Where Are the Men?

 

“I have to go back home and work on my seminary degree.  It’s an org requirement, and it will take me too long to complete online if I stay here. But don’t worry! Once I finish, I’ll be back.” 

Jacob* was resigned to the fact that he would be leaving the field for a while to fulfill the requirements of his sending organization. While the seminary degree in and of itself was not a bad thing, it would be the impetus of his leaving the field for good.

That’s because, about a year into his program, Jacob fell in love with Kara. They shared a deep love for Christ and making him known, but Kara was not at all interested in living outside of her home country. Nevertheless, the couple went ahead with their wedding day. Five years and two kids later, Jacob and Kara are pretty well settled into life in their home country. With Jacob having no intention of going back overseas, the team he left behind now consists of two couples and five single women.**

There’s a cheeky statistic I’ve heard that says, “About two thirds of field workers are married couples. Another third are single women, and the rest are single men.” Of course, this facetious statistic would imply that there are no single men on the field. And while we know this is not correct, most of us have noticed the conspicuous imbalance of single women to single men on the field. 

While I have yet to see a study on why there is such an imbalance of singles on the field, there are some interesting observations to be made and perhaps a few questions we should be asking to get a clearer picture of the reasons and consequences of the male shortage in overseas ministry. 

 

Why Are There So Few Men?
So, why are we not seeing more single men in full-time overseas ministry? It certainly cannot be said that there is a lack of men wanting to work in full-time ministry. Men fill most paid ministry positions in local churches, but when it comes to overseas work, single men are heavily outnumbered. Here are a few observations about this phenomenon:

1. Men are compelled (and are sometimes required) to go to seminary or grad school before they begin service in overseas ministry. Sometimes, this requires several years away from the field. The extra time spent obtaining more education can be long, burdensome, and expensive. In the midst of time spent obtaining this education, these men may find themselves with mounting student debt, in love with someone who does not share their desire to live overseas, or drawn into the world of preaching to congregations in their own country. 

2. Some men who desire to minister cross-culturally don’t want to do so until they are married. However, this “wait for a mate” time often leads to involvement with other ministries or jobs that pull their attention and passion away from living overseas. Some of these men wind up marrying women who do not share their passion or desire to minister cross-culturally. These life changes often mean a complete redirection of plans and passions.  

3. When a single man expresses his desire to minister overseas to his church leadership, these overseers tend to encourage men to stick around and “learn about ministry” by interning or leading a ministry in their local church. While the heart and intention behind this is one of love and mentorship, the experience gained in a local church in the Western Hemisphere is often entirely unhelpful for a person headed to a culture that does not even have a concept of church. 

4. Churches often want men to be married before they go overseas because it’s believed that marriage will save them from sexual temptation and pornography addiction. However, the widely-held belief that marriage will be a deterrent to sexual misconduct is not only entirely inaccurate, but also keeps church leadership from addressing an actual issue that is likely already present in most men’s lives

5. When I have put this question to men who are engaged in ministry in their home countries, many have responded with a real apprehension about fundraising. They might be willing to go overseas and work a paying job, but the thought of asking churches for support feels arduous and humiliating. I am not sure how this mindset might shift between unmarried and married men, but it seems to be a common sentiment.

 

Feeling the Strain
The imbalance of men and women serving cross-culturally has very real consequences. We don’t just stand idly by and make observations because it makes us feel smart or important. The imbalance takes a heavy toll, and many field workers are feeling the strain.

My team in particular lives in a place with a disproportionately large population of male migrant laborers. Our team is and has always been mostly female. While there will always be work for the women to do, there is a much smaller workforce to focus time and attention on a population with whom we, as women, cannot interact: men. We live in a conservative country with strong cultural taboos about mixed company, so there is rarely a situation where women speaking to these men is appropriate. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 that “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs— how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world— how he can please his wife— his interests are divided.” To put it plainly: We need a more diverse workforce because the harvest field itself is diverse. 

In addition, many ministry teams work in cultures that have oppressive and cruel attitudes toward women. Living in patriarchal societies takes a heavy toll on women. There are spaces where women are simply unwelcome, and there are areas where women know they will be ogled or sexually assaulted. However, these locations may be the only places to, say, get a car repaired or buy a ceiling fan. Within the community of Christ-followers on the field, we depend on each other for help with tasks we would ordinarily be entirely capable of doing on our own. 

Then there are the cultures that simply expect single adult men to misbehave. The expectation is that young men will stay out all night, philander, and live as wildly as possible until they tie the knot. Who will show them another way?  Where are the single men who can live a life of sacrifice, love, and purity among them? We need representation of the body of Christ in all of its diverse beauty, and that includes the unique struggles and freedoms that are inherently a part of a bachelor’s life. Jesus himself lived his life unmarried and devoted to the work of his Father. Ministry as a single man is the first example the church was given, so why would we believe that this status is less than ideal? 

