FARMERSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A sleepy Bart Barber walked the pasture in search of Bully Graham, the future patriarch of a rural pastor’s cattle herd.

With temperatures in the mid-90s, the 52-year-old Texan found the bull — whose nickname reflects his owner’s affection for the late Reverend Billy Graham — and 11 heifers chilling under the treetops.

“Hey baby girl,” Barber said as he stroked the beloved cow, which he named Lottie Moon after the namesake of his denomination’s international mission.

For nearly a quarter century, Barber enjoyed relative obscurity as a minister in this town 50 miles northeast of Dallas. That all changed in June, when delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, California, elected Barber to lead the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in a period of deep crisis.

The previous month, a scathing 288-page investigative report had affected the denomination’s 13.7 million members. It outlines the findings of an independent investigation detailing how Southern Baptist leaders exposed and vilified clergy sexual abuse survivors for two decades in an effort to protect their own reputations.

In August, SBC executives revealed that the Justice Department was investigating several of its parent organizations, providing few details but indicating that the investigation involved allegations of sexual assault.

Barber’s background as a trusted small-town preacher — not to mention his folksy sense of humor — helps explain why the Baptists chose him.

“At a time when I think there’s a lot of mistrust of these big institutions, I think a lot of people find it refreshing that someone who’s leading us is a regular 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 promotes biblical inerrancy, opposes women serving as pastors, and supports the ban on abortion. In running for SBC president, he expressed his desire to be a peacemaker and unifier.

The SBC faces many challenges. Mainstream Baptists have shown a strong commitment to sexual assault reforms, but the final outcome remains unclear. The denomination also has a problem with declining membership, which is down 16% from its 2006 peak.

Nathan Finn, a church historian and provost at North Greenville University in South Carolina, agreed that Barber’s small-town appeal was a big part of why Baptists reached out to him.

“Although he is a well-educated church historian and an expert on SBC history and politics, Bart is not elitist,” Finn said via email. “He gives the impression that he would rather work on his farm than associate with religious leaders.”

Having recently appointed an anti-abuse task force to make recommendations at next year’s annual meeting in New Orleans, Barber said finding solutions to the problem is his top priority.

Barber grew up in a Southern Baptist family in Lake City, Arkansas. Baptized before his sixth birthday, he felt God calling him to the ministry at age 11 and preached his first sermon at age 15.

His late father, Jim, ran the home office of a congressman from Arkansas, a Democrat named Bill Alexander. His stay-at-home mother, Carolyn, now 77, taught him to read by the time he entered kindergarten.

His dad would often bring politicians over, he recalled, and his mom would make chicken pot pie or steak stew with mashed potatoes and gravy.

“Here we were in a very small town in Arkansas — not a lot of money, not a lot of fame or anything like that — and a candidate for governor was staying at the house,” Barber said.

He attended Baylor Baptist University in Waco, Texas, where he met his future wife, Tracy, in campus ministry. They have two children, Jim, 19, and Sarah, 16.

He also earned a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in church history from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He pastored in Mill Creek, Oklahoma and Royce City, Texas before moving to Farmersville in 1999.

“He has a pastor’s heart. He really cares about people, Tracy Barber said of her husband of 30 years. “The people in our church are our family.”

Steve Speir, 74, is a 42-year member of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, which has about 320 people in attendance on Sundays. His wife, Linda, plays the church organ.

Barber is “very organized,” Spear said. “He will not hide anything. Our entire church has full information on all financial matters.’

Another longtime member, Donna Armstrong, 75, said, “We never question whether he is based on the Bible or whether he loves the Lord.”

On a recent Sunday, Barber got up at 4:30 a.m., attended a deacon meeting at 7, and preached at 8:30 and 11. After a nap, he drove to Dallas and flew to Nashville, Tennessee, for a meeting at a Southern Baptist church. Headquarters of the Convention.

“It’s stressful. It takes a lot of time. I love it,” Barber said of his new job.

Returning home later this week, he got up before the sun on Saturday to help his daughter load a 1,000-pound heifer named Iris into a cattle trailer. They drove half an hour to the animal exhibition.

There, Barber met the children who came to see the animals, used clippers to help Sarah shave Iris, and periodically scooped manure into the garbage can.

He also enjoyed a friendly chat with rancher Johnny Brewer about her miniature Hereford cows. Brewer attends a Southern Baptist church, but she had no idea of ​​Barber’s role in the SBC.

“I live out of town,” she said, “so you don’t always see all these things.”

But James Callagher, who knows Barber through 4-H club activities, called his friend perfect for the job.

“The thing that stands out to me is just the authenticity,” said Callagher, who is Catholic. “He lives his faith, and as Christians we have a lot in common.”

In addition to such personal contacts, Barber maintains an active presence on Twitter. Just last week, he posted pictures of his cows, discussed biblical qualifications for church leaders, and shared the SBC’s plans for Hurricane John.

Barber and his family live in a church-owned parish, but last year they bought 107 acres of land where they raise Santa Gertrudis cattle.

In his recent sermon, Barber joked that his ministry was inspired by working as a child ginning cotton and digging up soybeans. Asked on his way home from the livestock show if he was enjoying life as a rancher now, Barber smiled.

“Not only that, I get through everything else because I love it,” he said. “It’s a great source of peace for me.”