You’ve heard of Astronaut Barbie. Surgeon Barbie. Maybe even Paleontologist Barbie. But have you heard of Preacher-Biker Barbie? She has long flowing locks and wears her clerical stole smartly, sitting astride a Harley-Davidson. She’s one of a kind, just like Associate Dean of Methodist Studies Anne Burkholder 77T 92G, whose office she lives in and for whom she’s a kind of alter ego, a symbol of Burkholder’s trailblazing, stereotype-busting career. She embodies much about Burkholder in a small package: warm smile, adventurous spirit, ministerial calling and refreshing realness.
This summer, Preacher-Biker Barbie and her owner will ride to their next adventure as Burkholder retires from Candler after 14 years, leaving a legacy of groundbreaking ministry, insightful leadership and influential mentorship.
Burkholder is Candler’s first associate dean of Methodist studies, a position that underscores the institution’s identity as one of 13 seminaries of The United Methodist Church (UMC). When Dean Jan Love presented her with the opportunity to fill the newly created role in 2008, Burkholder says she felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and knew that accepting the offer was the right decision. “I had had a life of listening and knowing my call,” she says. “This position was the fulfillment of everything that had shaped me up to then.”
All the steps that compose that “everything” gave her a broad range of experience and an unorthodox path to academia “that explains a lot,” she laughs.
A circuitous path
At the height of the student protests of the 1970s Burkholder was an undergraduate at Florida State University. She claims she was rebellious, but as a cradle Methodist, “I had an undergirding in the church.” She got involved with the Wesley Foundation on campus, where she met two leaders who were Candler graduates. She was a double major in art and religion and felt a pull, though not a call per se, toward biblical studies. “I wanted to go to seminary, and I knew that meant Candler.”
When she began her master of divinity degree in the fall of 1974, enrollment included 600 men and 23 women. There were only two students of color and no women on the faculty. Before the end of her first year, her adviser Leander Keck, then a professor of New Testament and later dean of Yale Divinity School, asked if she had considered going on for a PhD. Burkholder says, “I framed this as a call to teach, and I never let go of that call,” although the path back to Candler as a faculty member was not a straight one.
After completing her doctoral coursework in religion at Emory, she returned to Florida, where she was an ordained elder, and became executive director of Miami Urban Ministries, a UMC agency for ministry and social justice. She worked among immigrants arriving from Nicaragua and Haiti and helped the agency respond to those affected by fires burning in the Everglades. Despite such heavy responsibilities, she completed her dissertation on society and ethics, with a focus on Latin American liberation theology. She defended the dissertation just days before Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in August 1992, and immediately afterward she was appointed local director for United Methodist Disaster Relief.
Burkholder headed to north Florida in 1994 to become senior pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach. This was followed by an appointment to Duke University Divinity School as an assistant professor. “So now I get to teach,” she thought. But in 1999, after she had been at Duke only a year, the Florida Annual Conference of the UMC persuaded her to come back to serve as a district superintendent and later as director of connectional ministries. She was serving in that role when Candler called her in 2008.
Her rich and varied experience gave her what Rex Matthews, professor emeritus in the practice of historical theology and Wesleyan studies, calls “bilingual fluency—she speaks ‘academic-ese’ and ‘church-ese’ with equal facility. These different languages, and the cultures from which they come, are often seen as incompatible and mutually incomprehensible, yet Anne has an uncommon capacity for moving between those worlds, being at home in both, and translating back and forth between them.”
An encouraging and caring mentor
This ability coupled with her inherent care for others has made a lasting impression on her students, who rarely call her Dr. Burkholder, but rather, “Dr. B” or “AB.”
Katie Wax 23T says, “AB has a way of seeing things in other people that they don’t see in themselves. She gave me unusual opportunities in class and the chance to explore. She let me ask questions I’d been dying to ask—about the course material but also about life in general. I felt guided, mentored and advocated for. She has had a forever impact.”
“When you meet her, it’s evident she’s a caring person,” adds Libby Varnum 22T. “She’s a go-to when students have meltdowns—she helps us recenter. She does everything to set us up for success and supports us as individuals, as the person she knows us to be. That’s what makes her so special.”
Candler graduates echo the messages from more recent students.
