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There’s always a little time for fun and games during the annual Fairhaven Retreat.
Photo courtesy of Denise Critcher

Originally published: 2013-02-11 09:54:57
Last modified: 2013-02-11 09:57:04

Retreating for Renewal: Local college class finds answers in mountainside escape

by Sherrie Norris

Since 1986, hundreds of students and their leaders from the college Sunday school class at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone have been "retreating" to Fairhaven Ministries in east Tennessee for a weekend of Bible study, personal reflection and renewal.

Founder Charles Shepson established Fairhaven, according to class leaders Roger and Denise Critcher, to enable those in ministry to have a place in which they could "recharge and renew their relationship with God" -- a place with no outside distractions, including TV and telephones. 

In his book "How to Find God's Will," Shepson wrote about God's calling that led him to begin the ministry, mainly for individuals who were experiencing burnout, Denise Critcher said. 

"Once a person or group schedules their visit, the organization's staff begins praying for them and the time they will spend at Fairhaven," she said. "That's one reason we feel that God has met us there, time after time."

From their first winter retreat at Fairhaven, 27 years ago -- with 40 participants -- the number of attendees has consistently grown.  

Since that initial visit in January 1986, the Boone entourage has missed only two or three years at Fairhaven - and only then when the group became too large for accommodations, before facility expansions. When the class held its gathering elsewhere, Critcher said, there was always an urgency to return to Fairhaven, indicating that the atmosphere has always been conducive to the spiritual refreshment for which the leaders and their students yearn. 

"Looking back over the years," she said, "it's been amazing to see how God has worked in the lives of these precious young people and how Fairhaven retreats played an important role izn their lives."  

Promoting the retreat via social media always results in comments from former students, Denise said. "Many students have made, and continue to make, life changing decisions during these special times away and they don't forget what it meant to them," she said. "Some have trusted Christ as their Savior, some have received the call to fulltime Christian work, and three have proposed to their girlfriends at Fairhaven. It is a place where one can draw close to God and hear His voice speak to his or her heart." 

During each of the winter sessions, special guests, including former students now in ministry, lead the weekend sessions. 

During the most recent event, Feb. 1-3, Mount Vernon's new pastor and (former) seminary professor, Greg Heisler, taught on the subject of "Holiness," adding to earlier topics including, "Fruits of the Spirit," "To the Ends of the Earth," "Spiritual Gifts," "God's Plan for Finding a Mate," "The Ten Commandments" and "Worship."

Since last week's event, several students have expressed relief for the break from their busy schedules, cell phones and the Internet.   

Among the most impressive parts of the weekend, one student told Critcher, was the Sunday morning communion service led by Roger Critcher.

"We could see the snow falling outside the windows while singing songs about God washing our sins as 'white as snow,'" she said. "This is probably the most worshipful time of the weekend, when Roger urges the students to carefully search their hearts." 

When the group departed for Boone later that day, nine inches of snow had fallen.

Fairhaven once again reminded the group about the importance of making long-lasting friendships and getting to know each other better, Critcher said. "But, it's mostly about having the time, with no distractions, to work on a more intimate relationship with God."

The Critchers started teaching a class at Mount Vernon for college and career students in 1985. With only eight people enrolled at the time, the young married couple started reaching out to those who didn't quite fit the mold in other classes.

"Having both grown up at Mt. Vernon, we knew there was a need for this class," said Critcher. "After we both graduated from high school, the only Sunday School opportunity we had for our age group was the class for young married couples." 

They weren't married yet, but they attended anyway, since it was their only option. 

With the beginning of fall semester that year, they started a new class with 26 members, "a vibrant and enthusiastic group of students," Denise said, and one that quickly began reaching out to others on the campus of Appalachian State University.

Many of the students from the class have gone "all across the world to share the Gospel message," she said. "Many are pastors, youth pastors, music ministers, children's ministers, missionaries and other influential leaders -- locally, nationally and internationally. It's been a blessing to keep in touch with many of them to see how God is working in their lives, and reaching others through them. 

Of the initial eight students in their first college/career class, the Critchers said, all are in ministry, either fulltime or as lay-workers in their churches.