Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley: Hope and Light

Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley: Hope and Light
Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley: Hope and Light

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Continuing God’s Work At Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley, CA

Story by Christmas Beeler
Photos by Bern Eslava, Steve Shambeck, and Mark Avila

Founding and Senior Pastor John Milhouse of Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley, CA, put a five-year transition plan in place for his son Joel to take over leadership of the church. Now well over halfway, we revisit the original story from 2017 as we check in with the Milhouse family on a live Facebook interview to find out how its gone with the transition to this point.

Celebrating 35 years in May, Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley, CA, has reached countless men, women, and children in their community and all over the world. Missionaries have been sent out and supported. Senior Pastor John Milhouse recently announced that a five-year season of transition has begun, as the congregation looks forward to what God has planned.

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Future senior pastor Joel with his wife Ashley, son Kaedin, and daughter Finlee

Founding and Senior Pastor John Milhouse (right) introduces his son Joel as the future pastor of Calvary Chapel Moreno Valley, CA. Joel’s wife Ashley, son Kaedin, and daughter Finlee are by his side.

Preparing for Transition

Nine months after Calvary Chapel founding Pastor Chuck Smith passed away in 2013, Pastor John attended a senior pastors’ workshop about transition. “I thought, ‘I’m 66. What if something happens to me?’ I want this church to thrive.” John went home, prayed, and then shared with his board of pastors and elders that he would be stepping out of the senior pastorate in 7 years and suggested that his son, Joel, be his successor.

At first the board was hesitant, and so was Joel; they didn’t want to think about John leaving. John recalled, “I asked them all to pray about it. Fourteen months later, Joel felt he’d had his confirmation from the Lord, and shared his heart with the board; he was fully embraced as the succeeding senior pastor.” The leadership continued to pray for another 10 months. This past May, the congregation learned that John would be transitioning out of the senior pastor position over the next five years. Pastor John and his wife, Robin, plan to continue ministering to the congregation as Joel steps in as senior pastor.

John reflected on the transition: “I believe many Calvary Chapel pastors have arrived at this place in life. We want to be well prepared so that if the Lord were to take us home tomorrow, our churches would be ready. I want the church to be healthy when I leave—not in confusion, division, or disarray. I want to see the flock continue to grow and mature.”

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Sunday School children dance to “Father Abraham” during their separate worship time

Sunday School children dance to “Father Abraham” during their separate worship time.

His son Joel currently oversees high school ministry and is gifted in technology. Joel explained that he hadn’t expected to succeed his father merely because he was his son. “Growing up as a pastor’s son, you see ministry from a unique perspective. I loved our fellowship, but I knew being the senior pastor wasn’t an easy undertaking. I never wanted to do it unless the Lord called me.” While Joel prayed about it, his parents spoke frankly with him and his wife, Ashley, about the challenges of ministry. “My mom felt that, if she could in any way talk us out of accepting the position with all the demands that come with it, we might reconsider.” Joel and Ashley prayed and waited on the Lord for more than a year: “It’s such a huge responsibility and calling that I knew I couldn’t do it on my own; I’m a fixer, a ‘figure-it-out’ guy. But this pushed me to lean on the Lord.” Finally, Joel received a confirmation from God not to fear but to step out in faith and trust. When he felt the Lord give him 1 Thessalonians 5:24, He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it, he knew it was time to say “yes.”

Preparing the congregation is wise, Joel reflected: “Sometimes, succession comes at a time of crisis: a pastor steps down or passes away and people struggle. They don’t feel the new person is their pastor, or they are grieving. It’s so much harder than giving people time to pray and allowing the Lord to confirm it.” Joel will gradually take on more responsibilities. “By the end of five years, we want the transition to be so smooth that people hardly notice that it even occurred.”

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Children learn to pray in Sunday School.

Children learn to pray in Sunday School.

Several leaders have voiced agreement with the transition, including Assistant Pastor Mark Avila. On the Sunday the transition was announced, Mark asked the congregation to join in prayer through the process. Referring to how Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms during battle in Exodus 17, Mark said, “As the pastors, we’ve all committed that we’re here to hold up Pastor John’s arms; and when Joel comes, we’ll be holding up his arms, too.” He added, “I’m excited about what’s in store. The Lord wants to do a new work, and He’s preparing us.”

Alyssa Gutierrez, who works in the church office and serves in youth ministry, added, “I appreciate how Pastor John has been so open and honest with us, sharing his heart, being vulnerable. However people react to all of this, we know why he’s doing this—he’s following God, and he’s concerned about his sheep. It means a lot to know your pastor cares.”

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Sunday School children enjoy doing hand motions with worship songs

Sunday School children enjoy doing hand motions with worship songs.

