What It’s Like to Be a Single Missionary

single missionary
The fear of staying single keeps some potential missionaries off the field. Read what six workers say it's really like to be single and serve. Photo by TEAM

She’s known as the MacGyver of missionaries. She spent 15 years traveling with nomadic cattle-herders, single-handedly wired her desert home with solar panels and still has her water delivered by donkeys.

But Tillie Tiller’s adventurous life in Chad slammed into a wall when she turned 39.

That’s when she realized she wasn’t getting married.

“In so many missionary biographies, in the middle of nowhere, a single guy shows up, and it is a perfect pairing. … Up until age 38, I thought it was going to happen,” Tillie says. “At age 39, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t happen, so then I started to spiral out of control. I didn’t even realize what was going on.”  

As Tillie’s sending agency, TEAM called her off the field. She would spend the next year in counseling, figuring out who she was without the possibility of a spouse and children.

For many prospective missionaries, Tillie’s breakdown is their worst nightmare.

Singleness is the fourth most common reason appointees don’t make it to the mission field or take a long time getting there, according to a Pioneers International report. And truthfully, fears of loneliness, feeling out of place or saying goodbye to the possibility of marriage aren’t entirely unfounded.

Even when she was raising support to serve in France, TEAM missionary Jenn Hylton thought, This would be so much easier if I weren’t alone, if I just had someone to help me.

But despite the challenges, some estimate that single people make up a third of the U.S. missions force.

So how do single missionaries make it work? It begins with recognizing the benefits.

Open Houses and Divine Surprises

Ask any missionary about the advantages of being single on the field, and they’ll talk about flexibility.

“I can do so much more spontaneous ministry,” says Taylor Nesse, who works with college students in Italy. “[If] someone texts me, nine times out of 10, I’ll be able to show up. I love that.”

Without a family to worry about infringing on, Taylor feels free to open his home, hosting large group meals throughout each semester. On the flipside, flying solo makes people feel more comfortable inviting you to their own homes, according to 35-year missionary Nancy Sturrock.

In South Asia, she says, “They have these small, little houses, and they’re not sure if they have enough food, and they don’t really know what to do for a foreigner. But one person, they can manage.”

Zach Harrod has been married nearly three years, but he’s still reaping benefits from nine years of single service in the Czech Republic.

“As a single, it was just like, heck, let’s get after it. … I grew, God helped me get the language, helped me get a ton of relationships with it. I’m still kind of riding the wave of that,” Zach says.

But sometimes, the greatest benefit to singleness is seeing God work in unexpected ways.

Lorraine Green went to Chad at 27 years old to do youth ministry, but she quickly saw that it wasn’t for her.

Instead, she ended up working with the local Bible school, teaching women how to be good pastors’ wives.

The irony wasn’t lost on Lorraine. But when she shared her concerns with a local pastor he said, “Don’t talk like that. You teach God’s Word. You teach the principles of God’s Word, and the rest will work out.”

So she did — for 30 years. All the while, not a single student ever doubted her qualifications. God’s Word was enough.

‘I Thought It was Forever’

Naturally, those highs don’t cancel out the challenges of singleness.

For Tillie, getting back on the field meant admitting that she still felt a loss in not having a partner to share that life with.

“When I left for the field, I was completely content, so I thought it was forever,” Tillie says. “But every so often, the intense, deep yearning to be married would come again. It would pass, and, again, I thought it was over for good. I wish I had realized that it would roll around again and to be prepared to deal with it.

Well-meaning, fellow Christians don’t always make that preparation easy.

Furloughs are sprinkled with people who want to know if you’ve “found anyone yet.” And long-married teammates may struggle to understand adult life without a spouse or children.

It can be isolating sometimes, but I have to focus on Jesus and not circumstances,” Jenn says.

In those moments, God becomes a greater source of comfort as the only one who knows each person fully — single or not — and as someone who lived single missionary life Himself.

Recalling Christ’s determination in Isaiah 50:7, Lorraine says, “Jesus set His face like a flint to fulfill His calling, and I will do the same. … Bless His heart, He showed us how to be single.

