Membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing in Billings and the surrounding area, and the church is making room for the increased numbers.
Over the past 10 years the local church has grown by 1,933 people. To accommodate the 8,611 members, in January a new meeting house on the Billings West End will be added to the other six buildings in Billings and six others in surrounding towns.
Three wards, totaling nearly 1,100 members, will meet in the new 16,558-square-foot red-brick building beginning Jan. 7. An open house for the public will take place March 2.
And to oversee the growing workload, the church’s area leadership has expanded from two stakes, each with its own president, to three.
“A lot of churches are looking to grow their congregations bigger and bigger,” said Dale Williams, president of the Billings Montana Stake. “Our concept is different. If you grow too much, it’s too impersonal. So we take 350 members and say let’s make it smaller.”
Williams recently joined L. Bryan Zaccardi, president of the Billings Montana East Stake, and Brian Ludwig, president of the new Billings Montana South Stake, for an interview at the recently completed meeting house at 2620 54th St. W.
A little explanation is probably in order, Zaccardi said, for people not familiar with the structure of the LDS faith. Sometimes people confuse congregations with the buildings that house them.
“If you put it in the parlance of the Catholic Church, a ward is like a parish and a stake is a diocese,” he said. “And so, typically, you have anywhere from five to seven or eight wards make up a stake.”
On any given Sunday, you might have up to three ward congregations taking turns using the same building for their services. Before the third stake was created and a new building added, Williams said, “We were starting early in the morning and going till late at night with church services.”
With the new stake and meeting house, here's where the wards meet:
- In the Billings Montana Stake, six wards meet in three meeting houses, all in Billings.
- In the Billings Montana South Stake, six wards gather in four meeting houses, including one in Laurel and one in Red Lodge.
- In the Billings Montana East Stake, six wards meet in three meeting houses, including one in Colstrip. And three smaller congregations, called branches, that also are part of the East Stake, meet in Roundup, Hardin and Forsyth.
In the LDS faith, members don’t church shop for the one they want to attend. Congregations are formed geographically, based on where members live.
Deciding on boundaries is an arduous process that can happen every three to five years, Zaccardi said. That can mean a shift in where members attend.
“Change is hard for all of us, but people adapt pretty well,” he said. “One of the great things in the church is no matter where you go, people love you.”
Regarding the growth in membership, Ludwig said one draw is the faith itself.
“I would think a bunch of the growth is due to the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ that resonates with people,” he said.
Another reason, Williams added, is the draw of the LDS temple, built north of Rimrock Road under the Rims in 1999. The temple is different from meeting houses because it is a sacred space where rites are performed and open only to members in good standing.
“Temples are an impressive part of our life and our religion,” Williams said. “So to have a temple close is definitely a draw for people to relocate.”
The meeting houses, on the other hand, are always open to the public, Zaccardi said.
“We invite everyone to come,” he said.
There was some controversy when the newest meeting house was initially proposed southeast of the temple, off Rim Point Drive, in 2015. Neighbors expressed concerns about extra traffic, blind intersections, a lower-quality view from their windows and diminished property values.
In May 2016, the Billings City Council voted unanimously to allow the new meeting house near the corner of 54th Street West and Rimrock. Officials broke ground on the building last December.