When you’ve been pastor of a church for 36 years, you can’t help but think about numbers.
The Rev. Stan Simmons, pastor of Faith Chapel, who will turn over the reigns of the church to a new lead pastor in two weeks, figures he’s done hundreds of baby dedications over the years.
As for weddings and funerals, he’s presided over more than he can remember. But the number that means the most to Simmons is the quantity of people who have given their lives to Christ under his watch: 21,774.
“I love teaching the Bible and I love Christians, but if the church was just about taking care of Christians, I wouldn’t do very well,” he said on Thursday, sitting in his office. “What’s been the most delight to me are those 21,774 people.”
Not all of those people go to Faith Chapel, he said, but he likes to think that they've helped boost the level of Christianity in Billings and beyond.
Much has changed over the more than three decades that Simmons, 68, has led what is now the largest church in Montana. The West End congregation has an average weekly attendance of about 3,500 people.
More than 10,000 people attended the series of candlelight services this past Christmas.
A staff of more than 60 people oversees a host of ministries, from a thriving kids’ ministry and adult small groups and classes to outreach around Billings and the world. On the weekend of March 16-17, Simmons will turn over responsibility of guiding all that to the Rev. Nate Poetzl.
The church will host an open house for Simmons and his wife, Ginger, before or after the weekend services on March 9-10.
He’s winding down from his responsibilities of lead pastor, letting things go, one meeting at a time. The other night, halfway through a council meeting, he turned it over to Nate and left.
“All the way home I was thinking I don’t even know how to think about this,” Simmons said. “It just felt so different.”
Don’t get him wrong. Simmons is excited for the future and all it includes. He and his wife have trips planned to New York City and to Israel.
The couple is glad to live at a different pace, enjoying family and taking rides on Simmons’ Harley. He’s even going to speak at a motorcycle rally in Nebraska this summer.
Simmons will also continue to occasionally teach at Faith Chapel, and he has an idea for another project he plans to tackle.
“I sent out an email a few days ago to a number of pastors and district supervisors and I asked them ‘what are the 10 most significant things that you think pastors deal with?’ ”
He plans to compile their responses into 10 or 15 categories and write papers on each to help him coach pastors.
“I don’t want to just do nothing,” Simmons said. “I’m the kind of person who has to get up every day and know that I’m going to accomplish something or I feel pretty worthless.”
It was that drive that helped Simmons turn around a church of 19 people on the verge of closure in 1977. Reminiscing about those early days, he remembers driving a U-Haul truck packed with the family’s belongings, leaving Hillsborough, Ore., where he had been an assistant pastor.
“I was driving out of town and I was thinking, ‘Oh man, we’re off to Montana for a new adventure,’ ” Simmons said.
By the end of the first year, church attendance rose to 112 people. Simmons marks the years by the church's moves and building renovations.
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From the small, landlocked brick building at the corner of 14th Street West and Lynn Avenue, Faith Chapel moved out to the corner of Broadwater Avenue and Shiloh Road.
Before the church made its first move in 1987, 1,200 people had to squeeze into tight quarters. That meant Simmons preached four Sunday morning services, plus a Sunday night and Wednesday night service.
“So I was preparing three messages a week,” he said.
Out at the West End location, the sanctuary was remodeled after a year because the congregation continued to grow, and then a bigger sanctuary was opened in 1995 when the congregation numbered 2,400. Throughout this time, Simmons shared his messages through a radio show, “The Living Word,” that broadcast on a local radio station and drew radio listeners and new members.
For 18 years he served as a division superintendent of Foursquare churches in Montana, and for six years as district supervisor of the North Central District of Foursquare churches in Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.
Asked what drew the people, Simmons says he doesn't know.
"People have said to me it was the teaching," he said. "I was always faithful to work real hard on my preparation, and we made a decision early on to take good care of kids."
When Simmons turned 60, in 2004, he began to notice Faith’s congregation was aging with him.
“I saw all the gray heads and I thought if I don’t do something, I’m going to hand off a dying church,” he said.
With agreement of the council and the congregation, the church launched another building project, to update its children’s building and construct a new sanctuary that looked more like a performing arts center than a church.
It was built with the colors and the space that would appeal to young people. And the church started incorporating more of the arts.
“And it worked,” Simmons said. “The congregation has gotten younger.”
But it came with a cost. Some older members, who felt like they had been left behind, departed Faith Chapel for other, more traditional, churches.
“It grieves me that some people left because I loved them, but you have to think about the whole church, not just the individuals,” he said.
Simmons is glad he will hand off a growing multigenerational congregation to Poetzl.
He smiles, thinking of the generations he’s seen grow up at the church, the babies whom he dedicated and later married. And now he’s dedicating their children.
It's time, he said, for him to relinquish control of what feels like his own child.
“It’s like I’m handing something off that God used me to give birth to, and now I’m handing it off for someone else to steward,” Simmons said. “And that’s a wonderful thing because I love Nate, I know he’s going to do a terrific job and people are receiving him really well.”
As for proof of Simmons’ impact, staff members created a black room downstairs, with every person who has given his or her life to Christ depicted as a dot of light.
“I walked in there and I just thought ‘every one of these little pieces of light is a soul,’ ” he said. “And some day I hope in heaven that I get to stand and just have Jesus show me all the people that received Christ here.”