James Peterson finds Inspiration for his Sunday sermons at Ririe Chapel among the barley, alfalfa and wheat fields he helps cultivate.
Bordered by Ammon’s eastern foothills and with an expansive view of the mountains beyond the Arco Desert, Peterson recites his sermons aloud while he walks.
“The Lord gives me all kinds of illustrations from the life he has given me growing up on the farm, but at its core is that we have eternal life, and that’s incredibly comforting,” Peterson said. “Being out there walking the dogs, gives me a chance to practice, so our dogs, the cows and sometimes the neighbors have already heard my sermons before Sunday.”
An early decision
Peterson decided to be a pastor by the time he was 16, a decision not surprising to his parents, Eric and Pamela Peterson. The couple raised all four of their children in the Christian faith. Growing up, they were involved in a youth group led by their dad. And James Peterson spent time at the Old Faithful Christian Ranch in Island Park, a youth ministry.
“It didn’t surprise us a whole lot that he chose to be a pastor,” Eric Peterson said. “We’d get home after youth group often at 9:30 at night, and James would start asking questions about the lesson. Sometimes we’d stay up talking another two hours.”
The Petersons avoided influencing the career choices of their children and encouraged them to choose their own paths instead.
“It’s been so good to watch how God has guided each of our children’s paths,” Pamela Peterson said. “To see how God has worked in James’ life has been good.”
Favorite time of year
Christmas was James Peterson’s favorite time of the year as a child growing up on the family farm, and as a pastor, Christmas is even more special.
“Christmas was my most fond holiday growing up. Dad had more time during November and December because there was less manual labor,” he said. “The Christmas season gave us time to reflect and be thankful for what Jesus did for us. The season is full of joy and good conversation.”
Of Scandinavian and German decent, and for years, a Peterson family tradition was to celebrate Christmas with their church family, many of whom came from Swedish farm backgrounds. The Christmas morning gathering began with carols and a devotional, followed by fellowship and a feast of traditional homemade Swedish pastries.
“We kept it going for a long time to celebrate Christ’s birth, and to get away from what Christmas had become,” Eric Peterson said.
With his mom’s advice, he decided on a four-year program at Montana Bible College in Bozeman, and graduated in 2016. The college emphasizes rural ministries. With a student body and faculty of 160, the college has a family-friendly atmosphere.
As the fifth generation of Petersons to farm ― begun by Carl Peterson in Idaho Falls around 1900 ― he said farming and pastoring have been a good blend.
“As a farmer you plant a seed and trust God that it will give you a good crop,” he said. “And similarly, we trust God to give growth in the ministry. He is working all the time. James cannot do anything in his own strength, but through God ― like Proverbs 3:5 says, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on you own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’ ”
Tending both flocks
The family raised sheep until recently and there are biblical principles that apply there, also.
“Raising sheep is challenging, like I Peter 5:2 says, we are called to shepherd God’s flock, and sometimes on the farm, and with people, the sheep are difficult to shepherd,” Pamela Peterson said.
Among the similarities are some stark differences. Peterson preaches, visits, listens and helps people at church on Sunday. During the week he does the singular work often required on the farm.
“As a pastor, you are talking to people the whole time, then the next day, you are out in a 17-acre field where you are the only one,” he said.
Peterson devotes a lot of time practicing his sermon, often going over the passage up to 30 times. His wife, Agatha Peterson, of Alberta, Canada, whom he met at college, is supportive and helpful in his ministry and on the farm.
“We have an amazing group of people at the church who take care of a lot of things Agatha Peterson said. “I teach Sunday school, and talk with James and listen. Probably the biggest part of my job is to be a sounding board.”
With the support of his wife, family and congregation, Peterson is grateful for the opportunity to be a pastor.
“I compare being a pastor to picking out a pair of boots, when you put them on they just feel right. Pastoring has been like that, it’s been just the right fit,” he said. “By the grace of God, I’ve been called to be a pastor. It’s very humbling and weighty at times, but it’s a privilege too, and I love what I do.”
While he said pastoring comes easier than farming, he welcomes the challenges of raising a crop, raising newborn calves and juggling a pastor’s unpredictable schedule.
“Farming is not where I’m gifted,” he said. “Sometimes it feels a little less like a well-fitting boot, but I like helping out on the farm, and I love working with my dad. He’s been incredibly understanding when things have come up unexpectedly, and I need to take time to shepherd my church flock.”