The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
On Jan. 16, elders at the Chicago-area megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel announced that Senior Pastor James MacDonald would take an “indefinite sabbatical.” The announcement came a month after WORLD detailed accusations by former elders and staff members that MacDonald and other leaders at the multicampus church had fostered a culture of deception and intimidation (see “Hard times at Harvest,” Dec. 29, 2018).
In a statement posted to Harvest’s website, the elders said they were launching a “peacemaking process.” An accompanying statement from MacDonald expressed remorse at his having “battled cycles of injustice, hurt, anger, and fear which have wounded others without cause.” He welcomed the sabbatical and added that he might continue to preach at the church’s newly acquired campus in Naples, Fla., throughout the winter months.
But that news didn’t sit well with John Secrest, the lead pastor of the Naples campus. In a letter to Harvest elders the next day, Secrest complained that he had not been consulted and did not support the decision to allow MacDonald to preach in Naples during his sabbatical. Secrest also emailed his congregation, expressing his objection and his desire to return the Naples church to independent governance.
Hours later, Harvest leaders fired Secrest.
Secrest planted the Naples church in 2016 after attending a training program in the Chicago area with Harvest Bible Fellowship, Harvest’s former church planting network.
Within a year, Harvest Bible Chapel Naples had grown to about 100 people. Secrest told me that last June, MacDonald called him and said Harvest wanted to plant a church in Naples and suggested a merger.
Secrest said he had reservations about merging with Harvest but in September signed a ministry agreement making HBC Naples a wholly owned subsidiary of Harvest Bible Chapel.
Within three months, the congregation of 120 more than doubled, according to congregants who attended at the time. On Jan. 6, when MacDonald preached in Naples, 350-400 people showed up, and the church had to add a second service.
Now, Secrest says he signed the merger agreement under false pretenses. In the email to his congregation, he wrote, “When we entered into this agreement there was not a disclosure of the investigative reporting which led to a lawsuit and the resulting fallout.” (The “lawsuit” was a defamation suit against me and four other defendants that Harvest filed last year and recently withdrew.)
Secrest told me that, hours after he emailed his congregation, Fred Ananias, an elder from the Naples campus who sits on Harvest Bible Chapel’s 34-member elder board, arrived at his home.
Holding a cell phone with Harvest Assistant Senior Pastor Rick Donald on the line, Ananias, reading from notes, informed Secrest that he was fired. Secrest said he was stunned because his contract stipulated that he could be fired only for moral failure.
After firing Secrest, Harvest sent its own email to the Naples congregation, calling Secrest’s earlier message to the congregation “insubordinate” and saying it was “clear that he no longer desires to work for Harvest Bible Chapel.”
In Chicago on the weekend of Jan. 19-20, elders addressed Harvest campuses during weekend services, admitting “shortcomings in the decision-making process” concerning Secrest’s termination. They also announced that MacDonald would not preach at any campuses during his sabbatical.
Harvest spokeswoman Sharon Kostal told me in a statement, “While the peacemaking process is underway, Harvest Bible Chapel does not presently intend to respond to further media inquiries.”
Secrest says he has no immediate plans, but he pledged not to abandon his former congregants in a Jan. 22 email to them: “There may come a time soon when we can gather to pray, to talk, and to clarify any questions and confusion.”
This story has been updated to correct the date on which MacDonald preached at HBC Naples.