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.