 

How Can Churches Help?
Of course, the questions and observations merit answers. While I do not believe that there is anything simple about the dilemma we face, there are some ways the church can help more single men get to the field:

1. Stop expecting men to get married before they live cross-culturally. Have the difficult conversations and counseling sessions to deal with porn addiction, lust, and objectification. Do not fall for the lie that having a wife will be the fix-all for potential sexual misconduct.

2. If single men express a desire to be married before they move overseas, ask them why they feel that way. We must be willing to ask where this desire is coming from, and to explore their reasons why ministry overseas requires them to be married but ministry at “home” does not. It also bears mentioning that the pool of single women on the mission field is deep and wide. Men who want to get married may actually have a lot more opportunity to find a spouse who shares their vision once they get to the field!

3. Rather than creating years-long responsibilities as a prerequisite for life on the field, set goals and reasonable expectations for men’s personal and theological development. Like anyone headed into overseas ministry, single men need people to walk alongside them to grow in maturity and in gaining an understanding of cross-cultural ministry. But we have to be willing to allow life on the field itself be an instructor. I once heard Vinay Samuel say, “Theology should be written on the mission field.” Indeed, life and ministry on the field will likely be a far better teacher on theology, scriptural interpretation, and strategy than any seminary class.  

As churches, we should be questioning why such an enormous imbalance exists both within domestic ministry, where men hold most full-time ministry positions, and within cross-cultural ministry, where women hold most full-time ministry positions. Granted, the gender disparity is far greater domestically than it is overseas. But, with such an abundance of women in full-time cross-cultural ministry, and so precious few of them in full-time local church ministry, we have to ask: Are women just picking up the ministry positions that men don’t really want? Women have a long history of heeding the call of Christ to make him known near and far, and there have been relatively few barriers to keep them from overseas work. However, if women wish to fill ministry positions within their home countries, the opportunities tend to be limited, unpaid, or for men only.

While I’m not wanting to get into the weeds on gender roles within ministry here, I do believe that we must take a hard look at how ethnocentric our attitudes have become when it comes to women ministering domestically versus overseas. For example, the ESV Bible was translated and overseen by an exclusively male team of 95 scholars and translators. Apparently, women were not invited, so this was not a simple oversight. However, when it comes to women leading bible translation projects in languages other than English or outside the Western Hemisphere, there is scarcely a voice of dissent.  

These are issues of importance not because sexism in church is a hot button issue. They are important because Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. In fulfilling the command of Christ to make disciples of all ethnicities, the workforce must be as multifaceted and diverse as the world itself is. The goal is not just to have a balanced ministry team, but to give the world — women, children, men, marrieds, singles, widows, minorities, rich, poor, and so on — a chance to hear that Jesus loves them from someone who can effectively live and communicate that truth to them. 

 

*Name changed 

**This story is not taken from one individual per se. It is a combination of many such stories that I have seen and heard from multiple cross-cultural workers. 

How Equipped is Equipped Enough?

I recently read an article about a young woman who moved to Uganda at 19 and started a center for malnourished children. This ministry grew over the course of ten years. Some of those children died, and she is now being sued for deceiving parents into thinking she was a trained doctor running a medical clinic.

I considered this story with conflicting feelings. This young woman was extremely young to have taken on such a complicated problem as dying children. I don’t know all the details, but it does seem like this she crossed some ethical boundaries. It’s difficult to tell if she deliberately deceived people or if she just wasn’t wise about how she presented herself. It seems like she didn’t work hard enough to maintain proper licensing with the authorities. 

However, it does seem like the opportunity to care for starving babies kind of threw itself in her lap. She saw a need, and she wanted to fill it. She believed strongly that there weren’t better options available for these children. She did hire Ugandan medical personnel, and at least at one point, she was licensed by the government. So was she helping more than hurting? Was she wise to jump into this opportunity even though she wasn’t equipped? 

This story makes me think about several missionary friends who moved to remote African villages to do church planting or community development, but ended up doing medical work on the side. With very few medical options available in the community, people came to them to dress wounds or help a sick child simply because having a supply of antibiotics and Google made them more equipped than anyone else in the community. Should they have refused to help because they weren’t trained medical workers? 

And what about other types of service? Realizing that you are in way over your head is like a rite of passage in missions work. Wait, what? Your missions training didn’t teach you how to kill snakes? Or how to deal with the demon-possessed child foaming at the mouth on your doorstep? You weren’t trained in children’s ministry? Too bad, you get to do children’s ministry. You can’t carry a tune? Oh well, when the pastor asks you to lead worship, you get to do it anyway. You don’t know anything about eating disorders? Well, if there are no psychologists in your area, I guess you’ll be the one to help the girl in your youth group.

