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.