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Command and control

John Secrest (Handout)

Florida

Command and control

Harvest Bible Chapel fires pastor at recently acquired church

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.

Comments

  • TIM YATES
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 06:52 am

    The trail of tears in the wake of Chicago's litigious Harvest leaders and James MacDonald's injurious legacy continues. How in Jesus' name does a Chicago church network claim authority over a Florida church that desires to withdraw from its morally-stained network? The PCA dealt with this problem in defining its constitutional standards when it left the PCUSA, that any church, by 2/3 vote of its members, could leave the PCA with its property and the denomination had no authority over it at that point. http://www.westpca.com/pca-different-from-pcusa/ The legal entaglements of the Harvest network agreement have encroached on local congregational authority to withdraw from its authority. 

  • pamelak
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 07:06 am

    SHAME...."Jesus wept."

  • TK Wallace
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 07:56 am

    Most interestingly is the concept of a church being a "wholly owned subsidiary".

    I just have a hard time getting my head around that concept.

  • Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 12:31 pm

    There are very serious consequences to running a church like a business (or like a political party).  Unitedly representing Jesus accurately and well requires that we follow His example of submission and love.  These attitudes and behaviors are demonstrated from the top down.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 10:39 am

    This is not the only Megachurch to have control/politics issues - a look behind the curtain of many of these would probably expose some serious issues - a cursory examination reveals multiple cases of nepotism within several such churches. Nepotism, although downplayed especially by the very people that want to instill it, is very uncomfortable for all on staff and causes all kinds of issues - whether stated or not.

    Frankly, it's time for us to view the Senior Pastor as a sinner just like all other human beings and not a demi-god whose approval shows that we're living for God simply because he can passionately preach the gospel. Remember that Paul indicated that he was the chief of sinners.

    Elder boards do not always provide the independent control that a church needs especially when the elders are appointed and elected by the Senior Pastor (perhaps only ratified by the members). These all end up being yes-men to a Senior Pastor who can get out of control without any ability to reign him in. The elder board simply serves as a front to let the out of control pastor do what he wants.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Sat, 02/02/2019 05:04 pm

    It is not that I do not think there are matters of legitimate concern about Harvest Bible Chapel. But, I do feel there are likely better vessels to carry out the investigative reporting about HBC than Julie Roys. This is at least the second major recent Chicago-area church-related controversy in which Roys had found herself embroiled. It may well turn out that Ms. Roys is exceptionally aware and has uncovered a second set of less-than-spirit-filled dealings in the Chicago area in the span of just a few short months. But, in the meanwhile, there are people who could view things differently simply on account of the fact that Roys is at the very center of another major controversy. I'm not close enough to the situation to determine which is closer to the truth. But it does concern me just a bit that Roys has twice now found herself in the eye of the storm in a very short period of time. For her sake and for the sake of the greater body of Christ, I suggest that the primary reporting on this be done by another person.

  • JESSICA HOCKETT
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 07:28 pm

    Alan, Ms. Roys is not finding herself "embroiled" in the HBC controversy. She is an independent investigative journalist who is reporting on it. She has explained numerous times recently (on her blog and as a guest on local radio shows & podcasts) that former HBC staff and members who knew Julie as a fearless journalist with a reputation for telling the truth approached her about the abuses at HBC. She did not go searching for the story, and WORLD did not commission her to investigate HBC. The story came to her, she agreed to look into it, and WORLD agreed to publish the inital story ("Hard Times at Harvest").

    As you might know, HBC filed an outrageous defamation lawsuit filled with lies against Julie and 4 former HBC members, in order to prevent Julie's story from being publishing in WORLD. Julie has NOT been involved with another Chicago-area church controversy. Perhaps you are referring to her investigative journalism on Moody Bible Institute? Is that what you mean by "another major controversy"? Journalists (Christian or not) with integrity very often in the eye of a storm (e.g., Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein, Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team). That's the nature of their work.

