MTW missionary Brent Kooi (L) serves in Sydney, Australia.

The Single Missionary Experience

By Chelsea Rollman, Oct 17, 2023

“Am I just going to be single now?”

This is the question one MTW missionary wrestled with when she decided to follow God’s call to global missions.

“I remember spending a couple of nights just tossing and turning under the weight of that,” she said.

This missionary isn’t alone. Many single missionaries feared going to the field meant signing up for a life of singleness. This fear is only one of many challenges single missionaries face. Besides wondering if they will ever find a spouse, many single missionaries battle loneliness, disrespect, and not feeling understood.

Yet most would say God has used their singleness to effectively minister in their context and deepen their personal relationship with Him. As they grapple with the challenges and experience the benefits, they paint a vibrant picture of God’s kingdom and His care for all His people.

Single Missionaries Face Specific Challenges

Loneliness is a considerable struggle for single missionaries and it plays out in several ways. Practically speaking, they have to raise support, adjust to a new culture, and accomplish daily tasks without the help of a spouse or family. Then there can be long seasons of grieving the lack of companionship, encouragement, and intimacy that comes from a spouse.

In addition to loneliness, they sometimes encounter unhealthy perspectives on singleness that make them feel less important to the ministry than their married counterparts. During the early years of his ministry, MTW Bulgaria missionary Dave Culmer said one of the biggest challenges he faced as a single was feeling as if he wasn’t treated as an equal by some of the men. Though he was in a similar leadership position as many of the married men, he sometimes felt dismissed. One person told him that people who are still single are decidedly less mature than those who are married.

Unfortunately, other single missionaries have experienced similar attitudes. They often have to navigate careless comments from supporters and teammates that—whether intentional or not—undercut their value to the mission.

When MTW Sydney missionary Brent Kooi sat on a panel of single missionaries at an MTW Global Missions Conference, he heard many of the female panelists say they don’t get many touch points from their male supervisors.

“Some of the male missionaries don’t feel comfortable meeting individually with a female,” said Brent. “And I can understand and respect that but at the same time, you’re the boss. She’s your employee. You need to give her time and figure out a way that you can do that appropriately.”

Other single missionaries, particularly women, have been asked if they have given up on the idea of marriage. Church members in both their home and field countries can fixate on their singleness rather than asking about their ministry work. When they are in the U.S. for home assignment, they are often set up for dates by well-meaning friends and family. All these things subtly communicate that their marriage status is central to their identity instead of their value as a child of God and their work in His kingdom.

The Ministry Benefits of Being Single

However, there are benefits to being a single missionary. The main one is freedom and flexibility.

Dave said he has experienced firsthand the wisdom of I Corinthians 7:32-35 where Paul talks about the benefits of celibacy saying that unmarried people have more freedom to serve God with undivided attention. According to Dave, singles have more time to give to ministry responsibilities.

“I get a little nervous thinking about how bad of a team leader I would have been if I had been married. I wouldn’t have time to give to the things that I can give to as a single person,” said Dave, who currently serves as team leader for MTW’s team in Sofia, Bulgaria.

MTW London missionary Kersten Kazen echoed his thoughts saying, “You have the flexibility to just pour into church ministry … You've got the time and maybe the undivided attention as well, which is just helpful.”

This freedom and flexibility not only means they can give more time and attention to the ministry, but they can also invest more in relationships. Single missionaries have opportunities to reach and minister to people in ways married couples can’t. Since they don’t have to split their time and energy with a family, single missionaries often have the relational bandwidth and freedom to dive deep into the hearts and lives of others.

Brent said that he is able to speak into the lives of the young men at his church about singleness and the way God is using it to sanctify him. He is also able to serve the missionary kids of his teammates—and by extension their parents—by stepping into the role of the fun uncle. This is a blessing for Brent because he loves kids but does not have any of his own. And it is a blessing for the missionary kids who live miles away from their extended family.

For Dave, singleness opened the door to relationships with other Bulgarians. When he first came to Sofia, he was the only single missionary on his team. Therefore, time with other Bulgarians became his main social outlet. Getting to know the Bulgarians not only helped him learn the language faster, but also understand his ministry context. He learned their needs, desires, and values and how the gospel addresses them. According to Dave, singleness is a huge opportunity to pour into relationships with nationals which can lead to life-giving friendships and insights on the best way to minister to them.

God Reveals Himself Through Single Missionaries

Perhaps the most significant benefit of the single missionary experience is that it teaches both the missionary, and those watching, different aspects of who God is and how He works in people’s hearts.

When Kersten was leaving the U.S. for West London, she worried going overseas meant a life of singleness. Added to that fear was an uncertainty about her role as a missionary. As she grappled with these issues, God taught her to trust Him in ways she hadn’t had to before. He used the struggle to confirm her calling as a single missionary to West London.

