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Hard times at Harvest

Former elders, pastors, and staffers from Chicago’s Harvest Bible Chapel accuse the church of financial mismanagement and a culture of deception and intimidation

Hard times at Harvest

Pastor James MacDonald preaches at Harvest’s Elgin campus. (Bev Horne/Daily Herald)

Five years ago, Harvest Bible Chapel, a Chicago-area megachurch with multiple campuses and an average weekly attendance exceeding 12,000, sent shock waves through the Christian community when it publicly excommunicated two former elders and indirectly censured a third.

The edict was news beyond Chicago because James MacDonald is Harvest’s pastor: His Walk in the Word radio and TV ministry reaches millions weekly. Harvest also is home to Vertical Worship, Vertical Church Films, Vertical Church Network, and Harvest Christian Academy in Elgin, Ill., and Camp Harvest in Newaygo, Mich.

What many didn’t know at the time was that the September 2013 surprise came just 24 hours after eight former elders—including longtime board chairman Dave Corning—sent a strongly worded letter to the remaining elder board. The letter stated that 2 Timothy 3:1-5 lists nearly 20 traits that disqualify a person from being a pastor or elder, and “it is our opinion that these apply substantially to James.”

The letter charged MacDonald with, among other things, “self-promotion … love of money … domineering and bullying … abusive speech … outbursts of anger … [and] making misleading statements,” adding, “We are prepared to bring forth a host of specific examples and witnesses.” (WORLD has published the entire letter here.)

Harvest officials quickly went on the offense. In a video shown on seven Harvest campuses the next day, four sitting elders accused the three former elders who had resigned most recently—Scott Phelps, Barry Slabaugh, and (without naming him) Dan Marquardt—of “great sin” for sending the letter to the elder board. Current elder Steve Huston warned members to avoid the three men, saying they were “defiling many people.”

WORLD covered the dispute briefly and reported the three censured men’s accusations that Harvest had a puppet elder board that did not even have access to financial details such as MacDonald’s salary. They also said the church fostered a “culture of fear and intimidation” and left a trail of broken relationships.

In September 2014, MacDonald said the church had reconciled “meaningfully and mutually” with the censured elders. He apologized for the harsh manner in which leadership had disciplined Phelps, Marquardt, and Slabaugh. The three former elders told WORLD they had accepted MacDonald’s apology—and WORLD happily relayed news of restoration.

“In exchange for an apology, we agreed to leave [Harvest] alone, and let the elder board bring about the necessary reforms,” the three former elders recently wrote in a joint statement.

But now the three elders believe they were misled: Marquardt told me he hasn’t seen evidence of reforms at Harvest, and instead has heard repeated stories of mistreatment. The five other signers of the 2013 letter likewise say they’ve seen no evidence that the character issues involving MacDonald have been resolved. I’ve also interviewed more than two dozen former staff, elders, and members of Harvest, including some who have left the church within the past two years. They similarly claim that MacDonald and other Harvest leaders have shown an ongoing pattern of relational and financial abuse, a lack of transparency, and outright deception.

In a November interview with WORLD, MacDonald and other Harvest elders and leaders disputed much of the criticism. MacDonald admitted he was sometimes “too intense,” but noted he has not been involved in staff management at Harvest for almost 10 years, and said, “We don’t belittle people.” Former elder board chairman Robert Jones, who said he has worked with MacDonald for over 20 years, said, “His character is not in question, his growth in grace is evident to all.”

What follows are WORLD’s look at major points of contention and responses from MacDonald and Harvest leadership.

Bill Bangham/Baptist Press

MacDonald speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. (Bill Bangham/Baptist Press)

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.”]

Kane County Assessment Office

MacDonald’s house (Kane County Assessment Office)

FORMALLY, THE BOARD OF ELDERS leads Harvest Bible Chapel. But multiple former staff members and elders—including former elder and business pastor Jim Jodrey, former counseling pastor Rob Green, Phelps, Marquardt, Slabaugh, Corning, and former elder and original director of HBF Gordon Zwirkoski—told me that in practice, MacDonald exercises ultimate authority. (Church bylaws, amended in 2015, provide for the removal of the senior pastor, but only by a unanimous vote of the full elder board and the executive committee on which MacDonald sits. The bylaws also grant the senior pastor the power to “act in an emergency to suspend any elder board member … subject to earliest possible ratification by the executive committee.”)

