Missionary Singles Issues
Missionary Single Issues: Identity
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conversation between two single teachers in an international school could go
something like this.
Mary: “John, when I’m here at school, I know who I am and
where I fit. I am on the faculty with people like you and I am a teacher
to the children in my classroom. However, the only other missionaries here
with our agency are a married couple. When I am with them, I feel like a
third wheel. I’ve been very careful not to do anything flirtatious, but I
am sure Jan sees me as doing so.”
John: “I know exactly what you mean, Mary. I’m fine
here at school, but I feel different in my agency. Three other families
are here with my agency, but the norm is ‘married with children.’ Whenever
we get together, I feel like the odd man out because I don’t have much interest
in discussing what to do with the kids or how to make time for my spouse.”
These single missionaries are talking about issues related to their roles and
Although there are a few hermits who withdraw from other people and live
alone, most of us get much of our identity from our relationships with other
people. Of course, we have our identity in our relationship with God as
being his children, but we still need other people made in his image. We
learn what our roles are as we interact with these other people, and much of who
we are comes from living those roles.
Paul was a single missionary who knew his identity well. When in
Jerusalem Paul was arrested as a mob became violent. Here is the way Paul
gave his identity as he introduced himself to the crowd (Acts 22:3).
- I am a Jew (his cultural identity),
- Born in Tarsus of Cilicia (city of his
birth where he learned Greek language and culture),
- But brought up in this city (Jerusalem as
a Third Culture Kid where he learned to speak Aramic and to live in the
- Studied the Jewish faith under Gamaliel
(his religious identity through a famous teacher).
- He became a follower of Christ and
Anannias who sent him to witness to everyone everywhere (verse 15).
- Finally, he revealed that he was a Roman
citizen (verse 27).
Paul told about all of the cultures and people who had given him an identity.
He knew who he was.
Likewise, Jesus knew who he was even at twelve years of age when he stayed
behind in Jerusalem as his family left to return to Nazareth. When his
parents found him with the teachers of the law and said they could not find him,
he said, “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” Then he went
to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. He was clear about his
identity as related to God in heaven and as related to his parents on earth.
Of course, we must remember that in Jesus’ culture he would become a man
within a year, when he became 13. He was not six years from adulthood as
he would be in Western culture today; he was a matter of months from becoming an
adult at that time.
Identity vs Role Confusion
Unlike in the time of Paul and Jesus when teenagers knew their identity,
teenagers today go through a period of time when they do not know who they are
and where they fit. During this time of forced singleness these teenagers
go through what Erik Erikson called an identity crisis and are confused about
the roles they are to play.
During this identity crisis, teens are no longer children but the culture
still does not consider them to be adults. So they have no specific roles
to play and are confused about who they are and where they fit. The usual
path to identity is to find work, settle into a community, become involved in a
church, marry, and have children. As they take on more and more of these
roles, they become more and more sure of their identity.
Individuals who remain single past the age of adolescence find the roles of
being a spouse or a parent generally unavailable to them.
- Husband. By
definition an unmarried man is not a husband.
- Wife. Likewise, by
definition an unmarried woman is not a wife.
- Father. In some
places and some occupations a man is able to adopt a child and be a father,
but it is often complicated in a host culture, and the child grows up with
no mother in the home.
Likewise, it is often complicated for a woman, and the child grows up with
no father in the home.
People who are not committed Christians often want these roles, so they
simply try living together without the commitment of marriage and have children
without being married. This disregard of God’s word usually does not lead
to the satisfaction they are seeking. However, it does disqualify them
from being Christian missionaries.
Single individuals who become missionaries find other common roles which are
available but are also less likely to contribute to their identity.
- Work. Single
missionaries usually join an agency in which the other workers are spread
around the world so the single missionaries may never meet most of their
colleagues in their agencies.
Although most single missionaries have a place they call “home,” they are
seldom there. When in their passport countries they are often
traveling to raise support. When serving in their host country, they
do not see neighbors at “home.”
- Church. Although
single missionaries have a home (sending) church, they seldom attend it
because they are either raising support in their passport countries or
serving far away in their host cultures.
Available Roles in Passport Country
Singles in their passport countries usually have the same spouse and parent
roles unavailable. They often have more choices of other roles available
to them, and they can join these roles as well. With more Christians
around, they tend to form interest groups in which fellowship is around these
other interests so that it makes little difference whether individuals are
married or single. Here are some examples.
- One church has a NASCAR Sunday school
class of about 50 people, both male and female. Conversation before
and after Bible study revolves about cars and races.
- Another pastor and youth worker have
become storm chasers. It makes no difference whether one is single or
married when chasing a tornado.
- Another church has a knitting/crocheting
group. Marital status makes no difference when putting yarn on a
- One community has a book club and a
garden club in which singleness makes no difference.
- When spending the weekend hunting or
fishing with the guys, marital status makes no difference.
- When attending a ladies night out to shop
and watch a chick flick, marital status makes no difference.
The list is just about endless when it comes to clubs and interest groups
both inside and outside the church. In these groups, the usual topic of
conversation is whatever the group is about, so whether a person is single or
married makes little difference.
Available Roles in Host Country
In many host countries where unmarried missionaries serve, marriage and
parenting take more time out of people’s lives, so married couples have less
time for clubs or groups. In addition, far fewer such groups exist,
especially in the single missionary’s heart language. Therefore, it is much more
difficult to find other roles which contribute to one’s identity.
These roles can range from variations of parental and spousal roles to those
- Godparents. For
centuries in many Christian denominations godparents have been responsible
for things ranging from the child’s baptism to his or her religious
education. A male godparent is a godfather (in the classical sense,
not the “mob” sense), and a female godparent is a godmother.
Regardless of age unmarried missionaries can play this “parental” role.
- Aunts and Uncles.
Family names and their roles are played by other members of the agency.
Unmarried men about the age of the parents are often called “Uncle____”
and unmarried women are often called “Aunt ____” Sometimes older men
and women are called Grandpa and Grandma.
- BFF (Best Friends Forever).
A current term people who text use for individuals in a David and Jonathan
relationships is BFF. Such a person is one who is always there for you
no matter what happens. With the commitment of agape love and the
intimacy of phileo love such people are invaluable assets.
- Mentoring. Whether
being mentored or doing the mentoring, either role in these wonderful
relationships gives one a sense of identity.
- Colleague. Close
relationships with others at your own level, such as fellow teachers, fellow
physicians, are roles that give identity to those who are playing them.
- Face-to-face relationships
are usually the most meaningful. However, with skype or other such
means at our disposal free of charge, such relationships may be valuable and
- Connections with Christian
nationals may be very rewarding and fulfilling. They may name
their children after you or become “Mom” and “Sis” to you. As such you
become part of their family.
Ronald Koteskey is
Member Care Consultant