Associated Press

Amid crises, rural roots anchor Southern Baptists’ president

By Bobby Ross Jr. | The Associated Press

FARMERSVILLE, Texas — 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.

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This story appears on The Associated Press wire.

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