Tyler Ward 18T, manager for mission appropriations and operations with the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries, says that as an accepted student, he wasn’t sure Candler was right for him. But during a campus visit he had a one-on-one meeting with Burkholder, and she sensed that it was an important moment of vocational discernment for him. “She changed her schedule so we could have more time to talk. Her impromptu conversation was more pastoral than sales pitch. It was a defining moment. She is the reason I came to Candler.”
As Ward entered the ordination process with the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, Burkholder offered to be his clergy mentor, “which she has done for many others,” he says. “Her previous experience as a district superintendent was invaluable. The takeaway is that I tend to approach my spirituality with my mind first, whereas she helped me learn to better involve my heart and my gut. My work now is often in the realm of the mind, but because of her past guidance, I can do that work and still be more spiritually attuned to the present moment.”
Her students also appreciate the ground she has broken for other clergywomen. Jason Ratliff 17T, a UMC pastor in Hiltons, Virginia, and a DMin candidate at Candler, says, “AB’s life experience has made her a trailblazer—I believe she was the first woman in all her roles. She is a powerful voice for women and for Methodists. Thanks to people like her, we are seeing women in clergy roles even in rural places such as southwest Virginia.”
An optimistic Methodist
Ratliff also speaks of Burkholder’s understanding of Methodism and belief in its relevance and strength, which he first encountered in her course on Methodist polity. “She made a dry subject exciting. She conveyed that knowing our polity helps us know, ‘This is the lane you drive your car in.’”
As Professor in the Practice of Ecclesiology and Church Leadership—the other half of her Candler title—Burkholder gave students more than the abstract concepts of Methodism. She took groups of them to General Conference, the quadrennial governance meeting of United Methodists from around the globe, where they could see the workings of the denomination firsthand.
Burkholder and her students were at the 2019 special session of General Conference that was called to act on a report that examined the Book of Discipline’s stance on human sexuality as it relates to clergy and to explore options to strengthen church unity. There, delegates voted to accept a plan that retains restrictions against “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The contentious debate and final vote lay bare deep divisions within Methodism that have existed for decades and still continue today. But, says Ratliff, “Even before the vote, many were saying that the UMC was over, divided, fractured. AB told us that the UMC is strong and resilient. She is a powerful voice that this isn’t the first obstacle the church has endured. All are welcome and needed. She was the right voice for the right moment.”
A polity expert who sees possibilities
As an outgrowth of her course on Methodist polity and the frequency with which journalists writing on the UMC sought her out, Burkholder saw the need to make the information more generally available and accessible. In 2018, she and Thomas W. Elliott, Jr. 87T 97T, associate professor in the practice of practical theology and Methodist studies, published The Quick and Easy Guide to United Methodist Polity. The two are currently updating and revising the book.
Of working with Burkholder, Elliott says, “With Anne, there’s never really a ‘no.’ It’s always, ‘Well, let’s see.’ She always sees the possibilities. In the years we have worked together she has supported me, taught me how to be faculty, listened patiently to my questions and rants and always helped me discern next steps in the classroom or in the programs I direct. She is a mentor, colleague and friend.”
Looking back across the past 14 years, Dean Love says Burkholder has been “the perfect pioneer” to create, expand and refine the role of associate dean of Methodist studies at Candler.
“Students have benefited enormously from her mentoring and her vast UMC networks. Faculty and staff know her as a steady guide to the ever-changing landscape and current realities of the UMC, as an able interpreter for all things Methodist, and as a collaborative colleague who is always ready to be of assistance. Alumni and church leaders have found her to be a wonderful partner in preparing students for effective ministry. We all are so grateful for her remarkable gifts, talents and wonderful contributions to Candler, and we look forward to continuing to work with her in this next chapter in her professional life.”
As one might surmise, Anne Burkholder is not heading for a rocking chair. Besides the publishing project with Elliott, she is working with a group of academic and professional church women on researching and writing biographies of southern Methodist women who made a difference, including civil rights activist Dorothy Tilly and Birmingham physician and social activist Louise Branscomb.
She looks forward to reconnecting with her love of creative arts and exploring ways of integrating fine arts and ministry. She also plans to get creative with her two golden doodles, Coco and Charlie, training them to be therapy dogs.
Whatever outlets Burkholder explores, without a doubt she will also continue as a mentor, colleague and friend, supporting those who seek her out and acting as a strong voice for Methodism and for Candler School of Theology.
Headshot of Anne Burkholder by Bow Tie Photos, LLC.