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Leaders at Lyon
William “Bill” Branch believes the road that led him to Arkansas and eventually Lyon College was guided by providence.
Branch had served as pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Victoria, Texas for 25 years when a parish associate in the congregation needed to attend training to become an interim pastor. In support of one of his flock, Branch offered to attend the training as well. While there, Branch met a fellow student from his seminary school, Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., who was now living in Arkansas.
“It wasn’t long after that I was contacted and asked to be an interim for the church he attended,” Branch said. “But after talking it over with the leaders of the church, we just decided it wouldn’t be a good fit for me to come there.”
Branch’s former classmate wasn’t giving up on bringing him to Arkansas, though. He recommended Branch to a search committee that was looking for a new general presbyter for the Presbytery of Arkansas.
Branch said he was still reluctant, but he met with the committee, which eventually narrowed down their choice between him and three other candidates.
“I still felt fairly safe even at that point that they wouldn’t select me,” Branch said.
After an initial vote, Branch received one vote and another candidate received seven votes from the eight-member committee.
“The chair of the committee told them all to go home that night and not speak to anyone. He told them to do just one thing — pray,” Branch said.
The committee reconvened the next morning and voted again without any discussion. Branch received a unanimous vote to be installed as the new general presbyter.
“Seven people independently changed their vote overnight without any discussion with each other,” Branch said. “That was a pretty clear message.”
Branch was installed as general presbyter in February 2000 during a ceremony on the steps of Brown Chapel at Lyon College. During his service with the Presbytery of Arkansas, Branch said he frequently worked with Lyon. He was instrumental in urging the state presbytery to provide some financial aid to the college when the Synod of the Sun was unable to provide as much support from a regional level.
“I saw to it that the presbytery gave whatever they could to help the college maintain its connection with the church,” he said.
Branch retired from the Presbytery of Arkansas in 2008, and since that time, he said his colleagues tell him he has “shown them how to fail at retirement.”
He has served as interim pastor at Second Presbyterian Church and Westover Hills Presbyterian Church, both in Little Rock, and at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Ediburgh, Scotland. Branch said his time at St. Giles’ was almost surreal.
“I was there when the Scots Guards returned from Afghanistan and watched them march up the street and to the cathedral for a ceremony to honor those that had died. There was a lot of pomp and ceremony, and I got to be a part of that,” Branch said.
Branch said it was amazing to be able to preach in the same place where John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation, preached and where members rioted when Jenny Geddes supposedly threw a three-legged stool at Dean James Hannay in opposition of an English prayer book being used in services.
“It’s amazing to think there was a time when the way people worshipped was so significant to them that they would riot,” Branch said.
His experience with the Presbytery of Arkansas was not the first time in his life that Branch’s path was guided by a higher calling. After seminary school, he began working at a small church in Spencer, W. Va. During his time there, he also served as chaplain at Spencer State Hospital and chaplain and therapist at the West Virginia Alcohol Treatment Unit.
When members of a congregation in Falls View, W. Va. heard of Branch’s experience working with alcoholics, they requested he come serve as their pastor.
“They said, ‘We have a member that needs you.’ I said, ‘You would call me to be your pastor for just one person? I can serve a church like that,’” he said.
A few years after that, Branch received a phone call.
“The person on the phone said just one word — help. I knew exactly who it was. I went to her house that night, and she never took a drink again. She helped me start an AA program at the church,” he said.
Born in Atlanta, Ga., Branch grew up in Birmingham, Ala. during World War II, a time when smog was thick from the coal and steel factories and racial tension was at its peak. During his undergraduate years at Auburn University, Branch said he was among the “radical” students that fought for racial harmony. He led a group of students to a press conference in Athens, Ohio dealing with racial integration. During that conference, Branch made a statement that picked up national attention.
“One of the reporters asked me what I thought about integration. I said it was the Christian thing to do, and it was inevitable,” Branch said. “I never dreamed that quote would hit the AP [Associated Press Wire]. When I returned to Auburn, the dean called me in and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was stating my mind and intended to continue doing so. He told me to state it quietly.”
Branch gained radio experience in West Virginia where he did the play-by-play for the West Virginia Tech Golden Bears. It was his experience in radio that led him to Victoria, Texas, where he served as sports director for a local radio station and for a short time was sports director for a weekend television program while he pastored at Grace Presbyterian Church. He also taught courses in ethics, philosophy and logic at Victoria College.
During his time at Lyon, Branch worked toward an increase in students attending chapel.
“In my first week here, we had five students in chapel. The chapel will seat 80. The next week, after I had had a chance to be out on campus, we had 75 attend,” Branch said.
Branch said he and his wife of 51 years have two sons. He and his wife are both involved with the national response team in the church, which provides aid in the event of a disaster, whether it’s a school shooting or natural disaster. They also serve as peacekeeping accompaniers with La Iglesia Presbiterana de Colombia where they minister to families in Colombia that have been displaced by paramilitary groups or have had family members kidnapped.
When asked what was next for him, Branch smiled and said, “Who knows?”