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.”

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.

Friend of James MacDonald Calls for Close of Cult of Personality

Et tu Mancow?

James MacDonald somewhere might be saying something like that after Mancow Muller’s open letter to him was published this morning in the Chicago Daily Herald. Muller attends Harvest Bible Chapel and is a radio personality in the Chicago area. He says he loves MacDonald but also calls him to change his ways. He ends his letter with this:

For a great many, it’s time for the cult of personality of James MacDonald at Harvest chapter to close and the actual Bible to be opened again.

Muller’s letter is a summary of the public allegations hurled at MacDonald and HBC over the past several years. We learn in it that Muller suggested an attorney for the now dropped defamation suit against a journalist, two bloggers and the bloggers’ wives. In it, Muller claimed that MacDonald asked Muller for a $3-million donation to HBC. According to Muller, MacDonald asked Muller to sell his memorabilia and give the proceeds to the church. In response, Muller asked MacDonald to sell his motorcycle. MacDonald refused.

Muller claims the church has not been honest in messages delivered to the public and that MacDonald has not been truthful about his home.  He also said the Naples sabbatical has been planned as a vacation and is not being described adequately to the public. He says the church is cultlike in trying to keep members from reading about the church from online sources.

Muller doesn’t hold back when describing Harvest elders. He refers to them as a “caldron of yes men” and a “marionette quartet” who have “lost their way.”

Muller’s advice to HBC is drastic:

Pastor James should come home and face his church family and stop this game of charades. The so-called “elders” must all be fired. An outside truly independent group, not picked by the MacDonald clan, must be brought in.

If this is true…

Those interested in HBC should read the entire letter.  I maintain that many people who attend a Harvest church are so far removed that they might not realize any of this is happening. However, if what Muller (and many critics) says is true, donors are enabling a dysfunctional organization. If history (e.g. Mars Hill Church) is a guide, many will quietly do exactly what Muller recommends.

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

Harvest Bible Chapel Fires Pastor of HBC – Naples (UPDATED)

John Secrest today informed Julie Roys that he has been fired from his position as pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Naples, FL. Secrest planted the church there as a ministry of Harvest Bible Fellowship. HBF was once affiliated with HBC. Those organizations parted ways last summer.

According to Roys, Secrest partnered with the HBC through the winter. Secrest did so without being aware of Roys’ investigation and pending article. In a letter to his congregation, Secrest said:

Dear Harvest Naples Friends,
I want you to know that I have asked the elders to reverse their decision to allow Pastor James to preach in Naples while on his sabbatical as outlined in the elder update sent to you on Wednesday 1/16/2019. This request was denied.

The good intentions of our ministry partnership with Harvest Chicago have been overshadowed by these developments. Furthermore, when we entered into this agreement there was not a disclosure of the investigative reporting which led to a lawsuit and the resulting fallout.

Read Roys’ article here. Secrest regretted his decision to enter the partnership and wanted to regain leadership of the church.

Secrest also wrote HBC yesterday and asked to reverse the agreement:

I am writing to express my disagreement with the decision to have Pastor James preach in Naples during this season of sabbatical.  Based on our conversations and other factors over the past 8 months I believe it would be best to revoke our ministry partnership and return Harvest Naples to self-governed autonomy.

Today, Secrest said he was fired. It is not clear if he was fired in response to his requests about the church or because he provided this information to Julie Roys. HBC did not return a request for comment.

I have a hard time putting this action together with the contrite statement by the HBC elders dated 1/16/19. In it, HBC leaders said they wanted peace and to listen.

UPDATE

This email was sent to HBC members:

Dear Harvest Naples Family,

It is with great sadness and regret that we write to inform you that John Secrest is no longer an employee of Harvest Bible Chapel.

Despite great efforts and reasoning, John has chosen not to yield to the consensus of our local leadership team or the elders of Harvest Bible Chapel. Conversations with John over the last few months, culminating this week, have made it clear that he no longer desires to work for Harvest Bible Chapel.

Because of his continued unwillingness to yield to the direction of the elders and the insubordinate email he recently sent counter to the elder direction, it became clear that he should not continue in his role.

Our hearts are grieved as John’s contributions to the Naples Campus cannot be understated. We wish him, Jessica, and his family well.

Harvest Naples will continue as a campus of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago with Pastor Rick Donald serving as interim Campus Pastor and Associate Travis Doucette as Pastor of Worship and Leadership Development. Pastor James MacDonald will not be preaching this weekend. Services will continue this Sunday at 9:00 and 11:00 am.

