Lawyer Takes James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel to the Woodshed (UPDATED)

I don’t know any other way to describe the report written by Sally Wagenmaker about the financial and governance practices of Harvest Bible Chapel during the tenure of former pastor James MacDonald.

MacDonald recently defended himself against the church action of declaring him disqualified as a pastor.  He may have to write another Facebook post or ten with asbestos gloves to handle the fire in this report.

If interested in a blistering report about a megachurch in disarray, you must read it for yourself. Here are some spicy appetizers to help you decide:

Based on our law firm’s review of available information, we determined that a massive corporate governance failure apparently developed over several years at HBC, primarily due to the following factors:
• MacDonald’s powerful and subversive leadership style;
• His development of an inner-circle leadership group through which he could control HBC;
• His marginalization of broader leadership, particularly the former HBC Elders; and
• His other aggressive tactics that thwarted healthy nonprofit governance.
Directly resulting from such problems, MacDonald appears to have extensively misused HBC’s financial resources for improper financial benefit.

MacDonald’s strong and persuasive role as authoritative senior pastor, along with his close inner circle, insulation from proper accountability mechanisms, and key changes to the church’s operational structures, resulted in a highly problematic culture. Policies, formal and informal, were put into place to reinforce this unhealthy power structure.

We were provided with extensive salary information for MacDonald and the HBC Compensation Committee’s year-end meeting minutes, reflecting summary approval for executive compensation, housing, deferred compensation, and the housing allowance for MacDonald. The Committee unanimously approved an overall 2015 compensation amount
of $1,240,000, a 2016 compensation amount of $1,370,000, and a 2017 compensation amount of $1,387,500. For year-end 2017, we provided with a “Memorandum of Understanding and Documentation” dated December 19, 2017, reciting “commitments and pledges given in good faith [that] represent a contractual and covenant commitment” to MacDonald, plus a statement that “Walk in the Word and the respective assets are a bible teaching ministry of Dr. MacDonald.” For year-end 2018, the minutes of the “Elder Executive Committee Compensation Committee,” reflecting a total compensation package of $1,270,000 for 2019.

In a word, this is obscene.

Within this context, a leader who receives a tangible personal benefit as a result of a decision affecting the church’s operations or assets has an inherent conflict of interest that must be fully addressed through disinterested, independent leadership decision-making. Based on our legal evaluation, MacDonald seems to have acted in his own personal interests – reaping significant personal financial benefits, avoiding accountability to any governing board, and with heavy-fisted exclusionary leadership. His close inner circle of HBC leaders helped him to do so and without the important accountability measures needed for effective nonprofit ministry governance.

Although I am not an attorney, I would be worried about my legal liability were I formerly involved in leadership at HBC.

UPDATE: James MacDonald responds:

James MacDonald Responds to Disqualification Decision

Last Sunday, the elders of Harvest Bible Chapel announced that they had found former pastor and church founder James MacDonald to be biblically disqualified for pastoral ministry.  Today, MacDonald posted what appears to be a response to that announcement on his Facebook page.

MacDonald begins with a vague reference his “former church”:

I trust this timing finds you well in the Lord and growing in your awareness of how good He truly is. Our efforts to work through existing channels in our former church have reached an unsuccessful end, leading to this release of words we have long sought to express.

MacDonald addresses various concerns raised by Harvest’s weekend statement. Specifically, he confesses “sinful patterns of fleshly anger and self pity that wounded co-workers and others.” He adds that his decisions involving the lawsuit against Julie Roys, two former elders and their wives, his media ministry and Harvest Bible Fellowship were “regrettable.”

In the end, however, he continues to contest the statements from Harvest and remains in arbitration.

Decisions by the current Elder/staff, along with inaccurate announcements and recent public condemnation, signaled clearly the timing to communicate our message directly. With sadness we accept that no face-to-face confession or truth-advancing interaction will be forthcoming.

The above matters are now in Christian arbitration where impartial believers will hear and give a written, objective ruling. As we cannot give specifics, we are trusting the Lord for truth to be revealed in His time, and we covet your prayers.