Former elders, staff, and members also said Harvest has fostered an abusive and fear-based culture where those who question leadership are punished. Zwirkoski claimed MacDonald nurtures “a spirit of fear in the staff, almost like a dread.”

Dave Jones, a former Harvest employee who now pastors Village Church of Barrington near Harvest’s Rolling Meadows campus, said that over the past eight years 100-150 “Harvest refugees” have come to his church exhibiting signs of “spiritual abuse.” Many are “disillusioned about church,” he said, and some report having nightmares or feelings that they might “be harmed in some way.”

Mike Bryant, senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Grayslake, Ill., spent 23 years at Harvest. Bryant’s church belonged to Harvest Bible Fellowship until 2012, when Bryant and his elders objected to MacDonald’s decision to invite televangelist T.D. Jakes to speak at MacDonald’s Elephant Room II conference. Like many evangelicals, Bryant and his elders felt Jakes’ view of the Trinity and promotion of prosperity gospel was heretical.

Bryant said they expressed their concerns privately to MacDonald, who sent Harvest leaders to meet with Bryant twice. At the end of the second meeting, Bryant said he and the Harvest leaders agreed to meet again with Bryant and his elders to try to resolve the conflict. But to Bryant’s surprise, Rick Donald, Harvest’s assistant senior pastor, and Joel Anderson, an HBF pastor with whom Bryant had worked closely, visited Bryant days later to tell him that his church was being kicked out of Harvest Bible Fellowship.

The expulsion, Bryant said, was devastating. He immediately lost half of his 300-member congregation, and his church had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to change its name and signage. But Bryant said the spiritual impact of his experience with MacDonald and his associates was equally crushing. “They want loyalty above righteousness,” Bryant said, “and it really messed with me internally.”

Joel Anderson, who is no longer affiliated with Harvest in Chicago, last year contacted Bryant to confess “sinning” against him and his church by participating in the expulsion. In an open letter, Anderson wrote that “as a good soldier,” he had agreed to do what Harvest leaders asked him to do, but now sees “the need to abstain from such assignments.”

In an interview, MacDonald and Rick Donald told WORLD they regretted how they handled the expulsion of Bryant’s church, and would like a “private opportunity to apologize” to him. “He’s really a gifted preacher. He was a great worship leader in our church,” said MacDonald. “Candidly, the things that we separated over seem really small to me now, and I wish we had found a way to persevere with him because I think it was a real loss.” (Bryant told me neither leader has contacted him over the past six years. The only exception was a few weeks after his church was expelled, when Donald called to tell him that his church could no longer use the Harvest name.)

Another incident of Harvest expulsion involved R.T. Maldaner, who served as a pastor at Harvest’s Elgin campus. In January 2018, Maldaner resigned his position and soon after planted a church within 10 miles of Harvest Bible Chapel’s Elgin campus. For this, Maldaner said he was kicked out of his daughter’s 8th-grade graduation and his other four children were expelled from Harvest Christian Academy (HCA).

Maldaner said that when he first announced his intentions to resign and plant a church, Harvest crafted a resignation letter and asked him to sign it. The letter included a noncompete clause pledging not to participate in a ministry “within a 50-mile radius of Chicago.” It also included an admission of misconduct (although the Harvest HR director told Maldaner no record of misconduct existed on his file).

Maldaner refused to sign the letter or a subsequent draft. From then on, he experienced a tense and deteriorating relationship with the church. Maldaner said that on his last Sunday at Harvest, James MacDonald’s son, Executive Ministry Pastor Luke MacDonald, approached him after the service and accused him of recruiting people for his church plant. Maldaner said that when he denied recruiting anybody, Luke called him a “liar” in front of Lilly, his 6-year-old daughter, and bystanders in the auditorium. Former Harvest member Mark Gagliardi witnessed the incident and confirmed Maldaner’s account, though he said he couldn’t hear the entire conversation. (WORLD asked Harvest for a comment from Luke MacDonald: The church responded that the details of the conversation with Maldaner “are not a matter of public discussion and are covered in love.”)

