KAYSVILLE, Utah — James L. Ferrell's life is full of fortuitous "accidents."
He graduated from an Ivy league law school, only to leave his job at a mega law firm and join an emerging company that specialized in peacemaking.
He never saw himself as a writer, but a common church calling turned him into a bestselling author.
Even as a student at BYU, he didn't foresee bumping into his future wife at a Provo dance.
Meet the man who didn't really have a plan, only a desire to follow his heart.
"I don't really have aspirations or set big goals. I try to do what feels like the right thing to do," the 46-year-old said. "Whatever happens, happens. But in terms of some big personal goal, that is not how I live."
Counsel to counselor
Ferrell's life took an unexpected turn at BYU in the late 1980s. He was about to graduate and depart for law school when he became acquainted with the daughter of Terry Warner, a philosophy professor at the university. Ferrell was so impressed with Warner that he put off law school for another year and enrolled in two of the professor's classes, finishing a philosophy major.
"His impact on me is incalculable," said Ferrell, who served an LDS mission to Japan. "I had such amazing experiences in those two classes. They just lit my fire of learning. That year of study was the best year of study I have ever had."
Years later, Ferrell was a recent Yale Law School graduate working at a large firm in California when he reconnected with Warner, who was involved in starting something called "The Arbinger Institute." Within a year, Ferrell left the practice of law to be involved with Arbinger.
"I had a few people say, 'What in the world are you doing?'" Ferrell said. "Then, Arbinger was just a fledging startup. I was leaving a big career in law. But I didn't have any worries about it at all. For me it felt like the right thing to do."
Ferrell, together with his mentor Warner and two other former students – Duane Boyce and Paul Smith – founded the Arbinger Institute in the early 1990s. Now with operations in 20 countries worldwide, Arbinger is a management consulting firm and scholarly consortium that specializes in peacemaking for various organizations, families and individuals.
"It was a leap of faith in a way … but this is very helpful and meaningful material for people," Ferrell said. "It brings people together in difficult situations. It helps people to be more effective. It was only a matter of time and figuring out how to put the ideas into ways people could grasp them and put them into practice."
As a managing director, Ferrell has taught and advised leaders of corporations and governments around the world.
"It's been fantastic," he said.
Boyce describes his partner as hard working and devoted.
"He has a natural disposition to be kind and has boundless energy," Boyce said in an e-mail. "He has a great ability to dive into issues and look for solutions – rather than be defeated by problems and I think this brings out the best in those around him."
Elder Gifford Nielsen was recently called as an Area Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He met Ferrell when the two were paired at a Steve Young charity golf tournament in Phoenix more than a year ago. Elder Nielsen, a former BYU quarterback, later became involved with Arbinger and developed a friendship with Ferrell.
"The guy could putt," Elder Nielsen said. "He was giving me tips on my putting stroke. He is competitive. I had a great experience. That is what happens when you are with Jim Ferrell. He is an incredible person."
One of the most transformative and soul-stirring experiences of Ferrell's life occurred in the l990s when he was called to be a gospel doctrine teacher in his Kaysville ward.
It forced him to confront the Old Testament, a text he admits he was afraid to explore.
"With that call, there was no way to avoid it anymore," he said.
As he labored to prepare lessons and comprehend the giant block of intimidating scripture, Ferrell discovered that asking key questions unlocked all manner of spiritual insights. He began to see the Savior Jesus Christ in every story. He couldn't scribble notes fast enough.
"It was like someone built a foundation beneath a house I was living in that didn't know it was missing a foundation," he said. "It made the whole structure stronger and enabled building on other pieces on to it that I didn't have before. I had always had this deep testimony, but diving in with the Old Testament and grappling with it transformed my understanding."
Friends recommended he write a book, and his lesson outlines were converted into chapters. He stayed up until 2 a.m. sometimes or woke up at 4 a.m. to write. Ferrell's spiritual adventures in the Old Testament led to the books "The Peacegiver," "The Holy Secret" and "The Hidden Christ." "The Peacegiver" remained on Deseret Book's top 10 bestseller for four years.
Ferrell's law school education prepared him to be an author, he said. Composing legal briefs helped him be analytical and write logically.
Ferrell has also authored and co-authored several books for his profession, including the Arbinger Institute's international bestsellers "Leadership and Self-Deception" and "The Anatomy of Peace." These titles have been translated into 23 languages and sales have increased around the globe each year.
Ferrell said the secret to studying and understanding the scriptures is to have a conversation with the book. Spiritual moments come when the reader is engaged, curious and asking questions.
"You can't read the scriptures like a normal book because they aren't normal books. They have unfathomable depth to them and it's more than a plot," he said. "When you go below the surface, the Spirit takes you to what you need to see and learn. Every story invites me to go deeper."
When reading, Ferrell likes to ask five questions:
1. What is the context?
2. Why is this happening?
3. Is there a pattern, such as repeating words, themes, echoes and shadows?
4. How is this about the Savior?
5. How does this apply to me?
His favorite scripture stories have the theme of reconciliation — with others and with the Lord.
"For me, a study of the gospel happens best when intellect and spirit are grappling together. If I don't engage my mind, the spirit won't speak. The Lord wants to have a personal conversation with us. If we are willing to dive in and have that conversation, it's always there."
The family man
After traveling to a remote location to give a keynote address or teach at a seminar, nothing satisfies Ferrell more than coming home.
After all, his wife, Jackie, makes delectable banana bread.
James and Jackie are the parents of five children, including a set of twins. The couple met by chance one night at a dance in Provo after both arrived solo. She had the same middle name as Ferrell's mother. Their second date was a fireside at the Marriott Center on Super Bowl Sunday. The relationship gradually deepened after that.
Ferrell, who looks 10 years younger than he really is, describes himself as a homebody. Aside from a trip to the golf course or a relaxing bike ride, he would rather be at home, watching a movie with the family, reading to the kids or attacking the shelf of more than 30 books next to his bed.
"I have one or two books on my shelf," Jackie said.
Jackie said her husband of 23 years isn't really "a housework guy," but to his credit, he isn't afraid to take the kids and go do something fun.
One talent Ferrell has that constantly amazes his wife is his ability to remember names. As a member of a stake presidency, that talent comes in handy, his wife said.
Another unique thing about her husband, Jackie said, is his approach to life.
"He goes with the flow," she said.
Sitting in his basement office, next to his computer and shelves of countless books in various languages, the man without a plan does admit to having two lifelong aspirations after all, in addition to always doing what feels right.
"I want my kids to love each other and be devoted to the gospel," he said. "I want us to have that strong family experience. I certainly want that."