Posted in focus on faith

Life Lessons from the Pit — Pastor Bob’s burnout and where he is now

IN answer to a request from a reader, I am republishing the original article about burnout referenced in another blog.

Bob teaches seminars on burnout and stress. Watch Part I and Part II on

If you want to know how Bob is doing today, details are at the bottom.

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE PIT (original article)burnout-244380__180

Perched on a stool because he was too weak to stand, Pastor Bob Shelton told his congregation, “I can’t go on for one more day.”

“We were stunned,” said Bonnie Carlson, a member of Garden Park Baptist Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Shelton truly believed he would never preach another message; he thought his best sermons were behind him. Only his wife, Debbie, and a few close friends had known that Shelton was exhausted. He hid it from everyone else who marveled at his stamina. In the preceding weeks he had been so worn out after preaching on Sunday that his wife had to help him to the car. Once home, he would crumple on the couch.

The shock registering on the faces in the packed auditorium was evidence that Shelton had been successful at hiding his gradual burnout, which had begun several months before, accelerating in recent weeks.

Two years earlier Shelton celebrated his ten-year anniversary at the church he had planted and nurtured. It took sheer determination and hard work.

After completing his seminary training in Fort Worth, Texas, the Shelton family moved to Winnipeg in the bone-chilling month of February, 1984. Shelton committed to stay for at least 10 years – anything less wouldn’t be a true test of what God could do through his life, he said. During those years he invested his total energy in winning the lost and building a congregation of committed Christians.

After passing the 10-year mark, Shelton began to lose a little steam. It was nothing he could put his finger on, just a feeling of not being quite sure where he and the church were heading.

He was restless and uneasy but didn’t sense God leading him elsewhere. When asked to consider planting another church, this time in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, Shelton sighed and said, “I don’t think I have another church plant in me.”

For the first time in his ministry Shelton was unsure of his goals.

Bob Shelton is a born leader. The oldest in the family, he has always been a self-starter, motivated to do the best he could in every situation. Making friends is a way of life, an everyday occurrence. Shelton makes a point of learning the names of servers in restaurants — and remembering them. His sincerity and loyalty ensure that he maintains the relationships he forms.

As a church planter, he is a natural.

In addition to his hectic responsibilities as a pastor, Bob coached minor league baseball for 10 years. “I love baseball and I love to teach kids baseball,” says Shelton. “It was also a great way to build relationships in the community.” Shelton served as a trustee for six years during the establishment phase of the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary in Cochrane, Alberta, and was twice elected president of the Canadian Southern Baptist Convention, a one-year commitment.

Young pastors looked to Shelton as a model. Despite his encouraging words to younger pastors, Shelton’s malaise continued, unchecked, unexplained and with increasing intensity. In the weeks leading up to that fateful Sunday “on the stool” Bob spent more and more time sprawled in an exhausted stupor on the couch, isolating himself from his parishioners, friends and even his four children. Debbie was the one person he never shut out of his life.

Seeing their pastor’s true condition for the first time, the members of Garden Park Baptist responded swiftly. They offered him a six-month paid sabbatical, hoping he would recover and return.

Bob went to his doctor. He needed answers. Why had he gained so much weight in the last two years? Why was he so tired all the time? He was shocked by the diagnosis: clinical depression. Treatment? Complete rest, counseling, and lifestyle changes.

“For the first two months, I had no energy at all. I was like a zombie,” Shelton said. “I couldn’t read, couldn’t pray, couldn’t think.” All he wanted to do was sleep.

People from the church kept calling, bringing over pies – “They wanted to fix me,” said Shelton. Finally he had to ask them to just leave him alone for a time.

Bob credits his wife with getting him through those early days. “Debbie never panicked, never pushed, always trusted that we’d get through this,” Shelton said.

His kids, who ranged in age from nine to 19, taught him to laugh again as he spent uninterrupted time with them playing games and relaxing in a stress-free environment. Shelton’s oldest daughter helped him take himself less seriously by occasionally asking if he was still psycho.

Shelton’s strength slowly returned. He began a mild exercise program that has grown into a regular routine of jogging and step-aerobics. He said “adios” to Nachos at midnight and went on a low-fat regimen.

Three months after his sabbatical started, Bob and Debbie Shelton spent two weeks at Marble Retreat Center near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

They enrolled in a program designed and taught by Dr. Louis McBurney, for pastors in crisis. Therapy consisted of group sharing, individual counseling, and plenty of time for walking, talking and praying. During one of the group sessions, Shelton shared his story. A fellow struggler commented that Bob reminded him of the “older brother” in the Biblical story of the prodigal son.

That hurt. The truth often does.

Shelton admits that he has always been ultra-responsible, “If the nursery worker didn’t show up, I felt responsible to find a replacement. If the toilets were clogged, I took care of it.”

As he dealt with this revelation and others, Shelton felt a renewal of his emotional vitality. He and Debbie grew even closer.

The final phase of recovery took place during a trip to Israel — a gift from an unexpected source — in the last weeks of Bob’s sabbatical.

