Why missionaries quit 3 – marriage for singles

Nabwera familyFrom Patrick Nabwera’s master’s thesis on missionary attrition among Kenyan missionaries:

Anyomi (1997, 165) observes that outside marriage is an unpreventable cause of missionary attrition. Some missionary singles, especially ladies, have been leaving missions because they are marrying someone outside the mission. First, they believe that it is difficult to find a marriage partner doing the same mission or willing to join the mission to the unreached. Second, single women think that getting marrying a missionary is to marry poverty. “Better to be married to somebody without employment than a missionary”, one informant said.

Collins makes a general observation that many single ladies who go to the field single stay single longer than single men. He suggests there are fewer men on the field than women, so the men find it easier to find a marriage partner. Single female missionaries experience great loneliness–the most difficult part of their work (1986, 129). However, such feelings of loneliness affect both single men and ladies, increasing the desire for marriage. One woman wrote in her resignation letter, “My reason for leaving is to allow me to marry. My friend cannot join me in the mission work.” Another said, “I wish to have continued with you, but it seems not possible for now as I am leaving to get married to someone outside the ministry.” Yet another wrote, “I will be unable to continue serving with [the Mission] due to the demands of marriage and because my fiancé is likely to be engaged in work outside the field.”

It is almost common knowledge in our mission that singles will leave the ministry to the unreached as soon as they find a partner. Falling in love with one who does not share the missionary calling is a real temptation for lonely singles. Collins notes that this has ruined many a missionary career (1986, 130). The mission needs to warn the singles of the danger of their calling being changed by marriage, or look for a way to retain these missionaries after they marry outside the cross-cultural context.


  • Anyomi, Seth. 1997. Attrition in Ghana. In Too valuable to lose, ed. William D. Taylor, 61-170. Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library
  • Collins, Marjorie A. 1986. Manual for today’s missionary: From recruitment to retirement. Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library.

© Patrick Nabwera 2008
Comment [Ben]: I confess that this was probably the most uncomfortable part of Patrick’s thesis to read. I understand that Patrick is passionate about missions to the unreached and is concerned about losing good missionaries, but I would prefer to celebrate with singles who find life-partners even if it means they will serve God elsewhere. I admittedly did a little bit of editing to soften the language at the beginning of the post, but I left in the tone at the end – “temptation for lonely singles.” (FYI, I run all my edits by Patrick for his final approval.)

I think it takes a miracle of God for some of us to find great spouses and I say, when God provides, go for it! (Temptations to marry someone “unqualified” are an entirely different story.) Frankly, my hat is off to all those singles in ministry, especially those who really desire marriage and aren’t going to settle for second best. Many have sacrificed potential marriage opportunities to pursue a different calling. We have to find a way of encouraging singles both in the dignity of their status – it has its own set of advantages – and in their desires for life partners. Each set of circumstances is unique.

At a personal level, when I was about to get engaged to Christi, I had more than one person tell me that I was making a big mistake; it would ruin my ministry. I weighed their advice carefully, but I also saw a different kind of potential. The truth is, I didn’t get to pursue all of my interests right away. Getting back to Africa took over a decade. But my marriage to her has enabled me to follow my calling in ways I could have never come close to otherwise, and I believe that she will ultimately do much more here than I ever can. God has a much bigger picture in view.

Patrick replies: You are right Ben. Our cry has been seeing called, gifted singles whose impact in missions is killed by the partner who comes with a different “calling”-the calling to family first. I know that being passionate for missions can blind me to other perspectives. I nearly became a victim of the same twelve years ago. I had this girl I loved right from university. We agreed to marry and go to missions together till she was pulled by a good government job and pushed towards it by the lack of support in missions. Ben, I had to pay the price of my calling by allowing the pains of leaving her. One of my most difficult days was when she sent me a card saying that she was getting married to someone else who would fit her career life. I remember later writing her stating: “I would better live alone in the wilderness in God’s will and calling than live in the palace with a wife outside that calling.” The point is the issue of God’s will for all of us which at times would demand some sacrifice (I do not like this word). But Ben–You know that out of this, I have a wife (Violet) who has made so much difference in my life and ministry. You know that she is great, passionate, loving, and the kind that I needed. My cry similar to yours is that God may send partners to many in the mission fields who struggle with singlehood.

3 thoughts on “Why missionaries quit 3 – marriage for singles

  1. […] missionaries quit: Intro 1) finances 2) interpersonal issues 3) marriage 4) culture shock […]

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