Despite the words of confession and findings of HBC, it appears MacDonald is gearing up for a return to ministry of some kind.

After waiting many months in hope of a pathway toward restoration, we have been welcomed into the congregation of New Life Covenant Church in Humboldt Park, Chicago. A multi-ethnic church under Pastor Wilfredo DeJesus, New Life has embraced us in love, offering us a place to serve and the beginnings of healing community.

In a recent Naples Daily News article, I was quoted as saying that James MacDonald would be back in the ministry saddle.  That interview was conducted in May. It is not that I think disqualified pastors should go back into the pulpit. I don’t; but this is the pattern that has become well traveled.

ECFA Removes Harvest Bible Chapel from Membership

After disclosing that Harvest Bible Chapel was under investigation, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability finally removed the megachurch from membership due to violations of four standards of financial integrity. Earlier today the following statement was posted on the ECFA website.

WINCHESTER, Va., April 17, 2019—The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) board voted today to update the membership status for Harvest Bible Chapel (Elgin, IL) from suspension to termination due to significant violations of four of ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship™. Based on new information obtained by ECFA from the church while under suspension, ECFA determined that the church was not in compliance with Standards 2, 3, 4 and 6, which pertain to Governance, Financial Oversight, Use of Resources and Compliance with Laws, and Compensation-Setting and Related-Party Transactions.

“ECFA continues to champion integrity in God’s Kingdom,” said Dan Busby, ECFA president. We are committed to applying our standards rigorously and consistently.”

ECFA’s investigation of Harvest Bible Chapel began on November 28, 2018. After a thorough review of documents made available at that time as well as an on-site visit with church officials, ECFA reported on December 10, 2018 that the church was in good standing. This statement would not have been made if Harvest Bible Chapel had shared all crucial information with ECFA.

As part of the ongoing review of the church’s compliance with ECFA’s standards, on March 11, 2019, the church shared new information that indicated possible violations of ECFA standards. Based on this new information, ECFA’s board responded accordingly and suspended Harvest Bible Chapel’s membership on March 14, 2019 and launched a further investigation, that has remained ongoing.

On April 15, 2019, ECFA obtained pertinent information from the church, providing evidence that validated significant violations of Standards 2, 3, 4, and 6. The ECFA board determined that restoration to full membership was not a viable option under the circumstances.

Meanwhile, Julie Roys published an article detailing more damaging allegations regarding financial dealings at HBC and James MacDonald’s ministry Walk in the Word.

HBC now joins Gospel for Asia as an organization kicked out of the ECFA due to public revelations generated by bloggers and news reporting. The ECFA’s process missed all of the violations. However, after investigative reporting brought issues to light, the ECFA acted.

Superintendent of Harvest Christian Academy Issues Statement About James MacDonald’s Actions with Students

In 2017, former pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel James MacDonald taught Bible classes at Harvest Christian Academy. While there, on January 25 2017, he was recorded harshly confronting and physically grabbing a student during one of his lessons. This video recently surfaced on social media and in a blog post by Julie Roys. Here it is:

I wrote the current superintendent of HCA, Talbott Behnken, to find out what happened as the result of that incident and if such behavior was in violation of HCA’s policies.  Earlier today, he sent a statement that he requested be printed in full.

James MacDonald was fired from Harvest Bible Chapel in February of 2019. Harvest Christian Academy had no authority to fire or discipline the then Senior Pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, James MacDonald. That responsibility belonged to the elder board of Harvest Bible Chapel.

Prior to the time of the Bible class situation in 2017, I was not aware of James’s outbursts and issues to recognize that it would not be a good situation for our students. At that time, I believed that James was a gifted Bible teacher and it was a great opportunity for our students. Clearly, it didn’t go as we all had hoped. If I had to do it all over again knowing now what I know, I would not have permitted James to teach Bible at HCA. We have wonderful godly teachers and staff at HCA who pour themselves out for the Lord and our students everyday. These videos are not representative of our incredible teaching staff, our school, or our expectations. The people being hurt are our dear students, alumni, teachers, and staff. James MacDonald is not here to deal with any of the fall-out from his behavior. He has hurt our people enough.