After that incident, Maldaner avoided Harvest’s campus, though he occasionally went to HCA to pick up his kids or attend a school function. But Maldaner says when he arrived at HCA for his daughter’s graduation in May, HCA Superintendent Talbott Behnken ordered him to leave. Maldaner obeyed and sat in the parking lot while the rest of his family attended the ceremony. That night at 11:00, Behnken texted Maldaner, informing him that his other four children were being expelled from the school. Maldaner said his kids were unable to say goodbye to their teachers or school friends.

Asked about Maldaner, James MacDonald and Harvest Executive Ministry Pastor Jeff Donaldson defended the church’s actions. Donaldson told WORLD that despite “many warnings,” Maldaner had been recruiting Harvest members for his new church, leading to a “small church split.” He added that most Harvest pastors sign a 50-mile noncompete agreement, and noted that Maldaner’s children completed their grades “without consequence, though they didn’t attend the last few days of school.”

Maldaner, though, denies accusations of recruiting and said that of the 125 people attending his church, only 20 came from Harvest. (I interviewed eight of these former Harvest members: All said they pursued Maldaner, not vice versa.)

Gilbert R. Boucher II/Daily Herald

Harvest’s Rolling Meadows campus (Gilbert R. Boucher II/Daily Herald)

OTHER FORMER HARVEST elders, staffers, and members declined to speak on the record, citing nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements they said Harvest pressured them to sign when they left. In the past several weeks, Harvest also has sent letters to some former employees threatening “legal recourse” should they violate their “agreements with the church.”

In the course of my reporting on this story, Harvest filed a lawsuit against me and the owners of a blog that has chronicled Harvest problems. The lawsuit alleges defamation against the church and also mentions, but does not name, “three former elders” with “discordant” views and accuses them of having had “conflicts of interest” and “issues of self-dealing” while serving on Harvest’s board. Phelps, Marquardt, and Slabaugh, who believe this is a reference to them, strongly deny such charges (they are not defendants in the suit).

In his interview with WORLD, MacDonald said of Phelps, Marquardt, and Slabaugh, “The ‘three’ reference in the lawsuit is not to the three of them.” But the three told me there are no other “three former elders” who fit the description in the suit.

Phelps, Slabaugh, and Marquardt say they have no personal vendetta against MacDonald or Harvest. Like other former elders and staff I spoke to, they say they want repentance and reform. “We were wounded through all this, but that’s not my ultimate concern,” said Marquardt. “It’s about the sheep.”

Handout

MacDonald preaches at Harvest’s Elgin campus. (Handout)


‘Passion and intensity’

Titus 1 says an elder must not be “quick-tempered” or “violent.” Yet Barb Peil, former director of communications for Walk in the Word, told me Harvest Senior Pastor James MacDonald regularly unloaded on staff members, yelling at them whenever there was an “accumulation of stress.” Others told specific accounts of what they described as MacDonald’s anger or vengeance. Here are three of those accounts, spanning nearly a decade and each corroborated by two to three witnesses.

One: Betsy Corning, the wife of former elder board chairman Dave Corning, said that in 2009, when her husband was opposing a plan by MacDonald to reorganize the elder board, she made a disturbing discovery at the lake house at Camp Harvest. This was a home she said MacDonald and his wife, Kathy, often used for family retreats.

On a wall in the garage, she found a target with a photo of her on it that had been shot with what appeared to be a pellet gun. The target included photos of other people, including James and Kathy MacDonald. But what shook Betsy was that she and another elder’s wife appeared to be prime targets: Hand-written beside their images were point values of 50 and 200 points respectively, while everyone else was assigned nominal point values.

In a phone interview with WORLD, MacDonald said there was no correlation between the point values and he and Kathy’s “value and appreciation for those people.” Though he admitted shooting at the target with a pellet pistol with his wife and kids, MacDonald said it was “all in good fun,” and said the target involved “a bunch of pictures of our closest friends and family off the kitchen bulletin board. … I should have seen the potential for that to be taken the wrong way. The fact that we didn’t even take the photos down indicates that we weren’t concerned about it being misinterpreted.” He added that he had vacationed with the family of the other woman in the picture as recently as 2016.

