As cowboy, pastor, Ross impacting countless lives
By Christine Bolaños
Corey Ross’ destiny as a cowboy and pastor was sealed before he even learned to walk or talk.
His father worked as a ranch hand for the legendary John Wayne, “the duke,” at a 26-bar ranch in Arizona at the time. Wayne would visit the family’s home and catch up over coffee. For Wayne, it was a pleasant escape from hectic Hollywood life. Ross was too young to remember, but for his family Wayne was a friend and fellow cowboy.
To the Ross family there was no better way of living than in the outdoors, surrounded by horses, cattle and deer, and traveling to rodeos. Ross started riding horses when he was just a toddler.
Today, he is senior pastor at Williamson County Cowboy Church in Liberty Hill — a church he and his wife Jaime founded, and grew from an outreach effort, to a congregation that met in a tent, and ultimately, a physical church building.
“By the time I was 3, 4, 5 years old, I was wanting to be in that lifestyle,” Ross recalls. “Being around horses and cattle and deer and all the things that are outside. It’s a great way of living.”
His father, the first cowboy and preacher in the family, taught Ross and his two older brothers the art of the lifestyle. From riding horses to roping. His brothers are also preachers.
“My dad was very mild-mannered so he was really good with the horse,” he said. “A horse has a three-year-old mind so you have to have a lot of patience training them. My dad was a heck of a horse trainer because of his way of being very patient so we all learned that from my dad.”
Some of Ross’ fondest memories from his youth are participating in youth rodeos and getting to participate in roping events. His father attained his preaching license in 1970, but it was not until they met Glenn Smith, pioneer of cowboy churches, that the family realized they could combine their two great loves: cowboy lifestyle and God.
Cowboy meets church
It was a Sunday in 1984 and the Ross family was at a rodeo. They, like so many other cowboy families, were traveling and did not have an at-home church to attend.
“There was a preacher named Glenn Smith, who was really the pioneer of the cowboy ministry movement, he asked us to do some singing for him,” Ross recalled. “That’s how we got started. Being at the rodeo and implementing God, that was a big deal for a family.”
According to Ross, cowboy churches are the fastest-growing churches in the United States.
“I grew up in a ministry family, but we were also a western family,” Ross explained. “From bull-riding to roping events.”
Ross was an evangelist for 13 years before establishing the local Cowboy Church and becoming a cowboy evangelist.
“An evangelist is like a traveling missionary,” he shared. “There’s really no difference with cowboy evangelists except I traveled with cowboys and I still do.”
Ross splits his time between his home church and ministering at cowboy churches throughout Texas, most of which are outreach centers.
When he is gone he has an associate pastor and others in Liberty Hill fill in for him. His schedule is booked two years in advance. This Saturday he is planning to do a church service in Boerne for George Strait. Then he is flying to Andrews for a church service on Sunday.
“That’s evangelism,” Ross explained. “You travel and thank God for it.”
What’s a cowboy church
He said cowboy churches are not all that different from regular churches. “Except I wear a cowboy hat,” he smiled. “I preach the bible from Genesis to Revelations.”
Many of the people who attend cowboy churches do so because they do not feel comfortable at more traditional churches. They appreciate the laid-back environment cowboy churches provide and do not feel forced to wear a suit and tie to attend Sunday mass.
“A lot of country or cowboy-type people want to feel like they’re welcome no matter what they wear,” Ross said. “That’s kind of what started cowboy churches.
“We also reach out to a lot of people who have been burned in churches,” he said. “The churches that I personally start are very non-religious. What I mean by that is that religion a lot of the time is very traditional. The point is just to do what God tells you to do and it doesn’t have to be religious.”
For example, Ross said he doesn’t have committees at his church because when a religious institution is too organized he is afraid it won’t feel as inviting or freeing to its members.
“So the cowboy church is reaching out to those people who got burned and we happened to reach them,” he added. “It’s so laid back. We just preach the Bible and it’s a come as you are atmosphere.”
Ross has started nine cowboy churches though most of them are outreach centers. He established the West Texas Church at the Barn in Lubbock about 15 years ago and then turned it over to some local pastors who have grown that church exponentially. That church spurred cowboy church outreaches in other communities.
Ross established outreaches in Odessa, Canyon, El Paso and Albany, among other areas.
“Once we felt like God was done or school let out those cowboy churches were done,” he shared. “But a lot of ministries popped out of those churches. There are churches all over the Panhandle that started out of the Church at the Barn in Lubbock. Some are no longer going because they were just an outreach and the one in Lubbock is big like this one in Liberty Hill.”
Ross said he knew he was called to ministry when he was 13 years old.
“I had a fire put in my heart for people,” he said. “I wanted them to meet Jesus and have peace and joy in their lives. I found all of that was in the Bible. We have such a grace and love of God; he doesn’t hold our sins or faults against us.”
