A RELATIVELY RECENT EXAMPLE of questionable practices involved the 2017 dissolution of Harvest Bible Fellowship (HBF), the church’s former church planting network of more than 150 independent churches. In a June 2017 email sent to HBF pastors, MacDonald notified them about “an important decision that I have come to over many months with my senior staff and Elders”—a decision to dissolve the church’s governance of the fellowship, effective immediately. However, in an elder update posted to Harvest’s website months later, the church’s elders admitted that MacDonald had acted without their approval, violating church bylaws. (They added that MacDonald had “expressed regret” and been “appropriately reprimanded.”)
MacDonald was vague in the 2017 email about the reason he was ending Harvest’s governance of HBF, but noted his attempt to “regionalize” the fellowship had placed him “under the weight of intolerable oppression.” But according to a leaked copy of a letter by David Wisen, a pastor at a former HBF church who participated in a July 2017 audit of HBF finances, the split occurred because HBF pastors believed Harvest had inappropriately used fellowship funds for its own purposes. (HBF was partly funded by member churches.) Wisen claimed Harvest owed HBF at least $1.8 million.
Bob Langdon, the former financial director of HBF who also participated in the audit, confirmed Wisen’s account. He said some of the items HBF paid for appeared to benefit Harvest Bible Chapel much more than the fellowship. For example, Langdon said HBF paid $500,000 for a church management systems upgrade that included new hardware for Harvest’s main campus in Elgin.
HBF also paid about $570,000 that Langdon said his boss, former Harvest Chief Financial Officer Fred Adams, had allocated for “overhead” and discretionary expenses. (Adams resigned at the end of 2017 and did not respond to a request for comment.) Langdon said those expenses included a percentage of the salaries for certain top Harvest Bible Chapel executives and a $50,000 donation to pastor Mark Driscoll’s Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Driscoll, a longtime friend of MacDonald’s, resigned from the former Mars Hill Church in Seattle in 2014 amid charges of domineering leadership.) Langdon said that during the audit, Wisen and auditors repeatedly asked Harvest executives to give justification for various HBF allocations “and there really wasn’t one.”
The audit resulted in an impasse between the two groups. According to Wisen, Harvest offered to pay the new entity of former HBF churches $2.5 million, but only if the group agreed to a “hush clause”—an agreement never to criticize Harvest publicly. Wisen, who was acting as the churches’ representative, said he rejected the offer. Most of the former HBF churches then formed an independent organization called the Great Commission Collective (GCC).
When asked about the situation, Harvest treasurer and elder Jeff Smith pointed WORLD to a late 2017 elder update where the elder board admitted HBF financial records were “incomplete” but said the church had made “appropriate changes.” The update asserted, “All monies given by HBF churches have been utilized solely for church-planting purposes and spent according to Elder-approved budgets.” It defended the church’s demand that GCC members not criticize the church, calling it a “reasonably requested commitment to ending hostility.” (Smith also said that a summer 2017 CapinCrouse audit of HBF spending found that all designated funds were “properly disbursed in accordance with the donor specification.”)
Over the years, Harvest has brought entities like HBF and Walk in the Word, both of which were formerly independent nonprofits, beneath the control of Harvest leadership, allowing the church to shift money between the different entities.
For example, an audit of 2017 finances shows that when HBF disbanded, Harvest took $1 million from Walk in the Word to pay for HBF’s liabilities. The church also used Walk in the Word funds for an unusual project at Camp Harvest—the creation of a fenced trophy whitetail deer herd. According to a web page Harvest posted on Oct. 30, people may hunt at the camp for $6,000-$8,000 per deer, with proceeds going to a Camp Harvest scholarship fund. Harvest would not answer a question from WORLD about the overall cost of establishing, fencing, and maintaining the deer herd, but acknowledged in a statement that Walk in the Word pays the camp “a small annual maintenance fee for food, etc.” for the herd “as a thank you gift to the church.”
However, according to Langdon and Alan Tsao, former comptroller at Harvest, proceeds from the herd were supposed to go toward church planting. Langdon said this was how Harvest leaders originally justified using HBF funds for the full-time salary of a Camp Harvest employee whose job included maintaining the deer herd.
In a video currently posted to the Walk in the Word website, MacDonald tells monthly donors that “every dollar” they give to Walk in the Word “goes directly into buying the airtime to get out the good news of Jesus Christ.” Harvest told WORLD “Walk in the Word uses all outside donor gifts for the broadcast ministry exclusively,” and said the church has itself funded the ministry.
Langdon and Tsao spoke of a portion of the church’s budget the men said is hidden from all but the top church staffers and the church’s executive committee. (The executive committee is composed of MacDonald and a group of four to five elders.) According to the church’s bylaws, the committee has “sole responsibility” for approving the annual budget and salaries for MacDonald and senior staff.
Langdon said that during his time at Harvest, he paid 380 of the church’s 400 employees. The rest, including immediate members of the MacDonald family, were paid by former CFO Fred Adams. Similarly, Tsao said he could account for every dollar of about 80 percent of the church’s budget: Adams controlled the remaining 20 percent.
As a church, Harvest doesn’t have to file 990 tax forms with the IRS or report how its money is spent. Neither do any of its subministries now that they’re no longer independent nonprofits. Harvest notes that it submits to regular audits and is accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). Robert Jones told WORLD that CapinCrouse audits the church’s compensation committee minutes, and that “Pastor James is entirely uninvolved in this process, in setting his own compensation.”
Rusty Leonard, founder of the donor watchdog group Ministry Watch, said the existence of a budget visible only to a handful of top elders and staffers is very unusual at a church and a reflection of “hideous governance.” He also called the shifting of funds between ministries “immoral” because it violates donor intent, but said the practice is legal as long as any fundraising appeals disclose that donations may go toward a general fund.
In addition to these issues, Harvest recently reported its chief information officer to authorities for allegedly embezzling at least $270,000. Harvest also is $42 million in debt and recently sued the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU) for refusing to refinance five of the church’s mortgages.
Some criticism of MacDonald has also centered on his salary, lifestyle, and large house. In February 2014, Harvest elders announced that MacDonald had made “several personal lifestyle adjustments,” including “downsizing” from his $1.8 million, 6,700-square-foot home in Inverness, Ill., to “a smaller home in Elgin.” Though MacDonald moved into a smaller, $650,000 home, he never purchased it, and lived there only temporarily while building another large home on 5 acres nearby.
MacDonald told WORLD that his new home, appraised at $1.4 million, is under 5,000 square feet when the new home’s garage and basement are subtracted from the total. But according to an appraisal that an attorney for MacDonald submitted to the Rutland Township tax assessor’s office, the home has 6,891 square feet of gross living area in addition to a 2,600 square-foot, 10-car garage and a more than 2,000-square-foot finished basement. (The appraisal also noted the home’s “vaulted and designer ceilings, high-end finishes, luxury bathrooms, [and] granite counter and vanity tops.”)
In written comments on the size of MacDonald’s home, Harvest told WORLD that “two second floor rooms were left unfinished with no utilities to meet his square footage goal.”
Jones said that ECFA President Dan Busby had, while reviewing Harvest finances during a previous visit, “called Pastor James’ salary unremarkable.” Busby declined my request for an interview, but in November sent a written statement announcing that “ECFA staff will be on-site at Harvest Bible Chapel in the coming weeks” as part of its “standards verification process.” [Update: On Dec. 12, after this story went to press, ECFA sent a statement from Busby saying the organization had completed its review and that “Harvest Bible Chapel is in full compliance with each of ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship and remains a member in good standing with ECFA.”]