(RNS) — Bart Barber, the longtime pastor of a small Texas church and a frequent leader of prominent Southern Baptist committees, has been elected the next president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Barber, 52, received 61% of the votes in the second round of voting at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday evening, defeating Florida pastor Tom Ascol in a runoff election.
The First Baptist Church of Farmersville pastor received a plurality of the votes in an earlier election on Tuesday afternoon, but without a clear majority winner, the election went into a runoff. Tuesday's election eliminated missionary expert Robin Hadaway, who received 5% of the vote, and Frank Cox, a Georgia pastor nominated in the final hours of the race, who received 13%. Ascol, a vocal critic of what he considers a liberal drift in the SBC, received 34% in the first election while Barber won 48%.
Barber succeeds Alabama pastor Ed Litton, who chose not to pursue a traditional second one-year term. Litton, who apologized early in his presidency for plagiarizing portions of several sermons by former SBC President J.D. Greear, has said he plans to expand his focus on racial reconciliation.
The election was one of the closely watched aspects of the two-day meeting, during which messengers, or delegates, have also addressed proposed recommendations after an independent investigation revealed SBC Executive Committee leaders mishandled allegations of sexual abuse for decades.
"Our problem is not with our theology or our polity; indeed these things are among our strengths," he said in an opening statement at a Wednesday news conference. "It is because we are convinced that our theology is right that we are convinced that our actions have been wrong."
Barber said there needs to be a shift in the decentralized structure of autonomous Southern Baptist churches as their members and leaders respond to calls for more training and vigilance about sexual abuse.
"(O)ur decentralized polity can become, rather than a hunting ground in which predators brutalize their prey, a place where sexual predators are put on notice that the tables have turned and where the hunter is now the hunted," he said in the statement. "(I)t is time for Southern Baptists to realize how nimble and resilient our Baptist polity can be to put sexual predators on notice that Southern Baptist churches are a dangerous place for them."
In a sermon on Sunday at nearby Huntington Beach Church, Barber said 60% of the women in couples he had met with for premarital counseling in a recent year reported previously experiencing sexual abuse.
"That's something that is not just an isolated matter, or just the clergy or just the churches, or just a few churches in the Southern Baptist Convention," he said. "The fact of the matter is, statisticians tell us, that whether it was at home, whether it was at school, whether it was at the doctor, whether it was an athletic program, that as many as 1 in 4 of the women who are in this room will experience sexual abuse at some point in their life."
Staffers at Barber's own congregation intervened and contacted authorities when they were concerned a now-removed member might be grooming teen members. The man later admitted to molesting the teens when they worked for him, and he served prison time after pleading guilty to child indecency and sexual assault.
Barber told Religion News Service that he later heard from a Dallas man who told Barber he'd been molested by the same perpetrator earlier in another state "in conjunction with a Christian ministry." That ministry was aware of the incident, but no charges were filed.
"This experience has solidified in me what was, previously, a set of best practices we employed as a defense against what was a theoretical threat (somebody someday might try to abuse someone here in Farmersville)," he told RNS in an email message. "We now know firsthand the harm that can come to people when predators are not reported, prosecuted and registered as offenders."
Prior to the annual meeting, Barber said he agreed with the proposal of the sexual abuse task force to hire a national staff person who would receive reports of abuse allegations and determine what church or other SBC entity should respond to them.
"(T)he idea that we would look and say, 'We need somebody who really understands the perspective of survivors of sexual abuse,' that seems to be something that's in line with actions we've taken in the past," he said.
Barber has held numerous leadership roles in the denomination, including first vice president of the SBC. He also was a trustee of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when it ousted Paige Patterson as president after reports surfaced of Patterson's mishandling of rape allegations in a previous job.
Patterson was fired at first and given a salary and housing as president emeritus. Barber and other board members stripped him of that title — a move Barber defended from the floor of that year's SBC annual meeting.
Barber was a member of the 2021 SBC resolutions committee and chairs this year's committee, which received 29 proposed statements and must review, edit or augment those for consideration by the messengers. Though resolutions are nonbinding representations of the views of the messengers at a particular convention, they have been the source of heated discussion about issues such as abortion and critical race theory.
With more than 14,000 followers on Twitter, Barber has used the social media platform to outline some of his views, retweet those who have supported his campaign and tell tales about work on his Unmerited Ranch, with Santa Gertrudis cattle in the background of videos he's posted.
Barber said he does not intend to travel and speak as extensively as some former SBC presidents — often leaders of much larger congregations — have done during their time in the role.
"Maybe somebody comes after Bart Barber and says, 'It can be done: You can be a pastor of a church that's not enormous and still manage this task,'" he said, responding to a question at the news conference. "I just want to broaden it and set an example of how a deep bench of leadership in the SBC can all be a part of this process."
He has also tweeted about a recent visit with his ailing mother.
At Huntington Beach Church, he explained he had good reason for dressing less casually than the sandals- and sneakers-wearing crowd at the church a few miles away from the Pacific Ocean.
"I know that I have violated probably California Penal Code by wearing a tie to a meeting like this but they tell us that that my mom's in the last weeks of her life due to Alzheimer's and she loves her preacher boy in a tie and blue is her favorite color," he said. "And when I show up dressed like this sometimes she knows who I am. And so I'm wearing this in honor of her today."