Surviving Celibacy

February 7, 2011

In Search of… the Single Male Missionary

Filed under: Pastoral Care,Surviving Celibacy (The book) — sfierbaugh @ 11:58 AM

Tim Laitinen has an interesting post on entitled, “Whither the Single Male Missionary?”

“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)

December 16, 2010

Ebenezer Scrooge was single, too…

Filed under: Uncategorized — sfierbaugh @ 8:35 AM

Just sayin’…

November 10, 2010

Loneliness is not a sin.

Filed under: Pastoral Care — sfierbaugh @ 12:17 PM

Ok, I’m working on my workshop for Missionary Care people at the National Missionary Convention, trying to figure out what to say to help them pastor single missionaries.  But I had to take a break and share this because I think it’s pretty profound:

Loneliness is not a sin.  It is the first thing in all of creation, of which God said, “It is not good…” (Genesis 2:18).  And God said this before sin had entered the world.  Wow, think about that!  Loneliness is a feeling, a powerful and common one for singles, but it isn’t a sin.  Our actions as we deal with that feeling are what are right or wrong.

That’s it.  End of insights for today.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog…

P.S. – This also has some interesting theological implications that aren’t strictly singles-related.  It implies that something can be not-good without being sinful.  Hmm…  Gonna have to think about that one for a while.  I’ve already figured out that not everything that is stupid is sinful (thank God, or I’d be in real trouble!).

National Missionary Convention

Filed under: Uncategorized — sfierbaugh @ 11:43 AM

The National Missionary Convention is coming up fast! After last year’s standing room only crowd, we’ve split the workshop this year into one for singles and a separate one for Missionary Care of singles. I’m looking for people to help with both.

Missionary Care of Singles (B23) is Friday at 2PM in HY Regency 2. I’ll need a couple of people to help with logistics.

Jesus Was Single, Too! (C1) is Friday at 4PM in the CC Bluegrass Ballroom (the BIG room). This is where I need the most help! Please come be on a panel of singles & recently singles.

Each of these workshops is an hour. After the second, we’ll be going out to eat as a group. I hope I’ll see you there!


August 24, 2010

Returning to the scene of the crime…

Filed under: Uncategorized — sfierbaugh @ 7:56 AM

Just a quick note to say that I’ll be speaking at Southeast Christian Church’s singles program on Wed., September 15th, at 7PM.

August 1, 2010

Am I Selfish?

Filed under: Uncategorized — sfierbaugh @ 6:56 PM

Faux fur nudged my arm first.  I ignored it.  Next was a warm paw on my thigh.  I pushed it away.  Then a wet snout swiping down my arm.  “Tux, cut it out!  I’m trying to coordinate a nuclear strike on the Romans’ main industrial cities just before my Nanite Defuser is completed and obsoletes nukes the same turn, so that I can avoid any counterstrike.”

Whine…  Whine…  Finally, I couldn’t take it any more.  Tux had his favorite toy whatever-u-call-it, a little round thing of fake fur which at one time in the distant past had a squeeker embedded in it.  “Oh, all right.”  I took it and threw it over my shoulder.

Off went the boxer like a flash, bounding over the coffee-table.  I had thirty-seconds of peace in which to plan the conquest of the world.  Then he was back, pushing it into my lap.  I threw it again…

Am I selfish?  I’ve heard married people stereotype singles as selfish, and thought, “Ridiculous.  Just because we don’t have to devote every waking minute to our spouse or children doesn’t make us selfish.”

No, having free time doesn’t make us selfish.  But I must admit, I’ve grown awful fond of doing what I want when I want.  When I got Tux as a puppy, there were some pretty big changes around Fortress Fierbaugh.  Suddenly I had to get up early to walk him whether I wanted to sleep in, or not.  And I had to plan my evenings around being home in time to walk him.

