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Family before farm

Financial pressures almost tore Mike and Pat Meierhenry’s marriage apart, but a counselor helped them see the need to prioritize each other

12th in a series on long marriages

Mike and Pat Meierhenry both grew up on farms. They met in college at a fraternity dance, where Pat asked her date why Mike was dancing with one hand in his pocket. Her date explained that Mike had lost the use of his left arm from polio—but he still went home to farm on the weekends. Pat wondered how he managed farm work with only one arm. Later, Pat and Mike double-dated, and in September 1960 they married, “between haying and corn-picking.”

The newlyweds moved to Mike’s family farm 2 1/2 hours north of Lincoln, Neb. “Farming isn’t a business,” says Pat. “It’s something you either have to love doing or get out.” They loved it. The couple’s early married life was not always smooth, but they managed to compromise and work together. With four children and several full- or part-time farm hands to help Mike, their life together was good. 

The counselor encouraged them to confess their sins and forgive each other, and told them, ‘Before we save this farm, we have to save this family.’

Then around 1980, the farm crisis hit Nebraska. Land values had steadily increased, and farmers across the country were taking massive loans, using their land as collateral. Farmers typically take out loans to cover the expenses of planting crops, then repay the loan after harvest. But during that crisis, banks encouraged farmers to take larger loans for more land, newer equipment, and additional livestock.

Meanwhile, interest rates rose. Pat said they initially paid about 5 percent interest, and by 1985 they were paying 15 percent or more. “No one can survive on borrowed money with that kind of interest,” said Pat. The financial pressure on the farmers became so severe that several of their neighbors went on to other jobs. The Meierhenrys had farm hands to pay and one child in college. The prospect of losing the farm—their lifestyle and their family heritage—put pressure on the couple’s marriage.

Mike and Pat both became depressed, and Mike was too stressed to sleep. Pat said her husband “became a person that I really didn’t recognize.” She worked as a nurse, and a divorced co-worker made singleness sound attractive to her. As Pat and Mike dealt with private stress, in public they pretended everything was fine, attending their kids’ sports games and working together on projects. But Mike at one point confessed to one of their sons, “I don’t even know if I’m going to stay married.” 

Finally, a turning point came in 1985 when Pat insisted Mike see a local pastor for counseling. After that meeting, Mike came home and felt enough relief to sleep through the night. Pat noticed and decided to meet with the counselor too. The counselor encouraged them to confess their sins and forgive each other, and told them, “Before we save this farm, we have to save this family.” 

After three counseling sessions and that simple advice, the couple’s marriage improved. Although they still fought sometimes, they worked to reconcile, prioritizing their relationship. Meanwhile, the situation with the farm gradually improved. Mike found and applied for a government loan program that guaranteed the bank some interest if it cooperated. He joined a farm business association and learned many farmers were having financial problems like his. After a while, he began counseling some of them.

The Meierhenrys worked to get out of debt and finally paid off their last loan 10 years ago. They invited their former neighbors to a small party to celebrate.

When farming with post-polio syndrome became too much for Mike, the couple moved near Lincoln, where they ran a bed-and-breakfast and worked side jobs. Mike, 89, now spends most of his time at their townhouse, reading newspapers, watching TV sports and news, and playing chess. Pat, 81, cares for Mike and keeps busy with friend dates and church activities.

The Meierhenrys nearly lost both their farm and their marriage, but today, they’ve been married 59 years. And the farm? They rent it out to tenants—and still try to visit a couple of times a year.

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Todd McInturf/Genesis

(Todd McInturf/Genesis)

Lifestyle

Lessons in humility

Steven Thomas entered the pastoral ministry full of pride. But painful trials reminded him God is in charge of outcomes

Second in a series on long ministry

For 37 years, Steven Thomas has served as pastor of Huron Baptist Church in Flat Rock, Mich. Looking back, he sees his own ambition as a persistent challenge to his ministry. But fully recognizing the problem took years.

At age 14, Thomas heard a sermon on Isaiah 6 that culminated in the prophet’s statement, “Here I am! Send me.” Thomas told God he would do anything God wanted, and he began pursuing full-time ministry. After high school, he attended a small Missouri Bible college, married his wife Sheree, then attended Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. 

In seminary, a professor told Thomas he was destined to pastor a large church. The professor meant well, Thomas says, but “a young man in his 20s can’t hear that without it having an effect on him.” For Thomas, the effect was subtle pride and overconfidence in his abilities. 

The Lord uses sorrow to help His children topple their idols of self-assurance … and set the trajectory of their affections toward Christ.

