From Sing chairman to university chaplain

Burt Burleson continues his legacy at Baylor serving as the university chaplain and dean of spiritual life. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photographer

By Emma Weidmann | Staff Writer

Dr. Burt Burleson left Baylor in 1980 a fresh alumnus and returned to campus in 2007 as the university’s chaplain and dean of spiritual life. He has seen Baylor shift immensely in diversity, lift the dance ban and more.

His own time at Baylor often informs his mission as university chaplain, even as the student body and the culture on campus changes.

“What made you come to Baylor?”

Burleson: “My journey at Baylor began before I was a student … Rufus Burleson’s father and my great-great-great grandfather are brothers … There were a number of things drawing me to Baylor, but primarily it was that I was a Texas Baptist … I was following Baylor football, and we’d listen on the radio … My brother is two years older than I am and he came to Baylor and was a student athlete … I really never thought about going any other place.”

“What was it like at Baylor in the ‘70s?”

Burleson: “The disco era started; ‘Saturday Night Fever’ came out. It was an exciting time to be at Baylor in a lot of ways … I was a member of the Chamber of Commerce and I was a Sing chairman and I was part of a dance group. They’d actually pay us to show up at dances to dance … I just loved that experience; there was a lot of joy in it for me.”

“Academically speaking… College was in many ways something for me to get through for me to go to seminary, and I regret that. I wish someone had grabbed hold of me and said ‘You need to be more thoughtful about this.’”

“How does your Baylor experience inspire your mission as university chaplain?”

Burleson: “I grew up in a small Texas Baptist church, and I loved the people there and I loved the experience in many ways, but it was not a place where in the life of the mind, questions could be answered, or really even asked. By the time I was halfway through high school, I was beginning to wrestle with some of these things and I didn’t have anywhere to go or anyone to go to.

“I had some things happen [at Baylor] that were fairly serendipitous or providential that opened some doors for me into expressions of faith that I really needed … There was this sense of ‘OK, there is a path for someone who maybe is less traditionally Baptist,’ and that remained true for me. It starts at Baylor, where I felt blessed to explore some things.”

“How has Baylor changed since you were a student, and how has it changed since you became university chaplain?”

Burleson: “For one thing, we’re more diverse. We’re more diverse spiritually speaking, and all of these aspects of diversity have come together. Most everybody came from Texas back in the day, most folks had grown up in a Baptist environment … I don’t remember knowing an international student. I knew very few people who weren’t from Texas … Students probably think about these things more now, but we never thought about it.”

“The other thing that has changed … In the ‘90s, there was an intentional, strategic, missional decision to think about the way faith animates and enlightens the academic journey of someone, and how the academic journey in the life of the mind, informs and animates faith. We really took a step in our faith mission that has led us to where we are today.”