Cover Story: Angels in the Heartland

Time-Out Ministries in Indiana offers an oasis of renewal for those down on their faith

Jul 20, 2000 at 2:06 pm

The man owns a belt buckle alone that's as large as a Holy Bible. He keeps it on a mantle at home in Batesville, Ind. It would cut up his midsection if he wore it to ride horses. The buckle was given to him by a civic organization whose members believe in and love Jeff Anderson.

You'd think, though, when you know Anderson's story, that he would have renounced love by now and tossed in his cards, given up on man and God. In fact, he's tried. It's never worked.

Jeff Anderson is always returning. In this new millennium, he says, he has a better grip on the power behind the words "a new life."

Anderson is a preacher's kid gone right. And wrong.

If you ask Vernon King, founding director of Time-Out Ministries Inc. in Oldenburg, Ind., there's no other walking, talking Man of God in America than Anderson whose past might better or so uniquely exemplify the deep spiritual ruts in the souls of many clergy and missionaries.

"People we know from California to Maine look at Jeff as one who's making an awareness of this epidemic called 'ministerial burnout' come to life," King says. "He's at the forefront as a leader and a model of catastrophe. He doesn't mind being either one."

: : :

That man, Jeff Anderson, with his Bible-size belt buckle and a deep-rooted fallout with man and God, is out this early, hazy summer day breeding his prize-winning stallion, Steppin' Rennie, with a mare. It'll take several days and attempts. He has the horses in control. He positions them against a barn in the lower meadow of The Ranch, as Anderson and King call it.

Time-Out at Vern and Phyllis King's ranch, of which Anderson is Ministry Director, has become a second home. Anderson's other home, in which he lives with his wife and two children, is five miles away.

Every day there is an animal to tend to, he says, and ranch work to be done. By the beginning of fall, "Lord-willin' " as Vern King says, The Ranch will officially open its doors to clergy and missionaries who are in the dark throes of burnout. It will offer modern cabin housing and recuperative aids, such as hiking and horse-riding trails, kitchen and dining facilities (in 2001), swimming in the summer, a media and conference area, picnic and restive areas and, for specific, referral-based guests, professional counseling and spiritual guidance.

There's already a waiting list of churches and agencies that plan to sponsor or send clergy to Time-Out Ministries, King says. The Ranch is one of only a handful of such respites for clergy in the country. It might be the most original one yet, says Anderson, because of the rustic isolation and pastoral quality of the land.

Anderson's life is horses. His life is God, family, church and soul-searching, much of it stark-raving horrifying.

Before he succumbed to the first of two near-fatal bouts with ministerial burnout as an adult, he was a tike riding goats in his daddy's yard. He comes from a family of professional rodeo riders and trainers. At 17, he even landed a sponsor for a short-lived shot at the pro rodeo circuit.

Then he landed pneumonia. Devastating, he says, for the young guy he was. But the first of several miracles to alter Anderson's life materialized.

"I saw a visage in the I.C.U.," he says. "My lungs had collapsed. The odds were slim that I'd live. This visage said, 'You going into the ministry or not, young man?' I said, 'You bet I am.' I was not delirious. It was a literal calling I can't explain. I went from I.C.U. to home within 48 hours. Explain that."

The road to heaven had a mile-marker with his name on it, he says. In 1982, in his late teens, Anderson traveled with a Christian puppet troupe. They were in demand. A year later, he married and entered the Church of God Ministerial Program. He further studied Bible doctrine, ministerial courses and church history at East Coast Bible College in Charlotte, N.C. That year he entered "his calling," he says, in the youth ministry as a volunteer. That experience, by 1986, enabled him to take a paid position as Youth Program Director at a church in Texas.

It would still be 10 troubling years before Anderson needed Vern and Phyllis King.

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To get to The Ranch, you follow Stipps Hill Road, outside of Metamora, Ind. The two-lane narrows the more you wind. You pass the house with two couches and a recliner plopped in the front yard. The house whose black mailbox is outlined in a question mark of red bicycle reflectors. The tractor-trailer in a front yard.