The real problem is my attitude.  I want to take Tux out of his crate and play with a dog that worships me far better than I worship God.  But only when I want to.  An hour an evening, and I’m ready for a computer game or some writing.  My time is now not entirely my own and I resent it.  My writing has suffered.  My hacking has suffered.  How do parents get any real work done?

This dog loves me.  Our obedience school homework is to wait until he’s in another room, then call him so that he learns to come.  I had to admit to the teacher, “I can’t think of any time I’ve ever been in one room and he’s been in another.”  He just wants to be near me.  If I won’t play with him, he lays at my feet.  His sun rises when I come home, and sets when I leave for work.  He loves me unconditionally, with pure agape love, regardless of whether I’ve played with him or walked him.

And I love him, too.  But I want Tux on my terms.  My time, when I want to invest my emotional energy in him.  Then I want to put him back in his crate, until I need another shot of this addictive drug called the love of another sapient entity.

Isn’t that how I often treat God?  I want You and I’ll take You, but only when I want to.  I’ll pray when I need it.  I’ll read the Scriptures when I get around to it.  I’ll go to church if it meets my emotional needs.  Mine, mine, mine.

Singleness doesn’t make anyone selfish.  But maybe it helps us hide it.  That may be what marrieds really mean, “You get away with your self-centered-ness better that I do.”  I’ve been inhibited for a long time.  It’s hard to be inhibited with a dog that has wormed its way onto your lap and is licking your face.  That’s what “Pause” is for on the remote control.

I’m making time for the dog in my life, and learning to love without inhibitions again.  My writing is lagging; that’s Ok.  The Romans may get to Alpha Centauri before I do; that’s Ok.  This love thing is worth it.

We’re on throw 244 of a very slobbery chew toy, with no end in sight to his delight.

March 7, 2010

Discerning the Will of God

Filed under: Pastoral Care — sfierbaugh @ 3:56 PM
Tags: ,

Love God and do as you will. – St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the Epistle of St. John

Who should I marry?  Should I take that job?  Move to that city?  Purchase that house?  What should I do with my life?

Discerning the will of God sometimes doesn’t seem easy.  For a long time, I agonized over questions like these.  God seemed deaf, leaving me to dangle without guidance.  Or maybe he was a trickster who just waited for me to make a mistake, “Take that job outside of my will, and it will be a disaster.”

But where in the Bible does it say that?  What leads us to conclude that God’s will is hard to find?  Something is wrong when I pray and pray and plead and beg God to show me his will.  When Jesus was asked how to pray, his model Lord’s prayer says, “Your will be done”, but doesn’t include any begging for insight (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4).  Later when God’s will is plain in the path to the cross, Jesus asks for it to be changed, yet remains submissive, “not my will, but yours” (Matthew 26:39).  But he does not worry about God tricking him, or simply not making things clear to him.

God can – and does – sometimes make his will explicitly known.  He tells Jeremiah not to take a wife because divine disaster is coming (Jeremiah 16:1-2).  He tells Hosea to take back a wanton slut of a wife, to illustrate his divine forgiveness (Hosea 1:2, 3:1).

Yet far more often, God works in small mysterious ways.  God is omnipotent, all powerful.  What does that mean?  God loves us and wants only the best for us.  He has revealed his desire for fellowship.  “Come, please accept my Son…”, yet he will not force himself.  Omnipotence means he hopes we accept him, but even if we refuse, and do everything we can to live ungodly lives opposed to his revealed will, he will still fit it into his plan.  Now that’s power!  Anything we do that falls within his general revealed will within the Bible is almost trivial by comparison for him to make part of his divine tapestry.

What Augustine means is live your life wrapped in God’s love, praying, worshipping, studying the Word, and serving, and you cannot help but make decisions that are within the will of God.  He doesn’t want a robot, he wants a son or daughter.  When we are babes, yes, sometimes he must give us close and constant supervision.  But as we grow, he wants us to develop as full children of God, to exercise our intellects and personalities.