Finally able to read again, Bob immersed himself in the New Testament book of Hebrews while in the Holy Land. His passion for God’s Word was rekindled as he learned for the first time what it truly meant to enter God’s rest.

A 40-pound thinner Bob Shelton cautiously resumed some pastoral responsibilities at Garden Park Baptist after his six-month rest, still unsure if he could handle the pressures of ministry. But he was soon eager to share his experiences with his church — many of whom still didn’t understand what had happened to their pastor.

He preached a series of messages entitled “Life Lessons From the Pit” in which he described his burnout and subsequent recovery as a story of the healing grace of God.

“I am discovering that being driven in itself isn’t unhealthy or ungodly,” Shelton said. “Balance is the key.”

When Shelton took responsibility for everything that happened in the church, he was “out of balance,” he said. This hindered his church from being able to develop their gifts in ministry, he added.

“I need to build leadership,” says Shelton. “I did too many things on my own as a church planter.” Shelton is currently offering a Leadership Seminar at Garden Park in order to help his church be more effective in ministry.

“Our church now has clear direction,” affirms Shelton. “We are focusing on a four-fold purpose statement which deals with worship, instruction, fellowship and evangelism.”

“We are seeing people come to Christ and Christians ‘grow up’ in their walk with the Lord,” Shelton enthuses. He goes on to talk excitedly about Garden Park’s hope to start a Filipino congregation in 1997.

“Another goal is to reach seating capacity in our two existing Sunday morning worship services, and add a third gathering on Saturday night,” says Shelton.

Shelton says he now prioritizes his personal values as follows: first – God; second – family; third — church. For years he had lived this out in reverse.

“I believe God wanted to purify and strengthen my character, “ Shelton said. “My great desire now is to live consistently with what I say I value.” (article ends here)

That was Bob’s story 18 years ago.

In 1998 he left the pastorate and joined the national organization his church was affiliated with. He had many roles, his main responsibility being leadership. After 15 years, instead of coasting to retirement, Bob made another fresh start and went to work for an international organization. His job is to help start new congregations in Calgary and Edmonton as well as find established churches to partner with the new works.

Today, Bob says his life mission is to help my family and other leaders enjoy the journey with Jesus, stay the course, and finish well.

I asked Bob if he ever had another burnout. “Almost,” he readily admits. In 2012, he could see the signs that he was dancing too close to the edge of the pit and he was able to take a six-month sabbatical and nip it in the bud.

“I guess I’m a lifelong learner,” Bob says with a laugh, “and a recovering workaholic.” Bob says it is a matter of daily practices and constant self-checks to stay out of the burnout pit.


Posted in focus on faith

How can I tell if I’m burnt out?

The first magazine article I sold (for a whopping $150! It worked out to four cents/hour) was about a Baptist pastor’s burnout. That was 18 years ago. I remember thinking there were many points of similarity between his personality and mine. But it never occurred to me that I might one day go down the same path. I was rather smug about his burnout; I felt  immune. I had limits, boundaries, wiggle room and a sugar daddy!

When it did happen I was as blindsided as that Baptist pastor was. His severe fatigue forced him to seek medical help and take six months off work. He recovered because during his forced sabbatical he rested, he received good therapy, and he made crucial changes to his thinking and his living.

Let’s start here: How did I recognize I was burnt out? 

img_4666My first undeniable alarm that something was amiss came in April this year, the day I accidentally locked my two-year-old granddaughter and both sets of keys in my car. It wasn’t the incident itself, it was my reaction to it — I burst into tears and could not stop.

I cried during my phone call to my husband — who was driving on a freeway in Montreal (suddenly “driving distracted” in the city where one most needs one’s wits about them!). He suggested I call a tow truck.

I cried so much during my call to the towing company that the dispatcher had to counsel me before he could get my logistical info.

I was still crying when I went back into the house and told her mommy, holding a newborn and hoping to nap, that I had imprisoned her eldest in my car on the street. She also tried to comfort me. To no avail.

I did not stop crying until the tow truck driver — ordered by the dispatcher to abandon his current mission and make all haste to the hysterical grandmother and the incarcerated toddler — released the child in record time.

I was still leaking when the driver informed me the dispatcher had located the info from my AMA card (which I had misplaced) and there would be no charge. New tears of gratitude burst forth.

Why all the tears? The toddler was fine and rather enjoyed all the attention. The mommy was not alarmed nor upset with me. My husband didn’t accuse or blame me but tried, like everyone else, to calm me and guide me to solutions.

The flood of tears was an obvious overreaction. Something was not right. I was not right. Over the next several weeks I began to pay attention. Here’s what I noticed:

I had lost enthusiasm for my calling. At the time of the great flood (of tears) I was halfway through a four-month spring speaking season. (I speak at women’s events sponsored by Christian churches or organizations) The three weekends I wasn’t away speaking I hosted out-of-town guests at home. My son and his wife, who live nearby, had a second baby and the mommy had complications and was re-hospitalized. I was trying to help out as much as possible during my at-home days by caring for the toddler. This same family bought a house and moved in one month after the birth. They needed help and I was glad to give it. But there were no days off for months. I was dreading the next speaking event and hanging on until the summer break. My office began to resemble a tel. Archeologists may one day unearth my desk.

