As told to Courtney Ingle

Patsy and Michael Holyfield served as missionaries in Russia for 23 years – with their four children! – until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Here, Patsy shares her story of how the mission field tested her and Michael’s marriage and why it was worth it.

When did God call you to missions?

In the mid-’90s, a revival in our church, along with the murder of my brother, Keith, caused us to reflect on whether we were truly being obedient in fulfilling God’s plan for us. In years past, I had sensed a call to ministry, but when I had mentioned it to Michael through the first 10 years of marriage, he’d never felt the same way. 

I began a prayer journal to pour my heart out to God. How could Michael and I be one in the flesh but not in service? I didn’t understand. After confessing and asking Him for forgiveness for discontentment that Michael didn’t have the same burden, I asked Him to take the burden from me or give it to him. Though I never shared this with Michael or anyone else, two weeks later, God answered those prayers. He spoke and Michael listened in February 1996. He said yes to whatever and wherever God was calling us.

After an appointment-sending service at First Baptist Jackson in December 1997, it became clear God was asking us to serve Him overseas as missionaries. We continued to serve in our church, teaching and Michael preaching, working full time, while doing seminary by extension. Finally, we contacted the International Mission Board in 1998 and were appointed in May 1999 to serve as IMB missionaries in Russia. We celebrated our 14th anniversary the day we sold our house and went for missionary training in July 1999.

How did the mission field challenge your marriage? 

First, it was challenging in general. We went from high-functioning, independent adults from Brandon, Mississippi, with about 25,000 people, to Moscow, Russia, a mega-city of more than 14 million, and not being able to do the simplest tasks, like buying toilet paper for our family of six.

Almost as soon as we left Mississippi and five weeks’ training in Virginia, the halos and wings were stripped away to reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly in our marriage. We felt like we were right back to the early years, learning how to live with one another, except with four children and in Russia. Another challenge was that we went from a 2,200-square-foot home to a few footlockers and a 700-square-foot apartment. 

The Lord taught us so much about our marriage, because it was evident that our family was on the front lines of lostness and Satan’s terrain, which taught us that we are not each other’s enemy, and the battles are the Lord’s. We don’t feel like our marriage would be as strong and dependent on Him had we never been obedient.

On a personal level, there were things in our hearts like bitterness, jealousy and anger that had not yet been tested. Living overseas was sanctifying for all of us. When everything in our lives was shaken, we found that our identity in Christ is all that remains and all that really matters. We learned how to not look to each other for all unmet needs in our marriage, but to point each other to the One who is our all in all.

It was a lot of adjusting, as we were used to me being in charge of children and home – and then all of a sudden he was all up in my business! Sometimes I would just say, “Don’t you have somewhere to go?” Ha!

We just aren’t allowed to quit – not on each other, not on our calling, and not on our kids. We even joked many times after a challenging day, “Did you quit today?” “Nope, I’m good.” “OK, then I quit.” We just couldn’t quit on the same day!

Never once did we ever walk alone! God strengthens and sustains through the hardest of times.

How did you manage parenting?

When God called us to be missionaries, we understood that He was calling our family. Each of the children felt that calling. We were intentional in serving together as a family before going overseas, and we wanted that to be our goal overseas. Our lives on the mission field were not segmented with Dad doing this, Mama that, and the kids something else. 

We also had a clear understanding that our children are our mission field. What good would it do to go overseas to share Jesus with others and neglect the ones He gave us? The time our children are with us is short. We desired that they always say yes to Jesus.

When He called us to missions, our children were 12, 10, 6 and 2. We were already established and unified in our parenting. We did notice differences in the parenting styles of the people we served with and those we were serving among, but we kept our family values the same – not saying they were better or without fault, but we didn’t want to compromise in unhealthy ways just because we moved overseas.

As we look back, we see that at times we were impatient, provoking, and overbearing. When we look at our children today, raising their own children, we are so blessed and proud of them. Everything good we did was Jesus and His Spirit in us, and everything questionable was us in the flesh. We desired that our home be our children’s refuge and safe haven, and we hope they grew up feeling that way.

We also wanted them to see us trusting Him in everything. Living overseas, learning a new language, going from homeschool to mission school to Russian public school put a lot of strain on us as a family. We didn’t always react to these changes positively, and we are sure we missed some signs of stress and culture shock in ourselves and our children.

Parenting isn’t for cowards in any place, but living overseas takes it to another level. There were unexpected illnesses, pains and struggles that we would’ve done anything to avoid; but we trust His sovereignty. We know He is faithful to complete the work He began in each of us. He loves our children more than we do and can be trusted in each of our lives.

How did you prioritize your marriage?

We set times to talk, strict bedtimes so we’d have time at the end of a long day – and don’t go to bed angry. Stay up all night and fight. We read a lot of marriage books. Keep reading the Word together, keep praying together. Marriage and parenting are not about our happiness. It is His design for us to trust, obey and worship and lead others to do the same. 

We cannot stress enough the importance of being trustworthy, loyal, committed and pure to one another. We work hard on these traits within our marriage and keep our marriage bed undefiled.

What scriptures were your go-to’s?

Zechariah 4:6
James 1:5
Philippians 1:6
Romans 10:14-15
Hebrews 10:23
2 Thessalonians 3:3
Romans 15:20
Ephesians 3:20-21

What made it worth it? 

The ways that living on the mission field stripped, molded and trained us to live servant lives of sacrifice and obedience, causing us to love Him and others more fully, will always be treasured in our hearts. We pray that the seeds planted in the hearts of our children, and the people He gave us over those 23 years, will produce much fruit. Jesus is worthy to be worshiped in our marriage, in our family, in Russia and in the world. He is worth it!

What would you say to a couple who is experiencing marital challenges?

Get on your knees. Never quit. Keep your fights centered on fighting for your marriage to be God’s best marriage – not fighting against each other, for your rights, or to be right. Whenever you are tempted to say you didn’t sign up for this, remind yourselves that that is a lie. You signed up for whatever challenges the Lord allows, so allow Him to bring about change.

Don’t compare your marriage with others’, but with God’s Word about what marriage is.

Be transparent and accountable with one another. He can do above and beyond what you can hope or imagine. Strive and pray for unity and oneness. Remember you are one in the flesh. Practice grace and forgiveness with one another as Christ does with us.

Keep the marriage bed undefiled. Our intimacy is a gift from God. Fight and guard against anything or any thought or anyone that comes against that precious gift.

Learn or go back to the basics of the “why” of biblical marriage. Your marriage is to glorify God; do small things daily to make that happen. Remember that love is not a feeling but an action. Keep acting in loving ways, whether you feel like it or not, and before you know it, you will feel it – and if not, that’s OK. Put the interests of each other and others first.

Spend time on your knees in prayer for and with each other. Read and study the Word together. Forgive quickly and ask forgiveness quickly. Don’t be bitter, hold grudges, go silent, or withhold any kind of love, respect or affection out of spite.

Patsy and Michael Holyfield are members of Park Place Baptist Church in Pearl, where Michael serves as the Minister of Missions and Discipleship. Since retiring from the mission field, Patsy cares for her mother and enjoys the loving company of her four children and their beautiful families. Pasty also leads women’s Bible studies at Park Place.