as unmarried mothers; in others single status is socially questionable. Local officials may prefer to deal with male counterparts of the missionary women. In other words, the attitude toward singleness, acceptable cultural role and gender stereotyping in the host culture can be, not only the source of discouragement for single women, also a tremendous obstacle to their ministries.

Another challenge comes from within the ministry team itself both at home and abroad. As far as leadership in mission field is concerned, the result of the survey indicates that most single women are often seen as unimportant and are overlooked especially in decision-making, strategizing and communicating needs. Sometimes decisions are made for them without their consultation. Rose Dowsett, in her article ‘Globalisation, Women and Mission,’ observes an irony in church history "that women have been the primary gospels pioneers in country after country and among people group after people group, yet mission strategy is normally devised by men."1 It is also noticeable that men lead most of the mission agencies where women (mostly single) are the majority. The fact that men are preferred for leadership role is a major drawback for women who may be more capable, says a SMW.

While some women may have the tendency to prove themselves of capable doing what men can do and thus competing with their male co-workers, others may be forced to do certain tasks that require technical skills and greater physical strength when there is no man around. The aspect of safety in a different cultural setting constitutes another peculiar problem, e.g. the inconvenience of transportation in some rural areas, dangerous neighbourhood, etc. Travelling alone is not accepted in certain societies.

Both the talents and the trials of SMW differ from their male colleagues. Women are socially recognised to be more relational than men. They may be perceived as less threatening than men by many cultures and have easier access to other women and children in almost any society. Yet, single women, in particular, find it difficult to minister to opposite sex and may be seen as threat by married women. Sexual temptation can be a significant problem for many. Albeit their ability to spend more time to care, understand and disciple others without having to balance family needs and ‘work,’ such flexibility in scheduling may lead their married teammates to, perhaps unconsciously, add on their shoulder heavier workload and thus ‘overwork’ them. Unfortunately, some singles themselves may incline to devote every non-working hour to ministry simply because of feeling guilty of not fully utilise their availability or perhaps to avoid loneliness.

The issue of mid-life (age 40 - 60) appears to have been neglected by mission leadership. The tasks of adjusting to physical changes and to elderly parents take place at this stage of life. It is said that the most frequent cited problem of middle-adult women is not menopause or aging, but caring for their elderly parents, as it is virtually always the daughter who is the primary caretaker. Our survey indicates that some SMW are obliged or expected by their siblings who have established their own families to take care of elderly parents. At the same time, they, like any other married woman, mourn over the loss of youth and fertility that may cause emotional, psychological and spiritual upheaval.

Like others, the women experience identity crisis and tend to manifest certain character flaws. "But people tend to relate our struggles as a result of being unmarried," exclaim some women at the interview. "Though menopause is not synonymous to the aging process, it certainly is crucial to women’s physical, psychological, social and spiritual experience of mid and late adulthood."2 Generally, all women walk through this passage of life as they redefine themselves and their roles, yet single women have been stereotypically depicted as neurotic, emotional and miserable by many.

Many missionaries also find it difficult in adjusting their identities and roles as they return or retire from their respective mission fields where they have spent years of acculturation through conscious effort. "Reverse cultural shock is a lot harder than cultural shock," says a woman. Many expressed their concern about having to reestablish their social network because "relationship with the old friends and some church members has appeared to be superficial." "We just can’t relate to each other." Since women’s identity is linked to relationships, connection with others and intimacy, some will strive to re-establish new network of friendship though it may be painstaking.

Another challenge faced by the women is finding a permanent place for retirement. Some agencies have advised or required, rather, their missionaries to invest in housing properties, which subject them to greater toil in raising financial support regardless the good intention to prevent future housing problem. Financial security for retirement, e.g. pension or Employees Provident Fund (EPF), is still a reality that may challenge most SMW.

Sustainability / Solitude Refinement

Despite the peculiar challenges and impending difficulties, these SMW continue to dedicate their service to what may be reckoned as Jesus’ radical call.

Without recognising the women’s unique struggle that arises from more than just cultural disorientation, the sending agencies may have tendency to prioritise "practices" e.g. "What does one do when one is in a different cultural setting?" "How should one do it?" etc. As a result, they attribute the means of empowerment to adequate orientation, good debriefing and counselling on home assignment, and good support group with constant communication and accountability.

