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Callouses, cows & Christ: Ranchers answer God’s call

[SLIDESHOW=45158,45159,45160,45161]KAYCEE, Wyo. (BP) — Mark and David Largent are fourth- and fifth-generation ranchers, respectively, in a cow ranching dynasty that began with C.M. Largent Sr.’s first purchase of purebred registered Hereford cattle in 1902.

But their second line of work likely wouldn’t have been envisioned by their ranching forebears.

“To end up in ministry — bivocational or full-time — is not something that any of my ancestors would have probably predicted or really wanted from an agricultural standpoint,” David says. “My grandfather believed you work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and if you can get up to 22 or 23 hours in, that’s even better.

“Toward the end of his life, I think he understood the spiritual side of things a little more as my dad was moving in that direction and called to it, but his life was wrapped up in the cattle, in the land, and he couldn’t understand putting that aside for anything.”

Nevertheless, David and his father have followed God’s call to the ministry, with David serving as pastor of First Southern Baptist Chapel in Kaycee, Wyo., and Mark serving as pastor of Faith Community Church in Gillette, Wyo.

They have not turned their backs on their ranching ancestry, with their ongoing work on the ranch, seven days a week, enabling them to connect with their people in a unique way.

“Most everybody is in agriculture or touched by agriculture,” David says. “The ones who aren’t are in mining — coal mining, minerals, oil — those are big things here in Wyoming, big things in our community. And I think they appreciate the fact that they know we can relate. They know that we get out and do some of the things that they do every day.”

Mark has been pastoring for nearly 20 years, beginning as a lay preacher before Faith Community Church — a two-hour drive from the ranch — voted to call him as their pastor. His son similarly began as a supply preacher before being ordained as First Southern Baptist Chapel’s pastor in 2010.

A bit of schooling

After three years in this position, David, who did undergraduate work at Wayland Baptist University in west Texas, decided he needed further theological training. He sought it at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“I felt like I needed to be better prepared at preparing and delivering sermons,” David says. “I didn’t really feel like I had a big problem speaking in front of people but I wanted more of an idea on how to do a sermon.”

Since he began his studies for a master of divinity degree in 2013, David says the seminary has indeed better equipped him to preach. Additionally, the classes have proven to be a blessing in his personal walk with the Lord. Regarding his Baptist Heritage class, for example, which he took during the most recent January term, he says, “It was very good for me to see where we as Baptists came from … and what people really believed and what it meant to stand up for their beliefs.”

Sharing this kind of knowledge, however, has been a challenge in the pioneer mission field of Wyoming.

“We have an invitation every Sunday,” David says of his altar calls, “but we’ll go eight, nine months or more and not see a person come forward during the invitation. One reason is because half the congregation or more is family or related to me, and the few that aren’t … it’s a small community and an independent community; they’re reluctant to let people in on what their problems are, and they don’t really want you to know.”

Fortunately, both David and Mark have found that being bivocational — that is, doing manual labor in addition to their ministry — grants them an “in” with people.

A member of Mark’s congregation once told him, “I really appreciate the fact that when I shake your hand you have some callouses.”

“We’ve had the financial struggles, the blizzards, all the market fluctuations,” Mark says. “We’ve had everything that they’ve gone through as far as just everyday life. We’re not insulated from any of their issues, and I think they like that.”

A missionary in Wyoming once gave encouragement to David by suggesting that small-town preachers like him and his father could serve in the church of a bigger-name preacher, but the bigger-name preacher would likely be unable to serve as effectively in their small-town churches.

“I’m sure [the bigger-name preachers] could adapt over time,” David says, “but coming from this background, from this community, it presents an opportunity to minister to the people because they know you, you know what they’re going through at least to some extent, and they know what you’re going through as well.”

Cow stories

Something that people appreciate about Mark are his “cow stories.” Having worked on a ranch his whole life, he is able to relate some of the parables in the Bible as well as concepts like unconditional love between parents and their children (or God the Father and His people) to what he has observed among cows on the ranch.

“I see cows many, many times being a practical example of protecting their calves and being able to pick their calves out of hundreds, literally, of calves just by smell and sight, and then cows that have gotten lost and finding those cows — just all of the day-to-day things that you do on a ranch,” Mark says. “They [the people in my congregation] really relate to those things when you tie it to Scripture and vice versa. It makes Scripture, I believe, in a way, come alive for them, because it’s not ancient Israel; it’s today, and it’s real-life situations.”

For David, working with the local school has proven beneficial for ministry. First as a substitute teacher and later as a football coach, he has utilized this vocation to reach out to youth in the community. Through the school as well as through his four children, he has been able to form relationships with young people such that his church boasts more youth than adults (the ratio, on an average Sunday, is roughly 30 to 12). “Any of the conferences we’d go to in the last few years, we would take as many youth as any church in the state,” David says. “And for our size, that would always blow people away.”

Though David acknowledges the many challenges he has faced in trying to do effective youth ministry over the years, he nevertheless identifies his work with the school as a rewarding aspect of his ministry.

“It’s knowing that the school, when it’s not necessarily OK in other places, feels comfortable calling me and asking me to come in in a ministry-type situation,” he says. When a teenage girl was killed in a car accident last Christmas, for example, he was called in to provide counsel for grieving students specifically because of his pastoral relationship with them.

David says he also is encouraged by the fact “that we get to touch so many kids with the Gospel message.” He continues, “I can’t say that it always sticks, at least right away. But one of the things that I know is, year-in and year-out, how many kids have heard the Gospel message.”

Regarding what’s rewarding in his ministry, Mark says, “It’s seeing God doing things and grow the church and grow the people spiritually and numerically over the years in spite of me. I’ve seen the people pick up a lot of the ministry tasks that I think a lot of full-time pastors would be expected to do.”

Mark explains that, because he lives and works two hours away, the members of his congregation have stepped up in visiting people in the hospital, for example, and bringing food to those in need. “They want me there, and they want my presence in their lives as a pastor,” he says, “but they’re not as dependent [on me] as they would be, in some ways, on a full-time pastor with some of the day-to-day ministry that’s involved.”

For all of its blessings, David says bivocational ministry — or any ministry in a small town — is still “incredibly difficult and challenging.” Preaching on Sunday, teaching on Wednesday, leading a Bible study on Monday, cleaning the church building, leading youth and children’s camps — David, with help from his wife and kids, essentially does it all for First Southern Baptist Chapel. And all the while, he must be a husband and father and work on the family ranch seven days a week. Not without reason does he say one must be specially called by God to bivocational ministry.

Even so, “God’s really blessed us as a family, even through the hardships and trials,” David says, “and He has used a lot of that to help in ministry and help us connect to people.”

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  • Alex Sibley