Sitting with People – An Unexpected Calling
When Dr. John Delony graduated from Lubbock Christian University in 2000, he never dreamed that he would later be called a Dave Ramsey Personality, have nearly half-a-million followers on Instagram, host his own radio show regularly viewed by thousands of people, or write books that land at the top of the New York Times’ Bestsellers list. But a couple of decades later, he is undoubtedly what he had once dreamed of being—famous.
“According to my 13-year-old, I am just a YouTuber,” he explained, laughing. John hosts the popular podcast, The Dr. John Delony Show, a part of the network named for Dave Ramsey, celebrity founder and CEO of Ramsey Solutions. “I'm an author, a speaker, and a radio host,” John shared. “I travel the country speaking on big stages and sitting behind closed doors with people who are trying to figure out what next right step to take.” He also has two bestselling books (Own Your Past, Change Your Future, and Redefining Anxiety), with his latest title, Building a Non-Anxious Life, coming out this fall.
“It all started as self-service,” John admitted, recalling his time in college. “One of my goals was to become famous—I wanted to play music, I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a screenwriter, I want to do all these things. And at that time, I had no idea about the craft of being a writer, about the craft of being on stage—I didn't realize how much work goes into all that stuff. I just wanted to be out there.”
Then, one weekend during his time at Lubbock Christian University, he discovered a deeper passion. “I’d changed majors four or five times, and then one weekend I went to see Goodwill Hunting,” he recalled. “And when I came back that next Monday, I changed my major—I knew that I wanted to be Robin Williams. I wanted to be that guy behind closed doors that sits and helps people. I wanted to know: How do I get there? Of course, I wanted to switch to psychology, but I'd already taken so many classes that the best course for me was to get my degree in humanities—giving me this valuable, broad picture of being human—and then pursue counseling and psychology in graduate school.”
Even during that time of searching, John can look back and clearly trace some of the biggest influences in his life to LCU—including a change of direction away from the spotlight.
“As I got older and started rubbing shoulders with some of these folks,” he explained, “I realized that fame was the last thing on earth I want—I want to be as far away from that as possible. Dr. Andy Young, Dr. Beth Robinson, and Dr. Susan Blassingame are all big parts of the reason I'm here. I remember Dr. Jeff Cary and some of my other professors who never let me get away with lazy writing. There's a ton of hard work in becoming a good writer, and you must know what to say and how to show up in these dark moments in people's lives. I didn't know it at the time, but the seeds were planted all the way back.”
As John continued in his professional career, he felt that trend continue, even as he held different positions in higher education, including Assistant Dean of Students at LCU and other positions at the Texas Tech School of Law and Belmont College. “I didn’t want to exist on the internet,” he explained, “and I was reluctant to be on stages other than for my students—I just wanted to live a quieter and quieter life. All these things fell into place—working at universities helped me learn to answer hard questions in public—and now I'm on a radio show. It all comes back to not seeking a stage or a platform for the sake of the platform—I really want to help people have a better day, to make people's lives a little more peaceful and joyful. And that's been my same life mission for the last few years.”
Along the way, John earned a master's degree and two different Ph.Ds. from Texas Tech University—one in higher education administration, and the other in counselor education and supervision. In each of those jobs and programs, he had many opportunities to sit with students, friends, peers, and mentees in hard moments—the journey became one massive learning experience.
“As I sat with people and their families for years—I worked as a Dean of Students in some capacity for over fifteen years—it wasn't until I went and got the academic training and learned from true mentors who knew what they were doing that I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have a lot to learn.’ It was a really tough pill to swallow when, as I started taking counseling classes my professors would explain, ‘When someone's hurting, never say this,’ and all I could think was, ‘Oh no—what have I been doing?’”
“I think one of the worst pieces of advice of our modern era is telling people to follow their passion,” he continued. “What that does is it sets people up to chase a feeling. I love mental health and emotional health. I love reading. I love learning. And I love helping people in their worst moments. But there were years when I hated the coursework—I just didn't like being at school anymore. I wanted to be with my friends, and I didn't want to miss what my kids were doing as I was writing papers. But when you tell people to follow their passions, it sets people up to think it’s going to be easy and fun. It’s just like how I love to play guitar,” he added, giving another example. “I'm playing for a band right now for a big, big concert event, and I'm having to learn songs. I don't know how to play them, and I don't even have the skills to play them. I'm having to learn new skills so I can play the songs—and that’s not fun. What is going to be fun is that show. You’ve got to put in the time.”
