The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove is a 1,200-acre Bible training and retreat center in Asheville, N.C., designed to encourage, refresh and empower believers who want to deepen their faith. The first seminars took place in the fall of 1988. This is the second article in a three-part series celebrating 25 years of ministry at The Cove. Click here to read part one.
When Jerry and Dee Miller arrived in Asheville, N.C., in July of 1983, they knew they were stepping into unknown territory.
Leaving their home, their community and a lucrative career behind, they had agreed to move from Texas to North Carolina to help get a brand-new ministry off the ground.
One thousand miles away from their old Houston neighborhood, Jerry and Dee pulled up to the entrance of what would become The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove.
“When we came, there was a dirt road and a chain link fence, and that was all,” Dee recalled. “And this magnificent property.”
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) had purchased 1,500 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with hopes of fulfilling Billy and Ruth Graham’s vision for a place where Christians could step away from the demands of daily life and focus on God’s Word.
Originally, BGEA partnered with Columbia Bible College, which is how Jerry heard about the project; he was serving on the college’s board of directors at the time.
“I always say they went to about 20 different businessmen [to see if they would run The Cove] and they all turned them down,” Jerry said. “I didn’t have enough sense, so when they asked us, Dee and I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll come.’”
At the time, Jerry was a top executive at Texaco. Quitting after 28 years of service meant walking away from myriad retirement benefits just months before he would have been eligible to receive them. In exchange, he took a $25,000 salary and agreed to pay all of his own travel expenses.
“I knew it’d be a financial disaster,” Jerry said, referring to the family finances. “And it was. But we haven’t missed a meal, and God provided.”
Dee remembers attempting to weigh the positives and negatives of ministry life.
“We got the call in December of ’82,” she said. “We sat at the kitchen table, and we got that yellow pad where you’re supposed to put the pros and cons. We couldn’t get anything on it. We knew we were supposed to do this.
“We called the next day and said, ‘We’re coming.’”
Jerry and Dee represent so many others who would join them at The Cove in the coming years. The staff came from all over the country, leaving family, friends and careers to follow a calling to advance God’s Kingdom through a little retreat center off Interstate 40.
“I really can’t emphasize enough the people God sent here,” Jerry said.
As for his and Dee’s decision to allow God to send them, they’re still living in the mountains of North Carolina 30 years later, and they’ve never regretted making the move.
“God wants obedience from us,” Jerry said. “So, actually, it was quite easy.”
‘He Just Kept Providing’
The Millers remember how exciting it was to be part of a brand new project, but starting from scratch also had its challenges.
“Because we had no money to operate,” Jerry said. “Back then I was a one-man-band. And I don’t play any instruments.”
Jerry and Dee traversed the country, looking for investors. Their first trip brought them to Dallas to visit a businessman they hoped would be interested in the Grahams’ vision for The Cove. They paid for their own plane tickets and rental car only to be turned away at the Dallas office.
“And then Jerry said to me, ‘I knew this was a bad idea,’” Dee recalled.
A few weeks later, the businessman came to the East Coast for a conference, and Jerry tried again over a dinner meeting.
“I said, ‘We’re looking to find 30 people to give a thousand a month for 30 months,’” Jerry said. “’And I just wondered what you thought of the idea.’”
The businessman remarked about how everyone and their mother seemed to be asking for money for various projects.
“And Jerry’s got his plateful of food, and he’s moving the meat from here to there, and I know he’s sweating it,” Dee said.
Then, Jerry and Dee got a surprising answer.
“He said, ‘I’ll do it. Do you want a $30,000 check right now, or do you want a thousand a month?’” Jerry recalled. “And I just sat there and cried.”
It was one of the first of countless times God came through. Piece by piece, The Cove was assembled.
“The Lord surprised us all along the way,” Dee said. “He wanted this property developed.”
