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The Moving Account of C.J. Mahaney Turning Covenant Life Church Over to Joshua Harris – “I wanted you to have the best. I believe that God has provided the best.”

In November 2003, C.J. Mahaney announced that Joshua Harris would replace him as the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in September 2004.  Below is the official article written to described the transition.  Josh sent it to C.J. who forwarded it to me. 

In 2004, there were approximately 20 full-time pastors and 30 full-time support staff.  Josh was surrounded by a very gifted and supportive team of older pastors to help him.  Though he was 28 when he became the senior pastor he was not a neophyte in terms of training and experience.  

Three months later, Josh turned 29 on December 31, 2004.  I remember meeting with him in January 2005 to talk about the “nuts and bolts” of the transition.  He told me then with a smile, he could not wait until he turned 30.  He didn’t feel like a “senior” pastor.  Soon thereafter his title was changed to lead pastor. 

When he left Covenant Life Church at age 40 in June 2015, it was not because he needed seminary.  He was well grounded in doctrine and an accomplished lead pastor.  He had been on staff for 18 years and led the mega-church for 11 years.  He promised the church he would never leave.  It must break C.J.’s heart to see Josh depart from the faith.  It breaks mine too.  I hope he comes back! 

From: Joshua Harris
Sent: Monday, December 01, 2003 3:34 PM
To: C.J. Mahaney
Subject: Transition Article 

I Believe God Has Provided the Best
by Ken McIntyre and Shelley Reinhart 

None of us was quite prepared for the news announced by C.J. Mahaney, the only senior pastor Covenant Life has ever known, at our Family Meeting the evening of Nov. 16 [2003]: Joshua Harris, who has trained under C.J. for more than six years and served as executive pastor for the past two and a half years, will assume the role of senior pastor in September [2004]. 

C.J. will devote himself full time to the advance of the Gospel through the expansion of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Josh will devote himself full time to the same goal through leading and caring for us at Covenant Life. 

The ripple of surprise and amazement that ran through the auditorium was almost tangible.  However, with Joshua and the rest of the pastoral team seated onstage behind him as he spoke, C.J. soon made it clear that he has been preparing us for this transition for some time. 

C.J., who repeatedly said the announcement made this “one of the happiest days of my life,” characterized Joshua’s deep commitment to Covenant Life as “an answer to my prayers” and “striking evidence of God’s love for this church.” 

Josh himself passionately assured us that his heart is “here,” that he wants to raise his family at Covenant Life, and that he desires to spend his life serving us and our children for the glory of God. 

But first, C.J. described how he had purposed to serve us these past 26 years by providing a godly example, by building a cross-centered church, by assembling an “exceptional” pastoral team, and by identifying and preparing his own replacement. 

“Joshua is the most broadly gifted individual I know, and I am convinced that someone more gifted will better serve you,” C.J. said.  “Please understand: This brings me nothing other than pure and great joy. 

“I wanted you to have the best,” he explained.  “I believe that God has provided the best.  And I think this has been evident to you as he has been given the responsibility to serve and lead as executive pastor.  He has led us so effectively and so fruitfully. 

“Over the past two and a half years, I have been positioning Josh for this,” C.J. told us, “and whether you are aware of it or not, I have been preparing you for this so that we could all celebrate this transition, so there would be no sadness.” 

C.J., who turned 50 this year, emphasized that his decision to pass the baton to Josh, who turns 29 on Dec. 30, has the “full, complete, enthusiastic agreement and support” of the other pastors. 

He also said he will remain a member of Covenant Life, keep the same office, teach here monthly, be involved in annual retreats, and participate in select pastors’ meetings and major decisions. 

“I will continue to train Joshua.  My job’s not done, folks,” C.J. said, to appreciative laughter.  ”I will continue to train Josh, and I will continue to learn from Josh.” 

We were on holy ground as Carolyn Mahaney next spoke of her love for her husband, her admiration of his humility and love for Covenant Life, and her gratefulness that she married “this preacher.” 

Carolyn expressed her agreement with C.J.’s decision and confidence that the church will uphold Josh and his wife, Shannon, as it has the Mahaney’s through the years. (Carolyn, C.J. noted earlier too much applause, will continue to lead the women’s ministry.)

Next, youth pastor Grant Layman said he spoke for the entire pastoral team in affirming the selection of Josh.

“We believe that God has provided Joshua as a gift to this church and a sign of His continued favor upon us,” he said.

Grant stressed the pastors’ excitement about serving a younger man who displays an “impressive” godliness in private and public, fosters creativity and leads with “grace, personal care, and example.”

Kenneth Maresco, pastor for evangelism, movingly expressed the pastoral team’s gratefulness for three specific ways in which C.J. has invested his life in this local church: his gifting, his character, and his affection for us.

Referencing 1st Corinthians 3:10, in which Paul described himself as a master builder laying a foundation that others must “take care” in building upon, Kenneth said to C.J.: “You, my friend, are a skilled master builder.”

Jeff Purswell, dean of the Pastors College, described how the decision will release C.J. to oversee Sovereign Grace church-planting internationally, to write and publish, to serve more effectively with important boards and conferences, and to pursue relationships with significant Christian leaders, all to advance the Gospel and cross-centered teaching.

Josh spoke last, and only after several unsuccessful attempts to quell a sustained standing ovation.

“I want the best for this church and surely God could do better than me,” Josh said, confessing his “weakness” and that he actually prayed that C.J. would turn to someone else.  “But God has given me an abiding and wonderful peace about stepping into this role.  I truly believe that I was born to do this.

“I don’t say that with any sense of pride.  What I mean is that I view this as my life calling. I have no ambition or even desire for pastoral ministry apart from Covenant Life Church.

“This is the only church Shannon has ever known,” he added.  “She was saved here.  And she has much faith that God has called me to serve here.”

Josh said he has faith for this change because “C.J. isn’t going anywhere” and because the pastoral team is behind him, but most of all because God is faithful.

“I know this is something that’s going to sink in and the implications are going to lead to moments of sadness,” Josh said.  “[C.J.] is my pastor, too, and so I understand that.

“All that I know about pastoral ministry has been taught to me by this man, and my hope is to follow his example, to faithfully emulate his zeal for the Savior and his passion for the cross and his affection for this church.  C.J., I am standing on your shoulders and I still do need you very, very much.”

At the same time, Josh said, he is excited by the precedent and influence of C.J.’s decision in Christendom, as our senior pastor humbly and freely gives a younger man a rare opportunity to lead and underscores the calling of the local church to be multigenerational.

“The role of a pastor is not to win the hearts of a congregation to himself,” Josh concluded, “but to win their hearts to the Savior, to make them ready for the bridegroom who is Jesus Christ.  I am committed to spending my life preaching to you of His excellencies, reminding you of His sufficiency, His mercy, and His love.

“Thank you for having faith to allow me to serve you in this role.  There is nothing on this planet that I would rather do, and no people whom I would rather serve.  The privilege is all mine.”

The evening’s expression of love for, and trust in, both C.J. and Josh was overwhelming.  As we sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” as a church family, the truth of that sentiment and the significance of our time together were apparent to all.


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