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Singleness in missions: the good, the bad and the cookies

Reflecting on what it’s like being a single missionary, there’s obviously lots that could be said, but I want to focus on three aspects: the good, the bad, and the cookies.

The Good and the Bad

I’ll put these together because the good and bad points of being single are mostly tradeoffs compared to being married. Probably you either know or can guess most of these.

  • Single people have more flexibility, but married people have more stability.

  • Single people have more free time, but married people have more support with daily tasks.

  • Single people have more freedom to be involved in a variety of things, but married people have the intimacy of a shared life.

And then there’s the ministry opportunities available to you depending on whether you’re married or single. Not a case of one being better than the other, just different.

But there’s one aspect of being a single missionary where I struggle. . . .

The Cookies

Social gatherings, prayer meetings, outreach events . . . they have one thing in common: if there are leftover cookies, they will probably get handed to me. Now look, I like cookies as much as the next person. But by ‘next person’ I don’t mean ‘next single person’. But often that’s how it feels I am treated. Being single in Japan causes people to equate me with a list of assumptions – most of which are not true.

And for me this is the toughest part of being single on the mission field: being treated as ‘a single person’ rather than as me.

Actually what’s worse is when I’m put in the ‘single young man’ category. I know this has happened when I get asked about what I eat, or informed that I’ve lost weight (my weight has stayed a steady sixty three kilos for the last fifteen years).

Now obviously cookies are not much of a cross to bear. But I’m not being flippant here. And I’m not hating-on the cookie givers. I don’t think people who offer me leftovers do so with malicious intent. But sometimes the assumptions are more bothersome.

Because whilst some people think that being single means I probably want cookies, many assume that I must be in need of a wife.

At one of the first churches I went to in Japan I was asked to introduce myself after the service (standard for a Japanese church). I introduced myself simply and sat down. Then the pastor decided to tell everyone I had ‘forgot to say’ that I was in my thirties and single. After the service one of the ladies came to inform me her daughter was twenty seven and also single. She finished with a “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” – a difficult to translate Japanese phrase that means something between, “nice to meet you,” and “please help me with this.” Not knowing which nuance I was meant to take it with, I decided to reply with an awkward silence.

Again, maybe you’re thinking I should just be happy that people who know nothing about me besides my rough age and marital status want to set me up with their daughters (or more often it’s pastors and their church members). This might seem like one of those ironic ‘reasons not to become a missionary in Japan’ blog posts.

But that’s kinda my point. What is true about one ‘single young man’ is not necessarily true for others in that same category.

So yes, most young Japanese men I know don’t like cooking. But I do. I also like to bake. In fact, sometimes the leftover cookies are ones I made!

And yes, most Japanese Christian men I know are looking to get married. But I’ve come to feel that, for now at least, I should remain single for the sake of the work God has called me to.

My guess is that other single people serving cross-culturally have to deal with different sets of assumptions, depending on the culture they’re in. And maybe most of them are – like mine – things we could just shrug off. But the thing is, after a while shrugging gets tiring.

Levi Booth
OMF Japan

Will you pray?

  • Pray for missionaries, unmarried or married, as they deal with the expectations and assumptions about their position in the cultures they are serving in.

  • Pray for grace when shrugging off these expectations are hard.

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