New Southern Baptist Convention president’s roots run deep in Arkansas

Lake City churches prepare Bart Barber to lead Southern Baptist Convention

Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, speaks to the press on June 15 in Anaheim, Calif., following his election as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Barber, who grew up in Craighead County, says northeastern Arkansas churches — and Future Farmers of America — taught him about effective leadership. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Newly elected Southern Baptist Convention President Bart Barber wasn't raised in a megachurch. His early leadership lessons can be traced to country churches, not crystal cathedrals, tight-knit houses of worship where relatives and friends outnumbered strangers.

"Our convention is a large family of believers and churches, and growing up in Arkansas I learned to be related to everybody," the Craighead County native told reporters last week, one day after his election to lead the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

The Southern Baptist Convention, with 13.7 million members, dwarfs the United Methodist Church, which led all Protestant bodies as late as the mid-1960s but now has U.S. membership of roughly 6.2 million.

Despite its gigantic aggregate numbers, small churches are the rule, not the exception, among Southern Baptists.

There are 47,614 Southern Baptist congregations; the membership at a typical church is less than 300 and the average Sunday attendance is less than 100.

"I grew up in the kind of churches that are typical of the Southern Baptist Convention," Barber said.

He got saved, at age 5, while attending Bethabara Baptist Church, four miles north of Lake City.

"It's a small church, out in the country," he said.

"A large number of people who attended there were family," he noted.

"Eventually when I was 11, we started going to First Baptist Church in Lake City. And that was a big step up in size for us, but not that big of a step up in size, really," he said. "It's still a church that ran between 100 and 200 on a Sunday."

Growing up, Barber paid attention and learned from those around him.

"Those churches, I think, were helpful to me because the pastor there is someone who is very close to the membership. The churches just aren't large enough to have a big gap between the membership of the church and the pastor of the church," he said. "When those churches made decisions, the pastors couldn't just declare things by fiat and move forward. But instead, the work that they had to do was to talk to people and persuade."

While it was important to "articulate what you think is right and persuade people about that and build unity and consensus and move forward," it was also essential to "make the effort to listen to people, and to see their point of view," Barber said.

"If you don't do that, you're not going to last very long in a church like that," he said. "Growing up in Arkansas, in good Arkansas Baptist churches, I think, taught me very early the importance of that. And I think that that's preparatory for working with Southern Baptists. The scale is different, but the process is not different. So I hope to hold onto those lessons and use those to serve Southern Baptists well."

Barber delivered his first sermon when he was 15 years old and became a bivocational pastor at age 17, attending high school on weekdays and preaching on Sundays at New Hope Baptist church in Black Oak.

It wasn't just Arkansas churches that prepared Barber for the ministry, however. He also received important "life lessons" from agricultural enthusiasts.

"Growing up in Arkansas, the Future Farmers of America gave him a firm grasp of parliamentary procedure that will continue to serve him well as SBC president," noted Dana Hall McCain, who served with Barber on the convention's resolutions committee.

McCain's comments drew laughter from the audience and an affirmation from Barber.

"That is true," he said. "I was in the Arkansas FFA all the way through my years of high school. I was on the parliamentary procedure team, and I want you to know that we went to state and we were excited about that."

The skills, honed at Riverside High School in Lake City, came in handy during last week's annual convention.

When the pastor of California's largest megachurch, Rick Warren, made a surprise appearance in Anaheim and requested permission to address the convention, Barber said the Saddleback Church pastor "had a right to address the body," citing Article XIII of Robert's Rules of Order.

Saddleback's decision to ordain three women as pastors, albeit not "senior pastors," had resulted in calls, from some, for the congregation to be "disfellowshipped."

"As Western culture grows more dark, more evil and more secular, we have to decide are we going to treat each other as allies or adversaries? Are we going to keep bickering over secondary issues, or are we going to keep the main thing the main thing?" Warren asked.

Ultimately, the credentials committee withdrew its recommendation calling for further study of the matter.

Although Barber is the longtime pastor at First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, he retains close ties to the Natural State.

At least 285 Arkansas delegates -- known as messengers -- traveled to Anaheim to participate in the convention's proceedings, including a large number from Craighead County.

Days after his election as Southern Baptist Convention president, Barber bid farewell to members of the congregation's youth group as they headed to Siloam Springs to attend summer church camp.

In addition to shepherding Texas Baptists, Barber also raises cattle, including Lottie Mooooooon, named after a renowned Baptist missionary, and Bully Graham, a nod to the world-famous Baptist evangelist.

  photo  Jon Wilke (left), media relations director for the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, introduces newly elected Southern Baptist Convention president Bart Barber at a news conference June 15 during the convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. Barber is a native of Lake City in Craighead County. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)