John says that one of the most frequent questions he gets is how to get into performing on the radio. “That was never my intention,” he explains. “I had no interest in a podcast. I just had interest in people's lives being better after they interacted with me than before. I did that as a dean of students, and I did that when I worked at Burger King. We used to sing songs and have fun, and when somebody was ordering food, I knew that I only had five seconds with them, but I want their life to be a little bit better. After that, it came down to me putting in the work so that when this weird, crazy opportunity showed up, I happened to have the skill set for it to work out.”
Like many who find themselves in high-profile positions, John is grateful that he arrived during this season of his life.
“If this had happened 10 years ago, I would have already blown the whole thing,” he admitted. “When it comes to boundaries, it's been tough. You’ve got to identify them as you go, and I constantly have to realize that my job puts a spotlight on my wife, my kids, and my friends. The weird thing is—this will surprise people—I'm an introvert. I am a public person, and I like being on stage, but even when you're on stage, you're all by yourself.”
John’s show centers around helping callers who share their struggles on the air, where he gives advice and tries to speak into those situations.
“There’s really a unique balance between trying to serve the person on the phone and knowing that there are millions of people listening to that interaction,” he explained. “You're serving them all at the same time.”
Helping people deal with challenging and often traumatic situations is a difficult and demanding responsibility. John shared that one of the most humbling parts of his job is the knowledge that he won’t always get the call right.
“Sometimes my body reacts to some of the harsher things. I’ve had a couple of calls on the show where I just blew it,” he admitted. “I just added an introduction to the calls where I just explained to the audience, ‘Hey I let myself get dragged into this—I let myself get angry at this caller who was talking really bad about her husband, and that's unprofessional; or this woman called about a young child who passed away and my body shut down because I remember showing up to a crisis call where that actually happened.’ I try to be as authentic and open as possible with these callers, and own that I don't get right all the time.”
Even so, his journey has given him valuable tools and insights into many of these situations, and that expertise is one of the major reasons for the success of his show.
“After 20 years of sitting with people, there does tend to be a rhythm to some of the challenges people experience—there's a way to clarify things,” John explained. “I think that's probably what I'm best at: helping people clarify the actual problem. Then, the solution is often relatively simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, right? ‘How do I lose weight?’ Diet and exercise. That's simple, but that's also really hard. When someone asks me, ‘How do I get boundaries?’ ‘Well, just stop letting your mother-in-law tell you what to do.’ That’s simple to say, but really hard for some people to do.”
While he’s confident in much of the advice he gives his listeners on the show, John is convinced that the success his show has experienced isn’t because of his answers—it’s because of how he answers his callers.
“What's been the most humbling thing is that at first, I thought people were tuning in because I was so smart,” he shared, “but that’s not the case at all. Most of the people who call me know what I'm going to say. What I’ve learned is that people tune in because they had never seen a picture of somebody compassionately sitting with somebody who was hurting. How do I talk to my friend whose dad just died? What do you say? What do you not say? This show has been a model for human interaction. There are better podcasts out there if you want some deep explanations for the multiple types of depressive disorders. I know all those, but that's not what I do. What I do is I sit with hurting people, and I think it's provided a picture for people to see that I don't have to yell at my kid. I can look in the mirror first and see what I brought to this challenge. Sometimes the best thing to do is to sit in silence with somebody and say, ‘I'm so sorry.’”
John shared a few intentional things he does to help him stay grounded outside of his job—and nature plays a crucial role.
“I live out in the woods, in the country,” he explained. “We have massive gardens, and I'm a big hunter—I've got a group of guys that I'm always hanging with out in the woods, hunting or fishing. The big thing for me is stepping back and looking at what makes a whole, well life. So much of my job is spent in a sound booth or in an artificial environment, and even though the conversations I have with people on the show are very, very real, there's also a detachment from reality. I don't know these people I’m helping, and I'll probably never see them. There's something irreplaceable for me to get outside, to touch the ground, to get sunlight, and to just be immersed in nature.”