Deeper into the boondocks, front yard bric-a-brac becomes mainstream: a washer, a roadside cemetery where pups have it as a playground. Turkey vultures circle. Around a bend is the trio of picturesque, army barracklike greenhouses of "Pretty Petals." You pass busted-up tobacco barns, a few busted fences.

Then you find beauty — The Ranch on 8173 Davison Road. It peers out at you from a slope. It's rural beauty, tranquil beauty. After the yard couches on Stipps Hill, you gaze at two restored barns, a modest stone house with huge glass windows, meadows, a pond, a kidney-shaped pool, horses and three foals, two llamas and two emus.

The Ranch took all of 10 years to develop, King says, and every ounce of God-given real estate development talent he had to turn it into something they can share with others.

It occupies 150 acres — the house, barns, pond and meadows sit on 120, and 30 tree-packed acres sit across the road. One plan is to implant some riding trails in those 30 acres. Wherever you look, King says, with regard to the 120 acres, there's been a major overhaul whereupon weeds, thistle, tall grass or dilapidated objects like the barns have been removed or restored to a natural sort of beauty.

The laying on of hands ­ Vern's, Phyllis' and Anderson's ­ at The Ranch is becoming legend. The Kings bought the property in 1989 and moved there in July 1990. They're celebrating 10 years of hard labor this summer, yet it's the best labor they can ever imagine doing, King says.

"After all," he says, "I left a booming business, a high profile, and we left a perfectly luxurious five acres in Western Hills for a lot of weeds, corrosion and unpredictability. It wasn't logical."

In 1990, the pond was overgrown with willows. King rented a backhoe and dug them out and thinned the pond. He put in 30 grotesque grass-carp just to eat all the vegetation. "They're 30- to 40-pounds each and eat their weight every day in vegetation," he says.

He put in a culvert that pipes natural spring water from several nearby springs to a pump and well outside the Kings' house. It's a continuous water supply, he says, that takes care of not only the house but the forthcoming four cabins and the lower fire hydrants.

Once you walk up to the "upper meadows," you pass the riding stable, upper barn and pen for breaking horses. You pass the llamas ­ Oreo, the male, and Hershey, the female - and two emus in a fenced ground.

"Kids love them," King says. "The llamas as pack animals can pull carts and ride with up to 150 pounds of material on their backs."

The kids also love the horses, he says. They love riding throughout the upper meadows, which zigzag in a serene view of cut grass and forest. They love the teepees. Hand-made, there are six of them that King and Anderson constructed for church and community youth groups needing a rustic place in which to work and relax. The Ranch occasionally opens its grounds to church camp kids.

The upper meadows is rich with potential, King says, in the way the lay of the land fits hand-in-glove with his vision. "It's as if this land had our names on it all along."

Construction has begun on the four, classy, two-bedroom cabins near the teepees. Next year, a small conference center, seating about 50, with a commercial kitchen will afford The Ranch's ministerial clients even more solitude, King says.

Yet always distinguishing the upper meadows, always its odd symbol, is the chipped, circle-cut log of the tomahawk target.

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To know Jeff Anderson, you must know Vern and Phyllis King.

To know Vern, you must go to Avondale and see the former luxury hotel, The Hadden, on Reading Road. In the 1920s, before it became a contemporary crack house and eyesore, The Hadden was regarded as one of the city's most glamorous hotels.

When Vern saw it as a dilapidated mess in 1984, he had a vision. He stared at it. His knowledge, skills and influence as a big-time real estate developer with A.J.K. Properties Inc. congealed, he says.

A.J.K. bought the eyesore and, instead of razing it, turned it into a roomy, beautiful residential community for underprivileged elderly, with much of The Hadden's 1920s architecture intact.

The Hadden story underscores Vern's ability to define property, says Phyllis.

"He sees what else can be done with restoring, with working with what is present," she says, noting that this talent of his is why The Ranch's "one-time snake pit look and acreage of wild weeds have been turned into a marvelous landscape of opportunity."

While Vern thrived in the climate of high-pressure real estate, he had a similar awakening as Jeff Anderson. It was equally serious, he says.

In 1987, Vern and Phyllis lived in the upper middle-class comfort zone: They owned a three-story Georgia Colonial house in Western Hills, they were raising three children, A.J.K. Properties was booming and the family had a strong belief in God.