    When it comes to the "sake of the body of Christ," there's no one more qualified to report this story than Julie. Indeed, few journalists would even touch it, let along endure what she has endured to tell it.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Sat, 02/02/2019 09:36 am

    Jessica, yes, I am referring to the Moody Bible Institute case as the other major recent church-related controversity. And, I don't think you can plead there that she was "just a reporter." She was very much in the middle of it, and part of it. It's possible, though not the only possible interpretation, that that case whetted her appetite for more of this kind of work. To be sure, I believe the facts, as best as we who read articles can tell, weigh in Julie Roys' favor with the MBI case. 

    That said, going from that case to this one in slightly less than a year raises some eyebrows. Yes, you can say that she's a great investigative reporter. And perhaps she is. But, she may appear to many familiar with both cases to be something a little different than that, something not quite as benign as that.

    I don't know that I value great high-profile investigative journalism as highly as I value restoration. I fear Ms. Roys' continued presence in the current case might make restoration of estranged parties more difficult. I don't want to be heard as saying there's no such thing as a great Christian investigative reporter, but the things that make for a great investigative reporter don't necessarily help healing take place within the church.

  • DONNA HUNTER
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 11:35 am

    If I might, on behalf of Julie Roys she is afterall a well qualified reporter. From secular venues to religious. There are no questions regarding her qualifications. So, I would suggest as a good reporter she should be in the middle of a story.

  • Chrisi56's picture
    Chrisi56
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 12:49 pm

    My heart is sick.  I have only discovered James McDonald's preaching within the last year and it has been wonderful.  He speaks God's word. Now that powerful word is not going out!  Not over radio, not over podcast, not over the television, not even in his church.  I'm sure the apostle Paul was overbearing.  I'm not saying McDonald is the apostle Paul, but Satan is surely interfering with God's word here.  I have seen church divisions before and I know that perspective is everything when I hear complaints and accusations.  May God bring mercy and forgiveness quickly!  Mercy triumphs over judgment. 

  • JESSICA HOCKETT
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 07:33 pm

    I have no doubt that Satan is interfering with God's work all over the world, in the Church at large, and at Harvest. That's what Satan does. But the issue here is not "church dividions" over "complaints. It's the grievous, repeated, unreprented sins of James MacDonald--and his Elder Board--against the church itself. This is NOT a matter of being "overbearing." James is guilty of financial misappopriation, greed, unrighteous anger, lying, manipulation, and false teaching, among other things.He is biblically disqualified as an Elder and must resign. 

  • Vista48
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 07:00 pm

    This makes me wonder how bad things will have to get before there is repentance and change at Harvest?

  • JESSICA HOCKETT
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 11:58 pm

    Replying to Alan's 2nd comment, as there's no reply button for that comment.

    Respectfully, I disagree. First, I want to reiterate that MBI is not church-related. It's a Christian college. Let's not use the word church in characterizing it. There IS a Moody Church, and Julie's MBI story had nothing to do with that church.

    Second, Julie was employee of Moody Radio and became "a part of it" when she was approached by MBI professors about some unsettling things. Are you suggesting that she should have referred that investigation to someone else? If so, can you point me to the Christian or secular publications who would have taken on that story? There was nothing unethical about Julie taking on that investigation, and she paid a high price for it. Investigative journalists tend to keep on doing investigative work. All IJs have specialties and bodies of work that they come to be known for. Again, no problem there.

    Third, I fail to see why her working on the MBI case would be a drawback for the HBC story. Can you explain that beyond "she may appear to many familiar with both cases to be something a little different than that, something not quite as benign as that"? Are you suggested that she has ulterior motives? Do you see evidence of bias in her reporting for WORLD? If so, where? In what regard?

    Alan, we were at Harvest Bible Chapel for 12 years as first-hand witnesses to the sins of James MacDonald. No one but no one was going to expose the Senior Pastor wolf. Not the Elders, not Christianity Today (who published MacDonald's outrageous op-ed about why suing belivers is sometimes a biblical choice), not the Chicago Tribune, and certainly not other evangelical leaders. Have you read all the media reports on HBC, or just WORLD? Are you aware that Julie is not the only journalist reporting this story? Also, have you read HBC's own outrageous statements on their website? Are you okay with the church suing a journalist (Julie) to keep her from publishing the truth about them?

