“Here! Here! Over here!” Yes, I am a single male missionary and I exist. I am not a phantom. I’m still alive. The only examples Tim cites are David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, and James Gilmour. The last of them died in 1891.
Single women comprise, arguably, the most effective demographic in missions. They get on the field and just serve. And serve… And serve… Amy Carmichael’s 55 years of service without a furlough may be the textbook example, but many single ladies are serving today just as long-term and faithfully in places you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce.
Single guys… not so much. Tim points out that there are more single women than men in the American Church in general, but vastly more in missions. Chapter 24 of Surviving Celibacy is devoted to explaining why the American Church’s male-female demographics are skewed. The footnote on p121 reads, “For missionaries, the ratio is even more skewed towards females: There are about six single ladies on the mission field for every single male. And I still can’t get a date…” Tim’s observation is dead on.
We’re a rare breed, but we do still exist. And here’s an explanation of why:
Our missions organization, Pioneer Bible Translators, is growing rapidly (at about 14% a year!), and is quite open to singles; I am Director of IT and many other singles serve in positions of responsibility on the field. 48% of our new recruits in the last three years (2007-2009; haven’t done the 2010 stats yet) have been unmarried (this statistic counts engaged couples as married). There have been more ladies than guys, but not in the six to one ratio typical of missions.
However, overseas the men find themselves surrounded (ok, on the three or four times a year that everyone in-country gets together for branch meetings in town) by single women. Many of these are unavailable for reasons I’ll discuss shortly, but still, the odds are overwhelming! It is not surprising that many of these men and ladies hook up and get married after a short time on the field.
This is where mathematics comes into it: It’s not a huge change to go from 6 women to 5 women, but the difference from a handful of men to even one less is much bigger. Losing just one man is a large delta when the population is tiny to begin with.
Single male recruits make good missionaries and are still serving, but they’re doing their serving, for the most part, as married men. That doesn’t change their ministry, but it does change their pastoral care needs.
Now about why I still can’t get a date…
First, missionaries must marry missionaries, or at least seriously missions-minded people, if they want to remain missionaries. Missionaries – of either sex – who marry someone who is a normal church goer are not sinning, and have not broken any rules. But my observation is that they rarely stay in missionary service long afterwards. The sacrifices of missionary life are just too huge, and the (Ok, I am one, so I’ll admit it) weirdness in one way or another of most missionaries soon overwhelm the new marriage. The sacrament of marriage takes precedence over our individual ministries, so when something has to give, it’s generally missions that gets left behind.
Secondly, despite what I just said above about branch meetings, in reality most missionaries live day in and day out, often for months, in settings with few if any appropriate potential mates. They do this voluntarily, year after year.
Voluntarily giving up any opportunity to marry isn’t normal human behavior. It takes a massive sacrifice, of the kind it’s hard for anyone who is married to even imagine. We have to depend solely on God. He’s all there is, in an illusionless way unknown to people with spouses.
To make that kind of sacrifice to God and stay sane requires a tremendous effort and requires getting into a considerably different “head space”. When another missionary comes along who is appropriate and is interested, many missionaries initially react favorably. Then when it quickly gets serious, they have to face daring to allow that hope that they have so carefully extinguished to fan into flame again.
It isn’t surprising that under the circumstances, many single missionaries would rather not risk being disappointed yet again (again, because most single missionaries have serious disappointment of one kind or another behind them). It’s easier to blow the match out than risk being hurt again.
For the ones who do dare to trust God and another human again, and are willing to risk the hurt, the rewards can be tremendous. Missionary romances move at the speed of light because as a practical matter they have to. It can be hilarious (in a wonderful kind of way) to see two friends fall in love two weeks before one deploys to the middle of Africa. It can be great to tease him for the next six months of 5AM daily Skype calls. And it can be so encouraging to see their love continue to blossom through marriage and the years to come. (P.S. – Happy anniversary, you two lovebirds!)
For the ones who choose to stay single the rewards are also going to be tremendous:
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”
For this is what the Lord says:
“For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths
and choose what pleases me
and are faithful to my covenant,
I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument
that will be better than sons and daughters.
I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain.
(Isaiah 56:3-5 NET)