Harvest Bible Chapel Drops Defamation Suit

I just heard via Twitter that Harvest Bible Chapel dropped their defamation lawsuit against The Elephant’s Debt bloggers and their wives, and Julie Roys. This came after a judge did not grant a restraint against the publication of material obtained via discovery. Here is HBC’s announcement from the church website.

In October of 2018, we filed a lawsuit asking a civil court to restrict the actions of those attempting to interfere in the life of our church by publicizing false and distorted information about our church, primarily related to the years 2007-2012.

On advice of counsel, we still believe their actions to be illegal. However today the court ruled, contrary to expectation and legal precedent, that it would not stay further discovery while the case is under defendants’ motions to dismiss, nor would it restrict the publicizing of that discovery during the trial process.

Recent events have made it clear that any further private content subpoenaed from third and fourth parties will likely be publicized online. Case law contains many legal precedents related to restricting these actions, yet the court ruled against our motions in both instances.* The result is that even if we filed a motion to reconsider, even if we amended the complaint to exclude private matters sensitive to some third parties, the court appears unwilling to protect our many friends, including those with whom we seek to reconcile. In good conscience we cannot knowingly subject innocent people, in many instances against their will, to a full subpoena process.

Surely the Lord could have caused the court to rule in our favor, as “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33), and “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:9). We receive these outcomes as God’s direction and have instructed our legal counsel to drop the suit entirely. With this decision, we can again focus our energies on continued growth in personal and organizational faults we have owned, enduring what is false, and striving to mitigate the damage such attacks bring to our church family and friends.

We remain willing to meet with the defendants for a face-to-face resolution of grievances, and we covet your prayers. 

– The Executive Committee of Elders, Harvest Bible Chapel

*At our request, a court reporter transcribed today’s proceeding, which will be available soon.

A common sense view of this situation is that the bloggers and journalist have free speech rights and the courts are keen on maintaining them. It always seemed odd to me that a church would use the courts to attempt to establish a fact pattern. If the church wants to be transparent, then simply open the books and the minutes and take questions from the press without a defensive posture.

 

Image: By Esther 5000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48825134

Harvest Bible Chapel Acknowledges Failures, Still Claims Only Three Defendants

Promising a change of tone, Harvest Bible Chapel posted tonight on the church’s website what is described as an acknowledgment of failures and deficits. In an admission that they have been marginalizing critics, the church promised to stop:

The Executive Committee of the Elders has declared a moratorium on all efforts to minimize or marginalize our critics, except a carefully considered and conscious decision to pursue a legal remedy regarding attacks against the church that upon advice of counsel we believe are illegal.

Time will tell if church leaders will honor that promise. In my opinion, they should drop the suit. As I pointed out this morning, the existence of the suit heightens the tension and animosity. I doubt that a nicer tone in public remarks will change that.

In what seems like a violation of the spirit of that pledge, the church continues to refer to “three named defendants.” There are five.  I cannot understand why the church continues to speak as if the wives of The Elephant’s Debt bloggers haven’t been sued as well.

The lawsuit against our three named defendants, moves slowly forward and again we state that we would gladly accept no financial settlement, no resolution of damage done or redaction of existing slander. All we ask is that they agree to stop attacking our church permanently and entrust the ongoing reforms to the Elders of our church.

I asked the church about this and did not get an answer about why the wives are being sued.

You can read the rest of the response from the elders here.

Harvest Bible Chapel: Mars Hill Church 2.0?

James MacDonald (left), Mark Driscoll (right)

From where I sit in small town PA (usually at a fast food place with good WiFi), it appears that there are some similarities between the last couple of years at Mars Hill Church and the current situation at Harvest Bible Chapel.

Elders and Leadership Style

At MHC, trouble had been brewing for several years over treatment of elders and perceptions from departed members and elders that Mark Driscoll was domineering and unnecessarily harsh. The same perceptions and polarization have occurred at HBC involving their founding pastor James MacDonald.

This morning I became aware of something called the Statement of Record on the HBC website where former and current elders are pledging loyalty to MacDonald. Up to the very end of Mars Hill Church, a core group of elders and members remained committed to Driscoll and expressed animosity toward the elders who brought formal charges against Driscoll.

Also this morning, the Elephant’s Debt blog posted a resignation letter from a former elder and staff member. In the letter, questions are raised about the leadership of MacDonald and financial management of the church. This letter along with the texts and emails posted earlier by Julie Roys remind me of various leaked letters and formal charges written by current and former MHC elders concerning the leadership of Mark Driscoll.