He began preaching and singing at college rodeos at age 24. Williamson County Cowboy Church is his first and only home church.
He and his wife, Jaime, started it after leaving the cowboy church in Lubbock. His wife was drawn to the Hill Country area, and while there were no homes for sale in Marble Falls, they fell in love with a house in Liberty Hill.
The couple did not know if the community even wanted a cowboy church so they held an outreach first to see what the response was. Sixty people attended the gathering held on a Friday. The following day, nearly 100 people attended.
So the Rosses began holding church on Monday evenings.
“Then about a year into it we started seeing people coming on Monday calling Williamson County Cowboy Church their church, and we always encouraged them to go to another church,” Ross said.
But the signs pointed to establishing a permanent, home church for these members.
“We made it on a Sunday and that’s what established us a regular church on Sunday and from there it grew,” he shared.
The church operated out of a tent for three years because Ross did not want the church leadership to go into debt building a facility they could not afford. Members didn’t mind. They would attend rain or shine.
“We’ve been in that building since 2012,” he explained, a long way from what started as an outreach in 2006.
Preaching is a calling
As a cowboy evangelist, Ross stays busy most of the time. Traveling across Texas is a huge time commitment, and he does it for free. To him it is all worth it.
“I just have a heart for those people outside my church,” Ross said. “I want to see people meet the Lord and to give their lives to him and have a better life. So that’s my passion.”
His other great passion is preaching at his home church.
“We’re a very fast-growing church,” he said. “We have 800 members so it’s growing rapidly and I thank God for that.”
Even when he is back in Liberty Hill, he is also serving as pastor to all those who attend his services elsewhere.
“I may not be with them in the same town consistently, but I’m on the phone with them or I’m at the rodeo all weekend at counseling, building them up, or doing a bible study,” Ross shared.
Ross helps people from all walks of lives find their way to God and start the healing process.
“I deal with a lot of people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and you name it,” he said. “The greatest thing about being a pastor is giving them hope and allowing them to see God loves them and He’s giving them a way out; that they can get saved. That’s a big passion and delight of mine.”
His other great passion
The only passion that comes close is his other job as a professional rodeo cowboy.
“Being on a horse that God created and have that horse be so talented and you’re basically roping another animal that might want to hurt you because it’s wild is just such a thrill,” Ross shared. “I know it’s an event now in rodeo, but to do it in a competition when you have to do it in the fastest time is a big rush and thrill for a cowboy. Not just because you doctor them, but because you’re competing against you and that animal and not necessarily another person.”
He says the cowboy culture is a reflection of the culture the United States was founded on — using horses for traveling purposes, working ranches, tending and feeding livestock for livelihood and taking care of those bulls, horses and cattle with love and care.
Ross continues to compete in steer and team roping. He made the college national finals representing Howard College in Big Spring, and has about 600 belt buckles, 10 saddles and four horse trailers under his belt.
He gets to enjoy the rodeo at Harvest Ranch, the same land that houses Williamson County Cowboy Church, which has a state-of-the-art arena and everything needed for activities such as barrel racing, team roping and bull riding.
The Liberty Hill Fair & Rodeo, which is scheduled April 8-10, is in its ninth year and will be held at the arena, 8355 RR 1869. It includes rodeo, high school steer riding, mutton busting and more on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Then on Saturday there is rodeo, high school barrel racing, scholarship presentations, mutton busting and more at 7:30 p.m. There is free admission to the PRCA steer roping on Sunday at 1 p.m. Daily admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 4-12 and is free for children 3 and under.
“We don’t just the put the church there. We have full-blown rodeos and rodeo events,” Ross said. “We do it on Harvest Ranch which is 78 acres.”
Liberty Hill’s rodeo weekend will include an inaugural parade on Loop 332 downtown and a children’s fair presented by the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 9, at Lions Foundation Park.
The park will be busy from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 9 with activities for children including a petting zoo, bounce house, rodeo theme photo booth, dunking booth, panning for gold, cake walk, food, cotton candy and more.
For Ross and his own family, the cowboy and church lifestyle is unlike any other — just like it was for him growing up with his parents and brothers.
“My wife is instrumental in the operation of our ministry,” he said. “Our kids help in the youth and kids church, but everybody knows how to ride horses and rope. All of us are instrumental as a family. We travel as a family. We do it as a family. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Jaime leads Women’s Bible Study, and together, they are parents to Seth, 9, and Londyn, 13.
“We have the greatest people in Liberty Hill and surrounding little towns,” Ross shared. “Everyone is very friendly. We love the school systems. We love the unity of all the churches in town. We support them all.”
He said Liberty Hill is special because the community still lives by values the country was founded on.
“It’s still a town that really believes in Godly values and we appreciate it,” Ross said. “It’s called Liberty (Hill) for a reason.”