Amid crises, rural roots anchor Southern Baptists’ president
FARMERSVILLE, Texas (AP) — On the first Saturday of fall, a sweating Bart Barber trekked across a weedy pasture in search of Bully Graham, the would-be patriarch of the rural Baptist pastor’s fledgling cattle herd.
With the afternoon temperature in the mid-90s, the 52-year-old Texan found the bull — whose nickname reflects his owner’s deep affection for the late Rev. Billy Graham — and 11 heifers cooling under a canopy of trees.
“Hey, baby girl,” Barber said as he patted one of the cows, a favorite he dubbed Lottie Moon after the namesake of his denomination’s international missions offering.
For nearly a quarter-century, Barber enjoyed relative obscurity as a minister in this town of 3,600, about 50 miles northeast of Dallas. That changed in June as 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 major crisis.
The previous month a scathing, 288-page investigative report hit the denomination’s 13.7 million members. It laid out the findings of an independent probe detailing how Southern Baptist leaders stonewalled and denigrated survivors of clergy sex abuse over two decades while seeking to protect their own reputations.
In August, SBC leaders revealed that the Department of Justice was investigating several of its major entities, giving few details but indicating that the inquiry concerned the sex abuse allegations.
Barber’s background as a trusted, small-town preacher — not to mention his folksy sense of humor and self-deprecating style — helps explain why fellow Baptists picked him.
“In this moment where I think there’s a lot of widespread distrust of these big institutions, I think a lot of people find it refreshing that the one leading us is an everyday pastor,” said Daniel 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 abortion bans. In running for SBC president, he expressed a desire to be a peacemaker and a unifier. Emerging from a field of four candidates, he received 61% of votes in a run-off against Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who vowed to take the denomination further right.
The SBC faces multiple challenges. Rank-and-file Baptists have demonstrated a strong commitment to implementing sex abuse reforms, but the final outcome remains unclear. The denomination also has a problem with falling membership, which has slid 16% from its 2006 peak. Annual baptisms last year were 154,701, down 63% from their 1999 high, 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 lead the SBC through such troubled times.
“To many Southern Baptists, Bart is an appealing president precisely because he does not pastor a suburban megachurch or lead a seminary,” Finn said via email. “He pastors a ‘normal’ Southern Baptist church and sounds like the pastor down the road. I think many find him to be a breath of fresh air as well as a thoughtful voice to represent Southern Baptists to the outside world.
“Though he is a well-educated church historian and an expert on SBC history and polity, Bart is not an elitist,” Finn added. “He gives the impression that he would rather be working on his farm than hobnobbing with denominational leaders.”
For his part, Barber said he ran for president because he prayed and concluded God was calling him to do it, not because of the sex abuse crisis.
Still, 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 determined that there must be reforms and identifying solutions to the problem is his top priority.
“Look who all has been touched by this,” Barber said of sex abuse. “It’s in public schools. It’s in 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 lead the way to real solutions … that would be a great shining victory for the SBC,” he added. “And what Hollywood and USA Gymnastics and the government and the 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 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 preached his first sermon at 15.
His late father, Jim, ran the home office for an Arkansas congressman, a Democrat named Bill Alexander. His stay-at-home mother, Carolyn, now 77, taught him to read by the time he entered kindergarten and made sure he paid attention in church.
Often his dad would bring politicians by the house, he recalled, and his mom would make chicken pot pie or smothered steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.
“It’s kind of weird,” Barber said. “Here we were in very small-town Arkansas — not a lot of money, not a lot of fame or anything like that — and a gubernatorial candidate would stop by the house.
“Dad always had an interest in politics and current events,” he continued. “And from when I was young, I enjoyed sitting there listening to the adults talking about all this stuff.”
Barber attended Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he met his future wife, Tracy, in a campus ministry. They have two children: Jim, 19, and Sarah, 16.
He also earned a master’s in divinity 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 is someone who really cares about folks,” Tracy Barber said of her husband of 30 years. “The people in our church are our family, and Farmersville is a small town, so it lends itself to that.”
Steve Speir, 74, is a 42-year member of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, which averages Sunday attendance of about 320. 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. They give an accounting for every check that gets written.”
Another longtime member, Donna Armstrong, 75, voiced similar confidence in Barber: “We never doubt whether he’s biblically based or loves the Lord. He also just knows how to be human and relate with people.”
On a recent Sunday, Barber got up at 4:30 a.m., attended a deacons meeting at 7 and preached at his congregation’s 8:30 and 11 worship assemblies. After a two-hour afternoon nap, he drove to Dallas and flew to Nashville, Tennessee, for meetings at the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters.
After three nights there, he caught a ride to Louisville, Kentucky, where he stayed overnight 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 he returned home Friday.
“It is stressful. It is time-consuming. I do enjoy it,” Barber said of his new job.
Back home, he rose before the sun that Saturday to help his daughter load a 1,000-pound heifer named Iris into a cattle trailer. They drove a half-hour to a dirt-floor events center in McKinney, a Dallas suburb, for a livestock show organized by local chapters of the 4-H Club and the National FFA Organization.
Barber greeted children who came to see the animals, used clippers to help Sarah shave Iris and periodically shoveled manure into a garbage can.
He also enjoyed a friendly chat with rancher Joni Brewer about the miniature Hereford cows her family brought to the show. Brewer attends a Southern Baptist church, but she had no clue that the man she was talking to was the new leader of the SBC.
“I live out in the country,” she said, “so you don’t always see all of those things.”
But James Callagher, who knows Barber through 4-H Club activities, described his friend as perfect for the job.
“The thing that sticks out to me is just authenticity,” said Callagher, who is Catholic. “He lives his faith, and as Christians we have a lot of common ground.”
In addition to such in-person contacts, Barber maintains an active presence on Twitter, where he has 20,000 followers and interacts with supporters and critics alike. Just in the last week, he posted pictures 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 church-owned parsonage, but last year they bought 107 acres of land where they’re raising their Santa Gertrudis beef cattle and where they intend to build a home when it becomes more affordable.
“If something happened to me, my wife would not only lose her husband but she’d lose her house, because that house goes with my job,” he said of the parsonage. “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 the property, providing a convenient place for a cold drink or a hot shower.
In a recent sermon, Barber joked that a boyhood job chopping cotton and hoeing soybeans was what inspired him to go into ministry. Asked on the drive back from the livestock show if he’s now enjoying life as a farm owner, Barber smiled and nodded.
“Not only that, but I’m surviving everything else because of how I’m enjoying it,” he said. “It’s a great source of tranquility for me.
“To watch a herd of cattle around sunset slowly graze their way across the pasture, it’s very difficult to be stressed watching that,” Barber continued. “I mean, I can spend 15 minutes on the tractor disking up an area … and everything that you need to rest from goes away.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.