Then Vern developed colon cancer that year. He was given a 50-50 chance to survive.

"I mean, I changed my priorities quickly and radically," he says. "I phased myself out of the real estate business. I couldn't fathom how cancer can change a life, but it did mine. My thought process changed overnight."

During his subsequent cancer treatments, one mysterious, solitary word kept interrupting Vern's thoughts. He says he never even used the word before. It plagued him.

"That word ­ 'unbundle' ­ was the key," he says. "It was, 'Unbundle your priorities. Unbundle your assets and put them in a different place.' That word came to me three times in a very short period. Emphatically. With it I sank or swam."

When the Kings bought The Ranch, their only intention was to reach out, Vern says, but he didn't know in what capacity. He remembers that he knew two distinct things: that the "unbundling," property buying and moving came first; secondly, that The Ranch would be a place of restoration. For what or whom, he didn't know.

"The abstract term 'restoration' had to become more specific," he says. "That was our prayer. This was just too isolated and illogical a place to move to, although I knew it could be turned into a place of some worth and beauty."

: : :

Even as early as 1982, according to data recently released by the Minnesota Renewal Center, an organization that counsels those suffering from ministerial burn-out, books about burn-out among clergy in Australia were rolling off the presses. A few included The Plight of the Australian Clergy, High Calling High Stress, Battle Guide for Christian Leaders ­ an Endangered Species and Conflict and Decline.

The National Psychiatric Association defines stress in terms of the response one's body makes to any demand on it. According to the NPA, there is "good stress" (eustress), associated with feelings of joy and achievement, and "bad stress" (distress), which is prolonged or too-frequent stress. The NPA also allows that it's not possible to live without stress.

It does, however, make real distinctions between stress and burnout, as does Archibald Hart, a psychiatrist and leading authority on stress and burnout in the ministry.

Stress is "hurry sickness," according to Hart. "The body is designed to give warning signals of stress overload, which may include insomnia, digestive problems, headaches, low energy, tiredness, muscle tension, teeth grinding and high blood pressure."

As for burnout, he says, the physical and emotional factors deepen tremendously.

Burnout victims become demoralized, according to Hart, and they become depersonalized (impersonal toward others), distant and totally defeatist (the feeling of being "beaten"). Not only is failure driving the burn-out victim every day, he says, but there are other contrasts between stress and burn-out: In burn-out, emotions become blunted, while with stress, emotions become overreactive; and burn-out produces a demoralized self that suffers a complete loss of ideals and hope, while stress is understood as a loss of fuel and energy.

Jeff Anderson crashed and burned. Twice.

His was the most severe "stage" ­ that of losing ideals and all hope ­ according to Hart's definition of burn-out.

It likely started in Georgia, but it might have started in Texas or earlier, Anderson says. "You can't pinpoint the true origin of this monster."

The youth pastoring in Texas led to a similar full-time gig in a church outside of Atlanta, where Anderson says he went full throttle.

"I was at the top of my spiritual game and still climbing," he says. "I had my calling, and I never knew when to say 'no' or 'quit.' I could relate to young people, and they took to me. I was honest with them and with myself. I felt strong and fascinated by what God could lead me to do."

In Georgia, he says, he ministered to all types of down-and-out youths, his particular specialty: gangs, drug addicts, youths with heavy suicidal thoughts. At the peak of his reputation, he dealt with one young woman who was continuously high on dope and associated with the notorious Southern gang the Miami Boys. But she wanted to change, and she came to Anderson.

He went so far as to meet face to face with gang members.

"I worked out a deal with them that let this young girl stay close to the church," he says. "She owed money to the gang, too, and we worked that out in a difficult yet conciliatory way. Otherwise, this girl would've been physically hurt badly."

But Anderson grew "battle weary" after a while.

"Look, I saw it all," he says. "Gang members who'd pray on the church altar and leave their dope paraphernalia behind. Funerals for kids who committed suicide. I was only 24 at the time. Something started, I think, to take a toll. I was blindsided a little at a time."

So, in 1992, Anderson was offered a new job in Olive Branch, Miss., and took it. It was a step up, because now he was pastoring an entire congregation, not just youths. He admits, too, that he had trouble with the clergy hierarchy in his Atlanta church, which tended not to support Anderson's efforts, which cared only to remain status quo and not venture too much more into such a "street-like" evangelism as he was doing.

