Our relationships help to shape us and affect our paths and the situations of our lives. The opportunities we have in life are affected by whether we are single, married, divorced, or widowed; and our personal connections may very well change the courses of our lives.
How we interact with our friends, relatives, and significant others also has spiritual significance—our human relationships color and change the understanding we have of our relationship with God and are the means by which we are conduits of God’s grace to the world.
Exactly how God’s grace flows out from us, however, varies according to our personalities, gifts, and whether we are married or single. The many gifts and advantages of marriage are rightly celebrated in the Church, but in 1 Corinthians, Paul also reminds us that unmarried people experience joys and benefits as well—including the opportunity to devote themselves more fully to following God’s lead in their lives (7:33–34b).
Our individual stories and relationships vary greatly, and yet we can see just how creative God is in using each of our relational contexts in the unique callings He has given us.
Doug and Barb Miller
Married 32 years
Global workers for the Brethren in Christ Malawi
Doug and Barb met when they were each serving as single missionaries in Guatemala. With a shared sense of life purpose—knowing Christ and making Him known—they have journeyed through 32 years of marriage together. They understand vocation as the means by which they pursue their lives’ purpose, and their vocations have varied from school teacher, to missionary, to homemaker, to farmer’s hired man, to pastor, to church planter, to salesman. They have raised five children on two different continents and currently live and minister among the Yawo people of Malawi.
“We definitely feel called to our current ministry through the affirmations of Scripture, personal conviction, home church, and family,” says Doug. “We cannot think of a time where we have been more fulfilled vocationally.”
While they depend on each other for support, they also find support in life through family, close friends, their missionary community, prayer partners, and mission supporters. Barb and Doug both share their individual joys and challenges with a prayer partner.
“As a single missionary it was easier to concentrate on language learning and to be free to spend more time with local people because of not having family responsibilities,” Doug reflects. “As a married couple we can relate to a larger and more diverse group of people because of our complementary gifts, personalities, and backgrounds. As a married missionary it also helps some local people to accept you, especially where singleness is not esteemed.”
Former dean of BIC Equipping for Ministry (retired in September 2015), Mechanicsburg, Pa.
For Dorothy, life has been full of opportunity. Faith and vocation have always gone hand in hand in her understanding, leading her to diverse teaching and leadership roles with Messiah College, the BIC U.S., and around the world. The Church is important to her, and she considers each job she has had as an opportunity to “reproduce herself”—to pass along her values and gifts.
An educator at heart and a gifted administrator, she has used those skills in a variety of positions. When finding herself at a career crossroads, she looked to God for direction. Trusting God to lead, she says, “A door would open, and I would just walk through it.”
Her professional and personal life has been one of adventure. Had she been married, she believes, she would not have been able to travel the world as extensively as she has. A commitment to family would have made that impossible.
Although she never married, never had biological children, she has an extensive family network. Several of her former students prefer to call her “Mom,” and she considers the children and grandchildren of a close friend to be her family as well. Looking at the richness of her personal relationships, she says, “I very much believe that investing in other people comes back to you in your life.”
Supportive small groups have played an important part in Dorothy’s spiritual journey. Her connections include a Bible study group, two book groups, and a theological discussion group. Friendships with both men and women have been important to her, as she appreciates the perspectives of both genders.
A recent health issue temporarily made living by herself a little tricky. But friends and neighbors stepped in to help around the house, bringing food, flowers, and their company—proving that being single does not equal being alone.
Single, mother of two sons
Church administrator and ministry leader, Revolution Church (Salina, Kans.)
It may also be said that being married does not guarantee that one will not experience loneliness. Marriages can break down, and Melissa experienced that twice—first in her family of origin and then in her own separation and divorce.
“I never thought I had to have a husband to be happy,” she says. “However, in my heart I don’t think there was anything I wanted more than a whole, healthy family.” The pain of damaged relationships, she says, “is what kept me going back to Jesus.
“We are all going to be brought to a place where God has us alone with Him at some point in our lives,” Melissa continues. “That’s just the way life is. But for those of us who love Jesus, we are given perseverance and hope.”
In that hope, she experienced a renewed commitment to live as she understood God wanted her to live and was blessed with a sense of calling to her position as administrator at Revolution Church. She feels she has opportunities to use her abilities and also grow in new directions there, and she’s never felt more connected vocationally with her passions and gifts than she does now.
