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Gail and Randy Baar have lived through tough, debilitating times during their 38-year marriage, including Randy's ongoing struggle with depression, which leaves him susceptible to mood swings. Randy, with Gail's help, is embarking on a new ministry designed to emphasize easing the effects of mental illness. <i>Phil Pfuehler photo</i>

How do you handle life's thorns? New ministry offers hope and resolve

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Randy Baar once had a thriving local and then regional TV ministry that seemed destined for national syndication. That destiny crumbled when Randy's bipolar disorder flared up so bad he nearly gave up on living.

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A new dosage of drugs and a healthy dose of renewed faith restored his will to live again.

That was in 2009. Since then Randy's heard a "continual calling" from God to create something out of this personal recovery -- something to be used for the greater common good.

The result is the formation of Thorn in the Side Ministries with his wife Gail.

The new ministry will travel in the sense that Randy and Gail will do "presentations" wherever they're asked to go: Churches, schools, nursing homes; before support groups and civic clubs.

"I want to help people get off the couch, so to speak, to get involved and to know where that energy that spurs them on comes from," says the 59-year-old, 1971 River Falls High School graduate.

Adds Gail: "Hopefully those who hear us will be encouraged by what we can share. 85% of marriages break up when a spouse has severe depression. It hasn't been easy for us, but we've made it through.

"We're a team in this marriage. We're in this for the count. God honors the marriage of couples that stick to it, even through the worst of circumstances."

The Baars have lived in a townhouse in Hudson for five years. They attend First Covenant Church of River Falls.

Randy, a Gulf War veteran in 1991, today gets by on government disability and Social Security checks.

Gail, an independent home health-care provider, tended to Randy during a bleak four-year stretch when depression left him listless and suicidal.

That stretch was so hurtful that Gail remains torn about Randy's spiritual calling to start a new ministry.

"I'm still carrying the scars," she says. "That was a four-year low, like dealing with Randy's death. He was alive but not really existing. I could break down and cry thinking about it now."

Randy's depressive crash brought an end to his "The Spirit of America Hour" TV Christian show, produced in Branson, Mo. In the late 1990s, Randy and Gail's popular "The American Missionary Fellowship Hour" was produced on the River Falls local cable-TV access channel.

Gail says the daily pressures -- many brought on by Randy himself -- to take the show national led to his emotional spiral downward. She doesn't want that to ever happen again.

"What he's trying to do is a major commitment, a big responsibility," she says. "Deep down, I trust that he's getting this signal strongly from the Lord. It's a test of my faith, and yet we can do all things through Christ."

The Baars had another tragedy to overcome when they provided a home for many months to Randy's twin brother, Royce, who had Stage 4 esophagus cancer. Royce died in April 2010.

After that Randy took a couple of college courses in social services and family counseling. That urge to do something to help people kept gnawing at him.

Randy hoped to work toward a bachelor's degree he'd started long ago at UW-River Falls.

That didn't work out, but he did apply and become ordained through the "trans-denominational" Acts Ministry, out of Springfield, Mo.

Also during this time, St. Bridget Catholic Church Pastor Jerry Harris phoned to suggest that Randy might want to attend a regular meeting of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the basement of the Servant of the Shepherd Church, 103 N. Fourth St.

Randy did and was so moved by the needs of people suffering from various forms of mental illness that he joined NAMI, received training and gave NAMI-sponsored speeches about his own bipolar experiences.

"While all this was going on, including after Royce died, I kept feeling this urge, this pull, with helping through a new church ministry," Randy said.

Gail withheld her support, so Randy, out of respect for her wishes, didn't act right away on the ministry vision.

But he prepared for it because the urge never let up. He also visited and counseled friends in need whenever they had problems or asked for advice.

He also felt he was onto something because his NAMI public talks were well received.

"The reaction was positive," he said. "People were coming out of the woodwork, wanting to talk more about their troubles with mental illnesses.

"To me, that was a sign that what I was doing was right. It made me believe there was still a job left for me and a critical one at that. Not everyone can do this.

"I want to go out kicking. I'm getting older, this could be my last assignment, so to speak."

So Randy came up with Thorn in the Side Ministries, which has spiritual as well as a mental illness components.

"The name, thorn, just means that everyone has problems," says Randy. "Mine is bipolar. But despite whatever your problem or handicap is, God still has a purpose for you."

Gail, reluctantly, has gone along with Randy's new ministry. As with his last ministry, she will be there assisting "behind-the scenes."

"I have to trust in God on this, and I'm working on that," she said.

Gail said the Thorn in the Side Ministries has humble aspirations and that should mean less pressure for Randy -- not like when he was raising money for and running his Branson TV show.

Gail also says that what makes Randy's message so appealing is his natural, everyman delivery style.

"Randy comes across like an Average Joe -- he's just himself and speaks from the heart. People identify with an ordinary guy like Randy, rather than a bigtime TV evangelist."

Randy agrees that he has modest aims: "If this doesn't pan out, it's over and that's OK. I've been obedient to the Lord to get it ready. I can shelve it. It all depends on if anyone calls asking us to share our story."

Randy describes his traveling ministry like this:

"We will give presentations anywhere, anytime. They are designed to be about 50 minutes long, but we will adapt any of them to a time frame that is available.

"Five-to-10 minute special music numbers are available. I am available to fill pulpits. Any of the presentations are appropriate for a church service. Pastor, take a week off of giving sermons if you wish."

Randy said his presentations can be tailored to suit Sunday School programs, special functions, schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

Randy's four basic "presentations" are labeled: 1) Is suffering such a bad thing? 2) The Makings of a Miracle (this one is about the Baars' son Nathan who almost died from a blood clot in the lung at age 19); 3) Music Makes the Difference; 4) My Parents Made me Laugh.

There are different ways to reach the Baars to book their ministry. Randy's cellphone number is 417-263-0317; Gail's is, 417-263-0318. Randy can also be reached by email at randybaar@live.com.

Their ministry service is free. "Love" donations are accepted.

Those who want to know more should check out the Baars' website at www.thorninthesideministries.com.

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Phil Pfuehler
Phil Pfuehler has been editor of the River Falls Journal since 1991.
(715) 426-1050
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