“It’s that real tension of saying, ‘This is not where I thought I would be. This is maybe not where I want to be, or I ever wanted to be.’ But at the end of the day recognizing that this is where God has me today and asking ‘Is it enough? Is God enough?’” said Kersten.

Going to the field alone has been baptism by fire in learning to rely on God alone, and she has seen God’s care in a thousand practical ways—in leading her to a welcoming church, in providing a place to live that feels like home, and in sending people to pour into her.

“I’m just so grateful,” she said. “It’s easy in your day to day to take for granted the ordinary. And I even hate to say that because it’s really not ordinary … I’ve seen how He sustained me … I’ve seen where the Lord has really smoothed the path and opened doors and again provided the support and relationships as necessary.”

Because life on the field drives them to depend on God for everything—companionship, comfort, provision, encouragement—single missionaries often have a rich understanding of the sufficiency of Christ.

Dave, paraphrasing author and theologian Henri Nouwen said, “Singles need married people so that they can see what the wedding of the bride of Christ looks like and married people need singles so that they can be reminded that there are places in the heart that only Christ can go.”

During times of grief, loneliness, and grappling with his calling to singleness, Dave said Christ met him where he was. “God was right there with me every step of the way as I processed through that. And coming away from it, realizing that’s actually a beautiful thing.”

God also sent people to support and care for Dave, including his two best friends, Vlado and Boyan. He met both Bulgarian men during his early years in Sofia and they have walked through thick and thin together.

“The Lord has provided for me those deep, deep committed friendships. In so many ways, those friendships give me a lot of life. I depend on them. They are there when I’m dealing with certain things as a team leader and who I seek out for council on a lot of things.”

Supporting churches and friends, mentors, and pastors in the U.S. are also an avenue of God’s care for single missionaries. Dave said there are people in the U.S. he can call at a moment’s notice if he needs to talk through something confidentially with them. Since they are removed from the ministry, they can give an outsider’s perspective which is especially helpful in difficult situations.

These testimonies of God’s kindness and providence give greater dimension of who God is and His care for His people. God demonstrates His sufficiency and goodness through the single missionary experience. As they are pushed to rely on God for everything, God equips them to share about His loving care to others—teammates, nationals, other singles, and married couples.

Singleness and the Mission

Singles are and always have been crucial to God’s mission. Scripture is full of examples of single men and women significantly contributing to God’s plan of redemption—Miriam, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Lydia, the apostle Paul, and of course, Jesus himself. Today, some estimate that one third of the U.S.-sent missions force is single. They are as critical as ever to global missions. The world, and especially the post-Christian West, is becoming more single.

Therefore, it is important for churches and missions agencies to recognize the distinct callings of singles. They must work toward championing them as cherished members of God’s family and vital workers in God’s kingdom.

“At MTW, as in many missions organizations and in the wider church, there is often an unconscious bias toward married people,” said MTW Director of Member Care David Thomae. “As an organization, and particularly in member care, we are working to care well for the singles at MTW. The Member Care Department currently has two single women, one of whom is a licensed counselor, among the 10 department members. This representation helps us keep the issues singles face in mind.”

MTW’s Member Care Department also provides training for leaders about single worker issues, times for singles to connect at MTW missionary events, and safe pathways for singles to resolve problems and address interpersonal conflict.

Churches also play an essential role in caring for and equipping single missionaries. Consistent communication and support from churches combats the loneliness singles battle on the field. The Church is also uniquely positioned to help single missionaries in their calling. Singles do not have a spouse to serve as a sounding board as they discern God’s plan for their lives. This is where the local church can help them confirm their calling. Whether it is a single in the congregation who is beginning to think about global missions or a single on the field wrestling with doubt about their call, the church can step in and speak the truth. They can reaffirm their gifts, remind them that they are not alone, and help them remember God’s love for them.

God’s kingdom needs single missionaries. They are needed to teach others about the friendship and sufficiency of Christ. They have more flexibility and freedom in their relationships and time, and can minister to people in ways married couples can’t. Single missionaries need supportive churches and missions agencies to advocate for them, to confirm their calling, and to care for them so that they can care for others. Together, single missionaries and the supporters that stand behind them better demonstrate the diversity and unity people can experience in God’s kingdom.

Chelsea Rollman

Chelsea Rollman is a marketing specialist and staff writer at MTW. She formerly served as the girls’ discipleship coordinator at Village Seven in Colorado Springs, and as a marketing assistant at The White Horse Inn. Chelsea graduated from Covenant College in 2016 with her B.A. in English. She and her husband, Hudson, live in Jacksonville, Florida, and attend Christ Church Presbyterian where Hudson serves as the youth director.

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