Hope for Hurting Teens

Putting people in touch with the God who loves them has been CC Moreno Valley’s main objective. One young man, Bern Eslava, was transformed by the love of Jesus he encountered there. At the age of 16, Bern was looking for acceptance among his peers at school. He tried being the class clown and getting involved in football, but he still felt rejected. Giving up, Bern built emotional walls to get through high school, feeling miserable and lonely. Though he had never seen religion as relevant, he realized that the only place he felt accepted was at his family’s new church. It was a surprising discovery–growing up, he’d seen church as an intimidating place where you didn’t speak to the priest unless invited.

But his experience at CC Moreno Valley was completely different. Every week the youth pastor, Sammy Martinez, would ask Bern how he was and then truly listen. The pastors remembered his name, and he felt drawn by love that he had yearned for all his life. He wondered if it was real. At a high school retreat, Senior Pastor John Milhouse shared that God could see through our facades and straight into our hearts, and that God gives us hope in His Son Jesus Christ.

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Robin Milhouse, wife of Pastor John, cuddles granddaughter Finlee

Robin Milhouse, wife of Pastor John, cuddles granddaughter Finlee.

"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…and rejoice in hope of the glory of God." Romans 5:1, 2b

This was the hope Bern had been longing for. John challenged the teens to make a decision to follow Christ. As Bern looked around at the other 400 kids in the big, timber-framed room up in the San Bernardino Mountains, his heart was pounding. He almost ran forward to ask God to forgive him as he surrendered his heart to Jesus.

“I never wanted to leave church,” recalled Bern. “I had to wait six months before I could serve, and I was chomping at the bit. I got plugged into the 5th and 6th-grade ministry and loved it. I wanted to help the kids have a personal relationship with Christ so they wouldn’t have to suffer the way I did.” Over the years, Pastor Sammy encouraged Bern in ministry, taking him along to visit local high schools and hospitals. “Pastor Sammy showed me that a good shepherd smells like the sheep—you go to where they are, you get in the trenches with them.”

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Amber Switzer speaks with Pastor John during a time of fellowship

Amber Switzer speaks with Pastor John during a time of fellowship.

From Pain to Peace

Though now executive pastor, Sammy still reaches out to hurting teens. “We’d been praying for 14 years to get into a continuation school. I have a heart for those kids—the outcasts, the ones people have given up on.” Sammy was eventually invited for the last three weeks of school. Several of the girls were pregnant; most of the teens were from broken or abusive homes. Sammy shared messages of God’s love and hope during the lunch hour, and brought an empty journal for students to anonymously write prayer requests. “One girl asked me to pray that she could graduate and get a good job so her mom could stop being a prostitute.” Other kids wrote about suicidal thoughts and that they came to find hope. Many were hurting from the fallout of divorce. “They were so ready to open up and share their hearts.” In three weeks, the group went from 2 to 50 kids. “On the last day of school, we gave a public invitation to receive Christ, and about 20 raised their hands. Kids were weeping over the message of hope.”

Sammy recalled how Pastor John and Robin had comforted him and his wife, Ivett, after their first daughter died many years ago. “They were at the hospital within hours. Robin is an amazing listener—she comforted my wife so much. The ministry of presence is huge; they were available to us, and they just listened.”

Serving at CC Moreno Valley for 14 years, Sammy said, “I’m always amazed that Pastor John took a chance on all of us here on staff. He didn’t have to. He’s a caring, concerned shepherd, and loves all of his pastors and church members. This is a really healthy church, and we’re excited to see what God is going to do in the years to come.”

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Pastor John Milhouse (left) prays with a new member after the church service.

Pastor John Milhouse (left) prays with a new member after the church service.

Women Who Serve

John’s wife, Robin Milhouse, oversees the women’s ministry and plans to serve in ministry as long as God calls her. “Pastors’ wives can feel pressured by people’s expectations,” Robin commented, “but every pastor’s wife is unique—and her calling from God may differ according to the seasons of her life.” When she and John entered ministry, their children were very young, and raising them was her main priority. Educated as a nurse in college, Robin recalled, “I thought my life’s work would be caring for those who were physically ill or injured. But a day came when I realized the Lord had called me to come alongside those with broken hearts and shattered lives. In ministry we have the opportunity to love people just as they are, to be with them through their worst times and watch as God restores them. I’m completely humbled by God’s faithfulness over these last 35 years.”

Several other ladies help Robin lead the large women’s ministry. Because of this, the women’s board was able to run the women’s retreat when Robin lost mobility and needed surgery a few years ago. Robin added, “There’s not just one role for a pastor’s wife. Not everyone will teach or oversee a women’s ministry. Every pastor’s wife is different.” To new pastor’s wives, she encouraged, “Ask the Lord to provide a mentor; seek one out. Regularly be in touch with someone you can be fully transparent with, a woman familiar with the challenges of ministry.”

