FARMERSVILLE, Texas (AP) — On the first Saturday of fall, a sweating Bart Barber trekked across a weedy meadow in search of Bully Graham, the future patriarch of the rural Baptist pastor’s young livestock.
With midday temperatures in the mid-90s, the 52-year-old Texan found the bull — whose nickname reflects its owner’s deep affection for the late Rev. Billy Graham — and 11 heifers cooling under a canopy of trees.
“Hey, girl,” Barber said, petting one of the cows, a favorite he named Lottie Moon, after the namesake of his denomination’s international mission offering.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Barber enjoyed relative obscurity as a minister in this city of 3,600, about 50 miles northeast of Dallas. That changed in June when delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, California, chose Barber to lead the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at a time of great crisis.
Last month, a damning 288-page investigative report struck the denomination’s 13.7 million members. It details the findings of an independent study describing how Southern Baptist leaders antagonized and denigrated survivors of clergy sexual abuse for 20 years while trying to protect their own reputation.
In August, SBC leaders revealed that the Justice Department was investigating several of its key entities, giving few details but indicating that the investigation covered allegations of sexual abuse.
Barber’s background as a trusted small-town preacher—not to mention his vulgar sense of humor and self-deprecation—helps explain why fellow Baptists chose him.
“Right now when I think there’s a lot of widespread mistrust of these big institutions, I think a lot of people find it refreshing that whoever leads us is an everyday pastor,” Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement told the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Barber, a staunch theological conservative, praises biblical infallibility, opposes women serving as ministers, and supports abortion bans. When he ran for SBC president, he expressed a desire to be a peacemaker and unifier. Coming from a field of four candidates, he took 61% of the vote in a runoff election against Tom Ascol, a Florida clergyman who vowed to take the denomination farther to the right.
The SBC faces several challenges. Rank-and-file Baptists have shown a strong commitment to pushing through sexual abuse reforms, but the ultimate outcome remains unclear. The denomination also has a problem with declining membership, which has fallen 16% since its 2006 peak. The annual number of baptisms last year was 154,701, down 63% from the highest level in 1999, according to SBC affiliate Lifeway Christian Resources.
Nathan Finn, a church historian and provost of North Greenville University in South Carolina, agreed that Barber’s small-town appeal is a big part of why Baptists turned to him to help the SBC through such trying times. lead.
“To many Southern Baptists, Bart is an attractive president precisely because he is not a suburban megachurch or seminary pastor,” Finn said via email. “He runs a ‘normal’ Southern Baptist church and sounds like the pastor down the road. I think many will find him a breath of fresh air, as well as a thoughtful voice to represent Southern Baptists to the outside world.
“While he is a well-trained church historian and an expert on SBC history and polity, Bart is not an elitist,” added Finn. “He gives the impression that he would rather work on his farm than chat with church leaders.”
For his part, Barber said he ran for president because he prayed and concluded that God was calling him to do it, not because of the sexual abuse crisis.
But after recently appointing an abuse task force that will make recommendations at next year’s annual meeting in New Orleans, he said Southern Baptists are committed to reform and that finding solutions to the problem is his top priority. .
“Look who’s been touched by this,” Barber said of sexual abuse. “It’s in public schools. It’s at Scouting. It’s in the military. It’s in Hollywood. It’s in sports. It’s in USA Gymnastics.
“And so if Southern Baptists, who also have problems in this area, can point the way to real solutions… that would be a great win for the SBC,” he added. “And what Hollywood and USA Gymnastics and the government and military… don’t have is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and the promise of God Himself that He has built His Church and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”
Barber grew up in a Southern Baptist family in Lake City, Arkansas. Baptized just before his sixth birthday, he felt God calling him to ministry at age 11 and preaching his first sermon at age 15.
His late father, Jim, ran the home office for an Arkansas congressman, a Democrat named Bill Alexander. His stay-at-home mom, Carolyn, now 77, taught him to read by the time he started kindergarten and made sure he paid attention at church.
