Pastor Pete Nelson, 66, has had a hand in touching more lives in Carson Valley than he may ever know — in this life at least.
Having lead the congregation at Carson Valley United Methodist Church for 31 years, Pete is retiring June 29.
“A church and a pastor is kind of like a marriage, and when a marriage works you leave it alone,” Pete said of his status of longest serving pastor in the Valley. “The best thing about any place is the people. I find the people here value each other and deeply care for each other.”
A graduate of Reno High School in 1966, Pete served as an electronics technician in the Nevada Air Guard from 1967-80.
During this time he was married and divorced after six years.
It was in the aftermath of this marriage that Pete discovered his true calling.
“Things just happened a little at a time,” he said.
While working as a school bus driver to pay the bills, he worked as a hospice volunteer at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Reno.
“It was in the darkest time of my life that I turned to volunteerism. It was out of those times I realized I had people skills that I had been neglecting and that’s what brought me to ministry,” Pete said. “I found I had a talent for talking with people going through a difficult time, and that I wanted to be a hospital chaplain.”
A 5,000-mile cross-country bicycle trip in 1976 helped prepare Pete for ministry.
He led a group of 16 people from Oregon to Virginia in 80 days.
“It was an amazing summer,” Pete said. “Cycling is a way to get away and think. It was a summer that I was responsible for these 16 folks. It was a lot like pastoring.”
It was also during this time he met the love of his life Cathy.
The couple met at a youth group when Cathy was 18 and Pete was 28. They were married 3 years later in 1978.
“I didn’t care much for guys my age because they were so immature,” Cathy said. “I liked the things he stood for and the things he did. I felt an instant attraction to his sense of humor. He can always put you in a good mood.”
After solidifying his love life, Pete pursued his spiritual one and used his GI bill to enroll in seminary school in Berkley, Calif., at the age of 31.
Four years later and fresh out of seminary, Pete and Cathy were sent to Carson Valley on July 1, 1983, to be lead pastor of the Methodist church.
For the first four years, Pete pastored a church in Smith Valley while growing the 30-member congregation in Gardnerville when it was located on Church Street in the building that is now Walton’s Funerals.
“There was one stoplight in town, and the road from Indian Hills was two lanes,” Pete recalled. “The Valley was a lot more rural.”
Wanting to rekindle her passion for dance, Cathy bought All About Dance studio in Minden in 1994, which she still runs.
Pete did his job so well that the congregation grew to 400 members, and needed more than its 3,000-square-foot space.
“We investigated adding on over there, but there wasn’t enough land mass to rebuild,” Pete said.
In 1997 the church, with the help of contractor and member Dirk Jansse, built the current 15,000-square-foot building on Centerville Lane.
“He built this for us,” Pete said of Jansse. “It was an amazing gift.”
In his 31 years in the Valley, Pete has founded or help lay the groundwork for many community outreach programs.
In 1998 he was one of the first five sheriff’s chaplains who get called out day or night to help during a tragedy.
“We can give people pastoral care. We can counsel with them,” Pete said. “You really get to be a precious part of people’s lives when they need someone to lean on.”
Pete and Cathy started the Carson Valley Community Food Closet out of their garage in 1987. It gained nonprofit status a year later. Pete served on the board of the Family Support Council when it was first established, and he helped start the Partnership of Community Resources in the early ’90s which now uses his old house as its office.
He also helped found the Suicide Prevention Network of Douglas County and the helping Hands Thrift Store, which celebrated its 10th anniversary May 31.
“There’s been a lot of things I’ve been a privilege to be a part of,” Pete said humbly.
His charitable work has not gone unnoticed by the community who recently named him Citizen of the Year during Carson Valley Days.
As soon as Pete and Cathy can sell their house, the couple is moving to Idaho to be closer to one of their daughters and three grandchildren.
“This has been a special journey. It’s been a privilege to be a part of this church family,” Cathy said. “I’m going to miss the congregation and all the friends we’ve had for years. I’m going to definitely miss the kids at the studio.”
At 10:30 a.m. June 29, the church is having a consecration service for new lead pastor Tony Hoefner, 57, from Texas.
“I like him. He’s been in ministry for 20 years, and has a real pastoral heart,” Pete said of his replacement. “I’m confident this church is in great hands. A preacher needs to have a pastor’s heart and Tony has that. I’m thrilled to turn the congregation over to him.”
As for how they will spend their time in Idaho, Pete plans on getting back into cycling and hospice work. Cathy plans to teach at a dance studio.
“Being a grandma and grandpa is the biggest job we want,” Pete said. “One of the odd things is going to not be known. Reinventing us there will be a good thing.”
Their top priority, however, will be finding a church to get connected in.
“A retired clergy can be a real asset to a congregation,” Pete said. “I’d like to be an asset somewhere and fill in. I’d like to be a part of his toolbelt.”