Sole Sisters: Challenges and Solutions for Single Women Ministering Overseas
In the August ’97 issue of Words for Women, the editor included a question asking, “What are the problems and challenges you face as a single woman in global work?” The response she received, plus subsequent input from six other single women recommended for their experience and maturity, are reprinted below. Our purpose in reprinting this report is to help our readers understand better their single sisters working alongside them every day. (Initials are used for privacy.)
Despite their many challenges, singles display attitudes of enthusiasm, faith, tenacity and loyalty in their commitments to serve our Lord.
JO wrote: “I love being on a team with old and young, with married and singles. We really do complement each other, don’t we?”
KS wrote: “It is a privilege to serve in global work, single or married. Each has its particular set of advantages and disadvantages. We can be content in whatever state the Lord has for us. The potential for eternal impact by Christian singles who use their singleness for all it’s worth is unlimited. And as singles we have wonderful opportunities to know the Lord in ways we wouldn’t otherwise, as we continually entrust Him with some very significant areas of life. He’s been very good to me.”
- Frequent change of house mates
JO: One big frustration is my roommate situation. I have had 65 roommates to date. Just when I really get to know a new roommate and we feel really comfortable (we know what the other likes to eat, pet peeves, strengths, weaknesses, when to draw out, when to leave alone, etc.) one of us leaves. Then another comes, and it starts again. I have enjoyed almost all of my roommates, but it’s painful to get close, just to have to say good-bye again.
AN: This is a really good issue. Not only does it mean constantly re-establishing friendships and relationships, but also always having “share” your home. Some have a long term living commitment and can therefore make a home together. But more often two women are put together for an indefinite time period, which means it is not really home for either one. Also, living with people you don’t know on a repetitive basis can be very stressful, especially if you were not given a choice in the matter. I got to the point where I made sure I had a choice in who I lived with, or I wouldn’t have made it through a whole term.
RS: I think partnerships of 3 or 4 are a better idea than putting two women together. After all, a partnership isn’t the same as a marriage.
- The “Cloister”
KS: In Asia I had only other women to talk with. I need male input too. Branches with no single men or just one are not uncommon. The Lord in his wisdom created men and women to complement each other. When this diversity is unavailable, the normal complementary gifting, skills, perspectives, etc. are also missing.
LL: I really do believe that both genders can benefit by healthy friendships with both genders. We can learn much from each other, because men and women do see things differently. But friendships with the opposite sex must be guarded. With marrieds, I make it a policy to continue the friendship with a man only to the extent that I am also a friend with his wife.
- Travel and vacations
KS: I found foreign travel difficult and threatening alone. How can singles safely take a vacation?
RS: Good question. When you go with people you don’t know well, the relationship building can take away from the purpose of a vacation.
JO: It’s not always easy to find someone else to vacation with, and most of us don’t like spending a week on the beach alone, eating alone, etc.
KS: Personal safety issues are a high priority when traveling alone. We are vulnerable. This affects whether or not we take needed vacations, how we can carry out work-related travel and moving or leaving the country. Security of our “stuff” is also a problem when traveling. Everything has to go with us – to the restroom, to get something to eat, to try to find out about tickets, etc.
- Housing: Privacy and Moving
JO: I was asked to move into the bedroom of another woman to free up my two rooms for a married couple with a small child. I feel that each single should have the privacy of at least her own bedroom, to avoid embarrassment and adjustments.
KS: Moving often disrupts friendships. You’re always starting over. It’s like putting money into a savings account with a hole in it.
LL: Singles are frequently the first to be moved. Some entities have no recognized housing for singles, and require them to move from one “house-sitting” position to another. As a result, the single has no chance to establish her own home.
Anon: This is a very valid point! Each single is a family of one and her privacy should be respected.
- Personal time
KS: I need time for home management and development. I need some time off each week besides Saturdays. I can’t enjoy any special events that get planned on Saturdays, as I spend my whole Saturday cleaning, shopping, and cooking.
AN: I got frustrated sometimes that so many “women’s” activities – Bible studies, aerobics, etc. – were scheduled during the day when wives/mothers could go but those of us working in an office couldn’t.
LL: Home management, development, cooking, care of garden, communication with househelp – tasks that couples divide, must be handled by the single alone – especially if she lives alone. Composing, producing, addressing, stuffing, stamping and mailing communication with constituency, preparing slides and packing are things that always fall on the single’s shoulders alone. The branch from which I come has shortened the work day for singles specifically to give them time to meet some of these maintenance needs without taking all possible rest time (Saturdays and/or Sundays) to do them.
PG: I cringe when single women are referred to as “girls” while married women are referred to as “women”.
JO: Once a person has gotten a grasp of the language and culture and is able to work into more ministry-type work (whatever that may be), that person needs to have more choices and a say in decision making, especially decisions affecting her personal life.