    Insofar as "restoration" is concerned, you are showing your surface-level understanding of the MacDonald/HBC sitaution. There has been NO disclosure of the full truth and NO confession or repentance from the Elder Board or vacationing Senior Pastor. They are still lying and in sin. Julie has worked to exposed the truth and HBC is DIGGING IN rather than fessing up.  We are a long way from healing, Alan. We are still in the "going on sinning as though grace may increase" stage. Moreover, it is not a journalist's ROLE to facilitate healing in a church. That makes no sense. (The Chicago Tribune reporters certainly weren't responsible for making sure the people & leaders of Willow Creek reconciled...unless you think they were.)

    Stay tuned--this will get much worse before it gets better. And Julie Roys is neither the cause nor the exacerbator. James MacDonald has torn down the church God granted him with his own two hands--and the hands of 30+ Elders besides. 

  • AlanE
    Posted: Sat, 02/02/2019 05:07 pm

    Jessica,

    It's difficult to respond to a response on this forum. You have to respond to the original post. Perhaps this is something World can look into and make easier to do.

    I mean no offense in referrring to MBI as a church-related matter. In this sense, I'm using church broadly, much as it is used in the word 'parachurch.' Nothing more than that.

    Yes, I have read extensively about this case, and beyond the boundaries of World, and about the Moody Bible case as well. Not everything, I'm sure, but plenty.

    Beyond that, I have nothing substantive to add to what I've already written. There is clearly hurt that has been brought by the situation we are speaking about, and I have no wish to compound the hurt by finding new ways to state the concern I have raised.

  • VALERIE WRIGHT
    Posted: Sat, 02/02/2019 02:48 pm

    There used to be an old aphorism in church circles  "If you're not part of the problem, and you're not part of the solution, then stay out of it."  Not sure about the scriptural basis for investigative journalism of this particular type.  We the reader become judge and jury, but it's far from being a fair trial.  There may be justifiable reasons elder boards are not forthcoming of all the details to reporters, but accusers are not fettered by the same restraints.  I agree with AlanE.  Restoration will not ensue from the national audience that reads these articles, it can only arise between the affected parties themselves.  May God's mercy be on them!

  • DOUG BARTHOLOMEW
    Posted: Fri, 02/08/2019 10:00 am

    This article represents drive-by analysis by someone whose bias is self-evident.  Unlike the author, I live in Naples, where I belong to Harvest and have had extensive access to Secrest and other leaders.  Leaving aside one’s opinions of MacDonald and the merger, the simple fact is that Secrest was fired for demanding that all others in leadership immediately capitulate to his demands, rather than working through a process that had already been set in place.  His inappropriate communication disgraced the church (Harvest and beyond), even reaching Buddhist friends my wife had invited to Harvest with the hope they would learn about Jesus.  The simple fact is that if not for the outrageously inappropriate communication, Secrest would not have been fired and would likely be preaching in Naples this Sunday.

  • JESSICA HOCKETT
    Posted: Mon, 02/11/2019 01:22 am

    Mr. Bartholomew – I’ll reply to all three of your comments here.

    First, it would be helpful for other readers to know that you don’t just live in Naples, attend HBC Naples, and have “access” to Secrest & leaders. You are the owner of the building that HBC Naples leases for $10/year. 

    John Secrest made no demands in his e-mail to HBC leaders. He said he was writing to express disagreement with the decision to have James MacDonald preach in Naples during MacDonald’s sabbatical, continuing “I believe that it would be best to revoke our ministry partnership and return HBC Naples to self-governed autonomy.” He succinctly explains the basis of his opposition and asks (not "demands") for the ministry agreement to be revoked and autonomy & self-governance of HBC Naples to be restored. No reasonable person can read his letter as insubordinate or flouting so-called Elder authority. That HBC Chicago responded to his letter by firing him hours later would be outrageous in the business world, let alone in a church.