Ask God for wisdom (James 1:5), accept on faith that he answers (James 1:6-8; yes, it may not seem like it, but trust him!), and make decisions that honour him.  Certainly seek godly council.  Realize that not everything works out the way we intended.  But rest assured that God looks on us with love like a father who is happy to see his child take first tottering steps, not like a God waiting to jump out of the bushes with a bolt of lightning.  Love God and do as you will.

February 25, 2010

Four Easy Ways to Minister to Singles

Filed under: Pastoral Care — sfierbaugh @ 8:57 PM

“How about coming over for dinner on Monday?”

“Well, I’ll only have had the puppy since Saturday…”

“Bring him along!  My wife loves dogs and is dying to see him.”

I am sometimes asked for positive things that churches can do to pastor singles.  Here are four easy concrete things that any church can do which will make a real difference in the hearts and lives of your singles:

  1. Celebrate their lives.
  2. Provide assistance when they’re sick or have car trouble.
  3. Stop assuming in everything you say and print that everyone is married.
  4. Grow single leaders as examples.

Celebrate Singles’ Lives



When “Tux” and I got to my friend’s house, I discovered that a number of my friends had gathered to throw us a Puppy Shower.  There were balloons, dessert, and each of their dogs had a present for my new puppy.  Tux got tags, balls, chew toys, and lots and lots of plastic cleanup bags (already invaluable!).  He was passed around from person to person, and everyone played with the new puppy or held him while he snoozed.

I was totally blown away.  It had been a long time since anyone had done something like that for me.  You better believe my love tank was brimming by the end of the evening.

Sometimes singles live celebration-less lives.  We don’t have wedding or baby showers.  No child’s kindergarten or high school graduations.  No anniversaries, and Valentine’s Day is our Singleness Awareness Day, the most depressing day of the year.  At the same time, we have the same need to feel loved that everyone does.

Take every opportunity which presents itself to celebrate your singles’ achievements.  New job or promotion?  Have they finally finished grad school?  Or published that first book, or bought a house?  Those are great chances to remind them how much you love them.

Provide Practical Assistance

I had been trying to make friends with my neighbour, a single man who lived alone, without much success.  Then one day he rang my doorbell.  “I’m having a medical test next week.  I won’t be able to drive afterwards.  I’ll take the bus there, but I will be woozy and need a ride home afterwards.  I hate to impose…”

Needless to say, it wasn’t any imposition at all.  Along the way, he opened up a little.  He was facing possible cancer, and was scared stiff.  Fortunately, when all was said and done, the tests came back negative, but I finally made a friend.  And he now has someone he knows he can rely on in a bind.

One practical benefit of being married is having “RAID1″ lives.  That’s geek speak for the fact that a couple has a lot of redundancy built into their lives.  Two cars.  Two incomes.  Two parents.  If one of them is sick, the other can make sure that they have a ride to the doctor, or the hospital.  If they are broke down by the side of the road, they know their spouse will come get them.

The singles that are plugged into your singles program may also have extensive networks of friends who can help them.  But not every single is a people person.  It can be really scary to have to face a cancer test alone.  Or to know that if your unreliable old car breaks down, you might have to call an expensive taxi just to get home.  Or wonder how your pet’s going to get fed if you have to spend the night in the hospital.

Most churches do a great job of providing this kind of minor help for single parents.  These acts of love just need extended to those of your singles who may not have any kids.

Stop Assuming Everyone is Married

“We hope that all the guys will come to the upcoming Men’s Retreat.  We’ll have a golf outing and some great fellowship.  The theme this year is ‘Loving Your Wife as Christ Loved the Church’.”

There’s nothing wrong with having a church-wide Men’s Retreat or a Ladies Retreat with a “Loving your Spouse” theme.  Indeed, there is a time and a place when it’s entirely appropriate.  But then advertising it in a singles class is simply crass.  Don’t be shocked when not a single single signs up.

