Taking the Bull by the Horns
A lot of United Methodist pastors follow their call to ministry as a second career, which is true for Rev. Ben Lee. It was his first career that makes his story rather unique. He spent 16 years traveling the country, going toe-to-hoof with the toughest bulls in rodeo, taunting them into coming for him rather than stomping the rider they had just thrown into the dirt.
Lee is pastor of Midway Locust Grove United Methodist Church near Columbia, but he grew up in the suburbs of Macon, Georgia. In high school, he played football, baseball, basketball and ran track. He tried to walk onto the football team at a Presbyterian college. They were looking for a defensive back. He met all the standards for running the 40 and lifting weights, but they had metrics based on height that set standards for vertical leap. If you weren’t tall, you’d better be able to jump high.
“I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get that vertical leap,” said Lee, who is 5’9”.
One of his friends who was more of a country guy started asking Lee if he ever thought about riding bulls. Lee brushed off the idea, but his friend kept after him, so he gave it a try. His first ride went very well.
“I rode him easy. It was just bizarre,” he said. But that was just the first ride. Lee’s self-assessment of the rest of his bull-riding career was less glowing.
“I was a terrible rider,” he said.
But he stuck with it for a year and a half. Then one day after coming off the bull, the bull came down on the middle of Lee’s chest with both hind hooves. It cracked his sternum, bruised his heart and collapsed a lung. When his buddies visited him in the hospital and showed him the video of the stomp, he noticed that the bullfighter who should have been protecting him wasn’t on his game.
“If he had been doing his job, I wouldn’t have got hurt,” he said.
Lee started considering how being the bullfighter charged with protecting the bull rider might be the role for him. To get into bullfighting, Lee went around to every rodeo he could find and offered to help the bullfighters for free.
“Some of these places were pretty backwoods,” he said. “There might be 15 people in the stands.”
They usually agreed to the free help. He did it to learn, build skills and build a reputation. Then when one of the regular bullfighters couldn’t make it, he would get a call to come in for a paying job.
“I learned that if you could take a hooking, get back up and keep doing your job, you’d never be short of work,” he said.
Lee can be obsessive, and he put that tendency to work. He had a disciplined diet and sleep routine, and built workouts based on how a boxer would work out – with a lot of quick-twitch drills and jumping rope.
“To get to the top of any kind of outfit you’ve got to sleep it and breathe it,” Lee said. The purpose of the bullfighter is to keep the bull rider safe.
“The best bullfighters stop a wreck before it happens,” he said. “The crowd will never know the wreck has been diverted.”
Lee would be out in the ring where he is intensely watching the rider, primarily his hips, to predict when and where he was going to come off the bull.
“After that it’s just a game of angles,” he said of how he would get the bull to chase him to keep the rider safe.
Some of the wrecks that looked the worst, like getting tossed up into the air, didn’t hurt all that much. Some of the worst ones, like getting a quick jab under the vest, weren’t even noticed by the crowd. During the season he stayed sore all the time. But he also stayed fit, which meant he was flexible and could recover quickly.
While fighting bulls he wore a Kevlar vest with trauma plates made specifically for bullfighters and a street hockey girdle for padding. He wore cleats and turf shoes, depending on the terrain. South Florida rodeos were on sand, indoor were clay dirt, Dakotas were black hills soil.
“If you planted and pushed, you wanted to move,” Lee said. Lee also rode saddle broncs when he wasn’t fighting bulls.
“I liked the competition,” he said. Successful bull fighting meant keeping the rider safe, but riding saddle broncs gave him an outlet for his competitive drive, where he could win or lose.
He also found ways to be competitive with bullfighting, though. He was one of eight bullfighters nationwide to be selected into the prestigious Rex Dunn school of bullfighting champions, and at the four-day school he won the outstanding student award.
“That was a springboard for my career,” he said. “After that, the phone was ringing off the hook. I wasn’t prepared for the speed at which things would take off.”
Soon he was living out of the back of his 1-ton dually Dodge pickup truck. He had a camper in the bed and even fabricated a back porch for it. When he was working with a friend, they were set up so one could be in the back, sleeping, showering, cooking — doing whatever while the other was at the wheel making time down the highway.
Rodeo season started in Georgia and Florida in January to February. In March it was time to head out to southern California. As the season progressed Lee would move into Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakotas before looping back down south.