Often his father would take politicians home, he recalled, and his mother would make pancake pie or braised steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.
“It’s a little weird,” Barber said. “Here we were in a very small town of Arkansas—not a lot of money, not a lot of fame or anything like that—and a gubernatorial candidate was going to stop by the house.
“Dad has always been interested in politics and current affairs,” he continued. “And from when I was young, I loved sitting there listening to the adults talk about all these things.”
Barber attended Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he met his future wife, Tracy, while serving on campus. They have two children: Jim, 19, and Sarah, 16.
He also earned a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in church history from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He pastored 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 30-year-old husband. “The people in our church are our family, and Farmersville is a small town, so it lends itself to that.”
Steve Speir, 74, has been a member of the First Baptist Church of Farmersville for 42 years, which averages about 320 Sunday attendance. His wife, Linda, plays the church organ.
Barber is “very organized,” Speir said. “He won’t hide anything. Our entire church has full disclosure on all financial matters. They give an accounting for every check that is written.”
Another longtime member, Donna Armstrong, 75, expressed the same confidence in Barber: “We never doubt whether he is based on the Bible or whether he loves the Lord. He also just knows how to be human and how to deal with people.”
On a recent Sunday, Barber got up at 4:30 a.m., attended a deacons meeting at 7:00 a.m., and preached in his congregation’s worship services at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. After a two-hour nap, he drove to Dallas and flew to Nashville, Tennessee, for meetings at Southern Baptist Convention headquarters.
After three nights there, he took a ride to Louisville, Kentucky, where he stayed overnight on Wednesday and spoke Thursday at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the oldest of the SBC’s six seminaries. A canceled flight kept him in Louisville an extra night before returning home Friday.
“It’s stressful. It’s time consuming. I enjoy it,” Barber said of his new job.
Returning home, he rose before the sun that Saturday to help his daughter load a 1000-pound heifer named Iris into a cattle truck. They drove for half an hour to a dirt-ground event center in suburban Dallas McKinney for a livestock show hosted by local chapters of the 4-H Club and the National FFA Organization.
Barber greeted special needs children who came to see the animals, used clippers to help Sarah shear Iris, and regularly scooped manure into a garbage can.
He also enjoyed a friendly chat with farmer Joni Brewer about the miniature Hereford cows her family brought to the show. Brewer goes to Trenton’s First Baptist Church, about 20 miles north of Farmersville, but she had no idea that the man she spoke to was the new leader of the SBC.
“I live in the country,” she said, “so you don’t always see all those things.”
But James Callagher, who knows Barber through the activities of the 4-H Club, described his friend as perfect for the job.
“What strikes me is just authenticity,” said Callagher, who is Catholic. “He lives his faith and as Christians we have a lot in common.”
In addition to such personal contacts, Barber has an active presence on Twitter, where he has 20,000 followers and interacts with supporters and critics alike. Over the past week, he posted photos and videos 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 a church, but last year they bought 107 acres of land where they keep their Santa Gertrudis beef cattle and want to build a house when it becomes more affordable.
“If anything happened to me, my wife would not only lose her husband, but her house, because that house is part of my work,” he said of the rectory. “So we started making a more permanent plan at this stage of our lives.”
For now, they keep a recreational vehicle with a generator on site, a convenient place for a cold drink or hot shower.
In a recent sermon, Barber joked that a boy’s job, chopping cotton and hoeing soybeans, inspired him to get into the ministry. When asked on the drive back from the cattle show if he now enjoys life as a farm owner, Barber smiled and nodded.
“Not only that, but I survive everything else because I enjoy it,” he said. “It is a great source of peace for me.
“To see a herd of cattle slowly grazing across the pasture around sunset is very hard to be stressed when you see that,” Barber continued. “I mean, I can spend 15 minutes on the tractor clearing an area… and everything you need to rest is gone.”
Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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