MILLERSBURG — It was a late Saturday night for Dennis Peterson, but Sunday morning he roams around the entrance of Millersburg Baptist Church warmly greeting people as they arrive.
Several minutes later, he is energetically preaching the gospel in front of the congregation.
His enthusiasm rubs off on those gathered, and several times during Peterson’s 40-minute sermon, people call out “Amen.”
“He does his job and preaches the Gospel,” said Dale Thomas, one of the church deacons.
Peterson’s enthusiasm might mask the amount of effort and the sacrifice of sleep that go into his weekly sermons.
He isn’t the type of pastor you would find at other churches. Peterson is a vocational pastor, meaning he has a full-time job in addition to leading Millersburg Baptist Church.
“Tired — that’s a typical week,” Peterson said. “I don’t know how I do it sometimes.”
On weekdays, Peterson, 42, leaves his Millersburg home at 5 a.m. and arrives at 5:30 in Jefferson City, where he runs the mailroom for Missouri Farm Bureau. Depending on the mail, Peterson returns home about 4 p.m.
When Peterson is not at work, his wife, Tina; his two children, Kami, 8, and Hadassah, 11; and his duties as a pastor keep him busy.
“He’s tired all the time,” Tina Peterson said. “After work, he’ll be here for an hour or so. He eats dinner, goes to the church or a meeting, sees the girls for a couple of minutes.”
Monday and Tuesday are spent preparing for the Wednesday night Bible study. Dennis Peterson also is a member of the Fulton school board, which meets once a month. Church meetings occupy some of his time, and then the weekend comes.
“My Saturday is shot,” Dennis Peterson said.
Full-time pastors have office hours throughout the week to prepare for sermons. Dennis Peterson works on his as much as he can throughout the week, but Saturday is the only day he has to focus on it.
Despite everything going on, Dennis Peterson said each area of his life gets the attention it deserves.
“I don’t want the kids to say, ‘My dad had all this energy for the church, but I was slighted,’” Tina Peterson said. “He makes a point to spend time with them.”
No matter how busy he is, Dennis Peterson is always there to tuck his children in before they go to bed.
“He has a lot of books, and he reads them a lot,” Kami said.
And although her father is busy, she likes him being a pastor.
“I like it when he preaches,” she said. “I like to hear him because I can learn more.”
If you had asked him 20 years ago, Dennis Peterson said, he wouldn’t have thought he would be preaching. He grew up in Ridgefield Park, N.J., and attended technical school there to become a commercial artist. His wife grew up in Kirksville and was a nanny in New Jersey when they met. When they got married in 1986, they decided Missouri would be their home.
Ten years ago, Dennis Peterson said, he felt the calling to go into the ministry while he was working with young people at First Baptist Church in Fulton. He became the youth minister at the church, but it would be a little longer before he would find his way to Millersburg Baptist Church.
“I didn’t know anything about this church at all,” Dennis Peterson said. “I fought it. A country church? There’s no youth there.”
Dennis Peterson finally went to Millersburg Baptist and immediately connected with the youth. He left for a while to attend seminary school and took a break before returning to Millersburg Baptist.
Three years ago, the previous pastor left, and Dennis Peterson stepped in.
It was a path neither Dennis Peterson nor his wife expected.
“God obviously had different plans for us,” Tina Peterson said. “It’s a roller coaster. We can make plans all we want, but God has the plan in the end.”
Dennis Peterson and his wife weren’t able to have children, but that has allowed them to adopt their daughters and act as foster parents for other children. The Petersons have been involved in foster care for 14 years.
“We just have a love for children,” Dennis Peterson said. “We believed we would have children and weren’t able to. It’s worth it because we’re able to make an impact in a child’s life.”
Acting as foster parents has added another aspect to Dennis Peterson’s balancing act as a vocational pastor, but it is all a team effort.
“If I didn’t have super mom as a wife, it would be hard,” Dennis Peterson said. “She’s so good with the kids.”
Dennis Peterson said he laughs sometimes when he thinks about where he was 20 years ago.
“I was living a life of sin,” he said. “I worked with a printer in New Jersey and made pretty good money. I had a lot of toys. When you turn to the Lord, it’s not about you anymore.”
Unlike his children, Dennis Peterson said, he wasn’t brought up in a Christian home.
“The kids don’t know any other lifestyle,” Tina Peterson said. “Even though it takes time, it’s fulfilling. It’s part of our lifestyle.”
Tina Peterson said she likes the joy her husband gets out of preaching and making a difference in people’s lives.
“If he wasn’t teaching at the church, my head would explode, because he has to teach,” she said. “He would be teaching it all to me.”
After a long week and delivering a 40-minute sermon, any fatigue Dennis Peterson might have isn’t apparent when he talks about preaching.
“I love teaching with a passion,” Dennis Peterson said. “The new discoveries, the word of God, the power when it speaks to you — you got this power with the relationship you have with the Lord, then you have to regurgitate it and scrunch it into 30 to 45 minutes.”
The teaching and the sharing of the word of God keep Dennis Peterson going, he said.
“It doesn’t matter how tired I am at the end of the week,” Dennis Peterson said. “I can do it because of the word of God.”
Come Sunday morning, Dennis Peterson doesn’t seem sleep-deprived.
“Even though it’s his part-time job, he treats it like a full-time job,” said Wesley Bird, a deacon at Millersburg Baptist. “He’s very energetic and excited about what he does, and he conveys that to the church.”
As the Sunday service comes to the end with a final song and a closing prayer, Dennis Peterson makes the rounds again, visiting with people as they slowly funnel out of the church.
For some, the rest of the day will be one of rest. For Dennis Peterson, it’s time to prepare for the evening service, and Monday morning it’s up at 4 a.m.
“It takes a little more planning,” Tina Peterson said. “We can’t be impulsive. Saturday night is study night. Otherwise, we’re regular people.”