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Wyo. church supports pastor through illness

BUFFALO, Wyo. (BP)–The congregation of Big Horn Baptist Church in Buffalo, Wyo., hasn’t flinched despite its pastor’s three-year struggle with life-threatening medical issues.

Big Horn was stop No. 45 Oct. 1 on Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch’s bus tour of Southern Baptist churches across the nation, underscoring the cause of evangelism in kicking off “The Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge for Evangelism” campaign which has the goal of “Witness, Win and Baptize … ONE MILLION!” in one year.

“This is the church that has demonstrated what it means to be a caring, giving, supporting, sacrificing church like no other church I have ever encountered,” said Randy Sprinkle, executive director of the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention. “The character of this congregation is incredible.”

Danny Francis, a Wyoming resident since 1967, was called 16 years ago as Big Horn’s pastor, which makes him among the state’s longest-tenured. He’s the third pastor for Big Horn, which was started in 1974 as a mission of First Southern Baptist Church in Casper, Wyo. About 125 people attend Sunday morning worship at Big Horn, making it among the top five largest churches in Wyoming.

Francis, now 51, was born with degenerative discs in his spine. Three years ago he went in for corrective surgery that resulted in a nine-month hospital stay after his spinal cord was clipped and infection set in.

“Medically speaking I died three times, the first time in that first surgery,” Francis said. “Over time, the infection spread into my brain and they had to take out the lower part of it.”

During the last three years, the deacons, congregation and part-time associate pastor Robin Gray have rallied around their pastor and his wife, Kathy, and the church’s needs as well, Sprinkle said.

“The congregation said, ‘Danny’s our pastor and his health doesn’t change anything,'” Sprinkle said. “They said, ‘Danny has ministered to us for years. Now God is giving us the opportunity to minister to Danny.'”

During the last three years the congregation also built a fan-shaped worship center that seats 275, with help from Southern Baptist construction mission volunteers from across the nation. It was the church’s third — and last — building project, the pastor said. The next step would be to start a new church.

“The first time we built we were able to borrow the money,” the pastor said. “We paid off that $150,000 in five-and-a-half years. This time we borrowed $350,000 and already this year have paid off $50,000. As the people are challenged in their faith, the Lord blesses.”

Methane gas is booming in Wyoming as the oil and gas industry spreads from Gillette toward Buffalo, which is on I-25 between Casper and Billings, Mont. Construction of new homes has already begun in Buffalo, a town of about 3,500 people.

“The key challenge right now is to get everyone stabilized,” Francis said. “We’ve been through quite a bit in the last three years, with me being sick and with the building program. A lot of people have stepped back and are taking a breather. Our big challenge is to get reorganized and get a new vision. Me, I already have a vision of where the Lord wants us — missions and evangelism — but we need a fresh start.”

Big Horn has a history of missions involvement. Ten percent of undesignated offerings are directed to the Cooperative Program, for SBC missions and ministries worldwide; 7 percent to Powder River Baptist Association; and 2 percent to Mountaintop Baptist Assembly on Casper Mountain, Wyo.

Big Horn in recent years started a new church in Kaycee, Wyo., and helped establish the work in Claremont, Wyo. Big Horn sends work teams to Mountaintop Assembly each year. One member is on a three-month mission assignment in Bolivia. Church teens went to Nicaragua this summer. A college student went on a summer missions trip to Brazil.

The church hosted two major statewide gatherings this year: the evangelism conference last January and the women’s retreat in April. Big Horn recently voted to help financially with the Hispanic work in Gillette.

“This church gives a lot of money to missions, which is a tremendous blessing,” Francis said. “I think that’s why God has blessed us the way He has….

“I’ve always tried to keep missions before them as a pastor,” he said a few minutes later in the telephone interview. “My role as pastor has fluctuated over the years but basically one aspect is to come alongside people and to nurture and love them, and help equip them with the tools they need to walk the Christian life.”

The secret to longevity in the pastorate is to bond with the congregation, the pastor said.

“If after the first five years, they still love each other, then God’s got a work for him,” Francis said. “I know there are certain things I do that probably upset people, and I just have to learn to forgive them for getting upset…. The goal is to choose to love each other.”

Francis has been an encouraging force in the association and state convention, said Pam Creason, wife of Powder River Baptist Association Director of Missions Fred Creason.

“He’s a wonderful guy,” she said. “Danny has a heart for serving the Lord and caring for people. He’s been a mentor and role model for many pastors in Wyoming.

“The majority of his members are — like Danny and Kathy — indigenous to Wyoming,” the DOM’s wife added. “They’re just wonderful people, steadfast in their faith and service to the Lord.”

Francis said his continuing medical struggles have taught him the need to be prepared and willing to leave this earth. The hardest part for him is the stress his illness has been on his wife of 32 years.

“It has brought us closer together, but she’s having to deal with knowing I might not always be here for her, and that’s hard,” Francis said. “The biggest thing I can say is that I can’t do anything without the Lord. I believed that before, but now it’s a more real part of my life than it was. I realize He can take me anytime He wants.

“We all know that, but we don’t realize — anticipate — it will happen today,” he said. “The reality is, it can.”