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Joe Donahue: transforming tragedy into triumph


First Redeemer

First Redeemer student pastor Joe Donahue mentors intern Elizabeth Coe. Entering her first year at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Coe says Donahue “has a way of communicating God’s Word. He just knows how to marvelously explain the Scriptures.”

CUMMING — Summer intern Elizabeth Coe describes Joe Donahue as an energetic, enthusiastic minister who loves to teach the Bible and is an example of authentic Christianity.

Donahue, the student pastor at First Redeemer Church in Cumming, is drawing students like a pied piper and an extremely happy servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Coe, who will be a first-year student at Reinhardt, explained, “Joe has a way of communicating God’s Word. He just knows how to marvelously explain the Scriptures. He has great insight into the Bible, loves to teach, and is good at it.

“I have been the nanny for Joe and Kristy’s children. He so loves his wife and children. He has taught me a lot about what a young Christian family should look like.

“Before he came to our church,” Coe stated, “our youth group was cliquish. People had a hard time fitting into the group. Joe has changed all that. We can go off to some camp or retreat and the people who observe our group say, ‘You look like family. It is good to see a big group love each other like that.’ But that is Joe’s character. We reflect his personality and people notice that everywhere.”

Life has not always been a “bowl of cherries” for Donahue, however. He grew up as an abused child at the hands of a quick-tempered, alcoholic father.


Becoming a witness

Donahue recounts, “One night I heard my dad come in a fit of anger. I heard my mother crying. The next morning when we got up we found our mobile home literally destroyed by my father’s rage. There were six children and my mother was sitting in the midst of that rubble and destruction and said, ‘I will give each of you the choice of going to school or staying home and helping me clean up this mess.’”

What happened that fateful night was not a rare incident, but rather an all too frequent occurrence. He witnessed his father rape his mom, nightly outbursts of rage, his parents divorcing, living in a YWCA shelter for abused families, and staying three months in a child and adolescent psychiatric hospital.

Donahue admitted, “I never knew what was going to set my dad’s temper off. It was a household of extremes: one moment things would seem fine, the next moment the peace rapidly twisted into a nightmare.

“As ironic as it sounds, although my mother was oblivious to the sexual abuse that was going on I blamed her for what was happening – my dad’s drinking, for the abuse – and I treated her with as little respect as I could.

First Redeemer

Joe Donahue has taken a life of abuse and turned it into an example of God’s grace. Standing in the area where student worship services are held, his own path to a relationship with Christ began with a friend’s invitation to a youth Bible study.

“I sought to keep peace with my dad, though he was the person responsible for what was taking place in the home. It wasn’t until a few years after I had accepted Christ, that I came to realize I had projected my anger and bitterness onto my mom, because somehow I wanted to please my dad.”

“One night my dad told me to get a knife. The thought of what he would do with the knife horrified me. The knife incident will never be forgotten, because it stands as a perfect description of the kind of life from which Jesus rescued me.

“The kind of life I experienced as a child and teenager could have made me bitter and angry with God and the world around me. There was no stability in my life. I was born in Maine but we moved to Pennsylvania when I was two and then to Bumpas Mills, Tenn., when I was ten.

Donahue’s journey toward salvation began when a friend invited him to his church’s youth Bible study at age 18. First Redeemer’s student pastor remarked, “Although I grew up in church (as a Catholic) I never encountered somebody teaching from the Bible. The students in that Bible study were friendly, welcoming, and sat on the edge of their seats with their Bibles open, drinking in every word that was said. They spoke of God as if they knew Him personally and the Lord began to use that first glimpse of Him to draw me to Himself. I didn’t know what they had, but I knew I wanted to know more.

“A girl from the student ministry began to explain the Gospel to me. Then the student pastor opened up the truth of Romans 3:23 to me and the reality of sin separating me from God for all eternity began to have an impact upon my life.


Free to fly

“After he explained the redeeming work of Christ as expressed in I Peter 3:18 and the need for me to respond to God’s love according to John 1:12 he asked me if I wanted to accept Christ and I said, ‘Man, you bet I do,’” relayed Donahue.

“I got down on my knees right there in the youth pastor’s office in First Baptist Church of Dover, Tenn., and I said, ‘Jesus, I understand You died on the cross for me. I confess to You that I am a sinner. I confess to You that the penalty for my sin is eternal separation from You. I understand You have died to set me free, and Jesus, I ask that You come into my life. Save me from my sin and give me this new life and Jesus please walk with me and hold my hand for the rest of my life.’

“All of a sudden I felt like I could fly, because the burden of sin and shame I had been carrying for so many years was gone. I knew Jesus had made me brand new. I felt like Forrest Gump when he broke out of those braces and said, ‘Wow, I am alive!’”

Donahue loved Jesus and was faithfully serving him through his church, but the idea of being involved in a full-time vocational ministry was not on his agenda. For five years he grew in his faith and developed a consistent devotional life.

“Loving Jesus and knowing Him intimately,” Donahue testified, “was the desire of my heart. I did not want anything from Him, but to be consumed by Him. However, in March of 1996 I knew I could not hold anything back from my Savior and I said, ‘Lord, if you are calling me into full-time ministry, confirm it this week.’

“Two days later three completely random individuals asked me if I was going into the ministry. God confirmed His call upon my life through Romans 15:20: “It has always been my ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ is not known, so that I would not be building on another man’s foundation.’”

Donahue gets emotional when he speaks of his wife Kristy and his two daughters, Sofia (2 years and 6 months) and Naomi (16 months).

He passionately declared, “I am deeply in love with my wife. She is my best friend, my partner in ministry, and the love of my life. Her dad, pastor and author Peter Lumpkins, made his family a priority and she helps me make sure I am doing that.

“My two little girls have stolen my heart and we have a third one on the way. I want my children’s testimony to be the greatest God-glorifying testimony ever. I want them to be able to say, ‘I was brought up in a Christian home. My parents taught me about Jesus, lived out their love for Him, and read the Bible to me. I accepted Christ at a young age and I have been living for Him ever since’.”

As well as fulfilling his role as the student pastor at First Redeemer, Joe Donahue also travels and speaks to students and student ministry leaders. He has a 3-4 hour seminar he leads for student pastors on “Mending Hurting Teenagers in a Broken World.” His vision for reaching the 56,000 students within a ten-mile radius of First Redeemer Church is solid and well-designed and may require another article.


For additional information check Donahue’s website at: or