While agreeing with the agencies’ view, the women perceive those means as merely extra bonuses. They admit that a good spiritual and emotional support group as well as friends whom they can confide to and be held accountable for is a great advantage. Friendship, they believe, is a strong source of emotional wellbeing, a foremost external support, to help to overcome any challenge they may face. Willingness to establish good rapport with others and have a "right" relationship with co-labourers, and the ability to make and maintain friendship are no doubt excellent ministry skills the missionaries can have in establishing connection and networking with others.

Nonetheless, individual’s attitude towards God and one’s own identity in Christ, an internal component, has the most significant impact on how one handles trials in life. Majority of the women concur that confidence in God and in His sovereignty and provision guide them through in times of frustration and hardship. It is a wholehearted belief in God’s goodness even in the midst of working through difficult emotional issues. "Contentment may be a struggling issue from time to time, but building confidence in God, constantly reflecting on His goodness in my life, and fixing my eyes on Jesus, lead me to accept and be comfortable with my single status." Clearly, for the women, healthy self-acceptance and adequate self-confidence comes from their personal and intimate relationship with God.

As they accept their status, the women find it easier to work in co-operation with married people to remove any barrier or prejudice that may hinder acceptance. Such attitude has indeed allowed the women to experience freedom in serving as they expand their visions and creativity, maximise their gifts and talents, and develop ability to be useful to others and to make the best out of bad situations. Like the noted single full time worker, Goh Poh Gaik3 once said, "God is not concerned with what you are building for Him, but that you let him build into you, Christ-likeness. Singleness is not an interval, a temporary life. Single women should not put their lives on hold until they get married. Take responsibility in life, initiate friendships, make yourself available and care for others, and look for opportunity to be hospitable."

Is loneliness, the most common mental health problems of people regardless of race, gender and social status as documented by numerous studies, no longer an issue then? "I have needed to handle loneliness head on and learn to be alone but not lonely. Nothing but lots of prayer, having friends, and other interests helps. Sometimes I have just needed to face it as a reality and just allow those feelings to come and go," said a veteran missionary woman who was completing her doctoral studies. Loneliness can be painful and draining. It cleaves to us despite our best effort to remove it. Psychologist, Dr. Gary Collins, defines loneliness as "painful awareness that we lacks close and meaningful contact with others." In other words, a single person who takes cognisance of this can conceivably blossom through the intimacy of friendship. Most of these SMW admit the problem and appear to be determined and assertive in dealing with it. Surely God does not intend singleness to involve loneliness.

Self-acceptance includes acknowledgement of biological longing, i.e. the basic human longing for touch and closeness, ability to live with it and handle whatever emotional outbreak there may be. It also includes being able to talk honestly to God and realise that something in life will never come to pass but can be trusted to God for His sovereign solution. "Allow yourself to live with some longings that are not fulfilled and know that’s ok, you are not any less worthy," said another who committed herself to language work for the Orang Asli. Emotional and verbal affirmation from support group or friends can be an immense encouragement. Perhaps, if psychological need for intimacy is satisfied, the need for physiological sexual experience may be lessened.

Having the opportunity to work hand in hand with God, the capacity to love and have friends, and ability to enjoy fieldwork as a vocation appears to be the greatest fulfilment for these SMW. Achieving solitude refinement, no longer concern about meeting outside expectations, the women have developed greater confidence, involvement, security, and breadth of personality. Relationships with others are more important - perhaps in a different way than earlier in life.

It is also apparent that, no matter how busy they are on the field, many women look at their respective trajectories, re-evaluate goals and aspirations and even making decision on how best to use the remaining part of the life span. The common trait is they tend to believe that change is possible and that one is free to choose to do what is right and pleasing in the sight of God. They often point to Jesus, the source of internal strength and aspiration, and found in Him the ray of hope and courage. Most important of all, they realise that God’s grace is absolute and all encompassing. In times of discouragement, weariness and pain, such comprehension helps them to persevere in the face of defeat. What seems like overwhelming odds becomes an opportunity for growth. As the women continue to face peculiar challenges, their ability to bridge the divine and physical world seems to be strengthened through each experience of overcoming.

The Church Responses

While most churches are excited about sending labourers into the harvest fields and invest much energy and resources in preparation, there seems to be a greater lack of concern in ‘aftercare,’ indicated Pastor Ruth Chew, a candidate director of Worldwide Evangelization for Christ in Singapore.4 "The line of communication is usually one way, i.e. missionary to church in the form of newsletters," she says. It seems that missionaries are expected to keep their respective home churches informed, generate their own prayer support and take care of themselves once they embark on their field journey.