Finding Support in Unexpected Places

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ life was the community He built for Himself — not only with the 12 disciples but also with His dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

On the field, finding deep fellowship often means getting creative.

After several rounds of people coming and going, Nancy grew hesitant to keep building doomed friendships, but she still needed confidants who knew her well. So, she decided to keep building relationships in Thailand but let her deeper friendships be ones she maintained over the internet.

In addition to befriending teammates, missionaries warn not to overlook nationals as friends who are less likely to move and will gladly pull you into their culture.

During language school, Zach says, “While I had a great flat that I lived in, I wouldn’t study there. I’d study at cafés, where I knew people were that I could meet or my friends were, … and it’s really paid off.”

Some missionaries find families who will let them take part in day-to-day life. Others find fellow expatriates they can visit over a weekend, or they see who’s serving locally with other agencies.

Taylor says it’s natural to think your closest relationships will be found on your team, but he encourages new missionaries to hold out for people they naturally trust and confide in.

Find your people; don’t assume who your people are,” he says.

Sometimes that will mean finding people in the same life stage. Other times, it means building relationships where both parties can offer unique perspectives.

“Often [married] friends will remind me of a blessing in my life that might become easy to overlook, and I thank God for that reminder,” Jenn says. “Another perfect example of why we need the Body of Christ!”

Is Marriage Your Idol?

Ultimately, success as a missionary — single or married — comes down to trusting God and being willing to follow Him wherever He leads.

All I know is that God’s called me to be single today — and probably tomorrow. I don’t think I’m having a wedding before tomorrow,” Nancy says with a laugh. “… So I need to be single with my whole heart and go about what He’s given me to do today.”

Zach encourages young men to put their hearts under a microscope and carefully consider if God is truly calling them to stay home in pursuit of marriage or if a domestic ideal has become an idol.

Ironically, he says, staying home in the hopes of getting married would have kept him from meeting his wife, a Czech woman he met on the field. Their first baby is due later this year.

Our lives are just so much more interesting, so much more colorful, so many different hues, just because … I decided I’m just gonna go, and God’s gonna take care of me,” Zach says. “It might not be how everyone else’s life looks, but that’s OK.”

Twenty years after her year of counseling in the States, Tillie believes the same thing about her continued life as a single missionary in Chad.

“In hindsight, I can honestly say that I love my life,” she says. “I don’t regret any of it.”


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About the author

Bethany DuVal
Bethany DuVal

Bethany DuVal is a copywriter and editor who served with two mission agencies in Texas before settling at TEAM. She has a passion for equipping Christian missionaries, telling the stories of how God uses them and showing the church how they can do both.

11 Comments

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  • If that is all you have to write about single missionaries, then you have missed a lot!!! There is nobody here to wash the solar panels high on my roof, I always have to wait until the married guy has time in his scedule to do the repairs in my house which I cannot do myself. The extreme loneliness in the evenings in a country where you cannot go out in the evening. Being the only non-north-american single, living with north-american couples, … I know that sounds all very negative, but those are just a few clips of the reality of my life, being a single missionary seconded to TEAM.
    I know I have a lot of priviliges, working in the training of national pastors, and nobody questioning that I am a woman, but there are always too sides to the coin and not everybody is a Tille who can wire her house herself (and I love her dearly).
    So, how do single missionaires make it work? I do my ministry and for the technical stuff, I wait, and wait, and wait. Maybe one day somebody will install my washing machine, maybe someday somebody will replace the broken window pane in my bedroom so that the heat will be kept out, maybe someday sombeody will wash my solar panels so that I will get full power out of them, until that day, I will rely on the Lord to carry me through in accepting the things that are not done and that I cannot do myself.

    • It might sound negative, but I’m glad you shared it. That’s always the challenge of writing a piece like this: How do you sum up a topic that is essentially just… life? It won’t be all positive, it won’t be all negative — and it will be different for everyone.

