The Smyths

Meet PJ Smyth

In January 2017 Covenant Life Church celebrated the arrival of new Lead Pastor PJ Smyth and family from Johannesburg, South Africa. The family's move here in late December 2016 was the culmination of much hard work and prayer by our search committee followed by the elders' recommendation of PJ, a congregational vote in December 2015 to affirm calling PJ as Lead Pastor, and a wait of about 11 months associated with the necessary immigration steps.

We thank God as a church for causing our path to intersect with PJ's and for his rich provision in bringing the Smyth family to Maryland. We also convey our warmest thanks to the people of GodFirst Church in Johannesburg, where PJ has served for the last 10 years, for their faith and generosity in sending PJ and family stateside for a new assignment.

About PJ & Family

After 23 years of marriage PJ and Ashleigh are still enjoying each other, ministry and life with their three sons (Jack 18, Ben 16, Sam 13). PJ loves U2 and watching reruns of Jack Bauer sorting out the bad guys. Ashleigh loves running, reading and the four men in her life.

PJ was born in the UK in 1971. When he was 13 his family moved to Zimbabwe where his parents took up missionary work for many years. PJ and Ashleigh met at high school in Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital city), married straight after college (1993), and for their first few years of marriage, both taught high school.

In 1997, they started River of Life Church in Harare with a few friends. Over a seven year period, River of Life had become a family of five churches, and PJ and Ashleigh felt God calling them to “do it again” – i.e., plant another reproducing base church, this time in Johannesburg, South Africa. They started GodFirst Church, Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2005, and after 10 years GodFirst, too, had become five churches, with plans for further church-planting.  

In 2014, PJ handed over the leadership of GodFirst Church to devote himself full time to establishing Advance, a family of churches committed to planting and strengthening churches, currently working on five continents. PJ also remains part of Newfrontiers and works closely with other Newfrontiers leaders around the world.

In early 2015, through an unexpected set of circumstances, PJ’s path crossed with Covenant Life Church just as the church began looking for a new lead pastor. After a formal search process and seeking God’s will over a period of months, Covenant Life invited PJ to become its new lead pastor.

As expected, the immigration process took about 10 months. The Smyths received their visas in October 2016 enabling them to make moving plans in earnest. They arrived at Dulles Airport on December 22, 2016 to the cheers of a happy band of Covenant Life members.

Hand of Providence

How Did the Lord Put PJ and Covenant Life Together?

At a Covenant Life members meeting in October 2015, PJ described the relationships and conversations God used to bring Covenant Life Church to his attention and that ultimately led to his first visit to Covenant Life in May 2015.

PJ interviews County Executive Ike Leggett on Sunday, May 15, 2016

PJ interviews County Executive Ike Leggett on Sunday, May 15, 2016

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Where has PJ lived?
A: In the UK until age 13 (1971-1984); in Zimbabwe until age 33 (1984-2004); then in South Africa (2004-2016) until age 45. PJ and family relocated to Maryland in December 2016.

Q: What is his citizenship?
A: PJ is a UK citizen, who enjoyed the status of permanent residence in Zimbabwe, and then in South Africa. Ashleigh is a South African citizen.

Q: Describe PJ’s educational background.
A: PJ attained ‘O’ Levels (aged 16 years) and ‘A’ Levels (aged 18 years), and university degrees from Cape Town University and the University of South Africa in Biblical Studies and Church History.

Q: Describe PJ’s spiritual background.
A: PJ came to faith as a young boy, although he feels he properly owned his faith at age 15. Because he was at boarding schools from ages 8 to 18, PJ's first genuine experience of local church life came during college. He attended His People Church in Cape Town throughout his university years, and during that time felt God speak to him about one day leading a church.

PJ reflects on three primary shaping spiritual influences. First, his parents. John and Anne Smyth (who live in Cape Town), led PJ to faith and instilled in him a love for God’s Word and for leadership. Second, His People Church in Cape Town. His People taught PJ about the importance of faith, courage and excellence in ministry. Third, Newfrontiers. Terry Virgo, and other Newfrontiers men and women, taught PJ about the importance of the local church, the Holy Spirit and the grace of God.

Q: What are the churches PJ has led in Africa?
A: River of Life Church in Harare, Zimbabwe. GodFirst Church in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Q: How did the Advance movement of churches evolve, and what is PJ’s role with Advance?
A: When Terry Virgo stepped back from leading Newfrontiers in 2011, he encouraged several men to continue the greater mission of Newfrontiers by developing their own movements of churches. In 2012, assisted by Steve Van Rhyn, Rigby Wallace and Peter Howard-Brown, PJ started the Advance movement of churches. Advance is a family of churches that partner together to plant and strengthen churches. PJ leads the Global Team that guides the Advance partnership on five continents.

Q: Is Covenant Life Church planning to join Advance?
A: A number of Covenant Life elders and wives have attended Advance gatherings in the last year and are sharing their impressions with the congregation through members meetings, coffees and one-on-one interactions. To help the church learn more in 2017 and extend hospitality to the leaders of Advance, Covenant Life will host an Advance Global Conference in June, with two evening sessions open to the congregation and many opportunities to serve during the event. Ultimately, Covenant Life's affiliation with a network of churches will require both congregational involvement and a vote of affirmation.

Q: Where can I get more information on Advance?
A: Visit

Q: When will PJ preach for the first time as Lead Pastor?
A: PJ will bring a brief message at the Christmas Eve service on Saturday, December 24, at 6:30 p.m. His first Sunday preaching will be January 8, 2017.

Q: Where can I hear some of PJ’s sermons?
A: PJ’s messages preached at Covenant Life are here.

Q: How can we be praying for PJ, Ashleigh and family?
A: For a smooth and fulfilling departure from their lives in South Africa, and an easy transition into their new lives in the USA. That they would all understand American culture in record time, and make good friends. That God would show them whether to support the Nats or the Orioles.