The content of the videos speak for themselves and James MacDonald is responsible for his conduct and words. James MacDonald has not instructed HCA Bible students since early in the spring semester 2017 and will not be permitted to teach students at HCA again. Please direct any further inquiries regarding the behavior of James MacDonald to James MacDonald.

Former Big 4 Auditor: Dark Clouds Loom Over Harvest Bible Chapel

A former “big 4” accounting firm auditor is raising red flags about the future of Harvest Bible Chapel. Jason Watkins, who has analysed Gospel for Asia’s finances on this blog in the past, predicts tough financial times ahead.

Given reduced offerings and the outstanding $42-million in debt, the church may need to further reduce staff in order secure additional financing and live within their means. There is also the matter of severance payments for James MacDonald and other departing pastors which will encumber the church.

Watkins prepared a series of charts to depict the situation. They show that the church’s giving is 79% off from the budgeted amount for their Closer campaign. Regular giving is off by 50% compared to previous years. Here are two images with links to the supporting charts:

Donations are down 50% over 2016 and 2017 at the same time of the year.  More figures supporting these charts can be viewed here.

The response to the Closer campaign is even more distressing. Additional figures from HBC sources showing giving from 2016-2017 can be viewed here. That chart also shows the pledges for the Closer campaign.

Members and leaders of HBC face a reality check over the next several months. This information is provided in this format to assist members in this process. Faced with a similar reality, Mars Hill Church fragmented into autonomous local churches. Some didn’t make it and some have thrived. Perhaps HBC will follow that path.

It has been reported that Lawrence Swicegood from Gateway Church is involved in assisting HBC. Mr. Swicegood helped Gateway put a good face on their recent layoffs and he may find a way to assist HBC. A potential pitfall for HBC would be to be acquired or bailed out by Gateway and compromised in doctrine by such a link. In any case, it seems likely that dramatic changes are in store for HBC.

 

 

Harvest Bible Chapel Responds to Anne Green’s Allegations

This evening Harvest Bible Chapel’s leadership (whoever that is now) posted the following response to Anne Green’s allegations of sexual harassment against James MacDonald. Green disclosed an allegation involving James MacDonald in 2005 on Mancow Muller’s radio program earlier today.

Harvest Bible Chapel received a report in September of 2018 of an alleged inappropriate incident, which took place on a private flight in 2005, between Dr. James MacDonald and Mrs. Anne Green. The Elders took the matter seriously and began investigating immediately.

After hearing of the accusation, the Human Resources department of Harvest Bible Chapel proactively reached out to Mrs. Green on September 30, 2018, via email and text. Below is the email. Please note, for privacy, the name of the other woman on the plane has been omitted.

Dear Anne:

We have been made aware that you may have a concern about something from your time of employment or ministry involvement at Harvest. 

We care about all who have labored for the Lord with us, past and present and since it was not reported at the time, we want to offer an opportunity to tell your story to a couple of women who remain here and remember you fondly. 

I would like to schedule a call with you and [other woman on plane], maybe an Elder’s wife and myself, as I work in our HR department. We are offering a safe environment to share your story without fear and understand if you choose not to. Also, be assured this offer does not expire should you wish to talk with us in the future. 

Just know that we care for you and would appreciate some response at your earliest convenience – at least to know we have connected with you to express our care and support.

Mrs. Green did not respond to the email or text invitation. Additionally, Mrs. Green never filed a police report regarding the alleged incident.

The three other passengers from that flight were interviewed. The passengers stated that they did not recall seeing or hearing anything suspicious or inappropriate.

With no complaint filed by Mrs. Green, no report to the police and the testimony of three witnesses on the flight, Harvest Bible Chapel closed the investigation with the Elders considering the case appropriately vetted and no further action required.

In light of today’s radio interview that Mrs. Green provided to WLS Radio, Harvest Bible Chapel would like to reiterate a sentence from the email sent to Mrs. Green in September, “be assured this offer does not expire should you wish to talk with us in the future.”

