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

Is there life after burnout?

Is there life after burnout? Of course there is! But if it looks no different than the life before burnout…you already know where you’re headed. Change is needed. Right there, I lost some of of you.

Let me qualify what I mean by change. I am not talking “breakthrough” change. You know, the person who is a chain smoker on Monday and by Friday they have kicked the habit, their lungs are pink, and the cough is gone.

I am talking five-degree, course-correction change. Picture an 18th Century sailing vessel after a squall at sea. When the wind ceases the captain may take a sextant reading to determine their exact location and find they have blown slightly off course–no big deal in the short term but over a few hundred nautical miles, what starts as a tiny gap at the small end of the V becomes wider and wider at the far end. So he makes a five-degree course correction.

Let’s be honest; five degrees is just about all that most of us can manage and maintain. If New Year’s Resolutions were five-degree course changes, we could actually keep them! Instead of buying a gym membership on January first, buy a drop-in punch pass and if you use it 10 times this year — success! Be realistic. Next year, you might go through two passes.

Okay, so change is needed. But in small doses. How do I know what to change? Where do I start? Start with the most fixable problem — it’s important to have some small victories. They encourage you to keep moving forward.

Remember the Baptist pastor I wrote about? His doctor recommended he take time off work and the pastor complied. Six months later he went back to the same job; but he was not the same man. He delegated more. He scaled back his expectations of himself and others. He took a day off each week.

So what if you can’t take six months off? Or six weeks? Or six minutes?! You’re a mommy with a fussy baby? You’re a caregiver of a terminally ill spouse or a parent with dementia? You’re a single parent with a demanding job and little or no help from the absent parent? But you are also the victim of enough chronic stress that you are always tired, critical, unenthusiastic, hopeless, emotional, brain-addled, spiritually dry, in short, burnt out.

Then you are the person who must think “five-degree change” because that is your only real option.

tired-mother-walking-to-her-crying-baby-s-crib-royalty-free-clipart-wr0c4r-clipartFor instance: Two mommies, two babies, two cities, one problem: the baby didn’t sleep. A big enough problem in itself but add to that, two toddlers that kept mommies going all day while the crying babies kept them up all night. One of these mommies has plenty of support and although she’s tired, she’s not burnt out.

The other mommy sent a text to her closest relative saying she was at the end of herself — physically, emotionally, spiritually. Sounds like burnout to me…especially if you know that this mommy lost her own mother last summer, had surgery and is on treatment for a chronic disease, and is quickly using up her maternity leave from a demanding job she needs to keep because her husband is currently out of work in an oil-dependant economy on hard times.

If you’re a mom and have been there, just reading that made your belly hurt. But, thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. Both mommies made five-degree changes. The tired mommy, after cutting out dairy, gluten, soy, corn, spices and everything delicious, and seeing little improvement in her breast-fed baby, buttoned up her blouse and bought some formula. The six-month old baby started gaining weight, having normal diapers and sleeping better.

The burnt out mommy hired a sleep consultant–for the baby!! Who knew there was such a goddess?! (I’d have sold everything to hire her 36 years ago when my primary spawn drove me mad with nocturnal crying.) The baby started sleeping and mommy began to heal.

Healing takes time. Especially if the changes are incremental and small. But moving towards wellness just feels so much better. Once our faces are turned toward the light, even though we are still in a “pit” we have hope for a better day.

Another aspect of healing from burnout is that, as we improve, our thinking begins to clear and the path to wellness comes into focus, revealing the next small course correction.

If you are already a Christ follower, and experiencing burnout, please know that He is calling you into rest. If you are not, consider a five-degree change that involves looking into the person of Christ.

Feel free to add your “five cents worth” regarding small change (pun intended) and its healing effect on burnout.