David Burhans is retiring for real this time. He left as the University’s first chaplain in 2004, but only last month retired from any official role with the University. Here he looks back over 41 years of service to the University that started with an invitation to build the University’s chaplaincy in 1974.

Tell me about how you got into your line of work.

As a college student, I felt a call to the ministry. I remember thinking that the ministry needed strong, positive people who didn’t see themselves as different from other individuals. I’ve always kind of felt it was important that the ministry have people who are not holier than thou types — just normal, regular people who love athletics, have hobbies and a real appreciation for the breadth of life and who are curious and always interested in learning new things.

I don’t think of the world in terms of sacred and secular. I think of it all as sacred —the world and all that’s in it. That’s the overall philosophy of my journey: how do you connect the two, how do you blend the two and pull these two realities — the human and the divine — into some meaningful lifestyle?

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

It kind of came about naturally for me to consider the ministry. I grew up in a very solid, Christian home with a father who was a minister but was also very down-to-earth with a marvelous sense of humor. I had a wonderful model. We loved to laugh, and I think humor is one of those key characteristics of a minister — that you not take yourself too seriously and be able to laugh at yourself and with others. Someone once said laughter is the shortest distance between two people.

I never dreamed when I experienced a call to the ministry that I'd be in one place for 41 years. But I found a home here and an opportunity to do ministry in a most intriguing and meaningful way.

What lessons has your work life taught you?

People and their joys and struggles, fears and anxieties, thanksgiving and successes, are the same the world over. The struggles and issues I deal with are what my cohorts are also dealing with. That’s one lesson.

My second lesson is that I’m amazed at the strength that we humans have to live with heartache, disappointment, and loss and the courage that people have to keep on in the face of difficult odds and pain and suffering. I’ve learned over and over again that there is life beyond the tragedies that we experience.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that I can’t fix everything. That’s kind of my personality — I want to get in and try to make things work and make people work well together. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

What drew you here to UR’s chaplaincy?

Ours is a little different than most chaplaincies. Most are student-focused, and many chaplains report to the vice president for student affairs. When President Heilman created Richmond’s chaplaincy, he wanted this position to be the pastor, preacher and spiritual leader to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. When he was recruiting me, I was skeptical. I actually told him I didn’t think this was a good fit because I didn’t want to focus solely on students. My call to the ministry is a call to a local parish. In my heart, I’m a pastor of a church and I love all the age groups from birth to death.

And Heilman said, “Well David, you’ve just described my vision for the position. You wouldn’t believe the needs of faculty and staff and administrators have.” That’s when he captured my imagination.

What are you proudest of?

This place has just changed so much for the better. My proudest moments are both our openness to interfaith dialogue and welcoming students of all sexual orientations and faith commitments.

I was challenged by the Chapel Guild once about why we had these triangles with the words “Safe Zone” on our doors. I just let them talk through it for a little bit, and finally I said, "Maybe I need to make a comment about this. I was asked to be the chaplain to all the students, faculty, and staff at the University of Richmond. Every one of these people is welcome at this University and in this chaplaincy office, and I embrace them." You could hear a pin drop.

When the trustees voted to add sexual orientation to our nondiscrimination policy, I was very involved in that. In fact, President Cooper asked me to be the front man for any calls complaining about the decision.

I'm amazed at the strength that we humans have to live with heartache, disappointment, and loss and the courage that people have to keep on in the face of difficult odds and pain and suffering.

What are your favorite memories or achievements from over the years?

One is the Christmas candlelight service that we started 41 years ago during the Advent of ’74. It’s grown into two services. Those are high holy moments in my life. I have had students and alumni actually tell me that was one of their favorite memories from their journey at the University of Richmond — that candlelight service right before finals week or during finals.

I’m also really pleased with where the University has grown in social justice and civic engagement. We initiated the establishment of a free-standing Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. I think this has become a defining characteristic of the University of Richmond: social justice initiatives.

We didn’t want people to think you had to be a person of faith to be engaged in what’s going on around the city of Richmond and saw the Bonner Scholars Program as a beautiful way for people to live out their values. We called it community service at the time, and then it kind of expanded. We were feeling overwhelmed at the chaplaincy and thought there ought to be an umbrella organization for all the groups who were looking to get involved in civic engagement.

What kept you here at UR for so long?

I just loved what I was doing. I can't remember getting up in the morning and not being anxious to get to work. I had the time of my life, and I’ve always felt sad for people who don’t feel that way about their work. I used to make the comment, “And I can’t believe the University of Richmond pays me to do this.” And then I’d say, “But you do understand I do need to be paid.”

What kept you coming back to work, even after retiring from the chaplaincy?

The alumni office asked me whether I’d be interested in doing some traveling. That was the first question. And my wife, Ellen, and I were planning to travel some. And they asked whether we could combine that with meeting with alumni groups and talking about what’s going on at the University. That’s the way it started out for a couple of years. Then, I was asked to be a liaison for the University to some of our donors with whom I had developed strong friendships over the years.

What are you hoping to do in full retirement that you’ve been holding off on while still working?

I’m involved in some boards and I’m invited to preach from time to time around the city and state. I’ve got 11 grandchildren and try to follow all of their lives and big games. I’m also interested in doing some more writing. I contributed a chapter to Frontiers in Spiritual Leadership, a book out this fall that's being edited by professors Scott Allison, Al Goethals, and Chaplain Craig Kocher. That stoked my interest. There’s something in me that would like to write a devotional book of some kind, something very practical. Some of those have been very valuable to me in my spiritual journey.

I’m also taking on a big responsibility at my church as chair of the Personnel Commission. I am really amazed how much time is involved in that role. With a new pastor, ministries assistant, and search for a new church administrator, we are in a high mode of transition. The church role is particularly important for me in retirement at my progressive, forward-looking Grace Baptist Church.

What’s one thing you wish you could have achieved while here?

I would like to have connected the chaplaincy more with the faculty. I think that Chaplain Craig Kocher has done a wonderful job of this through the Consider This series, the One Book program, and his appointment in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

What will you miss most?

I’ll miss most the opportunity to be present in graduation exercises and high holy moments of celebration and grief in the life of the University. I’ll miss the opportunity and challenges of bringing the University community together in those sacred moments.

How would you define your career here in Richmond?

A journey of thanksgiving, compassion, laughter, and community.