"As a result of that," he says, "I was getting a little tired, and I had no one to talk to, no one to let out my feelings on. That is, no one in the way of a co-minister or colleague to really talk honestly to."

At the Olive Branch church, there awaited a nightmare: a church steeped in financial debt, a diminishing congregation and backbiting church members. It was, Anderson says, a church in chaos.

"I eventually helped straighten out a lot of the problems, even the financial ones," he says. But the nightmare sucked his spiritual side raw, leaving him open for a case of burn-out that he couldn't fathom three years earlier.

Coupled with righting the church's problems, Anderson's "confidante in the ministry" ­ his pastor-father ­ died in 1993.

"I felt like my support system was gone," he says. "Other than God, he was the one I really depended upon. But, in a depression, I put my mask back on ­ always that mask, that acting. We ministers are real good actors, believe me. I could play the part."

In January 1994, there was "heavy slippage." He bought a half-million dollar life insurance policy, double indemnity, so his family could be covered in the event of his death. He planned suicide. He picked the road. He had the car. He picked the tree around the bend that he would hit head-on, in the middle of the night or when it rained. He practiced swerving around that bend for weeks, in order to make it look accidental.

He started to lose his memory. He had trouble remembering his two kids' names. His parishioners names. His obligations.

Soon, he says, it was rock bottom. "Blackouts and what-not. And no one to talk to; no one who could really recognize that what I had was burn-out due to the ministry. That's why I had to leave Olive Branch."

The reason ministerial burnout is so common and yet overlooked by a church's powers-that-be, Anderson and King say, is that unreal expectations are put on clergy because they work with the eternal. It's the pastors who really do care, King says, who burn out.

Anderson and King explain that there's no recourse for pastors or missionaries, that there's an extremely limited safety net of professional counseling specializing in ministerial burnout. According to a report from the Minnesota Renewal Center, much of the tendency for this burnout is that clergy often are put on a pedestal by others and by themselves, and expectations just can't be met. Even statistics from the Southern Baptist Convention indicate that each year 6,000 ordained Southern Baptist ministers drop out for one reason or another.

Anderson says one of his goals both inside and outside of Time-Out Ministries is to introduce sessions and programs for prevention of burn-out and an emphasis on retraining clergy on how to approach workload and the incumbent pressures of the ministry. He'll lobby ministerial colleges to implement more courses on these subjects as well.

Seminaries don't tend to teach these courses or the process of stress reduction, he says. "It's like, 'OK, you've got a calling to be a preacher or priest or missionary, so just stick it out, be tough. Look the other way.'

"You can't clock out of the ministry. You're always on call, 24-hours a day. How do you deal with that, if you can?"

: : :

Phyllis and Vern King were living at The Ranch, and their children were grown, when Phyllis enrolled at the College of Mount St. Joseph for an associate degree in Liberal Arts.

One of her favorite classes, she says, was History of Christianity, in which one day she knew the answer to a question that befuddled even a few clergy students in the class.

"The question?" she says. "Why are there 150 beads on the original rosary? The teacher eventually turned to me, and that made me proud. I said, 'Because of the 150 Psalms.' "

She considers herself extremely well-read, and those collegiate "A" grades testify to her willingness to learn ­ "and I've done a lot of reading up in the last several years on contemporary church ideology."

A steadfast learner, Phyllis says she continues to try to read much of the literature coming out on clergy burnout. Although she and Vern originally met in Toledo, her background as a "traveling auditor" took her to Columbus, where ironically Vern was transferred. They married in Columbus 40 years ago and promptly moved to Cincinnati.

The well-read aspect of herself, Phyllis says, has led her to know her Bible and how to teach it. For 40 years she's taught Bible classes to children, teens and adults ­ ever since she was 18, in fact.

"I'm a math person, but I have the heart of a teacher," she says. "Maybe I can teach somehow here at The Ranch."

And she'll also lead if called upon, she says — lead prayer groups or Bible study — with the same skills in which she's helped lead ecumenical, international ministry team trips to London.