MacDonald said he apologized to the offended parties when he became aware of the offense. According to Dave and Betsy Corning, though, MacDonald did not apologize, but instead demanded an apology from Betsy for telling the other elder’s wife about the target.

Two: Former Camp Harvest groundskeeper Mike Hulburt told me that in 2010, he saw MacDonald use a butter knife to stab repeatedly a picture of a former Harvest pastor in front of 15 to 20 close associates. Another witness, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his livelihood, confirmed that MacDonald stabbed the picture multiple times “to get his point across.” Hulburt said the incident happened in the camp dining hall immediately after MacDonald yelled at the former camp director, Dan Plantz, asking why he had not gotten rid of the picture.

Miranda Johns/Baptist Press

MacDonald (Miranda Johns/Baptist Press)

Plantz declined to be interviewed. But former Camp Harvest employee Bill Pease said he saw Plantz “bawling, crying” about 30 minutes after the incident and that Plantz and Hulburt were deeply disturbed by what had happened.

MacDonald told WORLD, “I didn’t stab any pictures. … I may have put my knife up against it or into it.” He described the incident as a “performance issue” regarding “multiple pictures on the wall that were outdated.” He added that Harvest leaders had “only the best memories of Josh Weidmann,” the pastor in the picture.

Weidmann, though, who now pastors a church in Colorado, described his relationship with MacDonald as “strained” and a source of angst for years after his departure.

Three: In 2017, videographer Luke Helmer resigned from Harvest one day after witnessing MacDonald teach a Bible class to a roomful of teenage students at Harvest Christian Academy. Citing what he called MacDonald’s “pattern of uncontrolled anger,” Helmer in his Feb. 16, 2017, resignation letter said MacDonald had singled out two students, “berated them for minutes in front of the entire high school student body, mocked them, called them ‘morons,’ ‘fools,’ ‘stupid,’ and he threatened one of them physically.” The incident also upset several parents who later heard about it.

Asked about the incident, MacDonald told WORLD he had been responding to a student who yelled something “very coarse and troubling” aloud in class. “I for sure was too intense and did locate the student and did move them up to the front and did let them know what I thought of the behavior. … At the end of class, though, I did feel grieved in my heart that it was too intense.” MacDonald said he apologized to the student and his classmate the same day, recorded an apology video shown to the class, and talked to the offended parents.

MacDonald also sent WORLD a Feb. 16, 2017, email from Helmer in which Helmer says he forgives MacDonald and calls him a “man of character,” citing “many factors” behind his decision to resign. Helmer declined to comment to me about the email.

MacDonald said his books and public teaching over the years have both referred to “a confession of wanting to bring my passion and intensity and I think yes, at times anger … under the control of the Holy Spirit.” MacDonald said he has sought forgiveness from those at Harvest who have sometimes thought he was “too intense” in trying to change their perspective. “I’ll just say in checking with my family and the people that I work with, no, I do not have a problem with anger.” —Julie Roys

Julie Roys

Julie Roys

Julie is an author, speaker, journalist, and veteran radio host based in Chicago.

Comments

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  • AH
    Posted: Thu, 12/13/2018 09:55 pm

    Hard to reconcile my experience every week at Harvest with these stories. 

  •  Uff Da's picture
    Uff Da
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 05:53 pm

    I'm truly sorry for that, Alex.  Your experience is subordinate to what God's word says His shepherds should be and do.

  • Christopher Mann
    Posted: Sun, 12/30/2018 05:06 pm

    Alex, I think accidently clicked "Report this comment" button and I meant to click "reply." I hope this doesn't trigger a bot moderator to strike your comment. Note to World: Consider changing the "Report this comment" button to the color red, or something that stands out, and then have a pop-up window asking me if I'm sure that I want to report a bad comment.

    I think your use of the word "reconcile" is a good choice, because this article deserves that level of scrutiny. An item-by-item audit, like somebody would "reconcile" what *he* thinks his checking account balance is versus what the *bank* says it is. Line by line, allegation by allegation. I think MacDonald and the Harvest board need to address every single allegation. If, upon deeper investigation and reflection, some or all of World's reporting is found to be erroneous, they'll own up to it. I use to write for them, and I know that they believe that since truth-telling is the very essence of God's "DNA", therefore they've adopted it as their standard, too; they've done it in the past, and they have continually proven that they are serious about continuing in the future. 