Elders Announce Changes Coming to Harvest Bible Chapel; Executive Committee to Resign (Video)

Tonight Executive Board member Bill Sperling announced changes coming to Harvest Bible Chapel.

A transcript of Sperling’s remarks can be read here.

Sperling discussed the overall charges from all sources against James MacDonald. It all came to a head for the group last Tuesday night. Inappropriate language, anger and other conduct he didn’t name lead to the removal.

Sperling said the elders failed to act quickly enough. The Executive Committee therefore will resign and the structure of the elder board will change by downsizing.

There will be no new campus in Hinsdale.

The church will set up a group called HBC 2020 to evaluate the structure and organization of the church. The group will be led by Rick Korte.

I wonder who the outside professionals are and why they were not identified.

What Now for Harvest Bible Chapel and James MacDonald?

Here are some issues I have been looking into.

James MacDonald appears to be on track to launch Walk in the Word as a digital program on March 1. An informed source told me that the plan remains intact. Given the fast-paced nature of recent changes, anything can happen but there doesn’t appear to be any movement there.

According to a source, this weekend’s Wake Up Youth Conference is still limping along but without the participation of as many as 30 churches. These preregistered groups pulled out after Mancow Muller’s bombshell revelations on his radio show.

According to an eyewitness at HBC-Elgin, the elders aren’t responding well to being questioned.

Many are wondering what will happen to the Rabbi Trust established for retiring or disabled pastors at HBC. The larger question relates to a severance for MacDonald. HBC is not legally obligated to disclose this information but a transparent organization would do it.

When Mars Hill dissolved, these details remain secret. Only a few people (who never talked) know the arrangements of Mark Driscoll’s severance. One might argue that his privacy should be protected. Donors might argue that those gifts were never intended to be a golden parachute for a disqualified pastor.

 

Harvest Bible Chapel Removes James MacDonald as Elder and Pastor

This morning, Harvest Bible Chapel announced the ouster of Pastor James MacDonald due to “conduct that the Elders believe is contrary and harmful to the best interests of the church.” This is one of the reasons given in the bylaws for removal of the lead pastor.

Dear Harvest Bible Chapel Family:

It is with great sadness that we as the Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel wish to convey to you a very recent development that has caused us to take immediate action regarding our Senior Pastor, Dr. James MacDonald.

Following a lengthy season of review, reflection, and prayerful discussion, the Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel had determined that Pastor MacDonald should be removed from his role of Senior Pastor. That timeline accelerated, when on Tuesday morning highly inappropriate recorded comments made by Pastor MacDonald were given to media and reported. Given that and other conduct under consideration, in accordance with the procedures in our Bylaws, Pastor MacDonald was removed as Senior Pastor and as an Elder of the church for engaging in conduct that the Elders believe is contrary and harmful to the best interests of the church. His employment has been terminated from Harvest Bible Chapel, effective today, February 12, 2019. This decision was made with heavy hearts and much time spent in earnest prayer, followed by input from various trusted outside advisors.

Our Elders and Staff are committed to fulfilling our fiduciary duty as the leadership of this congregation, knowing that at times the outcome may be misunderstood or emotionally painful. A more detailed communication regarding next steps for our church will take place in our weekend services.

We sincerely thank you for your prayers, your support, and your patience as we work together to restore a trust in leadership, a humility to surrender to biblical authority, and a firm resolve to move forward as a church family. Please continue to uphold our church, the Elder Board, staff, and the MacDonald family in prayer at this time.

– The Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel

Yesterday, Chicagoland radio personality Mancow Muller played audio of who he alleged was James MacDonald making critical and threatening remarks toward his critics. In response, sources have informed me that a weekend youth conference at Harvest has been called off due to cancellations of participating churches. Even if the youth conference is still on, the audio most likely put pressure on the elders to act.

Are the Elders Next?