Many of the concerns seem similar. Driscoll’s charges included allegations of harsh treatment of subordinates, domineering leadership style, and using the church structure to enrich himself. Similar allegations have surfaced regarding HBC and MacDonald.

Driscoll and MacDonald

It should also be noted that Driscoll and MacDonald have a relationship which dates back to the Mars Hill era. MacDonald was on MHC’s Board of Advisors and Accountability. He resigned near the end of the church’s life in 2014. Recently, Julie Roys reported that HBC gave $50,000 to Driscoll’s new church in Phoenix. And who can forget the little trip by MacDonald (on the left) and Driscoll (right) to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference.

We They

Another similarity I see is the adversarial relationship between critics and defenders in both situations. There were sharp differences and strong feelings in the MHC camps. The same dynamic is at work here. When MHC responded to public or media questions, they were cagey and defensive. In private, the sides were fierce in opposition. In the HBC case, a lawsuit is in play. This really ratchets up the polarization.

I can’t see it getting any better as long as HBC maintains the defamation suit. Putting aside biblical arguments for or against the action, I think it is a terrible precedent to set as a matter of public perception of how Christians do things. The tension and animosity will only escalate with each new revelation.  In MHC’s case, the church was always the PR loser when differences emerged into the light of day.

Those supporting MHC’s establishment felt their situation would get better if they could just make their case in the court of public opinion. During the church’s demise, MHC had the blessing of the ECFA, touted numerical results, and portrayed a measured and positive front. However, each new disclosure had a cumulative downward impact. In HBC’s case, the existence of the lawsuit has great potential to multiply this effect.

I suspect there are more parallels but I think this is sufficient to make a point that MHC could be a learning experience for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Fair or not, a prolonged public war will erode the church’s effectiveness and probably do more to harm the bottom line than anything the bloggers have done up to now.

Defendant in Harvest Bible Chapel Defamation Case Posts Insider Emails with Accusations of Deception and Control (UPDATED with HBC Response)

UPDATE: HBC has responded to Julie Roys’ post. Without talking to Mr. Williams, they believe he didn’t mean it.

We believe that Randy Williams is not the man portrayed in the texts publicized by Julie Roys. He has never said anything to the leaders of our church in the many years we have served with him that resembles the content of the texts she published today. If Randy Williams was secretly antagonistic about the health of our collective governance, it was not known to any of us. We offer him the grace we all need in the context of regrettable words or actions. Love prompts us to believe he does regret these words. After a positive and warm lunch with Jason Acres today, Randy has not been available to us by text or phone. Based upon what is known about his love for our church and Pastor James, we believe he must have read what Julie Roys published and felt devastated. Love compels us to believe the best; if that is not the case, we will of course make it known here. Key points are below (if you’re in a hurry, read points 10-13).

Read the entire response here where current elders contest what pastors White and Borinstein wrote in their texts.

……………………..

(original post)

Call this the fruits of discovery.

This morning, Julie Roys, journalist and one of five defendants in Harvest Bible Chapel’s defamation lawsuit, posted emails of a current elder accusing senior pastor James MacDonald of control and manipulation. The elder and former chairman of the executive committee Randy Williams also indicated that the church had endured financial mismanagement, and governance failure. Roys reproduced the email thread on her blog.

The emails were obtained as the results of a subpoena by Roys attorney as a part of her defense in the defamation suit brought by Harvest Bible Chapel. Roys also obtained text messages from others who had concerns about the leadership of MacDonald. For instance, according to material provided by Roys, pastor of a Harvest Bible Chapel in North Indianapolis Brian White said

The problem is James. His control, his manipulation, his anger, his torching of others to protect his reputation, the wake of his irresponsible financial stewardship and direction of his organization. The continued manipulation of people and narratives. The problem is James.

In that text thread, another HBC pastor, Bill Borinstein (at the time of this writing, pastor at HBC North Phoenix) wrote:

No church would ever allow their Sr Pastor and leadership team to act over a long period of time with such a blatant lack of transparency or in a culture of fear. . . . We were told by James in a meeting that HBC paid for the systems upgrade and they were giving it to us for free (yet we were charge(d) $500K), we were never told that 10% of our funds were given to WITW (Walk in the Word), we were never told that the bylaws of our organization were changed in 2014 . . . we were never told about a 100 year lease the HBF was signatory to or that the HBF would be paying operating expenses for the training center in Croton (including staff), we were never told that designated funds for Harvest Gives were being held and not paid out… do I need to go on. . . .