    One key thing to watch out for, however, is the bold move to sue World magazine for "defamation of character." That is a highly premeditated and calculated step which forces substantial expenses in terms of personnel and finances by both sides, a red line of integrity that they very unlikely can walk back if they lose. If their lawsuit has merit, a judge will agree and World will own up to it but if their lawsuit is found without merit, they will have demonstrated a massive integrity flaw, and the church deserves a comprehensive regime change.

    Harvest has, arguably, perpetrated such a serious situation that a full-scale reconcilation of personal, emotional, financial and legal capital costs is clearly warranted. I'm fully empathetic with how hard it is for you (presumably a member of Harvest) to reconcile your weekly experience with these stories, but that very process is needed now.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Thu, 12/13/2018 10:44 pm

    I have been a member of at least two churches where the senior pastor's authority is virtually unquestionable.  While questions are rhetorically welcomed, the reality is that any serious questions jeapordise your standing in the church.  In other words, the senior pastor's words are given the imprimatur of a "thus saith the Lord" statement.  What is described in this reporting seems to fit that characterisation.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 06:28 am

    I'm reading through 1 Corinthians with a group of men. We have been discussing what some of the problems in Corinth might have looked like in practical terms. We also discuss how these might have started and blossomed into such atrocious sin. And we ponder where the leadership was in all of this. I can't help but wonder if Harvest needs to take a close look at this letter from Paul.

  • Rick O
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 07:04 am

    Julie, thanks for such thorough reporting. You have shown great strength in the last year in uncovering some disturbing behavior in the christian world. Anytime we esteem man above Christ we will be soon disappointed.

  • Judy Farrington
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 10:09 am

    Heartbreaking and sobering. I cannot reconcile such behavior with the teachings and life of our LORD Jesus Christ. And neither can a watching world.

  • PR
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 10:07 am

    The balance of church unity versus the transparency of the sin of its leadeship is something every church must sort through if they hope to endure for the sake of the Gospel.  How does leadership take the stance of humility and confession of their own sins while not alienating the congregation who has put their trust in them to shepherd the sheep?  These are hard things that I think all church leaders in our fallen state stumble through.  Maybe even more so in large churches with large budgets with large impact on the global Christian community.

    It seems a larger danger to churches is when their identity is inseparable from that of the senior pastor (or his family).  So often a Gospel preaching church's growth is linked to the ability of the primary teaching pastor in his ability to proclaim this truth.  Yet even he is a sinner who needs held accountable by the godly men around him.  Can any godly man stand under the scrutiny of all of his actions over a lifetime of pastoral leadership?  I am encouraged that this story does include requests for forgiveness by James as well as those of the elders who have left Harvest.

    I have experienced so much grace and growth through the preaching ministry of "Walk in the Word" over the last 10 years.  I am a better father, husband, and servent of Jesus Christ because of the ministry.  So for now, I pray for James, the leaders of this church and for real biblical reconciliation and forgiveness amongst those who have caused or received spiritual abuse - it is one of the deepest wounds to receive.  I hope transparency and forgiveness wins out - for out of this comes the church's true unity in Christ.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 05:49 pm

    Pride and a lack of humility in the leadership seem to be critical hindrances to fixing these problems.  I pray for this pastor's humility before God. 

  • bhall1500
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 03:12 pm

    Makes you wonder what “good standing” with ECFA is worth. Sounds like it’s not worth much.

  • NYorker
    Posted: Tue, 12/18/2018 09:37 am

    Agree and noted.  All very disturbing.

  •  Uff Da's picture
    Uff Da
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 05:52 pm

    There is one reason that what has been going on at Harvest has been allowed to continue: 

    It is a cult of personality - idolatry.

    If the leadership and people of Harvest were willing to follow Jesus Christ and God's word with the same slavishness that they follow James, James would be relieved of his position.

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 12:52 pm

    I can't think of a context where using pictures of one's colleagues for target practice would be considered anything other than disturbing, the fruit of a disturbed and hostile mind.  The MacDonalds were unconcerned about the potential for being "misinterpreted"? If a high school student were found using pictures of his school's principal and a few teachers for target practice, or if an employee were using pictures of his boss and fellow employees for same, no one would feel the need to ponder how to "interpret" such behavior...