In 1983, he began pastoring at Huron Baptist. The small church came with challenges (initially, his weekly paycheck was $100), but the people eagerly received Thomas’ expository preaching. Members were willing to serve, freeing Thomas to focus on preaching, counseling, and discipleship. The church grew, Thomas said, but “so did my proud expectations.” 

He had been pastor for several years before one man began stirring division. Thomas says the man subtly criticized the church leaders to other congregants, suggesting, for example, Thomas was not serious about corporate prayer or about visiting the sick. Over time, the influence had an effect. In one year, church attendance dropped from 150 people to 75. Thomas had assumed the church grew because of his abilities, but the membership exodus taught him growth depended on God: Thomas couldn’t make people come or stay. The church ultimately disciplined the divisive member, who eventually left and joined another church.

In 1996, Thomas led his congregation through an even more painful case of church discipline. When his oldest daughter returned from college, her parents learned she was involved in an inappropriate relationship. When confronted, she refused to give it up. Thomas and his wife agonized over what to do.

“Many men that I know seem to try to present themselves and their families as the perfect role model,” Thomas said. “Well, if that’s what you’re trying to do, and sin touches the parsonage, so to speak, what do you do then?” The Thomases told their daughter she could not live in their home as long as she refused to repent. Since she was a member of the church, Thomas fulfilled his pastoral role by leading the congregation to bring her under church discipline. 

By 2001 his daughter, Sarah Akens, had married, and she told her parents she had repented and wanted to reconcile. Her husband had also become a Christian. Today they serve together at the church. 

Akens, 43, says the church discipline was hard but necessary. “I would not have been repentant if I’d been allowed to go on as if everything was fine.” She calls her current relationship with her parents “probably stronger than ever.” Her father has baptized each of her three children.

Thomas now sees the good that God accomplished even through all the painful years. “The Lord taught me to rein in my own pride in what I was doing,” he says. “The Lord uses sorrow to help His children topple their idols of self-assurance … and set the trajectory of their affections toward Christ.”

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Illustration by Rachel Beatty

(Illustration by Rachel Beatty)

Lifestyle

God making up for us

They fought one another in marriage—until God brought a change of perspective

(11th in a series on long marriages)

Stephen and Sherry Collins had been married five years when, in 1980, difficult circumstances led them to Christian faith. On bed rest while pregnant with the couple’s second baby, Sherry, a Jew, watched the film Jesus of Nazareth on TV. After giving birth, she read the Bible during her hospital recovery and became convinced Jesus was the Messiah.

Meanwhile, Stephen, at home with the newborn, woke one morning to find his son cold and rigid in the crib—dead in his sleep. “It was the most shocking thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Stephen. “I felt helpless. I was shaking.” Like his wife, he turned to the Bible: Reading in 2 Samuel, he realized King David’s response to his baby’s death was “the exact opposite reaction that I had.” 

Stephen and Sherry both found hope in Christ, but they nevertheless had a rocky marriage in the years afterward. The couple’s different personalities clashed and, with six children, so did their parenting styles. They fell into a repeated cycle of hurt feelings. 

A psychologist who evaluated Stephen and Sherry in the early 1990s pronounced them “incompatible.” They separated in 1992 but came back together after a year. Still, they couldn’t stop fighting. They separated again in 1999: Stephen moved in with some single men from church, hoping the distance would help him and his wife sort things out. 

But this time their problems intimidated fellow church members. Sherry said she prayed frequently as she cared for their kids and attended Bible studies and counseling. Stephen tried everything he knew: self-help books, Christian conferences, and counseling. After a year without progress, he gave up. He began looking for a new place to move to. It seemed his 26-year-old marriage was over.

One night, Stephen went to bed in despair, but when he woke up, he felt God telling him to go home and love his wife selflessly. His only explanation for the change that came over him: “The ‘me’ part of me died that day, sometime during the night while I was sleeping. The next day it no longer mattered to me whether there was any hope or not: I had to do what God told me to do: Go home, love your wife and your kids.” 

Stephen called Sherry and said he was coming home. Sherry remembers feeling “happy,” because she really did love him. When he returned home, he found new ways to serve her, like cooking and doing the laundry.

Nearly 20 years later, they still fight, but now fight differently: Instead of emotional, selfish fights, their conflicts now often end in prayer. Stephen said they are learning to give grace and accept one another, instead of just fixing every problem.

Sherry said, “The Lord taught us that we have to forgive each other and think of each other [as] more important than ourselves.” 

Stephen is now 67, and Sherry is 64. They agree the last few years of their marriage have been the sweetest: “The way it feels to hold her hand after 45 years of marriage, there’s no words for it,” said Stephen. “Most of the last 45 years has been God making up for what we do.”

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