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First Baptist Church of Farmersville pastor steps into national leadership role

First Baptist Church of Farmersville, with about 350 congregants, is also home to the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Bart Barber.
John Kanelis
First Baptist Church of Farmersville, with about 350 congregants, is also home to the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Bart Barber.

The Rev. Bart Barber's path from rural Arkansas passed through Baylor and the Southwestern Theological Seminary before Farmersville.

When the Rev. Bart Barber entered the ministry all those years ago, he likely never thought he would be thrust onto the national stage in the dramatic fashion that occurred recently at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.

But he was selected by the Southern Baptist Board of Messengers as the SBC’s newest president, rising to the top of the nation’s top Protestant denomination. What’s more, he takes over the helm as Baptist leadership struggles with the ongoing shame of allegedly mishandling sexual abuse reports among members of its clergy and staff.

The 52-year-old Barber, who has served as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, will serve at least one year as head of the SBC. He said he has the option of serving a second year but added quickly that “It’s way too early to talk about that.”

It will be a time of intense scrutiny, Barber acknowledged.

Who is this new SBC president? Unlike many recent such presidents of a congregation representing nearly 50,000 U.S. churches, Barber doesn’t come from a “mega-church.” FBC-Farmersville welcomes about 350 congregants to its worship services every Sunday, Barber said, adding that the number of people in the pews doesn’t represent the “total number of members.” He said that “many members come regularly, but obviously others don’t.”

Barber was born and reared in Lake City, Ark., a town in the northeastern corner of the state. “I grew up in small rural churches,” he said. Moreover, it was uncommon for someone from Lake City to go away to attend a major university, such as Baylor, which Barber did. “They usually went to a college close to home,” Barber said.

“But when the world’s largest Baptist university agrees to pay for my education,” he said, “well, then you go.” So, he did. Barber earned his bachelor’s degree in 1992 and went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees from Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“I met my wife, Tracy, at Baylor,” Barber said, explaining that they married when they were 22 years of age. They are the parents of two children, 19-year-old Jim and 16-year-old Sarah.

“My home was a place where faith was very important,” Barber said of his growing-up years.

Barber said he decided at the age of 6 to dedicate his life to Jesus Christ. “I made a conscious decision to proclaim my faith in Christ,” he said, adding that he preached his first sermon at age 15. “I don’t remember what I preached that day,” Barber said, laughing, “but I do remember it was in some sort of revival tent.”

“Over the next few years, I did receive opportunities to preach,” he said. He added that at the tender age of 17, he received a call to “take on a pastorship at a small church. I did that for a year before I went off to Baylor.”

Barber said he was “called to pastor at FBC-Farmersville in 1999.”

The megachurch background for SBC presidents is a relatively recent trend, Barber said. The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, he said, and for many years its presidents usually were laymen “who held political office.” The SBC picked governors, state legislators and members of Congress to its presidency, Barber said. The office morphed into one that usually involved individuals with previous pastoral experience.

How does a pastor from Farmersville, Texas, ascend to this highly visible post? Barber said his social media knowledge and his wide use of various media platforms helped elevate his profile within the Baptist community. “We have developed a policy of looking for people who are active on social media,” he said.

Barber said he likely received votes from the Messenger Committee because of his social media presence but added that “probably people voted against me also because of that social media activity.”

“It’s a win not only for the convention but for sexual abuse reform,” said Josh King, lead pastor of Second Baptist Church in Conway, Ark., in a recent Texas Tribune report. “Bart is going to be much more supportive and going to facilitate the direction the convention was going.”

One of SBC’s central tenets is “decentralization,” Barber said. “Each church is autonomous,” he explained. “That means that the SBC president is not a potentate,” he said, suggesting that the office contains little actual power.

To be sure, Barber takes the helm of an organization seeking to improve and standardize its response to allegations of sexual abuse.

“The Messengers voted to appoint a task force and to have that task force recommend changes into how the convention has handled these accusations of sexual abuse,” Barber said.

The SBC has charged Barber with appointing a task force that will be responsible for implementing changes. “We are going to watch for a year or so and will propose steps to respond to sexual abuse that occurs,” he said.

“We only will succeed if all the churches agree to participate,” he said, but then added that the congregational autonomy could get in the way of a universal endorsement of changes that would result from the implementation of policy. “We will use social media to communicate with these churches,” Barber said.

“The SBC,” Barber said, “is a lot bigger than one man.” He said the convention needs to “earn the trust of church leaders.”

They all aren’t likely to endorse changes coming from the top at SBC, he said. “They might look for another home for their church and they might leave the Southern Baptist Convention,” he explained. “That would be a good thing,” he said.

One church in Georgia, Barber said, “chose to leave the SBC rather than remove a man who had been accused of sexual abuse.”

“Hey, we all believe God forgives and that people can change,” Barber said, “but the Bible is quite clear on who should be allowed to pastor a congregation. There aren’t many churches out there that I know of that will say, ‘Sure, he’s a regular sex abuser, but we’ll hire him anyway.’”

Barber said upon his appointment as SBC president that his new post is a “volunteer job.” He said he remains “committed to FBC-Farmersville. I have been encouraged by those who say they are praying for me. It’s great to receive those prayers from people I don’t know.”

He wants to “retain the trust of those who are praying for me at the end of this assignment.”