  • TWH
    Posted: Fri, 12/14/2018 09:36 pm

    Why do we continue to be surprised when the concentration of power brings out the worst sin tendencies in our leaders.

    "Oh, but OUR church is different!"

    Maybe it is right now. I think most Biblically based large institutions and their leaders start out with the best of motives but without vigilance and constant correction by a truly independent oversight group, the downward drift is inevitable. 

  • nevertheless
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 05:40 am

    "You shall know a tree by it's fruit". We all should remember that it was Judas who was left in charge of the money box, not Peter ... North American Christianity run amok. I seriously doubt Pastor James even has the ability to humble himself and give it all up for the sake of the Gospel.

  • TY
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 08:48 am

    When a church is evaluated based on the Westminster Larger Catechism's exposition of the Ten Commandments (WLC 99-150), you start to see that these issues identified by Ms. Roys are not excusable in the least, but should receive serious church discipline. Even JM's replies to the accusations show his lack of identification with the sins, his diversionary taxonomy to excuse sinful anger . . . "maybe I was too intense" (CONTRA 5TH, 6TH COMMANDMENTS) his subversion of financial integrity with his mansion and claims to have moved to smaller place (CONTRA 10TH, 8TH, 6TH, 5TH, 4TH COMMANDMENTS), stealing from daughter churches to his own benefit, silencing all opposition and criticism (CONTRA 5TH, 8TH, 9TH COMMANDMENT FOR TRUE WITNESS), threatening/violent gestures to pictures of people he works with (Contra 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th commandments), and most seriously, anger is a desire to become God himself, demanding instant responses of all personnel to his personal desires (contra 1st and 2nd commandments), taking the Lord's name in vain by false witness for Him (JM's 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1 elder qualifications are lacking, but no one can now challenge these faults without lawsuits or signatures on non-compete agreements or non-criticism-agreements). Hypocrisy of the life while denying the power of the Gospel he proclaims! The Lord looks down from heaven, the Spirit is grieved, and his observant people keep silence and let a shepherd keep up his emotional and financial abuse! Likely there are other abuses not reported in this article because coveting is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:9-10; 10th commandment Rom 7:7). If you ask his family what kind of witness her husband and their father have, you will find more troubling evidence. These public sins with staff are more evident in the home. Books like Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick, or positive contrasting Alexander Strauch Leading with Love will give you most of the patterns of JM style leaders and what they need to do to repent. The pattern of the NT for a purality of elders with equal authority is the antidote to the little emperor-narcissism syndrome. May the Lord have mercy and lead all to biblical self-evaluation and true repentance.    

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 09:18 am

    Every church that I have attended has its own governing body: the congregation!  We discussed the budget at quarterly meetings.  The elders managed discipline in an orderly, Biblical way.  We did not need third party auditors, because the elders and pastors made everything public.  And we never heard of non-compete agreements, which are ridiculous for Christ's body.

  • williamson
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 11:42 am

    Change the church & ministry names to well known buiness names populating corporate America & you've got a major story straight out of the Wall Street Journal about corporate malfeasance on a number of fronts. This writer has done a superb piece of investigative reporting. 

    First huge red flag to all in officer & staff positions is when it's observed that none dare naysay the top dog, aka euphemistically 'lead' or 'senior' pastor. Any elder without backbone to go eye to eye, toe to toe with that pastor when circumstances strongly suggest things are amiss has no place on a church governing body. For the sake of the sheep, the body of Christ, lead or get out of the way for someone who's qualified, able & willing for the sake of Christ's Church. 

  • Edward Boersma
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 12:52 pm

    This often happens when the pastor is not accountable to anyone except himself. Elders should never be appointed by the pastor.  The book of Titus has much to say about elders

  • JA
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 01:02 pm

    I don't if you've even been a boss of a large # of employees, or been a leader of a large group of people, but if you had you would know there is no man or woman who leads a large group who does not have these kind of disputes with those he or she serves. If you don't believe me, ask Moses,.  Then if that's not convincing enough ask our Lord and Savior.  