Melissa’s experience of healing and fulfillment as a single mom has enabled her to live as a witness to other single women about having a deeply satisfying relationship with Jesus. “For me, being single means I have more freedom,” she says. “Not having to please anyone but Jesus is awesome—sometimes scary and intimidating, but awesome.”
Looking to the future, Melissa anticipates the possibility of more mission opportunities. “The sky is the limit when you’re growing in Christ!”
Gabe and Rosemary Valencia
Married 34 years
Co-directors of Mile High Pines Camp (Angelus Oaks, Calif.)
Gabe had worked for 17 years in the secular workplace in a position he both excelled at and loved when he sensed God calling him into full-time Christian service. He turned to his family to confirm this direction. “When I shared with Rosemary that the Lord spoke to me and what He said, she responded by saying jokingly, ‘It’s about time,’ because that had been her prayer for me for years.”
This husband-and-wife team understood that a change to camp ministry was not just about them. “We shared with our children what the scope of the move and transition would look like and asked them to pray to discern if God’s message was any different than what He’d been saying to their mom and I. We wanted them to agree and be aware that this was God’s desire for them as well as me.”
Time has proven that their communication with the Lord and with each other did indeed lead the family to a fulfilling life of Christian ministry. All five of their children have worked alongside Rosemary and Gabe at Mile High Pines Camp. But it hasn’t always been easy; Gabe and Rosemary have felt the challenge faced by all married people deeply involved in ministry. “Ministry can sometimes become or at least feel as though it gets the majority of your time, energy, and commitment,” Gabe warns. “This means that the marriage may take a back seat. This is, of course, unhealthy. We should never sacrifice our first ministry, our marriage, for our vocation.”
Married 6 years
Pastor of discipleship and youth ministries at Harrisburg (Pa.) BIC Church
While some pastors feel an almost tangible pull from God over the course of many years, Hank had no such direction. But, he adds, “Just because I didn’t see it at the time doesn’t mean it wasn’t directed.”
A native of Liberia, West Africa, Hank moved to Harrisburg after graduating from Messiah College in 2004 and began attending Harrisburg BIC. It was there Hank met Shell, a Pennsylvania Mennonite farm girl. They got to know each other as they spent time together with a large group of mutual friends.
Hank says he’s always been flexible regarding vocation and thinks the questions to ask when deciding about job opportunities are “How will I be able to bring glory to God?” and “What am I doing to further God’s kingdom?” Being a pastor, he admits, “wasn’t even on my radar.” But since he loves the Church and was passionate about youth ministry, when a position on the pastoral staff at his church opened, he applied. And he was hired.
“Neither of us knew I was going to be a pastor!” Hank laughs. But Shell wasn’t fazed. Their relationship deepened, and as it did, certain abstract truths became incarnate in Hank’s experience. In what could have been awkward as he met Shell’s family for the first time, he instead experienced immediate acceptance. “It wasn’t anything I had earned; they didn’t know anything about me. It was literally because of Shell that I was made O.K. and able to enter into the family. That crystallized the idea of what Jesus did for me.” Since then, family has taken on a broader meaning for Hank, and the sense of being a part of the larger family of God has informed the way he views ministry to all people. While he cherishes and protects his time with Shell and their young daughter, Harper, he remembers that all those he ministers to are truly his family.
“The idea is that we’re supposed to bless others—whether single, married, widowed, or divorced,” Hank reflects on his years of serving God, first single and now married. “We are in this together!”
Couples like the Valencias and single people like Dorothy Gish are deeply grateful for the Church—both as a place of freedom and healing to bring some of the challenges they face as married or single people, as well as a place to live out the callings God has given them.
But their stories also confirm the need to truly know one another; to seek understanding by asking one another about our joys and difficulties, rather than making assumptions based on relationship status. Only then can we truly share the journey of a life of faith with one another.
“Marriage has confirmed to us the goodness and love of God in bringing us together as compatible and complementary life partners,” say Doug and Barb Miller. “But we also saw our time as singles as a gift, a time to grow in our relationships with the Lord, as the One who meets our deepest needs perfectly. We think it’s important to understand that each individual, single or married, is of infinite worth and significance to God.”
Photos for this story are courtesy of: Paul Emberger for Dorothy Gish, Cory Keller for Melissa Bigbey, and Muriel Kratz for Hank Johnson