The Steeple and the Crane
As they settled into their new home, Jerry and Dee found themselves just a few miles away from Billy and Ruth Graham’s Montreat, N.C., cabin. The four became close friends, working together to build The Cove from the ground up.
“The most wonderful thing in the world was working with Mr. and Mrs. Graham,” Jerry said. “And the BGEA people. And the people God sent here who helped build this place and maintain this place.”
One of the first structures to go up was Chatlos Memorial Chapel, a project that was especially close to Ruth Graham’s heart. Her personality is imprinted throughout the beautiful wood and stone building. You just have to know where to look, and a good place to start is, well…up.
“The architects had the steeple at such-and-such a height,” Jerry said, explaining that they followed a certain formula to determine how tall the steeple should be.
“We told that to Mrs. Graham, and she said, ‘That’s not tall enough.’ I said, ‘How high do you want it?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Because the whole chapel was built with a crane in order to avoid cutting down trees, Jerry came up with an idea.
“I said, ‘We’ll get the contractor with the crane, and we’ll get him out there with the architect. We’ll get him to raise the ball on the crane, and put the ball where they want to put the steeple.’” Turning to Mrs. Graham, he said, “’You just look at me, and if it’s not high enough, you tell me.’”
The crane rose higher and higher as the Millers stood by in the woods with Mrs. Graham. Every time Jerry looked at her, she said it wasn’t high enough, so he told the contractor to keep on going.
Finally, they hit their invisible mark in the sky, and Mrs. Graham nodded her approval. In the end, the steeple was built 87 feet tall with an 8-foot-tall copper cross on the top. It towers above the treetops, inviting curious visitors to stop by and see what The Cove is all about.
Perhaps that’s exactly what Mrs. Graham intended.
‘You Can’t Train That’
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. —Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)
First-time Cove visitors are often overwhelmed by the beauty of the surroundings outside, but they soon discover an equally intriguing beauty inside. The Cove staff receives consistently high marks from guests. At the inns, the training center, the administration office and the chapel, it seems hospitality isn’t a 9 to 5 job. It’s a way of life.
“I think they’re here not just as a job to collect a paycheck, but because it’s a ministry,” said Steve Hagaman, The Cove’s guest group sales manager. “They love the Lord, and they want to see this place be successful for the Kingdom of God, and therefore, what they do is their ministry—whether it’s making coffee, cleaning inn rooms or talking on the phone.”
Verlie Leatherwood recently retired after spending more than a quarter century at The Cove. Starting out as an administrative assistant, by the time she left, she was the head of human resources.
“I’ve had people ask me as H.R. manager, ‘How do you train your staff to be the way they are?’” Verlie said. “And I always told them, ‘We don’t. It’s not something we train them to do. It’s the love of Christ showing through them. And you can’t train that.’”
Cove employees pray specifically for every individual who signs up for a seminar or spiritual retreat. The prayers begin before the guests ever set foot on the property and continue in various forms once they arrive.
Staff and volunteers pray with chapel visitors, too, and it’s not uncommon for a person to arrive at The Cove far from God, and leave with a new-found relationship with Christ.
The dining hall staff, bookstore cashiers, maintenance workers—they’re all praying for God to move in the hearts of the visitors.
Even—and sometimes especially—the guest rooms are covered in prayer.
“The housekeepers here, when they’re cleaning the rooms in the inns, pray for the people who are staying in those rooms,” Steve said. “They pray the Lord would bless the people who are in those rooms.”
God is Faithful
It’s been 30 years since Jerry and Dee Miller left Houston, Texas and arrived at The Cove. Jerry has since retired as executive director but still visits regularly.
Now, when they drive through the gates, Jerry and Dee don’t see an old chain link fence and an empty plot of land. They see a thriving ministry dedicated to teaching the Bible and strengthening the faith of believers. And they see a faithful group of people relying on God every day to keep the vision alive.
“What I wanted to get across is that God is faithful,” Jerry said. “God did it.”
To find out more about the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, click here.