G. B. Shelburne, III at 86
“Ruth and I want to keep on serving as long as God will allow us to do it. It’s in our prayer every day, that He will let us serve. In some ways serving at this age is the best service you ever do because you’ve got all those years behind you. You’ve got these rich experiences, the people who loved you, you’ve learned from them. We just want to count for everything we can. I just ask the Lord: Please spare my mind, give me enough strength to keep writing.”
G.B. “B.” Shelburne III and his wife of 66 years, Helen Ruth Shelburne both have their roots in West Texas. Both of B.’s grandfathers began work as cowboys. One grandfather later worked as a city official in Stanton, Texas, where he served in all the unelected positions of city government and maintained a photographic memory of the city water system pipes in his head. Ruth’s father was killed when she was five years old.
Serving in helping professions is a family tradition. B.’s father was a schoolteacher, then accepted a call to become a full-time minister in the Church of Christ. His father began publication of a church periodical the same year B. was born. In 1946 B.’s father founded a non-profit school to train Christian leaders, which later non-denominational became South Houston Bible Institute (SHBI). From the beginning, this school was integrated and non-denominational, both of which were unusual for that time. SHBI continues its mission today, with numerous Bible and leadership courses available to anyone of any religious or ethnic background, both through churches in the Houston area and online at www.shbi.org. B., along with all his brothers, became a minister. His sister worked as a teacher and social worker.
While some in their branch of Christianity can tend to be legalistic and divisive, B. learned the gospel of grace from his father. He received a B.A. in Bible at Abilene University, and years later a master’s degree from there as well.
B. and Ruth accepted a call to be missionaries to Malawi, where they helped found a mission to train church leaders with a four-year curriculum. They also oversaw a primary school and started a maternity clinic. Eventually, they became associated with training in over 1,000 congregations of Churches of Christ. Ruth taught literacy and offered first aid and medication for malaria. The mission is called Namikango, “The Place of Lions,” for the pride of lions that in earlier years would hang out by a nearby stream. B. remains active on the board of Namikango, which today has added agricultural training to deal with the changing climate in East Africa, microfinance, and community health education. He also serves on SHBI’s board.
In 1980 B. and Ruth returned to the United States and B. became president of SHBI when B.’s father retired from full-time work at age 67. B.’s father continued to serve at the school in a lesser capacity and died at age 87 while working on the syllabus for a new course. B. worked full-time as president of SHBI until age 72. He stepped down and turned the presidency over to a nephew. SHBI continues to provide a place of learning, unity, and racial diversity. It remains tuition-free.
B. and Ruth returned to West Texas in 2012, at age 76, buying a home in Lubbock, Texas. He continues to work ¼ time for SHBI, overseeing their online distance learning program. In 2020 he stopped teaching extension courses, realizing that his time on Earth is limited, and he wanted to focus on completing three dreams:
1. Publish a digital quarterly magazine for churches in Malawi. B. spends “a lot of time” on this project, creating distribution groups and expanding circulation. He hopes to have a succession plan in place where another person will take over “when I Leave.”
2. Finish a book based on a class he created called The Transformed Life. He is 2/3 of the way through rewriting lessons as chapters. He says, “There are a set of(human) weaknesses that are pretty common, where we need to grow.” His book will address these issues.
3. Complete a family history. He is reviewing family letters and records and compiling them.
He and Ruth want to keep on serving. “Ruth and I want to keep on serving as long as God will allow us to do it. It’s in our prayer every day, that He will let us serve. In some ways serving at this age is the best service you ever do because you’ve got all those years behind you. You’ve got these rich experiences, the people who loved you, you’ve learned from them. We just want to count for everything we can. I just ask the Lord: Please spare my mind, give me enough strength to keep writing.”
B. continues “It’s not been all work. We’ve had wonderful times in our life. We’ve been able to go to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons almost every other year. We went back not long ago for one last trip. Yellow House Canyon (near Lubbock) is a beautiful area that they frequently visit as well. B. and his brothers meet in Robert Lee, Texas for a week every spring and fall, in the home where their mother grew up, which is still in the family. He and Ruth go places where one of their eleven grandchildren has an event. They now have 3 great-grandchildren.
They are pleased with the family legacy that continues in their children. “Our kids are different but devoted to the Lord. They’ve been working on a plan to come three times a year and do projects at our place.” Last year they built a fence. Their oldest son holds degrees in Bible and Agriculture and is working to establish a community that expresses those values. Their second son is involved in the ministry “Pray Lubbock,” working to improve the lives of residents in blighted communities. Their daughter has served in children’s and family ministry, and now, working with her husband, is a successful business owner.
Reflecting on the example of his father, B. says “My dad knew what it was to suffer because he stood for grace and unity in the middle of a very legalistic brotherhood. I don’t want to be a downer on the fellowship that (spiritually) bore us because there are many saints in that group despite the legalism that sometimes prevailed. (My dad) stood for grace and because of that he was persecuted and lied about. People said all kinds of bad things about the school he founded because they (mistakenly) thought he had bad motives. He kept a beautiful spirit through all that and taught more by his responses than he did any other way.
On the physical side, B. appears slender and fit. “I’ve walked a lot. Sometimes jogged. Until a year ago, I could do any yard work.” A year ago, he overdid it one day cleaning out his garage in hot weather and has developed a form of long-term tendinitis. His doctors say the resulting inflammation should go away, but it hasn’t yet. Ruth has some health limitations as well, but they still walk at least a quarter-mile most days. “We are blessed at our age to own our own home and still be able to live in it.”
This interview has been particularly impactful to me. B.’s story is similar to my father’s, who lived to age 95. I found myself wishing my father were still here so I could introduce these kindred souls. B. is 20 years older than me. I find myself thinking of the finality of time’s arrow. We are all on a final cruise. Our days may matter more than we realize. B.’s example encourages me to more carefully consider how I plan to spend my own days for the next 20 years.
Here are a few questions I will consider as I reflect on B.’s story. Perhaps they will be of interest to you as well:
1. Is there a mission or purpose that continues to call for your time over the next few years?
2. What are some ways you could multiply your impact on the future of others?
3. What are your unique strengths and abilities? How can you continue to serve others with those abilities?
4. What can you do to encourage your children and grandchildren in their service to others?
5. What are the most important strategic activities that ask for your time?
6. Are there activities that can be downsized to make room for these more important priorities?
7. Are there people in your family or among your friends who should be getting more of your time, where you should simply “hang out” without an agenda?
8. What distilled wisdom have you gained in life so far? How can you apply this wisdom in your daily life?
Do you know of someone who is working or volunteering, past age 67? I’d love to hear their story. I can be reached at email@example.com