There are many questions which remain for the HBC elders. Many of the decisions associated with MacDonald were made with the awareness and apparent support of the elder board. It is unclear how many of them heard the unsavory comments (e.g., threatening to place child porn on a critics computer) and did nothing about it. While the focus of public scrutiny has been MacDonald, the attention now will turn to the elders of HBC. In a similar situation at Willow Creek, the entire leadership team resigned in a bid to return trust of the people to the leaders. Will HBC elders follow suit?

Mancow Muller: James MacDonald is Out at Harvest Bible Chapel (UPDATED)

Updates at the end of the post…

For several days, sources have told me that an announcement would be made today or tomorrow from Harvest Bible Chapel that James MacDonald was leaving Harvest Bible Chapel. I have been unable to confirm them but yesterday radio personality and former (?) friend of MacDonald broadcast his contention that MacDonald was out. The transcript of the announcement is at The Elephant’s Debt and was the subject of tweets from Muller. Here is a portion:

And this weekend, they will announce: James MacDonald is no longer a part of Harvest Bible Chapel.  That is what my sources are telling me.  There are many locations including the brilliant, beautiful cathedral in Chicago.  And this will be the biggest story in religious news on earth today and you’re hearing it here first.  I take no joy in this, but I really found him to be just a conman.  Would have been a great car salesman.  Would have been a great radio salesman.  I would’ve liked to offer him a job selling the Mancow show here.  My sources tell me he was fired, his assistant Rick will soon be gone and also the boys who I like a great deal, Luke and especially Landon.  Again, I take no joy in this, but they also will be gone shortly.  Again, I take no joy in this.

If this claim turns out to be accurate, it will mark the end of a stormy chapter in HBC’s history. Since 2013, HBC has been in and out of the center of public controversy. Most recently, the focus of attention has been on a defamation lawsuit brought by MacDonald and the church against two bloggers, their wives and journalist Julie Roys. The suit was abruptly dropped by the church when a judge refused to stay public revelation of information gained during the discovery process. Ultimately Roys’ investigative reporting and the lawsuit ignited withering public scrutiny.

I will provide updates here as I get them including a response to my email to HBC.

In hindsight, the most recent elder update (2/2/19) may have been signaling changes to come.

UPDATE | Shared in weekend services by Campus Pastors February 2-3, 2019

As shared with you two weekends ago, the Elders and staff are continuing to get low before the Lord. We have been working diligently to position our church in strength and health during this difficult season. To that end, the Elder Board has commissioned a team that has already begun to help us during this time.

The purpose of this team is to study and address critical areas of relationships and church functions that we know need to be addressed. It will consist of current Elders, staff, church members, and multiple outside professionals. As the plan continues to take shape, here are a few first priorities:

  1. Repentance – As the elders and leaders identify areas of sin, the first priority is repentance.
  2. Recovery – Ensure that the ministries of Harvest Bible Chapel are operating effectively in light of recent leadership transitions. Assign responsibility to existing Executive Leadership Team/staff and engage interim outside professional leadership where needed. Communicate effectively regarding our plan moving forward to increase confidence within our congregation.
  3. Review – Conduct a full review of our operating history to identify areas where we need to own our mistakes and areas that require change for a stronger way forward.
  4. Reconciliation – Initiate the peacemaking process under the direction of a third party, to pursue healing and reconciliation in all damaged relationships. The team will also seek to learn from all parties involved in an effort to help the ongoing efforts.
  5. Renewal – Recommend a leadership and operating structure that will position the church for future success in meeting the needs of the body.

Currently, our Elders are meeting multiple times per month. We will share more specifics on the work of this team as it unfolds in the weeks ahead, as well as other important areas the Elders and staff are working on.

Please continue to lift up the MacDonald family in prayer and also our pastors and Elders. We covet your prayers for wisdom and discernment as we seek the Lord together during this important time in our church.

UPDATE:

Mancow Muller may have a different source of information today. He now suggests MacDonald may be soliciting donations for HBC.

UPDATE 2:

An informed source tells me that elders at HBC are meeting today. Currently, there is uncertainty about the direction of HBC with some elders advocating for MacDonald’s removal and others wanting to keep him in place.