"Our ministry," she says, "has already been about leading people to know it exists."

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If Olive Branch, in Anderson's words, was a taste of hell, then his youth pastorship Hamilton, Ohio was as close to hell as he ever wants to get.

"When there's a cooling-off spell after you've crashed like I did, you think, 'Is it over?,' " he says. "Forget it. Just look at me in 1994."

That's when he left Olive Branch and took a position as youth program director at a church in Hamilton. Again, as with the other callings, he hit stride. He watched the youth program soar. He established a fond rapport with youth, many of whom considered him the most trustworthy person they could talk to, Anderson says.

But the "disease of burn-out" never left him. It was shortly after Mother's Day in 1994, and Anderson had just turned 30. Parishioners found him in his office in a semi-comatose state. He was not responsive to questions.

They sent for his wife, and his friends helped carry him to the car. The church's pastor contacted a counseling agency in Bangor, Maine, which specializes in ministerial burnout and where Anderson spent six months recuperating.

"I was full of poison," he says. "I was on suicide watch in Bangor, and it's a miracle of God that brought me back."

That miracle manifested itself in the form of two eagles that Anderson spotted one day in a tree near the counseling center. "I suddenly felt a great warmth pour all over me. I can't explain the warmth. It gave me peace. I thought of the Scripture that says, 'And you'll be lifted on an eagle's wings ... .' "

The Hamilton church completely supported Anderson's rehabilitation, although since he felt he was "living under a shadow in Hamilton," he accepted a job as youth pastor in Raleigh, N.C. and moved his family there temporarily.

Circumstances started to unfold more, he says, when he met Vern and Phyllis King back in Hamilton in 1998 through a mutual acquaintance. Anderson had just completed a mission trip to Bolivia, where he "felt a real strong change coming" in his line of work. It had to do with ranching. A short time after their meeting, Vern apprised Anderson of his plans for Time-Out Ministries and wondered if he'd be interested in working there.

"You seriously mean you have horses?," Anderson remembers asking.

: : :

But back up, Vern King says. How did he truly know what that whole "restoration" thing was about? So he had this ranch, he says, but what was he supposed to do in 1998 with all this property he'd refurbished and redeveloped?

It became much clearer during an ex-priest's visit one weekend. The former priest was a Biblical scholar who spoke and translated numerous languages and who operated a Christian clinic in Cleveland. As he sat quietly in the gazebo, next to the Kings' house ­ very calmly, Phyllis says ­ he asked them to get him a Bible. It became "a defining moment" when the ex-priest turned to Zechariah 3:5, a verse that reveals how God "restores" His servant Joshua and provides him with property to use in His name.

"This visitor confirmed our vision," Vern says. "That's when I knew what we were in place to do ­ help restore the lives of clergy who desperately need a place to come to."

Still, the harsh reality of ministerial burnout in this country is overwhelming, as statistics begin to flesh out, according to the George Barna Research Institute, which in 1997 surveyed 601 U.S. Protestant ministers. Thirty-eight percent of the ministers cited "burn-out" as their greatest concern. Eighty percent said isolation is a key factor in their decision to leave the ministry, while 80 percent also indicated the ministry had a negative effect on their family.

This spring, the Kings received their long-awaited zoning permit for construction of the cabins. Very soon they hope to receive positive news about the cabins' building permits, thus keeping the building schedule intact.

According to Vern, ministerial clients will be accepted selectively, on a "church-referred and supported basis." To accommodate potential clients with an on-demand need for professional counseling and therapy, Time-Out Ministries will be able to align such demand with a counselor/consultant in nearby Batesville. Any such counseling will be determined only by a recommendation by the referral ministry.

One supported concern among counselors in this area is that it's absolutely necessary to completely remove the client from the environment that's prompted the problem, the burnout, the breakdown of body, mind and spirit.

"Peace has become the byword here, from people who've come onto the property," Vern says. "We're just here with the land to provide. A minister who has burned out goes through a physical period where they need rest."

Anderson agrees.

"And the biggest battle ahead, too, is to get these ministers or missionaries to admit they've got a problem," he says. "There's nowhere to run and hide. You can't go from place to place or from pulpit to pulpit. I've already proven that." ©