I was unusually tired. I typically have an abundance of energy. I am, after all, gluten free! (In case you can’t see it my tongue is in my cheek) I could barely get through a weekend of speaking without sneaking off to my room for regular rests. At times my speech was slurred for no other reason than fatigue. As tired as I was I could never nap and I often took sleeping pills at night because I was panicky about getting enough sleep to get through the weekend.

I lost confidence in my effectiveness as a speaker. Even though event organizers were quick to share the results of weekend evaluations in which the speaker was rated five out of five, I felt like I had little to say and was not saying it well.

Too often, I heard myself saying “I hate…”. When my kids were young I did not allow them to say those words because I think we talk ourselves into (and out of) things. If I say I hate school or I hate broccoli or I hate you over and over, I will convince myself I really do. In fact, when we stop saying we hate it and we begin to talk in more positive terms we often find that we don’t hate it but we can tolerate it or ignore it or perhaps even enjoy it in small doses!

I was annoyed and cynical about the inevitable summer FB posts of “happy” couples lauding their spouses on their anniversaries. I knew most of those couples. And some of their secrets. They weren’t that happy! Related to this…

I pulled away from my online life. I stopped blogging and seldom posted on Facebook wanting a break from the cyber-fishbowl. I was overwhelmed by the tsunami of TMI. Another factor was my feeling like I had nothing of value to offer so I took mom’s advice — if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all.

I began to suspect, and asked some friends, if I might be burnt out. My friends advised me to look into it. I was too tired to investigate so I took the entire summer off (where I live, it’s not that long!), dreading September. But it came.

So today I looked up a definition of burnout and here’s what the “experts” (wikipedia) say: Burnout is a type of psychological stress. Occupational burnout or job burnout is characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, and also may have the dimension of frustration or cynicism, and as a result reduced efficacy within the workplace.

Hmmm. So I took “The Burnout Selftest”  and my score was 55. Which meant:

You are at severe risk of burnout – do something about this urgently.

Yikes! So I wrote this blog. I’m tired now. But somehow intrigued and empowered at the same time. Is this what Jesus meant when He said the truth will set you free? Stay tuned for musings on what to do if you’re burnt out, speculations on what causes burnout, true confessions re: is there life after burnout? and answers to where is God in my burnout?

Meanwhile, feel free to add your two cents — if you have the energy.

Posted in focus on faith

Simplified Living is Far From Simple!

“Simplified living requires more than just organizing your closets or cleaning out your desk drawer. It requires uncluttering your soul.” Bill Hybels

As we went around the table at our Caring Circle monthly meeting, each woman in turn started the same way, “I’m so tired!” Young moms, grandmothers, working-outside-the-home moms, working-at-home moms. Our ages spanned four decades yet our stories were the same. I’m pooped! And I don’t like it!

I hear the same words repeated over and over: exhausted, overwhelmed, over scheduled, anxious, isolated, dissatisfied testifies Bill Hybels in Simplify. Hybels says he began talking about “simplifying” in response to meeting so many people all over the world who were facing burnout, stress and dissatisfaction.

Why is it that a full generation after learning there is no such thing as Superwoman (the dedicated employee, involved mother, sexpot spouse who never has a headache. She’s a gourmet cook, fashionably dressed, stylishly coiffed, gel nailed, completely accessorized dynamo with buns of steel who teaches weekly Bible studies and volunteers for her community association) women are still knocking themselves out trying to squeeze into that skimpy leotard with the Big S stretched across their bursting bosom?

Everybody is writing and talking about simplifying these days. Go to Amazon and key in “simplify” and you will have scores of resources to choose from. They span concepts like frugality, minimalism, decluttering, organizing, downsizing and more. But most of us are too tired and busy to read those books and we don’t need the stress of having to add one more thing to our lives even if that one-more-thing is “finding a way out of the mess I’m in!”

To most of us the word simplify means “get rid of.” It might mean I need to purge my closet of all the clothes I don’t fit, don’t like, and don’t wear so I can easily access what I do fit, do like and do wear. It might mean get rid of time-wasters, like watching Netflix so I can be more active…but what if I lose weight and have to bring all those skinny clothes back to my overstuffed closet? Oh rats! Two steps forward; one step back.

There are no shortcuts to simplified living, says Hybels. Untangling yourself from the overscheduled, overwhelming web of your current life is not for the faint of heart. It’s honest rigorous work…. Action is required. Hybels then outlines 10 practices to unclutter your soul. These practices deal with finances, time management, relationships, work, forgiveness, and energy to name a few. He concludes each chapter with action steps because reading the book alone will not simplify your life — taking action will. I’m already tired and Bill just told me I need to take action!?

Simplified living is about…being who God called us to be….If you crave a simpler life anchored by the priorities that matter most…you can stop doing the stuff that doesn’t matter and build your life on the stuff that does, Hybels says. Join me as I work my way through Hybels’ 10 practices in my next series of blogs. I will try to be as honest as I can about my “action plan” and how those actions are working — or not — to unclutter my soul. I invite your comments about your own efforts to simplify.