    This is just a hit piece.  It's glorified gossip about a pastor who, of course, is a sinner.  Need we innumerate the sins? 

    I expect better from World magazine. I expect better from my fellow Christians.  Tearing down God's church is never helpful! If you don't like Pastor James, don't go to his church!  But tearing down any ministry that calls Jesus Lord is the handiwork of Satan.  Christians ought to let him do it on his own.  He does not deserve your help.

     

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Sat, 12/15/2018 06:48 pm

    If I learned that my pastor was using my picture for target practice, I would be extremely concerned. Frightened, to be honest. I can't speak for everyone of course, that's just how I would feel...

  • Christopher Mann
    Posted: Sat, 12/29/2018 05:02 pm

    Josh, really. This reporter did a fantastic job of honoring every scriptural principle of truth-telling, including the critical rule of corroborating witnesses and evidence. Nothing here is heresay; there are no anonymous sources saying A, B or C and thus forcing MacDonald and associates to reply to anonymous allegations. That would be a hit piece -- unaccountable reporting. This is not a story of one or even a few disgruntled employees with a grievance; these charges are very documented and very serious, potentially even worthy of criminal prosecution. Your "nobody's perfect" defense is especially outrangeous; if you think the church has some divine mandate to protect pastors from scrutiny, you're biblically ignorant and woefully blind.

  • TY
    Posted: Sun, 12/16/2018 09:49 pm

    In reply to the Akins' comments, they seem to be using an analogy of a righteous leader facing problems with unrighteous followers and co-workers, and of World magazine and this article's author, Julie Roys, as simply an example of rash judgmentalism, thus interpreting both the motive of World and the reporter as passing on irrelevant gossip, attributable to complaining, back-biting grumblers. That JM calls Jesus 'Lord, Lord' and preaches in his name doesn't automatically qualify the leader of Harvest for a kingdom-of-heaven pass that should stand unopposed when he is not doing the will of God (Matt 7:21-23), nor do the righteous opposing those who do not do the will of God share in Satan's tearing-down work.

    A better biblical analogy for this story is abusive use of power by King Saul, envious of David, fearful of his loss of the kingdom to him, and murderous thoughts and actions towards him and his righteous reputation. Good reporting of abusers of power by providing multiple witnesses to sinful leadership, and further attaching the letter signed by eight former elders with specific, long-term knowledge of pastorally disqualifying behavior according to biblical standards, may be the only way to alert the righteous to the danger of trying to work with a lover of money, the root of many other evils noted in the letter, and a mocker, who when corrected, returns lawsuits, firings and various kinds of violent threats. The Akins do not seem to appreciate how truth-telling, including going public through a news magazine when no one inside in Harvest leadership is listening, should work to restore righteousness among the repentant or excommunicate those who refuse to be corrected (Matt. 18:15-20). The sheep are in danger, and no shepherd is protecting them (Acts 20:28-30).

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 12/17/2018 07:27 am

    Wow!  The world is watching.  I have been in a situation, on a much smaller scale, where the pastor of a church demanded almost absolute loyalty from his people.  Danger!!  It is easy to elevate the position of your leader to the point where you feel like questioning him/her is the same a questioning God.  Some leaders encourage this.  Strange that this would occur in a "movement" where leaders are encouraged to be the servants of all.  We certainly need to submitt to the Lordship of Christ.  Leaders and followers.

    Also, when we deal with people who are openly hostile to the church, we should remember that they too see examples of excess.  

  • BS
    Posted: Mon, 12/17/2018 03:29 pm

    regarding the non disclosures, etc... it's possible when these types of agreements are co-erced via pressure, they are thrown out by the courts as invalid... but double check with an attorney on that...  ALL 56 US state/territory AG are in agreement that these types of silencing documents protect the perpetrators at the expense of the victims...  it's time for NDAs to be challenged if those who were pressured to sign are willing... 

    excerpt from the AG letter to congressional leaders dated Feb 12 2018 (my emphasis added):

    Additional concerns arise from the secrecy requirements of arbitration clauses, which disserve the public interest by keeping both the harassment complaints and any settlements confidential. This veil of secrecy may then prevent other persons similarly situated from learning of the harassment claims so that they, too, might pursue relief. Ending mandatory arbitration of sexual harassment claims would help to put a stop to the culture of silence that protects perpetrators at the cost of their victims. EOQ

    http://myfloridalegal.com/webfiles.nsf/WF/HFIS-AVWMYN/$file/NAAG+letter+to+Congress+Sexual+Harassment+Mandatory+Arbitration.pdf

    and here's an amazing example of partially rescinding NDAs... the diocese/institution will continue to honor it's side while allowing the victims to speak freely!!!:

    https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/local/vermont/2018/09/28/...