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Members gather in front of the banner announcing the church’s 35th anniversary.

Members gather in front of the banner announcing the church’s 35th anniversary.

In looking back over the decades of ministry, she commented, “When your husband goes into ministry, you’re called as well. Regardless of what you may or may not be involved with at church, ministry is a life of sacrifice. Emergencies happen: your husband may be called away at all hours of the day or night. And your calling might be making sure things are well taken care of at home, providing a sanctuary for your family.”

Another absolute essential for pastors’ wives, Robin said, is staying intimately connected to Christ. “A woman can get so busy. Life can be so demanding with children, jobs, or ministry, that it’s easy to neglect her own spiritual life. We need to continually be in the Word for ourselves, deepening our own relationship with Jesus. Whether we’re called to the nursery or Sunday school, women’s ministry, a job outside the church, or at home raising a family, we need to be filled by the Lord before we can effectively pour into others.”

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Senior Pastor John Milhouse (left) shares biblical wisdom from the Book of  Timothy with his son Joel Milhouse (center).

Senior Pastor John Milhouse (left) shares biblical wisdom from the Book of Timothy with his son Joel Milhouse (center). Joel, currently youth pastor, will transition into the role of senior pastor within the next five years.

Making Disciples

Assistant Pastor Mark Avila oversees home fellowships—vital to maintain intimacy, fellowship, and accountability in a church of nearly 2,000 people. “Home groups are like an extended family. For instance, we had a sister who came down with cancer, and we were blessed to be able to walk through it with her.” As a marriage counselor, he added, “Home fellowships are good for couples too. They can go home and keep the discussion going. It helps them stay connected spiritually and be accountability partners.”

“John is present and supportive without being controlling,” Pastor Mark explained. “Our church is a good size, but John and Robin aren’t distant. They’ve always made themselves available to people in our body who are going through a crisis—death, finances, tragedy.” The couple also regularly checks on the staff members and their families. Mark explained, “We help connect people to the pastor; we make it a point to bring Pastor John and Robin into what we’re doing.” At the same time, pastors and leaders say they are free to follow the Holy Spirit in the areas they oversee.

John reflected: “Ministry to an entire church is never done by one person—ever. When God raises up people, we need to let them do it. And when you hand something over to someone, the senior pastor is then free to do other things. That’s how ministry expands.”

Sammy expounded, “Everyone within the church has a role and responsibility in the body of Christ. It’s the pastors’ and elders’ role to identify the gifts in the congregation so that everyone finds their place—like a coach. You may need to help someone recognize or develop their gifting.” Bern recalled that Sammy never pushed him to be someone he was not but instead encouraged him to grow in the areas he felt called.

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Ray Montanez (right) from the CC Moreno Valley Outreach Team shares the Gospel at a local park.

Ray Montanez (right) from the CC Moreno Valley Outreach Team shares the Gospel at a local park.

Sharing the Light of Christ

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes." Romans 1:16a

A thriving new ministry, the CC Moreno Valley Outreach Team has close to 50 volunteers and goes out to pray in some of the city’s 25 parks. “I was learning about how so many of the great revivals began with prayer,” said Allen Ludwin, who started the group. His heart was stirred to go outside the walls of the church and take the Gospel to the lost. Allen, a truck driver by trade who serves as an usher, said, “God is using [this ministry] in so many ways; it’s mind boggling.” Dozens have prayed to receive Christ. Often, the team hands out flyers letting people know they’ll be at the local park for prayer on Saturday; often, many respond. Nearly 20 ladies on the team gather to pray daily. Since Allen works full time, other team members began going to the local police department to pray every Friday morning. The police chief is a believer and thanked the team; a picture of the prayer team is posted in the breakroom with a caption that the team is praying for them. Several officers have received Christ.

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Danny Renteria (right) and women from the outreach team pray with a man (center) who desired to receive Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

Danny Renteria (right) and women from the outreach team pray with a man (center) who desired to receive Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

While they pave their path with prayer, the team’s goal is to share the Gospel wherever they can. They will soon host a skate contest at one of the parks. Recently, they joined a local public high school teacher who has put on a Christian Club celebration for graduating seniors for the past 13 years. “This year, our prayer team helped serve donuts and talk to the kids. Pastor Jose Saucedo from our church gave the message; 74 kids accepted Christ.”

Allen said that the team members just want to follow Jesus’ command to be a light: “When God puts an idea on your heart, don’t pass it off to someone else or forget about it. God gave it to you, so go for it!” He added, “We take those little steps of faith, and God does amazing things.”

“You are the light of the world. … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14a, 16

Calvary Chapel Moreno-Women of CC Moreno Valley enjoy friendship in the courtyard.

Women of CC Moreno Valley enjoy friendship in the courtyard.


All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.