NZCMS Board member, Ian Daily, reflects on how those gifted with singleness find and belong to an intimate, fulfilling and outward looking community.
“Don’t expect us to be your friends – we’re very busy people!”
The words of this thoughtless and unfeeling remark left me stunned and without words for a minute. Here I was, returning home to New Zealand after 21 years away - a single person without a spouse with whom to share the challenges of adjusting to a new life in an environment that was now strange and unfamiliar.
I suddenly felt very alone.
The family members and friends I’d had when I’d left so long before had all moved on with their lives and I realised that my network of relationships had to some degree unraveled. There were now few common interests, and not many could relate to my overseas experience and weren’t very interested anyway. I needed a new community into which I could be welcomed, where I could find a place to give and receive, and where I could serve God in a new context. And I was now well and truly middle-aged!
Of course, all this had happened in reverse 20 years earlier when I’d arrived in South America, but I was young then and was invigorated by discovering how to live in a new culture and learn a new language. There were quite a few other single Mission Partners (as well as welcoming missionary families) and friendships were quickly formed, many of which have endured to this day. There was an instant missionary community we fitted into and we forged friendships with many of the local people.
The number of single people in overseas mission was, and still is, quite striking. At present 30% of NZCMS’s Mission Partners are singles. This is a far higher proportion of single adults in this age group than you will find in the general population. What would overseas mission look like were it not for single women who have been open to serving God in this way throughout the generations?
The blessings and dangers of a single life
We all start our lives as singles, and as God’s children we are to accept that gift. For many, there comes the opportunity to exchange the gift of singleness for the gift of marriage and they are to embrace that gift as God’s calling on their life. For the rest of us, we still have the gift that God means us to have. Some will go on to take vows of celibacy but most of us are “unintentional” singles who “ended up this way” but who are to continue embracing the gift God has given.
Singleness often brings loneliness and a lack of human intimacy, sometimes a sense of not fitting in and an unwarranted sense of failure. But it brings freedom and opportunities that couples often don’t have. I’m not sure I would have visited more than 70 countries on mostly work assignments had I not been single! And, for many, a deeper level of intimacy with God is found.
It also brings dangers of self-indulgence and of shutting other people out. The bottom line is that we must echo Paul’s words in Philippians 4.
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation… I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
So what can we singles do to find a sense of community? Looking back over the 20 years since I returned home, I have found the following strategies helpful.
Maintaining family networks while away
I have literally dozens of cousins and we have reunions every few years. This engenders a sense of belonging and reinforces a sense of personal identity. I have people out there who belong to me, and I to them. Get to know them again and strengthen old ties.
A place of work is a great place to build new relationships. The same applies to where you live – getting to know neighbours and getting involved in local activities. This has certainly been true for me, living in a community of 59 families, and now co-chairing the committee that oversees the care and maintenance of our homes. Many nationalities live here and I can even speak Spanish to my Colombian neighbour!
Every Friday I drive the buggy at Selwyn Village for those with mobility issues. This has allowed me to get to know a totally different group of people, both staff and residents, and provides me with moments of ministry and a window into a completely different world.
Being involved in a faith community
Despite the dispiriting start to this article, my closest and most faithful friends and prayer partners did surround me with encouragement and support. I also joined a small and warm congregation, which incidentally has many singles, including the “once-were-married” and the widowed. Very quickly a sense of belonging and community developed and this is where I felt the strongest sense of community as I became involved in the activities and ministry of the parish.
Those who have never married are not to be considered objects of pity, suspicion or condescension. Their life has simply taken a different path - they have received a different gift in life from the majority. They have been granted freedom and time to devote to Christian ministry as the Apostle Paul noted as being one of the advantages of singleness (I Corinthians 7).
And many have discovered a special intimacy with their Lord and the joy of being able to channel their reserves of love to the widest possible number of people around them. Let us bless God who gives us the grace that goes with each and every gift he bestows!
Questions to consider
In a society that is so focused on romantic relationships as being the pathway to true happiness and fulfillment, in what ways can singleness be viewed as an alternative model of human completeness? How can love of others, as opposed to love of the human “significant other”, help us to understand the character and breadth of God’s love?
What ideas do you have about how the gifts and experience of single people (whether they have overseas mission experience or not) could be harnessed to enhance the ministry and outreach of local faith communities?
Most churches have significant numbers of 'home-aloners’ in their congregations. Many will have felt that their networks of relationships have unraveled over the years, or have worries about living alone, especially if they are older. What more can your faith community do to strengthen a sense of community, belonging and care?