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Veteran Ventriloquist

For six decades, Fred Pettet has taught the gospel through puppetry.

Fred D. Pettet III has been involved in children’s ministry for 60 years. Moreover, at 73, he hopes the Lord gives him the stamina to remain on the platform until the age of 100.

Pettet’s career has included decades of performing programs in the U.S. and nine foreign countries, shows on three Christian television networks, and stints as a children’s pastor at a trio of Assemblies of God churches. In May, he received the Smith Wigglesworth legacy award during the annual AG Evangelists Conference.

Growing up in New Jersey, Pettet’s parents, Fred Jr. and Connie, took Fred and his younger brother Robbie to Midvale Gospel Church regularly and frequently talked about the Lord. At age 7, Fred accepted Jesus into his heart and three years later sensed God telling him he would one day be involved in ministry.

During his childhood, the young Fred devotedly watched TV children’s show pioneer Buffalo Bob Smith and his puppet Howdy Doody. Pettet’s parents bought him marionettes, costumes, and a stage and, after practicing, Fred put on a well-received show at church. Subsequent gigs followed at other area congregations, with his parents transporting their son too young to drive a car.

By 15, during summer break from school, Fred led a weeklong kid’s crusade, 90 minutes each night. He quickly learned to listen to God during a service, relying on the Holy Spirit to guide him in what to say. At 18 at a church camp, he entertained 800 children.

In his late teens, Pettet moved from behind the stage to the front, trading his puppets for a large, white hand-sewn bear he named Gina. Inspired by televised ventriloquists such as Shari Lewis (and Lamb Chop), Pettet learned how to minister with a handheld prop. He realized he could do what professionals did in a Christian context.

The switch allowed the usually shy Pettet to project an alter ego through Gina. For instance, while enrolled at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, Pettet had no qualms drafting President J. Robert Ashcroft into becoming part of the act at an annual show, having him don bib overalls and a hayseed hat. Pettet likewise convinced then-campus minister George O. Wood to participate. At various chapel services, a perpetually blushing Wood consented to Gina’s plea to Pettet for a kiss.

Nevertheless, when Wood became pastor of Newport-Mesa Christian Center in Costa Mesa, California, he quickly hired recent Evangel graduate Pettet to be his full-time children’s pastor, in a time when virtually no AG churches had such a paid position. (Wood served as AG general superintendent for a decade ending in 2017.)

Wood’s son, George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, recalls those days of his childhood.

“I loved going to kid’s church because Fred and Gina always kept our attention,” says Wood, 54. “I have only positive memories of children’s church during Fred’s tenure.”

Wood believes Pettet developed a thriving ministry at Costa Mesa not only because he brought humor to programs, but also because kids could relate.

“As Fred told a story, kids identified with the emotions Gina showed,” Wood remembers.

Soon after joining the church staff, Pettet agreed to appear regularly on the newly-founded Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcast Network. Pettet and Gina entertained kids on a show called “The Puppeting Gang.” Later, telecasts of the two likewise occurred on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Pettet stayed at Newport-Mesa Christian Church for five years and then became a traveling AG evangelist. He and Gina performed at church services as well as everywhere from amusement parks to schools. His education degree from Evangel University came in handy.

“I can talk about God in schools, I just have to be careful how to say it,” Pettet says.

Pettet spent a combined 15 years as children’s pastor working with Pennsylvania AG pastor Chad T. Stoecker, first at Wilkes-Barre First Assembly of God and then at New Castle First Assembly of God.

“Fred knows how to command a crowd and keep kids’ attention,” says Stoecker, who drove Pettet to Springfield to receive the Wigglesworth legacy award. “He’s a natural performer, he’s very creative, he’s funny, and his timing is terrific. And he’s a great ventriloquist.”

Stoecker, who is now lead pastor of Morningstar Church in Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania, asked Pettet to help with vacation Bible school at the church in June.

“Ventriloquism and puppets are new to kids of this generation,” says Stoecker, 49. “Kids are mesmerized by them.”

Stoecker says Pettet has been consistent in the two decades he has known him.

“He still understands about the foundational principles of understanding the Word of God and the fruit of the Spirit,” Stoecker says. “His heart for kids and families is so pure.”

Indeed, through it all, Pettet’s goal has remained the same: to lead children — and their parents — to faith in Christ. It can be more challenging these days than when Pettet started because many parents have no church background.

While some young ministers see children’s ministry as a stepping-stone to becoming a lead pastor, Pettet’s passion remains teaching the gospel to kids.

“It’s always been what God wanted me to do,” Pettet says.

Pettet still takes his show on the road often, primarily within driving distance of his Pottstown, Pennsylvania, home. Fit for his age, in part because of regularly playing racquetball and pickleball, Pettet stays in tune with how to minister to kids. While he mentors and encourages young children’s pastors via his years of ministry knowledge, he says they help him pick up modern techniques of how to reach today’s kids. The never-married Pettet has no biological children of his own, yet he has touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids: leading them to salvation, teaching them how to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit, inspiring them into full-time ministry themselves.

Still naturally reserved, Pettet transforms into a showman, even a ham, through Gina.

“When I’m on stage, I’m a completely different person,” Pettet acknowledges. “I have to be vibrant in front of hundreds of kids.”

Pettet is able to reach video technology-driven kids of today with retro techniques. Not only is Pettet utilizing puppets, he has revived the use of flannel boards.

“It holds their attention because they’ve never seen them before and they don’t know how it works,” he says.

Even though many modern youngsters are accustomed to screens in front of them every day, Pettet thinks old-fashioned methods are essential in ministry to them.

“The key is to not treat kids like adults, to keep everything simple,” Pettet says. “Kids understand about sin, they understand about salvation. When they are presented with the gospel, many are ready to receive Jesus.”

Wood says Pettet’s ministry remains relevant.

“Kids still need a kid-friendly presentation of the Bible,” Wood says. “Puppets and ventriloquism are a great way to keep everybody engaged.”

LOWER PHOTO #1: George O. Wood with Gina and Fred

LOWER PHOTO #2: Evangel President J. Robert Ashcroft participating in a skit with Fred.


John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.