Cedar Ranch Retreat Center: Getting Away to “Hear” God’s Voice—Part 1
Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Josh Larson
This is Part 1 of a two-part story about the Cedar Ranch Retreat Center in Culpeper County, VA. Look for Part 2 tomorrow.
On a crisp, clear Saturday in March, the Cedar Ranch Retreat Center in rural Culpeper County, VA, buzzed with activity, noise, and laughter. Nearly 30 students from Virginia’s Liberty University had spread over the sprawling, 68.5-acre Ranch, each engaged in strenuous manual labor.
One group of students gathered near the pond, then paddled small crafts to the island in the middle. There they cut down scrub trees and underbrush, piled them up, and burned them. Another group clustered in the spacious horse barn, some mucking out stalls and others tearing out old wood or putting in new. Several young women spent hours painting walls in the property’s Cottage, which will provide future housing for staff and volunteers. Young men shoveled gravel out of the back of a pickup truck to fill potholes in the road leading to the Lodge. At another location, students hauled heavy logs and branches to a burn pile.
Mike Skillman, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Crossroads in Culpeper, VA, addresses students from Liberty University who had served at Cedar Ranch Retreat Center over the weekend.
That weekend, the Liberty students were completing service hours required by their school, but they worked more than their physical muscles. To stretch their spiritual muscles, they started the day with worship and a devotional teaching by Mike Skillman, pastor of Calvary Chapel Crossroads, VA, the small fellowship that runs the retreat center. Before starting their jobs, Mike asked each of them to spend time alone with the Lord anywhere on the property. On the Ranch, it’s known as “TAWG”: Time Alone with God. That essential activity sums up the mission of Cedar Ranch—providing youth, adults, and church leaders a place to hear God speak to them.
Mike softly exhorted the college students in the morning teaching: “In a little bit, you’re going to get an awesome opportunity to be alone with God. He loves you. He sent His Son so that you could have access to and relationship with Him. He’s given you this huge blessing of His Word. He’ll reveal Himself to you. I’m so looking forward to hearing how the Lord speaks to you.”
Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, [Jesus] went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. Mark 1:35
A young woman from Liberty University sits in front of the pond at Cedar Ranch to spend time alone with God before beginning a long day of serving.
Big & Beautiful
Visitors to the Ranch may be greeted first by two dogs, an Australian shepherd named Duke and by Captain, a miniature Australian labradoodle. They might later meet a donkey named Walter and a goat named Buckwheat. The centerpiece of the property is the Lodge, a beautiful house enlarged by several extensions; it has a large kitchen and 40 guest beds in various rooms. Touring the property, they’ll discover the Cottage, several fields and pastures, an extra-wide horse barn with 16 paddocks, a junior Olympic-sized pool, a huge horse competition arena, RV sites, and 2.6 miles of fencing constantly in need of repair and paint.
Cedar Ranch is a ministry of CC Crossroads, a small fellowship of roughly 60 adults and children—all still amazed that God gave them this property. Pastor Mike exclaimed, “People who come to the property get overwhelmed. They say, ‘I didn’t know this place was so big and so beautiful.’ My response is, ‘Didn’t God do a great job?’ He had in mind at Creation that this place would be used for His glory.”
Guy Berry, Cedar Ranch board member and assistant pastor at CC Crossroads, directs Liberty University students as they gear up for a day of work at the Ranch.
Camping and retreat ministry is important to Mike. “I would say that many spiritual commitments, callings, and milestones happen when people get away and take time,” he confidently declared. “Jesus got away and alone, often, to pray to His heavenly Father.”
So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. Luke 5:16
A Venture of Faith
Mike took over as senior pastor of the fellowship in 2017; he was bi-vocational, and the church met in a school until COVID-19 safety protocols closed it. Over the years, he explained, “The church kept getting smaller; but in hindsight, the Lord was putting together a Gideon team to take a step of faith together.”
“We think about Gideon a lot,” expressed Bobby Hawkins, a board member, church elder, and worship leader at Crossroads. “He took that small band to defeat the huge army. It was so that they would not be able to boast about it, to say, ‘Look what we did.’ It was to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Lord’s hand was in it the whole way.”
Liberty University students clear large tree branches and brush from an island in the middle of the pond at Cedar Ranch.
