Amid crises, rural roots anchor Southern Baptist president
FARMERSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A sweaty Bart walked through a pasture in search of Bully Graham, the future patriarch of the rural pastor’s fledgling cattle herd.
With the temperature in the mid-90s, the 52-year-old Texan found the bull – whose nickname reflects his owner’s affection for the late Reverend Billy Graham – and 11 heifers chilling under a canopy of trees.
“Hey, baby girl,” Barber said, patting a favorite cow he nicknamed Lottie Moon after the namesake of her denomination’s international mission offer.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Barber enjoyed relative obscurity as a minister in this town 50 miles northeast of Dallas. That changed in June when delegates to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Anaheim, Calif., chose Barber to lead the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at a time of major crisis.
The previous month, a scathing 288-page investigative report hit the denomination’s 13.7 million members. He outlined the findings of an independent investigation detailing how Southern Baptist leaders stifled and denigrated survivors of clergy sex abuse for two decades while seeking to protect their own reputations.
In August, SBC leaders disclosed that the Justice Department was investigating several of its key entities, giving few details but saying the investigation related to allegations of sexual abuse.
Barber’s background as a trusted small-town preacher — not to mention his folksy sense of humor — helps explain why other Baptists have chosen him.
“At a time when I think there’s a lot of widespread distrust of these great institutions, I think a lot of people find it refreshing that whoever is leading us is an everyday pastor,” Daniel said. Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
A staunch theological conservative, Barber touts biblical inerrancy, opposes women serving as pastors, and supports the ban on abortion. In running for president of SBC, he expressed a desire to be a peacemaker and unifier.
The SBC faces multiple challenges. Grassroots Baptists have demonstrated a strong commitment to implementing sexual abuse reforms, but the end result remains unclear. The denomination also has a problem with declining membership, which is down 16% from its peak in 2006.
Nathan Finn, church historian and provost of North Greenville University in South Carolina, agreed that Barber’s small-town appeal is a big reason why Baptists turned to him.
“Although he is a well-educated church historian and an expert on SBC history and politics, Bart is not an elitist,” Finn said via email. “He gives the impression that he would rather work on his farm than hang out with faith leaders.”
After recently appointing an abuse task force that will make recommendations at next year’s annual meeting in New Orleans, Barber said finding solutions to the problem was his top priority.
Barber grew up in a Southern Baptist family in Lake City, Arkansas. Baptized just before his sixth birthday, he felt called to ministry at age 11 and preached his first sermon at age 15.
Her late father, Jim, ran the home office of a congressman from Arkansas, a Democrat named Bill Alexander. His stay-at-home mom, Carolyn, now 77, taught him to read when he entered kindergarten.
Often his father would bring politicians home, he recalls, and his mother would cook chicken pot pie or a steak smothered with mashed potatoes and gravy.
“Here we were in a very small town in Arkansas — not a lot of money, not a lot of fame or anything — and a gubernatorial candidate was stopping by the house,” Barber said.
He attended Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he met his future wife, Tracy, in campus ministry. They have two children: Jim, 19, and Sarah, 16.
He also earned a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in church history from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He pastored in Mill Creek, Oklahoma and Royse City, Texas before moving to Farmersville in 1999.
“He has the heart of a pastor. He’s someone who really cares about people,” Tracy Barber said of her husband of 30 years. “The people of our church are our family.”
Steve Speir, 74, has been a 42-year member of Farmersville First Baptist Church, which averages about 320 people on Sundays. His wife, Linda, plays the church organ.
Barber is “very organized,” Speir said. “He won’t keep anything hidden. Our entire church has full disclosure on all financial matters.
Another longtime member, Donna Armstrong, 75, said: “We never doubt that he is Bible-based or that he loves the Lord.
On a recent Sunday, Barber got up at 4:30 a.m., attended a deacons meeting at 7 a.m., and preached at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. After a nap, he drove to Dallas and flew to Nashville, Tennessee, for meetings at the Southern Baptist. Headquarters of the convention.
“It’s stressful. It takes time. I like it,” Barber said of his new job.
Returning home later in the week, he rose before sunrise on Saturday to help his daughter load a 1,000 pound heifer named Iris into a cattle trailer. They drove half an hour to a cattle show.
There, Barber hosted children with special needs who came to see the animals, used clippers to help Sarah shave Iris, and periodically shoveled manure into a trash can.
He also enjoyed a friendly chat with breeder Joni Brewer about his miniature Hereford cows. Brewer attends a Southern Baptist church, but she had no idea of Barber’s role in the SBC.
“I live in the countryside,” she said, “so you don’t always see all those things.”
But James Callagher, who knows Barber from 4-H club activities, described his friend as perfect for the job.
“What strikes me is just the authenticity,” said Callagher, who is Catholic. “He lives his faith, and as Christians we have a lot in common.”
In addition to these in-person contacts, Barber maintains an active presence on Twitter. Last week, he posted photos of his cows, debated biblical qualifications for church leaders and shared SBC plans for Hurricane Ian relief.
Barber and his family live in a parsonage owned by the church, but last year bought 107 acres of land where they raise their Santa Gertrudis beef cattle.
In a recent sermon, Barber joked that child labor, cutting cotton and hoeing soybeans, was what inspired him to enter the ministry. When asked on the way home from the cattle show if he now enjoys the life of a farm owner, Barber smiled.
“Not only that, but I survive everything else because I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a great source of tranquility for me.”
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