LL: As singles we desire the same respect as any other person who has equivalent field experience, educational experience and recognized personal wisdom, rather than recognition based on marital status or gender line. I have known married women who have felt unrecognized and single men who have been marginalized. I think the issue is one of respect – seeing us all as colleagues.
- Single women in administrative roles
AN: .How does a single woman cope as an administrator when the branch administration takes a retreat with their spouses and she’s the only single there, all other administrators being married men? There is also the problem of going to Mid-East parties alone. Perhaps three people going together would be a solution.
- Harassment and Multiple Proposals
KS: I think we need frank discussion of sexuality, attraction to and romantic involvement with people in the host culture, sexual harassment and multiple proposals from men of the host country.
- An Advocate
JO: If a husband speaks out about a struggle that his wife has with respect to the ministry, he is “caring.” If I have the same struggle and speak up about it, I’m sometimes seen as “overbearing.” But there is no one else to speak up for me.
LL: Frankly, I’ve cried out to the Lord for an advocate. As a single I have often felt I have had to fight my battles alone, and keenly felt the need for some kind of mediator or support. Not having one, I have been characterized as “overbearing” or “inappropriately strong” or “emotional” and not taken seriously.
KS: Certainly there are other avenues of advocacy, such as administrators, team leaders and friends that are all valuable and can help to meet this need in some ways.
- Furlough: Family or Group Service?
DS: I do not have a sense of family except while on furlough. I need to be with my family most of the furlough time in order to feel like I’m part of my family again. I need that connection and it doesn’t come just from being in the same country as my family. It is an essential part of my regrouping and spiritual preparation to return to the field. But I am required to do Group Service during most of my furlough.
KS: The only consistent people in my life are my birth family members, and if I don’t have time to reestablish some sort of ongoing relationship with them during furlough time, I can pretty much end up without a family. This requires going through a bit of life together again, not just sitting down and catching up. And if I can’t spend sufficient time building relationships with my nieces and nephews, my one connection to the next generation, I can end up without relatives at the other end of life.
AN: This will differ from person to person, but it is true that for many singles their primary identity is still tied to their own family. They need time to maintain this sense of connectedness. I’m not sure that it is valid to say that the single needs all of furlough to spend time with family. Some may need extra time for partnership development as well. Furlough should be designed for each individual’s needs.
From Area Directors and Single Women
Director: One of our functions as administrators is to smooth out the bumps and chuckholes for our colleagues. I have been concerned for a long time about some of the difficult or impossible situations we place single people in, particularly single women. Directors need to build trust with single women. We should invite discussions with the singles on matters that are unique to their situations. We believe in affirmative action in showing our single women respect by giving qualified women positions of authority and responsibility. We try to give respect, not through laws or policies, but through love, consideration, and a helping hand. Singles need to be listened to. We all do. [The married couples and the directors] should validate the single women through expressions of appreciation.
On Partnership or Teamwork:
Single Women: One idea is to form teams of technical and non-technical people to take on the whole language project. A team could be 4-6 people with different specialties who would keep an allocation open even though different members of the team would be doing group service or be on furlough, etc. This would have the advantage of a broader support base than just one other person in an isolated location. There is room for a lot of creative problem solving. By thinking of teams instead of partners, we take the focus off the relationship of two single people who are paired up and put it on all the team of people who are there to accomplish the task.
On Representation and Communication:
Director: Each entity handles member care differently. Single women need to be united to present their needs to directors. Single women should always be included or represented when a planning committee meets, especially when the issue affects single women, such as housing.
Director: Singles could meet informally once a month for discussion of policies affecting their lives and work, such as housing, and then present their suggestions to the larger organization. A recognized coordinator can represent the single women without the burden of their representing themselves.
Single Women: We single women need a women’s care department or single member services department to include functions of research (surveys and interviews), communications, support, encouragement, mentoring and representation or liaison. An Internet chat group could also be formed to encourage communication among singles on an international level.
Ideas for married women to minister to single women:
- Include a single or two on your next family picnic
- Have singles and marrieds over for a potluck, and assign the singles to bring real food, not just rolls. (They can cook, too!)
- Invite singles to your Bible study and prayer group.
- Pause after church or team meetings to ask a single how she’s doing and invite her over that week for a cup of coffee and “girl talk”.
- Involve your children with single “aunties.”
- Include one or two in your vacation plans with your family. “God sets the lonely in families.” (Ps. 68:6 NIV)
- Include them on special occasions – Easter, Christmas and birthday parties.
- Help them when it’s their turn to move.
- You and your husband could be advocates for a single who needs representation or backing regarding an issue or misunderstanding.
- Be a sounding board. Singles need someone to listen to their concerns. A real listener can help a single woman sort out her own feelings and come to a decision.
- Pray for her and with her!