This article was originally published March 1, 2018 in Decision Magazine for the 30th Anniversary of The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove.
By Jerri Menges
When Billy and Ruth Graham dedicated The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in 1993, their vision was that the center, located in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains, would be a place where people could come away from the busyness of life and study God’s Word in a peaceful and tranquil environment.
Leading Bible teachers would come from around the world to teach from one source.
“My grandfather said that the only textbook at The Cove would be the Bible,” said Executive Director Will Graham. “That’s what we study from. We’ve been through all 66 books.”
Seminars began at The Cove in 1988, in the Chatlos Chapel, and were moved to the Training Center after it was completed in 1991. On that rainy Dedication Day in 1993—the event was delayed until the nearby Shepherd’s Inn was completed—Mr. Graham prayed that the center would be a place of impact, intercession, instruction and inspiration. Ruth prayed that it would be a haven for retreat, rest, relaxation and renewal. And as the center celebrates its 30th anniversary, the staff has watched its guests live out these facets time and time again.
“Guests tell us that when they pass through that front gate, they can actually feel the presence of the Lord,” says Director of Operations Eric Wilkes. “Now, we understand that’s not unique to us. But what that does tell us is that this is a place that has been set apart for God’s glory.”
The 75,000-square-foot Training Center includes a bookstore, auditorium and dining room, an administration building and a chapel that doubles as a visitor’s center. It offers seminars and gospel concerts as well as personal spiritual retreats.
Prayer has been foundational since the center’s inception. Billy and Ruth prayed for just the right location for the ministry and before construction began they walked the property and prayed for every person who would ever visit. The staff has continued that tradition.
“Each week, we print the names and the city and state of our upcoming guests,” Wilkes said. “We divide up the names and pass the sheets around to all of our staff for prayer. It’s something that we take very seriously.”
Pastor Jim Keil and his wife, Michelle, of Kansas, felt the presence of the Lord the minute they arrived at The Cove. The Pastor Renewal Retreat, Answering the Call, was just what Jim needed spiritually. He’d been going strong in his ministry for 32 years but had hit his breaking point.
“Some people may come to The Cove to be revived in spirit, while some may come in need of a fresh boost of God’s Spirit,” Jim said. “I came in on life support. For us, The Cove was the opportunity to reconnect with Jesus.”
Between seminars, they roamed the facility, with its cozy fireplaces and couches, its sprawling back deck with rocking chairs overlooking the valley and its wooded nature trails. At one point, Jim climbed a mountain. Away from the distractions and the busyness of life, God and His Word had the couple’s full attention. They began to experience God’s healing.
“Ministry can be hard,” Jim said. “People walk away from the church, and that hurts. They’re at one place in your heart, and you’re at a different place in theirs. At The Cove, I felt God telling me that He loves me more than He loves what I do for Him. I walked away more in love with my Savior and why I was doing ministry in the first place.”
Jim returned to his church, and after six months of prayer and counsel he reached the conclusion that the church needed new leadership, he needed significant rest, and his aging parents back in Tulsa, Okla., needed more of his attention. He had visited them as often as he could, but their need for more care had been weighing on him. It was time to hit the pause button on his ministry.
“If I hadn’t gone to The Cove, I’m not sure I would have felt God’s love for me so powerfully,” he said. “And taking this break would have been more difficult. I would simply have thought, Pastors don’t take sabbaticals. I’ve got to get back to the grind.”
The mission of The Cove is to train people in God’s Word to win others to Christ. Jim has done that in his ministry for 32 years. But for this moment, God has called him to the ministry of caring for his parents and the ministry of the restaurant where he is now serving as manager.
“My flock is smaller now, but once a pastor always a pastor,” he said. “I often find myself helping others and being asked for advice. This has opened up many doors for me to share the love of Christ.”
The Keils are but two of more than 1 million guests who have experienced the mission of The Cove. And Will Graham, who has known the property ever since he was a little boy discovering turtles with his cousins, is satisfied in knowing that God is fulfilling his grandparents’ dream.
“My granddad knew what he wanted this place to be, and he knew that there could be people coming generations after him who may want to change it,” Will said.
“But this place was built to train people in God’s Word so they can lead others to Christ. That’s what we’ve done in the past, and that’s what we’ll always do. It’s never going to change.”
For more information on Pastor Renewal events and other Cove seminars and events, visit TheCove.org or call Reservations at 828-771-4800.