  • ER
    Posted: Mon, 12/17/2018 11:28 pm

    Thanks for the diocese example. It sounds nice, but typically, the organization would prefer to have an excuse not to say anything, so  they like to cite NDA's or personnel policies to avoid having to answer questions. I do respect them for freeing the victims, though. 

  • JohnCW
    Posted: Tue, 12/18/2018 06:57 am

    I read Harvet's response over at Christianity Today. I find it "off-putting" when HBC says that the "pluarlity of elders" have spoken on this issue and my impression of that statement is that we should just take their word for it. The "plurality of elders" could very well be wrong. They are not infallible. The response strikes me as lacking humility at the very least. 

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 12/21/2018 05:20 pm

    There is certainly much to discuss here, and much to be saddened over, regardless of which side is to be (mostly) believed over the other.

    Somehow, though, I find non-compete clauses to be wholly outside the thinking of Jesus or Paul (see Philippians 1:18). I find it difficult to associate a non-compete agreement with putting the Kingdom of God first. I do understand the motivation to put such an agreement in place, but it's not a Biblical motivation.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Ann Marshall that shooting a pellet gun at photos of staff members has no conceivable redeeming spin. I'm not sure how you look at the person who does that and say, "Yes, you're the man to lead this church!" Forgiveness, certainly, is possible, but so is a broken spirit and contrite heart.

  • VISTA48
    Posted: Sun, 12/30/2018 06:25 am

    Why would anyone concerned about reaching the lost, sign (or require) a noncompete agreement? This issue by itself raises my eyebrows. What is it that they feel they're in competition for?

  • Mom23Is
    Posted: Sat, 12/22/2018 08:31 pm

    A "noncompete clause"?  For spreading the gospel?!  The disciples tried to enforce a "noncompete" in Mark 9, and Jesus told them "whoever is not against us is for us."   The numerous threats of and actual lawsuits filed should also be compareto the teaching of the Bible.  Preventing a dad from attending his attending his child's graduation, using people's pictures for target practice.... this church's leadership has some serious heart issues, and they need to repent.

  • Wayne52
    Posted: Sun, 12/23/2018 06:19 pm

    Sadly I have passed through a few churches where the pastor reigned supreme.  In all cases the pastor's reign over the elder board and the congregation inevitably came to an end, normally rather badly.  As the saying goes, "Absolute power, corrupts absolutely". 

  • AlanE
    Posted: Sun, 01/13/2019 12:05 am

    This article is still accessible on the front page as an Editor's Pick. In view of that, an update on the developments in this case would seem to be in order.

  • AH
    Posted: Mon, 01/14/2019 08:54 am

    I admit I haven't listened extensively to James MacDonald, and so I'm not sure I am in a position to weigh in on the veracity of the questions raised.  However, the idea of a non-compete agreement in any ministry raises significant questions for me. 

    How can any of us tell someone they may not start attending and ministering at another church, just because that church is close to ours?  What explanation would we give Christ at the judgment for our actions?

    I also read that James MacDonald has sued World magazine over their investigation into his ministry.  How can he square this action with Paul's very clear teaching in I Corinthians 6:1-11?  How can he say this doesn't apply to this situation?

    I have no doubt that his ministry has helped many people, but this attitude of pride will lead to his downfall.  More importantly this kind of behavior leads to what none of us want "God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."  (Romans 2:24)

  • DB
    Posted: Fri, 02/08/2019 09:33 am

    Interesting that Julie Roys is concerned about Harvest's debt of $42 million, less than half the value of it's assets.  I wonder if she is worried that she works for a publication (World) whose latest tax return shows assets of $2.5 million and liabilities just below $3.8 million, i.e. liabilities are 150% of assets ?