And the Angel of the LORD appeared to [Gideon], and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor!” … So [Gideon] said to Him, “O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the LORD said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man.” Judges 6:12, 15-16
Mike has worked in the past with another Christian retreat ministry on the West Virginia/Virginia line, which was recently closed and sold. Heartbroken, he and his church leaders told God, “Lord, we don’t want to do anything impetuous, but if You would see fit, we’re here, and we want to be used by You if it’s possible,” Mike recalled. He asked his elder board to pray about the church pursuing a retreat or camping ministry. “Very quickly, we had 12 to 13 people confirm the move, independently of each other.” This “little band of Gideonites” seemed to be praying for the impossible, Mike admitted. He acknowledged notes from an elders’ meeting: Here is what we know: We have no money.
Then the Cedar Ranch property became available. “The Lord saw fit to allow us to win this place in an auction with 54 other bidders, including business developers. People literally stepped aside and didn’t outbid us,” Mike recounted. One of them, a couple planning to open a retreat center for wounded soldiers, told Mike, “We realize that whatever you guys are doing with this, it’s for noble purposes.” The Lord began to provide the funding, and the church settled on the property on April 15, 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Three days later, on a cold, rainy Sunday, CC Crossroads held its first worship service at the Ranch—near the horse barn, opening stable doors and setting up the worship team on the inside. They have since moved services to inside the Lodge. The center was opened to mission teams beginning last summer. Seven youth camps are planned for this summer, the first a two-week “Doulos” camp for teenagers interested in servant leadership.
It wasn’t all work for the Liberty University students during the weekend. They took breaks, including for this active game of dodgeball.
Students experience all that camp has to offer as they enjoy times of fellowship and sports games during their work breaks.
A Labor of Love
Mike revealed, “We have experienced blessing upon blessing since God miraculously motivated and allowed us to purchase the property. We have been blessed by thousands of man-hours from volunteers who have joined in on God’s purpose here.” He is grateful for this active labor of love by the church family. “We didn’t do mission trips. As this Ranch became a thing, I look at this as our church’s mission, what we do,” he added. Members assist visiting work teams, lead worship, and prepare homemade food for retreat events. All members of the camp staff raise their own support or serve as volunteers.
A Biblical Foundation
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Hebrews 4:12
Pastor Mike gets in on the action as he plays a game of dodgeball with students.
Pastor Mike remembers his love of sports as he enjoys time with the Liberty students.
Mike emphasized, “The highest goal is for teenagers to hear God’s voice. If it’s the first time, they get a chance for the Lord to reveal Himself to them. Faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of God (Romans 10:17). As they hear the Word of God, they believe and know that He is real. Our goal is that they would be still and know that He is God. If they have that relationship with Christ already, our goal is that they would start that discipline [spending time in God’s Word] again.”
Bobby Hawkins, who leads worship for retreat and camping events, reiterated, “One of the things I love about Mike’s approach to everything is that it’s based on God’s Word. We’ll put the work in, but it’s all about God’s Word.” Bobby didn’t grow up going to youth camps but grew spiritually at men’s retreats. “When I came to the Lord, we were doing men’s retreats. That’s where the Lord stirred my heart for the missionary calling on my life,” he shared.
Mike confirmed that the vision is to share the Gospel across generations. “[One day] I’d love to pass this ministry on to godly people who are going to share the Gospel with my grandchildren, if the Lord tarries.” I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. 3 John 1:4
Look for Part 2 of this story tomorrow.
On Saturday, April 24, the Cedar Ranch Retreat Center is holding a Celebration Service. “It’s our one-year anniversary service, when we can say, ‘God, thank You. We want to praise Your name,’” Mike said. The potluck is open to all, and the event will feature music from multi-Grammy, Dove Award-winning Christian entertainer Bruce Carroll. For more information, go to CedarRanch.org.
Two students pull nails out of rotten wood flooring in the Ranch’s horse barn.
Bobby Hawkins, worship leader and elder at CC Crossroads, leads the congregation in passionate worship.
All ages are represented on a Sunday morning at CC Crossroads. The young children especially appreciate the outdoor space that Cedar Ranch Retreat Center has to offer.
Students haul wood rounds from a tree Pastor Mike cut down with a chain saw.
Part of the day’s work included clearing a pasture.
Pastor Mike cuts a tree into rounds after cutting it down to clear out a pasture.
A Liberty student smooths out newly poured gravel on the Ranch’s long driveway.
Students prepare to fill in potholes on the Ranch’s long gravel driveway.
Sheila Skillman (left), wife of Pastor Mike, frequently cooks lunch to share with the church family after Sunday services.
Liberty University students take a few moments to enjoy laughter and fellowship as they serve.
Timmy Marchicha (right) fist-bumps a Liberty University student during a work day. Timmy is Cedar Ranch’s sole GAP student this year. GAP, Gaining a Purpose, is an intensive, one-on-one discipleship program.
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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