We recognize that situations like these often yield more questions than can be answered in one email. The local elders of Harvest Naples, Scott Stonebreaker and Fred Ananias, are available to field any additional questions.

We ask for your prayers as our church grieves this loss.

We are believing for good things as we lean into God and His Word.

Standing together,

The Harvest Naples Leadership Team and Elders

Unless there is a different email, the email sent by Secrest and posted by Roys expressed disagreement but certainly didn’t seem insubordinate.

 

James MacDonald to Take Sabbatical to Focus on Peacemaking

Last night, several sources told me that James MacDonald had resigned. I asked church spokeswoman Sherri Smith about those reports and she responded that MacDonald had not resigned.

However, MacDonald was about to make a change.

This morning Harvest Bible Chapel posted the following Elder Update:

Dear Harvest Family,

We have tried a variety of different strategies to address external criticisms over the past several years. It has become apparent that these efforts have failed to fully identify and address our personal failures, sins, and errors in leadership, thus perpetuating a continuation of the criticism. In prayerful reflection upon all that has happened and how we got here, a private meeting of the Executive Committee of the Elders on Monday, January 14, led to the decision to be part of a peacemaking process that seeks both reconciliation and change where needed, which was reviewed by the entire Elder Board last night.

We are reminded of these biblical imperatives:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:23-24

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’” Matthew 7:3-5

In an effort to invite others to join us, we are working with two highly respected ministries (modeled after “The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Conflict,” though not directly aligned with the organization of that name) that specialize in helping churches resolve issues in God-honoring ways. The peacemaking process will include:

    • The selection of a team of experienced and highly respected conciliators and organizational consultants who will guide us through an objective and comprehensive review process.
    • Reaching out to individuals who have left our fellowship or have complaints against us, listening carefully to their insights and correction, and asking God to enable us to confess our sins and make needed changes in our leadership.
    • Thoroughly examining our church’s organizational, financial, management, and leadership policies and practices, and making whatever changes are necessary to ensure that every area is being managed according to professional best practices and in a way that honors God.

While we had hoped that successful audits and re-examined/confirmed ECFA compliance would help heal some relational wounds, it simply hasn’t happened. As part of the peacemaking process, 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. Please be in prayer for Pastor James and Kathy through this season.

We are asking the Lord to lead us as we engage in this peacemaking process. The Lead/Campus Pastors will continue to lead the day-to-day ministry of the church, and we ask for your support as they do so. Campus Pastors will be present and available during normal Wednesday ministry tonight on all campuses.

– The Elders of Harvest Bible Chapel

___

From Pastor James:
For a long time I have felt unequal to all but the preaching task at Harvest. I have battled cycles of injustice, hurt anger, and fear which have wounded others without cause.

I have carried great shame about this pattern in certain relationships that can only be called sin. I am grieved that people I love have been hurt by me in ways they felt they could not express to me directly and have not been able to resolve. I blame only myself for this and want to devote my entire energy to understanding and addressing these recurring patterns.

I have long known and taught it is not about the messenger, it is about the message and I am grateful for a time of extended sabbatical, during which Harvest will be in capable hands. I may continue preaching at the Naples Campus through some of the winter season and have postponed all writing and leadership to begin in earnest now. I will continue this focus as long as it takes and participate wholeheartedly as requested in the process shared above. 

Please pray that this welcomed time of sabbatical rest will lead to needed changes in me and a fresh opportunity to reconcile with others in God’s time.

Christ is all He promised to be and more… “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me by still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3). Please pray for me and Kathy as we step away from the work, so God can do all He wants to do in the worker.

HBC and MacDonald recently dropped a defamation suit against two bloggers, their wives and journalist Julie Roys. The church and founding pastor have been under pressure amid allegations of financial mismanagement, lack of transparency, and authoritarian leadership style.

MacDonald’s move is reminiscent of Mark Driscoll’s sabbatical before he resigned as pastor at Mars Hill Church in 2014. As noted in a previous post, the path of HBC and MacDonald seems similar to Mars Hill and Driscoll’s. Throughout 2014, Mars Hill tried many things to address criticism without success. Focusing on Driscoll, the ex-members and ex-elders became increasingly vocal and public. The same thing is happening now with HBC.

One hopes that HBC can review the Mars Hill timeline and demise with an eye toward learning something of value. If history repeats itself, the multi-site HBC may splinter into local churches as did Mars Hill. Sources have told me that such an outcome has been discussed by HBC leaders.

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

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.