Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Married or unmarried as missionary

In my early years in Swaziland my wife and I often discussed the advantages and disadvantages of being married as missionaries. We didn’t have much of a choice then, because we were already married when we arrived in Swaziland. In certain aspects it would have been easier for me to have been unmarried. For one, the best method to learn a new language is to stay within a community of people where you are forced to use the new language every day. My one colleague and his wife did this, but they were in the position that they had no more children in the house when they arrived in Swaziland. For us it was impossible as we had a six month old baby with an allergy which made it impossible for us to live away from home for more than a few days.
John Rowell writes in another context of the desirability to be unmarried in missions. He is involved in missions in Bosnia and says that they used to send unmarried people as missionaries to Bosnia (who eventually got married to nationals!) and then eventually sent a married couple. But the married couple went with a huge container filled with their belongings. (He writes in the context of affluence in missions – a topic which I will come back to at a later stage). He says that, if a missionary is unmarried, then it is much easier and much cheaper to live like the local people.
There is definitely truth in this. But I would be reluctant to make a rule one way or the other. The fact is that God created most of us not to be on our own. I wonder whether I would have stayed in Swaziland for so many years if I had not been married. It is jokingly said that single male missionaries going to Russia cannot hold out for more than six months before they marry a Russian girl. (I can fully understand why, as it does seem as if God blessed this nation with some of the most beautiful girls in the world!) But I doubt whether that is the only reason. I have some wonderful male friends (my buddies!) But there are just some things that they will never be able to understand in the same way that my wife does.
I am busy with a book on the handling of stress and trauma. Being a missionary often means handling extreme stress and trauma. The spouse is usually the first person with whom problems can be discussed, to whom blunders can be confessed without fear of being rejected and with whom debriefing can take place on a daily base.
Another advantage is that in many traditional “mission” countries, family life is at a very low point. This is true in Swaziland (probably most of sub-Saharan Africa) and it is also true in Russia (which I also have personal experience of.) To teach people theoretically on how married couples should live and how families should live makes little difference. But it can make a difference if a married missionary can model a different way of living as family and can become a mentor for a few couples who wish to change their relationship.
Being unmarried as missionary also has certain problems. My experience of unmarried people is that the majority of them become fairly selfish after some time – usually without them really realising it. (My apologies if you are unmarried and fall outside this description). This is understandable, because a person learns to live without having to take anyone else into consideration in their private lives. But this tends to filter through into normal life as well with the effect that many unmarried missionaries refuse to deviate from their fixed viewpoints or methods of doing things which can cause some tension in a missions situation.
I guess that it would be impossible to say that the one is better than the other. Both have advantages and both have disadvantages. It would probably make sense to acknowledge the reality within which you find yourself and then do everything possible to proclaim the kingdom of God within the circumstances in which God had placed you.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007 - Posted by | Culture, Indigenous church, Mission, Rowell, Russia, Swaziland, Theology

1 Comment »

  1. […] Married or unmarried as missionaryIn my early years in Swaziland my wife and I often discussed the advantages and disadvantages of being married as missionaries. We didn’t have much of a choice then, because we were already married when we arrived in Swaziland. … […]

    Pingback by Swaziland » Blog Archives » Alcoholism is an issue in Swaziland | Tuesday, October 9, 2007 | Reply


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