Holy Houdini! Brackenridge minister brings magical gifts
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011
When members of Trinity United Methodist Church, Brackenridge, refer to their new pastor's sermons as "magical," they mean that as praise and point of fact.
A professional magician, and member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, the Rev. Jeffrey Vanderhoff employs his secular talents with sleight of hand, visual puzzles, optical illusions and other tricks to offer spiritual insights in his children's and adult sermons.
"There is no one sleeping through any of his sermons," says Trinity member Mary Jane Jack of Natrona Heights. "He keeps a person's attention the entire time. He doesn't use the pulpit, but instead gets right in front of the congregation and talks to us as if we were all having a conversation about life, using real-life experiences everyone can relate to."
Sometimes his illustrations can be quite dramatic, adds Joe Kuhel of Lower Burrell. It's not every week a churchgoer gets to see his or her pastor delivering the Sunday message while securely tied "head to toe" to a chair by four congregation members, using 100 feet of rope, and escaping by sermon's end, he says.
"People remember that sermon, not just for the stunt of escaping, but also the message of how God sets us free from the bondage of sin," Vanderhoff says.
The clergyman's tricks often are springboards into faith lessons.
"He is definitely gifted as a magician and a pastor and does an excellent job of incorporating them together. His magic definitely seems to get the congregation's attention," Kuhel says.
Vanderhoff honors the biblical call to find "new wineskins for the wine," a reference to using new means to deliver timeless themes, in many inventive ways, including folding a banana, pretending to confuse it for a bandana, during the children's sermon and making it disappear. The point of the trick, he says, is to emphasize "using the gifts God gave us in the right way, the right tool for the right purpose."
His children's messages every week are anticipated by the adults as much as the children, Jack says. "His use of magic makes a point from the Bible very memorable, and people are fascinated."
The pastor explains that when he cuts a piece of rope and "magically" restores it, it is to talk about "how we lose our connection with God, but God restores the connection through Jesus." The spoken word sometimes can be much clearer when it is perceived visually, says Evelyn Callender of Sarver, Trinity's organist and choir and music director. "It helps to be shown that everything is not always as it appears. He has won the hearts of the congregation."
"He is able to guide your thinking to life issues with a new flavor," says Pam Bonnett of Brackenridge, Trinity's program director. "He has been a good choice of pastor for Trinity, someone who came to us with different gifts and graces."
Makes a U turn
Vanderhoff, 40, is the son of a clergyman and married with four children. He comes to the ministry as a second career. He was in retail after graduating from Penn State University in 1993 with a bachelor degree in marketing and a concentration in psychology. He received his master of divinity degree in 2000 from Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland, Ohio, and was ordained in 2003. He started at Trinity in July 2010.
"I felt that God wanted more from me than I was giving to God," he says. "I find great satisfaction in helping people to see God at work in their lives. People need to see there is hope in the midst of pain and despair."
He says magic has been an ice-breaker and door-opener for him, helping church members become more comfortable around him. "Magic creates a sense of wonder and mystery, and much of our faith is about experiencing mystery," he says. "We don't always understand how God is at work, but we do see that God is at work in our lives and in our world. If I can get people's attention using magic, then I have an opportunity to share the message of faith with them as well."
Leaders of his denomination, including his bishop, support his efforts. He has performed at Christmas parties in six of the 10 districts in his church conference.
The Rev. James Ritchie, pastor of Center United Methodist Church, Fawn, which recently hosted Vanderhoff's magic program, says he admires his professionalism, polish and ability to engage his audience. "He's fun, articulate and puts on a great show," he says. "He has a diversity of tricks, an easy flow to his presentation and an ability to weave a Christian message through his tricks."
"He gets people involved with the magic tricks, and, before you know it, there is a life lesson to be learned. He ministers to you, and you don't even know it," says Jaime White of Gilpin, director of personal care assisted-living activities at Concordia Lutheran Ministries Health and Human Care in Cabot.
Vanderhoff does not preach in his out-of-church secular presentations for birthday parties, banquets and other events, but he still tries to leave his audience with an uplifting message of hope and encouragement. He uses the stage name of Jeff Allan (his middle name), because "it's easier to pronounce than 'Vanderhoff.' "
"I do a trick where a spectator is able to predict what card another audience member is thinking of, and they have no idea how they accomplished this amazing feat," he says. "Sometimes, we are capable of accomplishing things that we didn't know we were able to do. But it is important not to limit ourselves or our potential."
Rebecca and Ron Maholic of Frazer, with their son Bryce, saw Vanderhoff entertain at a lodge banquet in April. Bryce was so delighted he asked the magician to perform last month at his 7th birthday party.
"He is very entertaining for all ages, a natural, creating moments to remember," Rebecca Maholic says. "His show creates a good, hard belly laugh. It allows you to be a kid again. We had 87 people at the party and my husband and I laughed at everyone's faces when Pastor Jeff announced that his real profession is a minister."
Magic, says Vanderhoff, can be for entertainment and for inspiration. "I try to make it both."
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