I know not one pastor who cares that James lives in a $4-$5 million* dollar house, what they care about is his publicly lying about it and the lengths he went to hide it (all while he was president of our organization). Where is the integrity in that? . .

There are too many people in our fellowship who know too much, who have seen too much of James. They have seen how employees have been treated, they have been in rooms where they have been berated or seen others berated, they have heard about his blow up at HCA (Harvest Christian Academy), the blowup at the Sr pastors retreat, the blowup at our leadership meeting in downtown Chicago, they have sat in restaurants when he has dressed down servers, they have heard the stories from the many ex-employees scattered around the country, from the ex-elders who have left because they could not in good conscience stay in that culture anymore. 1 Tim 3:2 says, “Therefore an overseer must be above reproach…” You are dealing with 100+ pastors who know that passage. We are not perfect, we do not expect James to be perfect. What we have seen and experienced is not above reproach . . .”

Borinstein and White are on the board of the Great Commission Collective which is the subject of the HBC elder update in 2017 and no longer has a relationship with James MacDonald. An earlier version of this post referred to Borinstein and White as HBC elders. That is not the case. I apologize for any confusion that caused.

What Can Elders Do?

Recently, I asked HBC how a senior pastor may be removed and if it was true that removal required an unanimous vote, including James MacDonald. Sherri Smith answered, “According to page 22 of the bylaws of Harvest Bible Chapel (https://www.harvestbiblechapel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/bylaws.pdf), unanimous under Executive Committee does not include anyone under corrective who could not participate in a decision concerning themselves. The Elder Board does not need to be unanimous, just in general agreement or “consensus” that the decision is best for the church.”

Here is the relevant section:

Removal of Senior Pastor. Subject to the rights, if any, under any contract or covenants of employment with the Church, the Senior Pastor shall only be removed, by unanimous recommendation of the Executive Committee and by the consensus of the Elder Board at any general or special meeting duly noticed pursuant to Section 7.05 of these Bylaws. The Senior Pastor shall only be removed from office, subject to the terms of any employment agreement or covenants, for any of the following reasons: (i) disqualifies himself as a result of a violation of the Sexual Immorality Policy; (ii) engaging in conduct that is in opposition to the best interest of the Church; (iii) teaching doctrines inconsistent with the Bible; (iv) neglect of duties; (v) resignation; or (vi) death, long-term disability or incapacity.

I also asked for a comment or reaction from HBC to Roys’ post but they did not reply by the time I posted. I will add any responses here.

 

Image: By Esther 5000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48825134

James MacDonald Declares Break from Public Speaking for a Season

According to Southern Baptist Conference president Danny Wood, Harvest Bible Chapel’s beleaguered pastor James MacDonald is “stepping away” from speaking “for a season.”

This tweet was followed by a second which said:

2/2 “Thankful for this brother, and he has my prayers as he focuses upon his own local church ministry.”

MacDonald and his church have been the focus of renewed critical social media attention since the church filed a defamation suit against two bloggers and their wives and journalist Julie Roys. Roys recently filed an article on the church with WORLD magazine. MacDonald has asserted that the bloggers at the blog The Elephant’s Debt and Roys have not portrayed the church honestly and the legal action is justified to bring legal sanctions against the illegal actions of the defendants.

I recently asked the church why the bloggers’ wives were included in the suit since they haven’t written anything about the church. The church through a spokesperson declined to add anything to what is posted on the church website. Currently, there is no mention of the wives on the church website.

WORLD Publishes Long Awaited Story About Harvest Bible Chapel; Church Silent on Inclusion of Wives in Suit

On Thursday, WORLD published the long anticipated article on Harvest Bible Chapel. Written by Julie Roys, the article gives a summary of various concerns expressed by former members and observers of the Illinois megachurch. Roys is also the defendant in a defamation suit brought by HBC.

In an earlier post about the lawsuit I wrote, “The legal action appeared to be designed to frighten the bloggers and intimidate the magazine into pulling the plug on the article.”

In an email, HBC Associate Communications Director Sherri Smith objected to my characterization of the suit saying, “We have said in multiple communications why we filed this lawsuit. To editorialize, disguising it as reporting, is disingenuous at best.”

Why Sue the Wives?