John hopes that “The Dr. John Delony Show” helps emphasize the need for mental health professionals and for close friendships and relationships.
“I go to counseling, and often it’s hard. But it’s part of staying well, just like my core group of friends that I communicate with on a regular basis. Life has to be lived with real people in the real world. If you were to ask me to distill down the major problem of modern society, I’d say that we've created a world in utter and complete physical isolation. We are the loneliest generation in human history. You have to have people in your life. I think most people at some point need a professional, or a pastor that you trust, or an old professor that you trust, to walk with you. And that is a cool thing.”
“I think one of my biggest takeaways from my time at in college was that I got a real model of what friendship looks like,” he added. “I met guys at the door of the residence hall who are still my best friends on the planet right now. Friendship meant showing up for each other, and my time at LCU is just littered with folks. I had a great relationship with Dr. L. Ken Jones, with Josh Stephens and Randall Dement. In fact, one of my closest buddies that I met at LCU lives in Nashville, too, and we have breakfast every Friday—I don't ever miss it. So many people who were instrumental in my life reach back to my time at LCU.” He also met his wife while at LCU, Shelia (Brown, ‘01).
Another lasting impact that John recalls from his LCU experience is the way that his professors pushed him in his academics. “I didn’t get off easy,” he recalled with a laugh. “I came from a really tough academic high school, so I thought I was just going to skate through college, but I had some professors that pushed me really hard, and looking back, I wouldn't trade that for the world. Dr. Young’s exams were legendary for how hard they were. I would give the correct counseling answers, but he would take off for writing and for grammar issues, and I remember us going back and forth about it. I remember him explaining to me, ‘I'm teaching you to be an educated citizen, not just to regurgitate counseling answers.’ That was transformative for me. Dr. Blassingame, Dr. (Jonathan) Witt, Dr. (Jim) Bullock—my writing professors were so instrumental for me, and not just in teaching me to write well, but in teaching me to read authors that I didn't know existed or that I didn't like. This whole book-banning thing is just insane to me, because the whole purpose of an education is to read a bunch of stuff that you don't know or don't agree with so that it stretches you and pushes you.”
He emphasized, “I think I got a picture of what a thinker looks like, of what excellence looks like, of what friendship looks like, of what mentorship looks like—and those lessons I learned at LCU have carried me a long way.”
John’s latest book, Building a Non-Anxious Life, which will be released later this fall, focuses on some of the most prevalent epidemics of modern society.
“There are more people than ever before in human history being served by a licensed mental health professional,” John explained, “and there are more people than ever before in human history who are taking psychotropic medications for mental health challenges—and yet anxiety, depression, and all sorts of disorders continue to escalate at an unprecedented level.
“There's a moment when I have to step back and say, ‘Okay. Therapy is really helpful, and medication can be really helpful—but globally speaking, what we're doing is not working. Whenever they discovered penicillin, deaths from infection fell off a map within a decade—they solved that problem. What we're doing with mental health is like trying to put band aids over bullet holes. The premise of the book is that we've created a world for ourselves that our bodies simply can't live in. Our bodies are not designed for this much communication, this much interaction, this much technology, this much speed, this much debt, this much lack of movement on our calendars. We’ve created an insane world, and then we wonder why we're anxious all the time.”
“When somebody tells me they're anxious, my first response is not, ‘Oh, gosh, we need to heal your anxiety!’ My first response is, ‘Well, what's your body trying to get your attention for?’ We've gone to war against our bodies instead of recognizing that our bodies do their best in a system to let us know when we’re not okay. What's it trying to tell you? Is it telling you that you're lonely? Is it telling you that you're unsafe because you owe six figures and student loans, and if you say one wrong thing your boss will fire you? Are you in an abusive relationship? Are you struggling in your marriage? What is your body trying to tell you—it's pretty smart. So, this book is just a reexamination of mental and emotional health and in our world.”
John’s book releases on October 3, 2023, and it is available for pre-order today.