BLACKFOOT, Idaho (BP)–Wearing a hat like the one cowboy actor Tom Mix made famous in westerns in the ’20s and ’30s along with a vest, brown cowboy boots and a full gray beard, Jim Ballard looks like he just stepped out of a Hollywood studio.
But unlike the silver screen cowboys of old, Ballard spends his long Idaho days recruiting church planters and helping plant churches as director of missions for the Eastern Idaho Southern Baptist Association. He also has served as a North American Mission Board worker for the past seven of his 37 years in ministry.
“Probably the greatest challenge I face is the distances I have to cover,” said Ballard, whose association is made up of 13 counties and surrounded by three states — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. “There’s a lot of distance between places up here.”
With his home in Blackfoot, Idaho — midway between Pocatello and Idaho Falls — Ballard, 57, says he puts an average of 75,000-80,000 miles a year on his vehicle as he covers his assigned territory.
“It’s nothing to drive 500, 600, 700 miles some days,” he said.
Ballard preaches at a different church every Sunday in his association, which includes 13 churches and two missions. Some are without pastors or are church plants which haven’t yet called a pastor, so Ballard often fills in. He may preach in as many as three churches on a given Sunday, some three hours or 200 miles apart.
Born in Pueblo, Colo., Ballard grew up working on ranches and farms, so he relates well to the ranching and farming community of eastern Idaho.
“I’ve been around ranchers all my life. Westerners are very individual people but some of the finest people on earth,” Ballard said. “… Morally, most of them are very sound. Cowboys believe in God because they see the effects of God outdoors. Their word is their bond. If you get a handshake here, it’s better than any contract a lawyer can draw up. But there’s also a lot of lost people here.”
Ballard calls ranchers some of the greatest innovators on earth.
“They have to make things work — rebuild old equipment and get by with it with challenging budgets and money to work with. They’re rugged individuals — pioneers,” he said.
“At times being a rancher, it seems like you’ve got everything in the world against you, both in ranching and agriculture,” Ballard said. “Prices keep going up on everything except the products ranchers sell. But prices on vehicles and the other equipment they need continue to go up. Ranchers have to be really creative in order to just survive. As one of my friends says, ‘It’s a way of life rather than a living.’ They could all do much better in a different field but this is where their heart is.”
And then there are the ranchers’ long hours and seven-day work weeks. Most ranchers start before daylight and work long after dark, Ballard said. So for successful church plants and well-attended worship services, missionaries and pastors like Ballard must adjust to ranchers’ schedules.
“We have to find times that work for them,” he said, explaining that the typical 11 a.m. worship service is out of the question if pastors expect cowboys and ranchers to show up.
“Their responsibility is the life of their animals. It’s their livelihood and a stewardship. Come Sunday morning, the cattle have to be fed just like they do on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s seven days a week. So we have afternoon and evening churches up here,” Ballard said. “All the chores are done, they’re through with their day, so having church later eliminates any excuse for them, as far as coming to church.”
Ballard believes his area of Idaho is on the threshold of a church planting movement.
“A vision was cast two years that every church and mission in our association would plant a church within the next five years, and then those church plants would plant another one in the next five years, which would take us from 11 to 56 churches in 10 years’ time.
“I’m afraid I way underestimated because we’ve had three church starts just within the last three months,” Ballard said.
Ballard made a special plea to have more Southern Baptists everywhere become part of his prayer group.
“I’ve asked the Lord to give me 1,000 prayer partners who have access to e-mail. We need for these partners to pray for the lost to be saved, and that God would raise up church planters. And we are praying for more resources from our Bible Belt churches in the South,” he said.
“Some people would call this work hard. It is long miles and grueling work. It’s also fulfilling. But yet to me, with 90 percent of the people in eastern Idaho not knowing the Lord, we have the greatest opportunity of anywhere on earth to take the Gospel of Jesus,” he said. “I think it’s the most exciting place on earth to be — right here where God’s called us.”
Ballard said he is seeing a movement afoot in the development of cowboy churches.
“We’re finding out that even if the folks have a Mormon background, if we’ll do a cowboy church in their setting, they’ll come,” he said.
A cowboy in his 70s recently accepted Christ during a Bible study.
“If you care enough about folks, you’re going to spend time with them. When people around here see that you care about what they care about, pretty soon they’ll listen to what you have to say,” he said.
Ballard has been married to his second wife Myrtle for two years. He was married to his first wife Beverly for 34 years prior to her death in 2006. Between them, Myrtle and Jim have eight children. He attended Oklahoma Missionary Baptist College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Prior to coming to Idaho as a church planter and director of missions three years ago, Ballard spent five years in Utah as an associational missionary and church planting strategist. Previously, he pastored churches in Nevada and Colorado.
Jim Ballard is one of more than 5,600 North American Mission Board missionaries supported by the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American missions. To view a video about his and other missionary ministries, visit www.namb.net and click on the “Monthly Missionary Focus” gallery.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.