Ok, so this isn’t strictly positive, since it’s asking you to just stop doing something you’re probably currently doing.  But in most churches, everything in the announcements and the bulletins is written or phrased with the assumption that every adult is married.  Almost half of America (42%) is not married.  This type of subtle attitude is so commonplace that just changing your assumptions and verbiage a little will make a big difference.  Your singles will notice.

Grow Your Single Leaders as Role Models

We live in a wicked age, when celibacy for the sake of God is simply beyond the comprehension and world view of many people.  At the same time, a lot of singles tend to live in perpetual adolescent mode, not feeling like “real adults”.

Many of the outstanding Christians of the last century were single: Amy Carmichael, Rich Mullins, Betsie & Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and C. S. Lewis, just to name a handful.  But in the twenty-first century church there are few if any positive single role models.  Grow your singles as leaders.  Appoint single deacons and elders.  You may not see any ready candidates; expect more from your singles and you will get it.  You will be amazed how big a difference just one or two examples will make in your congregation.


Celebrate with your singles, help them in life’s routine travails, stop assuming everyone’s married, and give them some positive role models.  That’s four easy things you can do to provide your singles with concrete pastoral care.  They all boil down to simply showing them that they are loved.  Not only will it make a huge difference in your singles group, but the singles still stuck in the world will notice, too, so prepare for growth!

February 17, 2010

Satisfied to be Single

Filed under: Press,Surviving Celibacy (The book) — sfierbaugh @ 9:48 PM

Surviving Celibacy is now officially released and available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  It is also available from Southeast Christian Church’s The Living Word bookstore!  This means, among other things, it has been reviewed for doctrinal appropriateness.

There is also a great article called “Satisfied to be Single”, by Tonia Johnson, in Southeast’s February 11, 2010 Outlook newspaper, which quotes me.  Tonia’s a long-term single who got married a couple of years ago to a great guy.  In the article, she talks about how being single doesn’t have to mean living life alone.  From the article:

Whether they’re unmarried by choice or circumstance, singles can be one of the church’s biggest assets, said Stephen Fierbaugh, author of Surviving Celibacy, a book about living a Christian life without a spouse.  Fierbaugh said that some of the most effective Christians of all time weren’t married, including the Apostle Paul, missionary and writer Amy Carmichael, and musician Rich Mullins.  Others, such as author C. S. Lewis, married very late in life, after serving the Lord for decades.

Fierbaugh, who is divorced, is a missionary with Pioneer Bible Translators who receives support from Southeast.  He coordinates the organization’s computer needs worldwide from its headquarters in Dallas, Texas.  He said his status as a single simplified the decision to become a missionary.

“It involved selling my house, taking a pay cut, and moving to a place where I knew no one,” Fierbaugh said of entering the mission field.  “That took a lot of prayer and planning, but it was much easier than if I had to worry about taking kids out of school or a spouse to discuss it with.”

Southeast has a great singles program that allows unmarried Christians to be a part of a serving, worshipping community without feeling like everything revolves around the spouse.  If you’re just filling a pew at a church totally focused on couples and kids, this is one time that it’s appropriate to church shop a bit for a church with an active singles program.  Larger churches sometimes have strong programs.  Find one that fits your Bible background and go for it!  You’ll be so glad you did!  It really is so much easier for us to make these big moves than if we were married.  Take advantage of it, get plugged in and serving, and see what adventure God has in store for you!

February 12, 2010

It’s Valentine’s week on FB…

Filed under: Humor — sfierbaugh @ 10:55 AM

On a lighter note, it appears I’m in on a meme that has sparked a heartfelt response.  After seeing “Make your profile picture of you and your sweetheart and tell everyone how long you have been together”,  I changed mine to

It’s Valentine’s week on FB. If you are single and a little bitter, post the picture of the person you hope to marry and tell how long you’ve been stalking him/her. Then paste this as your status.

I must confess I stole this status from @Jeff Ballard, the singles minister at SECC.  We’re both getting lots of comments.  I thought it was quite funny, but I’m not serious.

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