Pastor Bill said he knew two things relatively early in life – that Jesus Christ is his savior and that cowboys are awesome. These two beliefs have remained at the heart of who he is, passions that have led to him being known as a rather unorthodox pastor.
“The only time I wear a tie or suit is at a wedding or funeral or some formal gathering,” Bill said. “I preach in jeans, a t-shirt and boots, you’ll almost never see me without cowboy boots. My wife promised that she won’t put me in a suit in the casket.”
Bill grew up in the Hanover area and began working as a youth pastor in in his early 20’s and graduated from the Lancaster Bible College in 1970. He said that through the 1970s he was a long-haired hippy leader in the Jesus movement on the streets, spreading the word of God in small cafes and coffee houses to anyone who would listen. In 1982 he started Gettysburg Baptist Church and continues to preach there today.
“I’m a firm believer that the Bible is true in every way and so that’s my base, what I live by, what I preach by – I’m unapologetically very biblically oriented,” Bill said. “I don’t just tell nice stories, I really preach what God’s word says. The Bible is the manual for life. It tells us where we came from, why we’re here, where were going and how to live while we’re here.”
But for many of his 300 plus congregation members, what is so appealing about Pastor Bill is his love for people and ability to connect with almost anyone.
His wife of more than 50 years, Chris, said that people appreciate the way he simplifies the ideas in the Bible and puts people at ease.
“He is very down to earth. He’s not somebody in an ivory tower that people can’t reach,” Chris said. He takes difficult passages of scripture and makes them easy for people to understand.”
Chris said that Bill remembers being confused and overwhelmed by religion and the Bible when he was younger, he felt that it was complicated and in turn was difficult to embrace.
“He remembers years ago when he was a kid and … there were all kinds of big words and very involved ideas,” Chris said. “He always wanted to make difficult things easy for the average person to understand. He loves people and you can see it when you’re around him, people gravitate towards him. It’s a calling – not a job.”
Rod Walter said he met Pastor Bill when he was struggling to find his way. He said he was separated from his wife and using drugs when Pastor Bill came into his life. Bill counseled Rod and helped him find his way back to a healthier place, and the two have remained friends for more than 25 years. Rod served as an elder and has been a member in Bill’s church since the early 1990s.
Walter said that if you saw Bill on the street and were given 100 guesses on what his occupation is, you’d probably never guess pastor.
“He’s a cowboy at first look and he really is someone who is willing to meet people wherever they are,” Walter said. “He is not afraid to walk into a bar and sit down with people and talk with them.”
“Once you get to know him, you realize that he really does model Christ. He was up to save the lost, and that is what Pastor Bill is too. He is not the average pastor.”
Pastor Bill is driven to keep people connected to the church and to God. He said that one of the biggest challenges of running a church today is time. Families are incredibly busy he said, and keeping them connected to the church can be difficult.
“Years ago, Sunday was a sacred day, it was the Lord’s day. I’ve watched it progress over the years to have sports games on Sunday afternoons and now they are all day,” Bill said. “People are drawn, pulled, there’s a tension between everything out there on Sundays and church.”
“The big challenge is keeping track of people, keeping them active in the church. I understand because I had kids and now I have grandchildren,” Bill said.
So he does what he can to make church welcoming and relaxed. He said he likes to clown around a lot and use humor in his preaching, even making fun of his own life and experiences. And he listens to the needs of his members.
“It’s the only church I know of anywhere where there’s a 400 pound black bear and 2 beautiful deer from Alaska mounted when you walk in,” Bill laughed. “We decided that a lot of churches are very feminine, so we worked to man it up a little. We have a lot of guys come to church.”
But at the end of the day, Chris said that everything Bill does is driven by his desire to share God with people.
“His main goal in life is to tell as many people as possible about Jesus Christ and how they can get to heaven. That is what he is all about,” Chris said. “That is our goal as a couple. It’s all about God and cows for us.”
Born in Hanover, Bill says people tease him that perhaps the stork dropped him over the wrong part of the country.
As a young child in the 1950s, Bill said pretty much the only entertainment on tv was Westerns. And then in the 60s it was the Lone Ranger and Bonanza. When he was 6-years-old, he said he parents took him to River Valley Ranch in Carroll County, Maryland where they were starting a youth ministry on a ranch. He said while there he saw horses and a rodeo and they passed around a cowboy hat for church offerings, and he was sold.
“I never got out of the cowboy thing, I got stuck there. It’s my passion, it’s who I am. I can’t be any other way because it’s in my heart and soul along with the Lord,” Bill said.
In 1981 Bill went to North Dakota for seven months to work at a church and he said while there his passion for all things cowboy got even stronger. Eventually he bought several Texas Longhorns from a man in Pittsburgh and over time his herd grew – he had as many 100 head of steer at times – and was a founding member of the Northeast Texas Longhorn Association.
He sold breeding stock for many years and then started selling meat. His wife started the Texas Longhorn Beef Company, and for 30 years she has sold meat from the cattle raised on their farm.
Bill and Chris live on land that has been in his family for 161 years. He said he tore down the old barn on the property and built a house that resembles Ben Cartwright’s from the tv show Bonanza, using beams and stones from the old barn.
He drives a big Ford pick-up truck and can be found many days riding his horses and tending to his cattle.
He is a pastor and he is a cowboy and according to Bill, the two meet happily in the middle. He said his son jokes that he is finally in style because “cowboy is in right now.”
“I don’t work at it, it’s just who I am. I don’t put on a show [at church], don’t act out while preaching, I’m just a simple country guy taking perplexing theology and breaking it down into everyday language so it’s simple to understand.”
“That’s the blend,” Bill said. “Not that I’m a cowboy that’s a preacher or preacher that’s a cowboy.”