Nearly two-thirds of missionaries are female, according to “Women in Mission,” an essay in the Perspectives Reader on the World Christian Movement.
This statistic seems counter-intuitive to some, but since the Civil War, women, especially unmarried women, have dominated the mission field.
The essay suggests that women began flocking to missions after the Civil War because many were widows or had lost so many men in their community that they viewed marriage as an unlikely prospect. Many missions opportunities opened up for women out of necessity, and remained available even after men began coming back to missions.
Why haven’t the numbers stabilized? Why do women missionaries, especially single women missionaries, continue to flock to the field?
“I sometimes wonder if it’s because women are more in tune to God’s voice,” said Ed Klotz, professor emeritus of intercultural studies. “I hate to generalize on that question. It’s more of a feeling, really.”
Jarra Woods, a sophomore in the intercultural studies program, agreed that women may be more sensitive than men. She argued, however, that this sensitivity results more from culture than it does from God’s call.
Or perhaps, as the essay suggests, it is that female missionaries last longer, tending to persevere more in the face of trouble than do men.
Woods said that gender roles may play a factor in why men do not respond as eagerly to God’s call to missions.
“Young men tend to be pushed into more practical professions,” she said. “Teaching and the arts are considered less practical, and so is missions. We’re still pretty segregated in terms of gender roles, and if someone steps out of that they get bullied back into their little corner.”
Aminta Arrington, assistant professor of intercultural studies, said gender roles play a significant role in the call to missions, particularly within a marriage situation. She explained it is more difficult for a wife to convince her husband to leave for the mission field rather than the other way around.
“A man could entice his wife along, but I don’t think a woman could entice a man,” Arrington said. “If a woman feels called to missions, marriage is going to be the end of that calling, and either she goes single or she doesn’t go at all.”
It is rare, Arrington said, for both a husband and wife to feel the call to a missionary lifestyle. She said this truth has played out in her own life, explaining how, before she and her family spent eight years in China, she felt called long before her husband did. If her husband hadn’t eventually felt called to go overseas, they probably would never have left for China, Arrington said.
“The man’s calling is the family’s calling, but the woman’s calling is not. I can’t say if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a thing.”
Perhaps, she added, single men have better marriage prospects on the mission field than single women, citing a kind of attractiveness that comes with a strong spiritual man that doesn’t necessarily accompany a woman.
Is the disparity a problem? Is there something in missions that needs to be amended?
“I don’t feel like I have the right to say it’s a good thing or a bad thing because I don’t have a say in who’s called,” said Mick Silvers, a junior in the intercultural studies program. “I don’t know how you determine that. In some degree, everyone is called.”
Woods does not see the numbers as a problem. On the contrary, she feels encouraged by the fact that though she may go out onto the mission field by herself, she will not be the first to do so.
“I was very impressed with their dedication, their service and their abilities to relate to other people,” Klotz said, speaking of the female missionaries he came into contact with in his 22 years in Africa.
Klotz said that the trouble single female missionaries face is not their gender, but their singleness, and that this is a problem that faces single male missionaries as well.
“You face a degree of loneliness,” Klotz said. “That’s one of the main challenges that singles face, but that seems to be amplified when you’re on the mission field.”
But singleness may bring advantages as well. Arrington recounts a story of a woman she knew who felt a strong call to China, but also desperately wished to get married.
After spending a little time in China, this woman met and married someone while on furlough, and hasn’t been back to the mission field since.
“I remember saying to her, why aren’t you embracing your singleness?” Arrington said. “If you’re single, there’s freedom to live out your calling.”
Silvers agreed. He mentioned the idea that marriage can split one’s focus on the mission field, and lead to neglect of either missions duties or family duties.
Woods said she recognizes these challenges and is ready to face them.
“Regardless of marital status, my plan is to do missions,” Woods said.