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.”