Phil and Sue Thurston were an ordinary couple living in Tempe, Arizona. They had regular jobs. Phil worked for a local utility and Sue was an administrative assistant.
Sue enjoys traveling, but in most cases, if you ask Phil, he would prefer to stay near home.
Phil and Sue have been part of Grace Community Church in Tempe for years. Grace Community was the home church of ITMI founder, Bill Bathman, when he was in Phoenix.
Their support of Piotr Zaremba was key in allowing him to translate the Bible into Polish. GCC is also the sending church of ITMI’s Daniel Machlowski.
How It All Began
This story begins with Phil and Sue faithfully leading a small group Bible study through their church. When one member of their group got engaged, she asked Sue and Phil to be their marriage mentors.
That’s when Phil and Sue said a small yes that led to big opportunities.
Fast forward a few years. The retired couple is overseeing the entire pre-marriage ministry for this large church in the desert. Remember, neither Phil or Sue have degrees or professional experience in counseling, therapy or anything related!
They have trained dozens of married partners to mentor engaged couples. They themselves have mentored over 80 couples! Phil has researched extensively and even put a pre-marital curriculum in writing.
In 2015, during the course of his ministry in Poland, Daniel Machlowski got engaged. The Missions Director at Grace asked Phil and Sue to mentor Daniel and his then-fiance, Jagoda.
Though Phil wasn’t overly keen on traveling, the pair traveled to Poland for the first time in 2015 for two weeks. They built several key relationships which set up future ministry.
For example, the girl who translated for Jagoda in the sessions with the Thurstons, Daria, was also about to get married.
Daniel and Jagoda were married in 2016.
The following year, in 2016, the Thurstons had the privilege of representing Grace at the celebration in honor of the publication of Piotr’s translation of the Bible.
ITMI's Piotr Zaremba addressing the crowd gathered to celebrate a translation of the Bible Poles can easily read and understand.
This gave them another opportunity to connect and build the relationships that were already established. While they were in Poland, Piotr also asked them to return the following year to share their marriage material at his church’s family camp.
They returned to Poznan, Poland in 2017 a third time, for K5N's Family Camp that summer.
While in Poznan, Phil and Sue trained a couple from Piotr Zaremba’s K5N Church to disciple engaged couples, who then used what they’d learned from Phil and Sue to provide pre-marital discipleship for one engaged couple the following winter!
“We never planned to have an international marriage ministry. This wasn’t our plan. The Lord opens an opportunity and it goes from there. Just keep doing the next thing,” Phil explains.
This year, they continued their pattern of small but impactful “yes” answers as the Lord led the way, overcoming obstacles on their behalf. The Thurstons returned for a fourth time in the summer of 2018. This time, they gave all of the morning sessions at K5N’s family camp.
Phil and Sue continually emphasize that they are a normal couple. It’s God’s work in them that has given them their extraordinary story.
“For us, it’s just very fulfilling to see God working. I feel that I’m just back here, watching God use someone else - I’m just watching. We thank God for the opportunity to see Him work. For Him to give us that was marvelous.”
Phil and Sue faced the same obstacles any of us would face when considering ministry overseas. Phil suffers from restless leg syndrome, which makes travel quite uncomfortable.
They aren’t professionals, and they didn’t know Polish culture. Would the material they’d been using even be applicable? They’d never worked with translators before, either.
“We just humbly go. We don’t know the culture, what they know or don’t know. We have to humbly let the Lord do it. We have no clue.”
They just keep saying yes to the next thing. Sometimes that thing seems overwhelming and impossible. Saying yes takes humility.
They could give of their time, get all the way over there and what they have to share could fall flat or be misinterpreted through language and cultural differences. They could look foolish.
But they were willing to take those risks to follow the Lord as He led.
Just before traveling this summer, Phil was able to get on some new medication and shared with his friends and family in Phoenix that, “my restless legs were not a problem at all. What a blessing from God.”
Although culture and language continued to be a challenge, it was clear the Lord was working above that, still allowing Phil and Sue to communicate effectively.
Phil, Sue, Daniel and Jagoda with Daniel's parents' church in Krakow, Poland.
Phil uses an example about communication that relies on his knowledge of baseball. As he shared that example, the translator looked at him like a deer in the headlights. She didn’t know how to translate “baseball”! They learned later the audience didn’t understand the illustration.
So, the following day, after watching an important soccer match with the Polish families at camp, Phil adapted it to the beloved national sport. Everyone smiled and shook their heads in understanding.
One couple was deliberating over a pivotal choice. They shared their story with Phil and Sue over camp lunch and asked some questions. The next morning, they reported they’d made the decision the night before and woke up feeling at peace with it.
After the first session on conflict resolution, someone commented that it was, “hard to receive, but the information was beneficial to know,” and it had come at a crucial time for them.
Couples would approach them after they spoke. Sometimes those questions would lead to longer individual counseling “session” conversations.
One seasoned man commented that the homework they were given after the sessions - things like, look into each other’s eyes for 10 seconds, don’t touch or talk, but say I love you with your eyes, hug for one minute, kiss for 10 seconds, say, “I respect you,” and “I love you,” and read out loud Song of Solomon chapter 7 - was, “like when we were dating!”
When they finished the last session, the families of K5N expressed their deep and heartfelt appreciation with a standing ovation that went on and on.
Then they gathered around and prayed for this normal but willing couple that had invested in them, and that the things they’d learned would be used for God’s glory.
Finally, each wanted to give them a hug. In this non-demonstrative culture, a hug is a big deal.
Phil and Sue reflected, “You can’t go to another country, practice trusting the Lord and not be changed. You’re out of your element, clueless what the “right” thing is to do. So when you see good things, you know it’s God because you know it wasn’t you.”
Phil and Sue aren’t an ordinary couple anymore. Their trust in the Lord’s leading, their willingness to say “Yes!” repeatedly - even though they “didn’t have a clue” how - has given them a remarkable ministry.
In the countries where ITMI works, there are so many languishing in need of basic Biblical knowledge.
There are hungry, sincere believers who need to learn the elementary Biblical truths that any of us could teach them.
There are hard-working and willing believers whose lives would be revolutionized by the Biblical principles of work, finance and relationships done God’s way.
How could what you know enhance the ministry of one of our partners?