The Rev. Roy Stockstill, who founded Bethany Church and oversaw its rapid expansion into one of Louisiana’s largest congregations, died Tuesday.
Stockstill, who held the first Bethany Church service with his family and 11 others in the living room of his Baker home in 1963, was 97 years old, according to the Rev. Hank Henagan, an associate pastor at the church.
Stockstill led Bethany Church, which since its founding has grown into a megachurch, boasting several sprawling campuses and nearly 10,000 members, until his retirement in 1983. His son and, most recently, his grandson succeeded him in the church’s pulpit.
“Brother Roy was very personable, very joyful and always smiling,” said Henagan, who joined Bethany Church in 1995. “He just exuded what it means to be a man of God. He was a great pastor, a great family man, a dad and a husband.”
A World War II veteran who served in North Africa with the U.S. Army Air Corps, Stockstill graduated from the New Orleans Baptist Seminary and worked as pastor of several Baptist churches before arriving in Baton Rouge in 1957 to serve as pastor of Florida Boulevard Baptist Church, according to a statement from the family.
But Stockstill drifted from the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination in which he’d served as a minister for 15 years, and left to found the nondenominational ministry with his wife, Alma Ruth Wells Stockstill.
Stockstill told The Advocate in 2000 that personal experiences with the Holy Spirit in the early 1960s led to his questioning parts of Southern Baptist doctrine.
“I had spent my whole life as a Southern Baptist; my relatives were Southern Baptists; my wife and her family were Southern Baptists,” he said. “People thought I’d lost my mind.”
Over the years, Bethany Church grew, absorbing the lots around the couple’s home on Plank Road. The church’s north campus in Baker now sits on several dozen acres and includes a 6,000-seat auditorium, administrative offices for the church’s global ministry and Bethany Christian School.
The church expanded in 2000 when a south Baton Rouge campus was built, just off Interstate 10 near Siegen Lane.
From the beginning, Stockstill’s Bethany ministry focused on spreading the Gospel — both in Louisiana and through missionary work abroad, Henagan said, adding Roy Stockstill and his son, Larry, both shared a vision “to plant churches around the world.”
“Bethany’s first check, written in 1963, was to a missionary,” Henagan said.
Chuck Stearns, who joined Bethany in 1981, said Roy Stockstill’s humility and buoyant spirits drew Stearns to the church.
Even after Bethany had become a major church with lengthy membership rolls, Stearns said he recalled Roy Stockstill still rolling up his sleeves and climbing up a ladder to touch up paint around the sanctuary.
“I remember people that would come in during the early years at Bethany looking for the pastor, and Brother Roy would be up on ladders painting and say, ‘You’re talking to him. Why don’t you come up here and we can chat,’ ” said Stearns, who’s been an associate pastor with the church for the last 20 years. “That was just Brother Roy — he was always doing something.”
Despite the church’s big ambitions and growing importance, Stearns said, the responsibilities never seemed to be a burden or a weight on the pastor.
“It was that spirit that he carried that attracted us to Bethany,” Stearns said.
Ruth Stockstill, Roy’s wife of 68 years who in addition to helping found Bethany served as the first principal of Bethany Christian School, died in 2008 at the age of 83.
Stockstill’s son, the Rev. Larry Stockstill, stepped into the role of senior pastor in 1983 and his son, the Rev. Jonathan Stockstill, took over as senior pastor, in 2012.
In addition to the Rev. Larry Stockstill, the couple had two other children: a daughter, Susan Ruth Stockstill, who died in 2013, and son, Gerald Stockstill.
A memorial service is planned for Sunday at Bethany North Campus in Baker at 6 p.m. The family has requested donations to the Surge Project, Bethany’s global missionary wing, in lieu of flowers.
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @brynstole.