I also asked Ms. Smith why HBC included the wives of the bloggers as defendants in the suit. She replied, “Regarding defendants wives, we are not at liberty to discuss anything related to the lawsuit. The position of our Elders is published on our website and when they consider a matter worthy of response, they post a response there.”

I searched for a mention of the wives of the defendants and couldn’t find anything on the church website. An elder update in October refers to “three defendants.”

In a specially called meeting on September 29, the Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel carefully considered our biblical options related to three individuals, who have long been outside of our church. Our goal was to end their prolonged and divisive effort to undermine the Elder governance of our church and to discredit our primary leaders. We have chosen to accomplish that by filing a civil suit in Cook County.

With the wives of the two bloggers involved, there are five defendants, not just three.

Response to the WORLD Article

HBC has responded to the WORLD article. Actually, they responded once and then quickly altered at least the headline on their website (see below).

The combative tone continues in the response:

It is a sad day when once-credible Christian publications consider the opinions of a few disgruntled former members, already rehashed ad nauseam, of greater weight than the carefully expressed viewpoint of a plurality of local church Elders.

Harvest Bible Chapel has owned its mistakes and endured to become a happier and healthier church, whose members recently pledged — financially, in their walk/work for Christ, and in their promise to share Christ with others — at unprecedented levels. The anticipated attack that comes with God’s kingdom moving forward has come, sadly, not from those in the world but from other professing Christians.

Christianity Today published an article covering the story yesterday.

I am looking into several other aspects of HBC’s ministry and hope to write more next week based on communications I have had with the church.

 

 

 

Harvest Bible Chapel Treats Believers as Non-Believers; ECFA to Review Finances

Image: James MacDonald, pastor Harvest Bible Chapel

Recently, Harvest Bible Chapel sued bloggers  and a journalist who reported about the church. Since then various questions have been raised about why a church would sue fellow believers. In a statement dated yesterday but apparently uploaded today, the church addressed the lawsuit and their problem with journalist Julie Roys.

Q. “Why did we proceed with the lawsuit now, given that the attack bloggers had not published since December 2017?”

A. As of June 2017, the attack bloggers had not published since January of 2014 due to a period of relative peace in our church. Then, as we were concluding a difficult process of separation from leading HBF and all the churches we had planted, the attack bloggers began to publish in earnest doing great damage through outright falsehoods. This, after more than four years of silence and with significant detrimental impact upon treasured relationships in our own church and among our church plants. So after sixteen months of reflection and consultation among Christian leaders outside our church family, we decided to move past self-examination and the many changes we had made and take action to protect our church family. We agreed that the bloggers refusal to come under Matthew 18’s
prescription for conflict resolution among believers, freed us to “treat them as a non-believer” (Matthew 18:17) and seek the legal protection afforded us in the civil authorities “ordained by God for the punishment of wrongdoers” (Romans 13:1-6).

In the statement, HBC’s leaders makes it clear how they feel about journalist Julie Roys.

The issue with Julie Roys is her lack of objectivity and how she came to focus on Harvest Bible Chapel, a church she has never participated in. Our awareness of her attempts to stir up gossip, sow discord, inflame old animosities, and confront sensitive matters with specific church families in order to discredit the church led us to include her in the lawsuit.

In some circles, what HBC describes might be called reporting and fact finding but I guess we will have to wait for Roys’ article in WORLD to find out.

 

Image: By Esther 5000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48825134

More Turnover at Harvest Bible Chapel?

Image: James MacDonald

UPDATE: As I reported yesterday, Chief Operating Officer of Harvest Bible Chapel Scott Milholland has resigned. His resignation letter was posted earlier today on the HBC website.

Illinois multisite megachurch Harvest Bible Chapel and pastor James MacDonald have been in the public eye over a defamation lawsuit filed against bloggers and their wives (see also this article from RNS for which I was interviewed). The suit also targets journalist Julie Roys who is about to publish an article in World on HBC. The legal action appeared to be designed to frighten the bloggers and intimidate World magazine into pulling the plug on the article.

The past year has been tumultuous for the church with turnover in various aspects of the gigantic religious business. In June 2017, MacDonald stepped down from the church planting arm of Harvest Bible Chapel (now called Vertical Church). Then at the end of 2017, three more executive resignations were announced.

Most recently, according to multiple sources, Scott Milholland has resigned. Milholland was the Senior Executive Pastor at HBC. Calls to the communications staff of the church were not returned.

 

Image: By Esther 5000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48825134