Former bareback bronc champion Todd Pierce still gets nervous when he steps into a rodeo arena, but his fear has nothing to do with riding a bucking horse without a saddle or reins.
“I’m scared to death to speak in front of people,” Pierce admits with a grin. “And it’s a big part of my job.”
Pierce, 35, of Shelley, Idaho (pop. 3,885), hung up his spurs several years ago to answer a call to the ministry as a rodeo pastor. As an ordained, non-denominational minister affiliated with Pro Bull Riding Outreach, a Christian ministry for rodeo contestants, he travels to competitions all over the nation, and also served in Australia last year.
“It’s good I get butterflies (when I speak),” Pierce says. “If God asked us to do something that we were capable of doing without him, then we’d never ask for help.”
At every event, Pierce leads Bible studies for riders and their families, and a Sunday worship service that is open to everyone, including fans. Since rodeos are primarily weekend events, Pierce brings a religious worship experience to people whose lifestyle frequently takes them on the road and away from regular worship services.
Bull rider Wiley Peterson, 26, attends Outreach services regularly and says Pierce is “gifted at touching people’s hearts.”
“He’s a real guy, without a holier-than-thou attitude,” says Peterson, of Fort Hall, Idaho (pop. 3,193). “That’s what people like about him.”
Riders especially relate because Pierce has lived their lifestyle. He successfully competed as a bareback rider in Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association events for seven years, finishing third in the world in rookie standings his first year and later winning the Wilderness Circuit title three times.
Pierce knew he wanted to be a minister after becoming a Christian while attending Idaho State University. He also had done some bareback horse riding previously so, after graduating in 1994, Pierce joined the professional rodeo circuit and brought along his wife, Leslie. The couple hoped their rodeo experiences would help them understand how they eventually could minister to others.
When he wasn’t competing atop explosive broncs, Pierce studied for the ministry and conducted informal prayer groups and Bible studies for fellow riders. He was ordained in 2001 by the Trinity Fellowship in Oklahoma and, that same year, became a pastor with Pro Bull Riding Outreach.
“We had another pastor,” says Cody Custer, a founding member of both the ministry and the Professional Bull Riders Association. “But things were a little rough and unorganized for him. Sometimes we have bulls and tractors in the background during services.”
A little noise and a few bulls don’t rattle Pierce. He’s just as passionate about worship whether it is for 20 people gathered backstage at a dusty arena or 1,500 people in a Las Vegas ballroom.
“Todd is the most tenacious man I’ve ever met,” says Custer, who met Pierce at a rodeo competition. “He’s got so much grit and determination. But it’s a blessing and curse. There are nights he doesn’t sleep because he cares so much for people and what they’re going through.”
Once when a bull rider was thrown and in danger of being trampled, Pierce jumped the fence and got “right in the middle of it,” according to Custer. “I’ve never said he was smart!,” he adds with a smile. “But that man has a heart of gold.”
Pierce says the sport of bull riding creates an intense environment. “Sometimes it’s life or death. When you’re in a setting like that, there’s a closeness you enter into,” he says.
The physical demands and inherent dangers of the rodeo lifestyle combine for a unique community of faith living life on the edge. “I love these men like my own brothers,” Pierce says. “My ultimate goal is to bring them into a deeper relationship with God.”