Gladys Aylward, the famous British missionary to China, was a housemaid from a poor family and had almost no formal education. A missions agency turned her down, saying that she wasn’t learning the language fast enough. Yet she went on to serve the poor of China for 25 years, save the lives of many orphans, advocate against foot-binding and for prison reform, and bring many to know Jesus. She once said, “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China…It must have been a well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing and God looked down and saw Gladys Aylward. And God said–’Well, she’s willing.’”

Don’t all of us who serve overseas think this sometimes….or often? Wouldn’t a person who learned languages faster be better at this job? Shouldn’t someone be doing this who has a seminary degree, or teaching experience, or who studied social work? Wouldn’t someone older than me be better at this? What missionary hasn’t felt like she was drowning in a sea of her own incompetence? Is there any cross-cultural worker who has moved overseas and felt truly equipped for what he ended up doing? 

Yet, at the same time, those of us who have had some experience in missions keep banging the same drum to those desiring to move overseas: Get equipped. Get trained. Stop sending people who don’t know what they are doing. Ill-equipped people often hurt more than they help. For every successful Gladys Aylward, there are a dozen others who burn out or burn others out….or get sued for doing medical work they weren’t qualified for. 

So how do we find that balance? How do we have high expectations of preparation for those who move overseas, while still recognizing that none of us can ever be fully equipped for what we will face? How do we honor the passionate hearts who are willing to say, “Here I am. Send me!” while remembering that saying “God called me” can be dangerous

Like so many things in life, I think that the answer lies right in the middle. I think we can say, “Get as equipped as you can” while simultaneously saying, “Recognize that you will never be fully equipped.” And remember that attitude is everything. If we go overseas with the notion that by simply being white, educated, or from a developed country makes us qualified to help people, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. We must be very careful to examine our motives, because the “white savior” mentality is sinister; it sneaks into our thinking very subtly. 

I asked a village missionary friend how she and her husband handled the issue of people coming to them for medical help. Yes, they would do what they could to help people. But they always insisted the person visit the local clinic first. Then they would look for ways to help if the clinic wasn’t able to meet needs. They also asked a qualified missionary doctor to start visiting the village a couple of times a month. They did everything they could to work within the cultural system and not usurp what was already in place. 

And what if you find yourself called to pour your whole heart into a ministry, but you aren’t qualified? Then get qualified. If you find yourself unexpectedly teaching Bible, take some online Bible courses and read some quality theology. If you realize your community needs medical help, then go back home for a nursing degree or get yourself trained in Community Health Evangelism. If you discover that what your village needs is agricultural advice, then look into getting trained through ECHO. Yes, God can (and will) use us despite our incompetence, but that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied to continue offering anything less than what could be our best. 

In the end, remember that an attitude of humility makes all the difference. Even if we already feel well-educated or equipped in the area where we are serving, we still need to recognize that we have a lot we must learn from local people in order to be effective. Asian or African answers to problems might not look the same as American answers. We need to earn the right to speak into those problems through listening, learning, and longevity. 

Help build your own stool at the watering hole

When I was in high school Cheers was a popular television show. If you’re not familiar with Cheers, it was a comedy set in a local bar where the regulars shared their lives, grew together over time, and in many ways were family to each other.

But what solidified it was the theme song. Read through these lyrics (or listen) and ask yourself if this doesn’t also sound like the church:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot

Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name

Obviously, the church would be centered on God. But guess what God loves? People. Cheers was long running because it was funny, tackled complexities of life, and fostered belonging. The name of the theme song is “Where everybody knows your name.” God is a God of belonging, of wanting to know us and wanting us to be known.

We know this and this is why we have heard His heart for the lost and responded to the call.

And over the years, places like A Life Overseas, Velvet Ashes, and Taking Route help us know we are not alone, challenge our thinking, and provide spaces to share our stories.

Which of these have you experienced on the field:

—Burnout

—Boredom

—Overwhelm

—Losing touch with yourself

—Not having the skills equal to the task

—Being used up and spit out by the missionary machine

—Fearing you will be exposed as a fraud

—Feeling you are out of your depth

—Stagnated

~~~

I know you see yourself on somewhere on the list. Even if you are in your first year, and all is new and shiny, boredom has knocked on your door a time or two. I am dreaming another space for us, a space that doesn’t make you choose between tending your own soul (being) and building skills to help you do the work you are called to (doing). In order for the new space to meet your real needs, would you help by taking this survey? 

A couple of months ago I asked for your help and you participated in another survey. Your answers have enhanced the book I’m writing for people in their first year on the field beyond words. You inspired me so much I want to find ways to have your input in more areas. If you wondered if I read and use the data, here is a picture of the data printed out and poured over. (And the cards in the upper left-hand corner were used to write thank you’s to supporters).

So, thank you for taking this survey and helping to build a place that points us each to Jesus and each other.

Humming wit you . . .

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name {and worships God}.

Thanks for your help! Amy