    At minimum, HBC Elders should have engaged in a dialogue with Mr. Secrest and the HBC Naples Elders. Secrest's direct but respectful email would never have seen the light of day had HBC not responded by terminating him. Secrest was not trying to exercise ultimate authority; he was taking a stand and making a request. It made no sense whatsoever that James MacDonald was not fit to preach at the 7 Chicagoland campuses but was somehow fit to stand in the pulpit at HBC Naples. You contend that were it not for his email, Secrest would have been preaching at HBC Naples this Sunday. Are you saying that the HBC Naples Elders would have refused James MacDonald, who was scheduled to preach there from January - March?

    As longtime members of HBC, we can assure you that HBC Chicago’s history of "command and control" is long, well-documented, and ongoing. The HBC Elders admitted their shortcomings in handling Mr. Secrest, although failed to admit to wrongdoing (again). They've also posted two different summaries of Mr. Secrest's depature on the Staff Transitions section of the church website.

    I'm curious about what you mean by “a large majority of the Naples congregation supports the current leadership”? What do you mean by support? Also, who is the current Interim Pastor of HBC Naples? Rick Donald? Jeff Thompson? Someone else?

    In their email to the HBC Naples congregation, Elders Stonebreaker and Ananias refer to “great efforts and reasoning” that had been undertaken with Mr. Secrest. They also point to his “continued unwillingness to yield to the direction of the Elders.” These statements are intended to suggest some kind of ongoing conflict with Mr. Secrest. Is that your contention as well, or are you saying that Mr. Secrest was fired for his email alone? I hear you pointing to the email, but the HBC Naples Elder letter implies otherwise.

     

     

  • DOUG BARTHOLOMEW
    Posted: Fri, 02/08/2019 09:20 am

    How absurd that Julie Roys attacks James MacDonald for supposedly exercising “ultimate authority”, but when John Secrest is fired for attempting to exercise ultimate authority, she accuses Harvest of ‘command and control’

  • DOUG BARTHOLOMEW
    Posted: Fri, 02/08/2019 09:56 am

    Another plain fact is that a large majority of the Naples congregation supports the current leadership.  In a shameless display of distorting the truth, the author here accurately reports the spike in Naples attendance when MacDonald commenced preaching in Naples, but disingenuously links the decline in attendance in MacDonald’s absence to Secrest’s termination in her private blog.

  • DOUG BARTHOLOMEW
    Posted: Mon, 02/11/2019 09:39 pm

    reply to Jessica Hockett a few comments above:

     

    Regarding ask vs demand, his email plainly states the request was denied.  When you keep asking after the request is denied, it is a demand.

    Regarding what constitutes insubordination, if you google 'examples of insubordination' and take the first result, the second example given is airing disagreements with superiors in public.  I will leave it to readers to decide for themselves if you are the best arbitrator of what reasonable people believe, for what it’s worth my vote is ‘no’.

     'At a minimum the elders should have engaged in a dialog.'  They did.  You are writing as if this is the first the elders heard of John’s request, yet the very start of his own email shows otherwise.

    “Are you saying that the HBC Naples Elders would have refused James MacDonald, who was scheduled to preach there from January - March?” No.  I am saying that those with a cursory knowledge of these affairs are aware that as things actually unfolded, James is in fact not preaching in Naples.

    Regarding ‘large majority support current leadership’, one of John’s remaining supporters recently proposed a meeting to air John’s concerns.  His own estimate was that he could scrape together 20 people inclusive of the Harvest Elders and Secrests, and my opinion is that is optimistic.

    Russell Taylor is interim effective next Sunday

    Finally as for ongoing conflict, absolutely.  John spoke openly to me of conflict between himself and the elders, and spoke often of leaving and/or being fired.  The letter was clear grounds for termination but hardly the only grounds.

  • JESSICA HOCKETT
    Posted: Mon, 02/11/2019 11:34 pm

    Thanks for your response. 