What about returning on furlough? "It appears that many Asian churches are still expecting their missionaries to fit right back into the church ministry while on long home assignment, such as administrative work at the church office or extensive pastoral or teaching duties."5 Such remark precisely reflects the condition of some SMW who were on furlough at the time of interview. The so-called deputation seemed to take up most of their time. Besides attending to their home church, they were also invited or expected to teach courses at local seminaries, to conduct certain workshop for their respective sending agencies, and to "share" at or attend regular meetings of supporting churches. They were, indeed, very busy. As the women struggle to strike a balance between home assignment and recuperation from exhaustion, their occasional reluctance to do deputation or take on speaking engagement may sometimes be perceived as a sign of personal weakness.

Nevertheless, in the recent few years, sending agencies’ progressive effort in providing and improving member care services is commendable. The services include furnishing the mission partners with medical and life insurance as well as counselling services. The agencies are also urging churches to try to understand SMW and their needs, keep tabs on their living situations, and find out how the host countries view single women and what difficulties they will face. Therefore Malaysian churches do have a significant role to play - working hand in hand with the agencies and encouraging their members to come alongside the SMW as partners, mentors, counsellors, and friends, besides giving generously in financial support. "It would be good to see a shift - the church shares the responsibility with the missionary... keeps in touch with a missionary in a way similar to parents keeping in touch with their children studying abroad. It would really help in the emotional and psychological needs of SMW."6

While church leaders must recognise the peculiar needs of SMW, the women themselves, however, ought to take up the responsibility to articulate their needs that have been overlooked. There may be a certain degree of struggle, for instance, should a single woman missionary ask for a housing loan as part of her retirement plan? If she were to request, would she be projected as not trusting in God’s provision? There must be a balance of faith and practicality.7

Some suggestions from the interviewees to the local churches in promoting ‘member care’ are as follows:

  • The community projects to include community housing project for retirees and missionary retreat centres etc.
  • To seriously consider medical plan and housing loan as part of the retirement plan
  • To develop ‘member care’ as one of the church ministries. Besides raising prayer and financial support, churches are encouraged to fully stand behind the missionaries for the sake of their psychological and emotional wellbeing. The necessity of pastoral support for those who are returning home cannot be overlooked.
  • To encourage single women, who are in full time ministry, to speak up, to share their vision, mission and struggles. Churches at large are not aware of or have not thought through peculiar needs of single women who are in full time ministry (including those who are in the mission field), and therefore treat them as how they treat the married people.8
  • To encourage church members getting in touch with the lives of missionaries, e.g. visiting or writing to them. By doing so, a pastor is contributing to the moral support of the missionary.9
  • Conclusion

    Women have played significant role in carrying the gospel to the four corners of the earth. Studies show that women, especially those who are single and without responsibilities for others, make initial response more quickly and readily than men to missionary appeals.

    To the single women who are considering full time mission work, most SMW believe that one must have security in her relationship with God and know that serving Him is a guaranteed fulfilment. Therefore, be sure of one’s own calling is crucial, followed by humility and patience during the training process while at the same time recognising one’s own longing and accepting one’s own weaknesses. They warn against jumping into mission fields with emotional baggage, such as a broken relationship, or escaping from an unhappy experience. Besides obedience and focus, all SMW affirm the importance of a personal intimate relationship with Jesus as the fortress against insecurity, fear and discouragement.

    1 Richard Tiplady, ed. One World or Too Many. Pasadena, California: WEA Mission Commission, 2003
    2 Sylvie Laurion, Ph. D., clinical psychologist and researcher for the Well-Aging Program, CLSC René-Cassin/ISGQ.
    3 Full time Christian worker of Praise Baptist Centre
    4 Ruth Chew together with her husband Robert Chew were missionaries in Ghana for 7 years, They both returned tp Malaysian in 1998 and became pastors of Canning Garden Baptist Church in Ipoh, Perak. They were recently being released by the church to serve as candidate directors for WEC International in Singapore, providing orientation for potential missionaries and member care for Singaporean and Malaysian missionaries serving on the field.
    5 Lim Ah Kie, "Field Care for Asian Missionaries in South Asia", Doing Member Care Well. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2002.
    6 Ruth Chew
    7 Goh Poh Gaik
    8 Goh Poh Gaik
    9 Ruth Chew

    [ Back ] [ Print Friendly ]