      My hope with this piece wasn’t so much to write the definitive guide on being single on the field, but more to give a small taste of what that life looks like for multiple single missionaries. So, thank you for adding to that taste!

      And also, thank you for being steadfast amid all the challenges you face. The things you shared would keep a lot of people off the field. So thank you for setting aside your comfort for the sake of Christ. And thank you for being an example to those of us who fear that level of sacrifice!

  • Bethany,
    I was very encouraged by this blog post. Thank you for taking the time to put on paper the stories of these missionaries and their experiences. Their stories have power and I am excited that their stories get to be told! Thank you for making that sharing of knowledge possible.

    • It really is exciting to see the myriad ways God chooses to work through His people. I’m glad you were encouraged! Thank you for reading!

  • This is so great! I have a blog and facebook page where I share encouraging messages and blogs for singles and will definitley be passing this along to some people I know.

    I love the part you shared about the single who served by equiping woment to be better wives. I can relate, with a similar situation in my own ministry. There is this legitimate fear that people may judge us or feel like we are incompetant if we lack personal experience in the things we teach. But the ultimate truth is that our experiences and credentials are never what qualify us to teach gospel truths and share scriptural principals. God can epuip whoever He pleases. He often does not call the qualified; He qualifies the called. My mind may not be able to understand the circumstances and lifestyles of others, but the mind of Christ in me can!

    There is so little encouragement for singles who are dedicating their lives to ministry. So keep up the great work!

    • “My mind may not be able to understand the circumstances and lifestyles of others, but the mind of Christ in me can!”

      I love that, Elizabeth! It’s so true — and so important to remember as we seek to minister to people in all kinds of different cultures and circumstances.

    • I would like to thank you so very much for such an inspired writing that truly got an angle on me. Getting married is one thing and praying to get the right type of person into your life through the perfect Will of God by patiently waiting for His timing is absolutely another great thing to consider. The Bible speaks of a man leaving his father and mother and joining to his wife in becoming one flesh, Genesis 2: 24. This verse has a conditional meaning to it. Meaning, only if it is His divine Will for you both in becoming husband and wife according to His marriage Institution despite your short comings, frailty, imperfectness, and broken attitudes, as He put two imperfect individuals together to become couples.
      God being divine is more prone to using the foolish things of this world to glorify, manifest, and to edify His church through the power of the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t look for someone with a Bachelors, Masters or Phd degrees, but only look out for an obedient, broken and willing, and ready vessel to use which happen to be the worst incompetent person in the eyes of those who consider themselves wise with a spiritual understanding completely out of order with God, I Corinthian 6:25-28.
      In the times we live today, every minute and second’s people are getting married without first seeking the face and Will of God in terms of godly compatibility and chemistry. And few days, months or years after marriage they either end up tearing one another apart, ending in court, cast into prison or killing the other partner. I am very grateful for the Lord’s direction, and guidance as a single minister in the Lord than living with an unequally yoke that will bring me down, hinder and pollute my calling and anointing in serving the Lord.
      Remember, people will always put limit on your ministry calling if they can’t comprehend the manifestation of the Lord’s anointing upon your life. My advice to all singles is for us all to know our values, and understand that we have been predestined God for such a time even before creation, and that no amount of evil, gossiping, conspiracies will be against us if only we decide to stay strong in our faith in Jesus Christ, Romans 8:30-31. Remember there is a difference between calling, desire, and willing to serve God. Should you need any further clarification on these three elements, I could be reach at: bateloojay@gmail.com. Remain bless in the Lord, hold your head high up and walk only with the Mind of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit who had called you into His ministry. God bless.

      Shalom!!!!!!!!

  • This is encouraging for me personally. I have found myself single at 50 years of age and just now am heading into this field. I’m not sure what I have to offer other than two hard working hands and am nervously excited for this journey ahead.

  • Thank you for this post. It is encouraging to know about other single missionaries in the field – at least to know that there are others in the world whom I can relate with! I am a single at 41, alone in the field, in a country where there are not many single missionaries. So I am excited to I hear about others who share the benefits and challenges of singleness.

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