    I'm aware that James is not preaching in Naples. I have been following the acquisition of Naples since September, when James first announced it as an 8th campus of HBC Chicago and told his congregation that the building owner’s intention was to gift the building to HBC--a statement that neither he nor his Elders have corrected, even though your wife stated on social media that it was a misunderstanding on James’ part.

    Prior to the “sabbatical,” James MacDonald was scheduled to preach at HBC Naples from January 2019-March 2019. As you know, that was officially announced in Naples in early December, after the Walk in the Word event. With or without reservations, Mr. Secrest had already agreed to cede the pulpit to James for those months. (By contrast, FYI, HBC Chicago had not made an official announcement to the Congregation about James’ planned absence.)

    On Jan 16, HBC Elders announced: “Pastor James is taking an indefinite sabbatical” from all preaching and leadership at our church in Chicago. He has recused himself fully from any direction of this peacemaking process, other than to participate when and how requested. He may continue preaching at Harvest Naples through some of the winter months and will be on sabbatical, pending the completion of the reconciliation process and a full report to the congregation.” 

    In Mr. Secrest’s letter to the full Elder board, he took issue with the Elders allowing James to preach in Naples when he was not fit to preach in Chicago and also asked that HBC Naples being restored to an independent church. Agreed that Mr. Secrest refers to ongoing conversations & decisions that unsettled him and that he clearly disagreed with. 

    I appreciate your perspective regarding the conflict between Mr. Secrest and the HBC Naples Elders, and your perception of the number of Mr. Secrest’s supporters. It sounds like you believe the letter was the “tip of the iceberg” and culmination of many months of tension. 

    Thank you for the information about Russell Taylor being the HBC Naples interim pastor, effective next Sunday. If I’ve identified the correct person,  it appears that Mr. Taylor is from Gainesville, FL, and is not affiliated with HBC Chicago or the Vertical Church Network. Is that correct?

    Also...

    1) I believe you and/or your wife have said that you offered the building lease to HBC Naples before HBC Chicago/James MacDonald entered the picture. Can you say what month was the lease offer made? Mr. Secrest says that James approached him about a merger in June 2018.

    2)  Can you shed some light on what HBC Naples had to “gain” from becoming part of HBC Chicago? HBC Chicago paid for some improvements to your building. Were you involved in the decision for HBC Naples to become an 8th campus?

    3) Can you comment on Mr. Stonebreaker’s golf trip to England with James MacDonald? To your knowledge, did that trip come before or after HBC Naples had agreed to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of HBC Chicago? 

    3) Is HBC Naples still a part of HBC Chicago, or HBC Naples once again independent? If the former, do you know if there is plan for HBC Naples to be “released” from HBC Chicago?

    4) Is there/was there any financial or business connection (past, present, future) between yourself/your LLCs and James MacDonald, Fred Ananias, Scott Stonebreaker, and/or Jay Silverstri?

    5) I believe the land on which your building sits is zoned for multiple purposes, e.g., a school, care facilities. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) To your knowledge, was James MacDonald aware of that?

    Again, I appreciate your engaging here. 

     

     

  • DOUG BARTHOLOMEW
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 12:59 pm

    Jessica - I did not say that we offered the building lease to HBC Naples before HBC Chicago/James MacDonald entered the picture.  I said that Scott and Fred were here long before the offer, a totally different thought.  The main thing we stood to gain was access to outstanding teaching from James, Rick and others.  I have never had any business dealings personally or through entities with Scott, Fred or James, or Jay Silverstri (whoever that is).  As for your other questions, either I don’t know and/or they are taking the discussion too far from the original article or my previous comments, so I don’t think this is the right place for such questions.

  • JESSICA HOCKETT
    Posted: Tue, 02/12/2019 01:32 pm

    Hi Doug. Thanks for separating those thoughts. I also posed some of these things to you on Julie's blog. I'm fine with not talking in two places: here and on Julie's site. We can take it to her site, if you're okay with that. Over there, I've asked the question about about the lease offer timing. Hopefully, you've heard (or will heard) the recordings of James MacDonald that were played on Mancow Muller's radio show this morning in Chicago.

     

    (Correction to name: I misspellled Jay Silvestri.)