After getting married and having his first son, Wick, Lee opted to limit his bullfighting to the Southeast Circuit, a nine-state area. After Zeke was born a few years later, he scaled back to just doing rodeos in Georgia and Florida. Even with that limitation, he was still doing 40–50 rodeos a year.
Bulls didn’t scare Lee. But one thing did: the call to ministry that he first felt at age 16.
“I was scared to death,” he said. “I thought if you were going to be in ministry you had to be a fun hater.” He wasn’t a fun hater. He “lived like a banshee” until 2003. In 2004 he started connecting more with his faith again, but it was still taking a back seat to rodeo.
The thing that caused him to reverse that equation wasn’t a church, it was a rodeo company. The 4-L Rodeo Company was a family business led by Charlie and Wanda Lowery. Lee had the utmost respect for them, and they were people who were outwardly living their faith.
“They were very sincere Christians,” he said. “They modeled how you can be tough and be a cowboy but also be gentle and kind.”
It was a different take on rodeo than you find in some places, according to Lee. Much of the rodeo culture is built around pride, with a potential pitfall of getting stuck in an ego-driven persona. “It’s gross,” Lee said.
The Lowerys inspired him to take his faith more seriously. When he started doing so, he was surprised to find not holding rodeo as his highest priority wasn’t a career killer.
“All of the top accolades and awards that I claimed, they all happened after I started putting my faith first,” Lee said.
A Conference pastoral counselor at the South Georgia Conference office told Lee that her father, who had been a church administrator for 46 years, was about to retire, and she recommended that Lee apply for his position. She noted he was good with people and didn’t put up with nonsense. She asked if he was interested.
“Heck no,” he replied. But she kept after him and convinced him to meet with the senior pastor. The two hit it off well.
After working there a couple of years, Lee was approached by the youth pastor, who was in desperate need of a male chaperone who could ski for an upcoming youth ski trip. Lee agreed, enjoyed the trip and started building relationships with the high school group. When the youth pastor suddenly left a few months later, he was asked to take over that position. His time as youth director went well. He also became involved in college-age ministry, and it was taking off. The increased responsibilities with the ministry, and with his family life, were both ramping up at the very same time as his rodeo career was hitting the top of his game.
Through a complicated, multi-tiered competitive evaluation process, he was selected to be a bullfighter for the prestigious National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Pocatella, Idaho, in March 2010. He went there a week early and was presented a special jacket and belt buckle on stage before the rodeo started.
“My entire career had led up to this moment,” he said. “That night I ended up back at the hotel, I sit on the bed, and was looking at that buckle, and I clearly remember thinking, ‘I thought this would feel better. I thought this would fill me up. There’s got to be more to life than this.’”
He was at the top of his game. He was a healthy 33-year-old. And he hung it up. On January 9, 2011, it was the last time he fought bulls. His bosses thought he was crazy.
“It felt terrible,” Lee said on hanging it up after 16-years of making rodeo his life, with all the pain he put himself through to rise to that level. “I prayed for God to extinguish that fire in me if that was the right thing.”
Now retired for 10 years, he has only been to one rodeo in that time, one in which he was specifically asked to attend to be honored for his past work. He took his sons to the event. They were too young to remember when their dad was a rodeo guy. During his last rodeo, the oldest was six, and the youngest was four. When you walk through his parsonage there is nothing Western on the wall — no trophies, buckles or pictures.
Lee doesn’t like to talk about the rodeo much because he doesn’t want to be typecast as a particular kind of person. But he did use his memories of receiving the jacket and buckle at the rodeo in Pocatella as an illustration in a recent sermon at Midway Locust Grove to discuss how people value themselves, basing the sermon on John 12, verses 20-56.
“That season of my life was deep. It was rich. It afforded me to travel, to see a lot of our country and meet a lot of great people, many of whom are close friends today,” he said. “In that arena of life, I allowed what I did to determine who I was. Where I chose to receive my value from was all in accomplishments in rodeo.”
He asked his congregation to reflect upon where they receive value in their life, saying that it all comes down to selfishness versus selflessness. The highest value comes from giving up selfish desires to give yourself over to Christ.
“My value comes from whose I am,” Lee said. “I hope and pray your value comes from whose you are.”