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.

 

 

 

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

The Elephant's Debt is Back

HBC logoThe Elephant’s Debt is back.
I surmise that this news is not welcome in Elgin, IL at the HQ of the Harvest Bible Chapel empire led by James MacDonald. Read the first two paragraphs of TED’s executive summary:

Executive Summary

The Elephant’s Debt is a website dedicated to exposing some of the underlying reasons why many people have both privately and publicly questioned the character of Pastor James MacDonald and his lack of qualifications for being an elder and pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel of Rolling Meadows, Illinois.
By the close of 2010, Harvest’s balance sheet revealed that the church, while under the pastoral leadership of James MacDonald, had amassed approximately $65 million of debt, and in the midst of addressing the issues raised by this website, HBC Elders informed the congregation that the debt had been as high as $70 million.  While this number in and of itself is shocking, what makes it worse is that some elders and much of the congregation had no knowledge of the extent of the debt.  The rapid expansion of MacDonald’s ministry, for reasons of ego as much as concern for the Kingdom, was the cause for the sudden and surprising accumulation of debt.  The point in raising the surprisingly accumulation of debt is not to question the current financial stability of the institution, but it is put forth as an example of the underlying character issues of MacDonald that many people are now expressing publicly.

So what brought the folks at TED back? Read this post about the “resignation” (forced removal?) of James MacDonald as president of the mission arm of HBC – Harvest Bible Fellowship.  I had this news out first but TED is the leader when it comes to Harvest Bible Chapel so check out the analysis of the current situation.
MacDonald was once a member of Mark Driscoll’s Board of Advisors and Accountability as well as a member of Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board. To his credit, he left Trump’s board when it became clear the board wasn’t getting anywhere. He left Driscoll’s board when the heat got hot at Mars Hill Church.
Stay tuned…
 
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What's Going on at Harvest Bible Fellowship? James MacDonald Resigns as President of HBF

UPDATE (6/15/17): I have informed by multiple sources that the pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, James MacDonalds, wrote Harvest Bible Fellowship member pastors yesterday to step away from leadership of HBF.  According to the communication I have seen, MacDonald said, “As of this notice, the Harvest Bible Chapel that I lead is resigning all responsibility to lead our fellowship of churches and administer the funds that you send to our Elgin campus in support of church planting. I, too, am resigning my role as President and, as of this notice, retain no role of influence over the work of HBF.”
He added that the work of HBF is now in the hands of interim Executive Director Brian White and “governance leaders, Ron Zappia, Bill Borinstein, and Robbie Symons.” MacDonald asked the HBF pastors to give the new leaders support and called them “good men.”
MacDonald said he and Harvest Bible Chapel will “continue to plant Harvest Bible Chapels and Vertical Churches retaining ownership of those marks and brands which we gladly share without reservation or new condition with all of you.” He added that those church planting efforts will continue under the oversight of HBC’s elder board.
Although the email indicates that the Vertical Church Conferences may be “suspended,” the current splash page for Harvest Bible Fellowship says the August conference is on.
HBF splash clip
Stay tuned…
The original post starts below:
On June 10 of this year, Harvest Bible Fellowship’s website actively promoted James MacDonald’s church network and Vertical Church Conferences. HBF is (or was) the church planting arm of Harvest Bible Chapel, a megachurch in the Chicago area.
Now amid rumors of a shake up at HBF (and the flagship Vertical Church Conference), the HBF website went from active to being “under construction” to being parked at Go Daddy.
On June 10:
Harvest BF WB
Under construction early this afternoon:
harvest BF cap
Now the domain is being parked at GoDaddy.com.
Harvest Go

James MacDonald Regrets Wrongful Discipline of Harvest Bible Chapel Elders

Perhaps James MacDonald can do more good for Mars Hill Church off the Board of Advisors and Accountability than he did for the church while on it.
This is an extraordinary account of repentance and apparently reconciliation at Harvest Bible Chapel reported in Christianity Today late yesterday. CT’s article begins:

On Sunday, prominent pastor James MacDonald told his 13,000-member Harvest Bible Chapel congregation that he and his elder board were wrong for how they publicly disciplined three elders last year.

“For many months, we have labored under the awareness that our church discipline of a year ago was a failure in many respects, not the least of which was the complete lack of biblically required restorative component, which wronged the brothers that we were attempting to help,” MacDonald said in a videotaped message.

Harvest’s elder board has now “lifted all discipline” from the former elders (Scott Phelps, Barry Slabaugh, and Daniel Marquardt), apologized to them, and been reconciled to them after “outside Christian leaders” recently brought everyone back to the table, MacDonald said.

“Although the remaining elders of Harvest agreed to the need for such discipline, we almost immediately realized that we erred in the manner in which it was done and in what it implied,” said MacDonald. He noted, “We delayed making this confession, not wanting to worsen matters as we prayed for a true reconciliation. Praise God, that reconciliation happened meaningfully and mutually this week.”

The video from MacDonald and former elder chair Robert Jones is here.

I suspect this is difficult for Paul Petry, Bent Meyer and Lief Moi to watch, but perhaps hopeful as well that such a result could also come to Mars Hill Church.

James MacDonald Resigns from Mars Hill Board; Update on Paul Tripp's Resignation

As has been widely discussed on social media, Mars Hill Church announced in the weekly email to their congregation that James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Fellowship, resigned from the Board of Advisors and Accountability. The BOAA is Mars Hill Church’s governing board and is made of the executive elders (Mark Driscoll, Sutton Turner, Dave Bruskas) and four men who are not members of Mars Hill (now just two — Larry Osborne and Michael Van Skaik). The email message also provided a confusing update on Paul Tripp who also resigned from the BOAA. In reaction to the emails, two current elders blasted the emails as being “spin” and demonstrating a lack of transparency.
The entire message is below (link to image):

“Upcoming Changes to the BOAA

Dr. Paul Tripp joined our Board of Advisors and Accountability in November 2013 and has been an immense help to our leaders over the past year. Dr. Tripp has extensive experience in discipleship and Biblical counseling. Earlier this month, we made the decision together to open the opportunity for him to work with greater focus on issues directly related to his expertise, namely the continued development of our community and redemption ministries.

Because simultaneously being a board member and a consultant does not allow for the required definition of “independence,” Dr. Tripp graciously submitted his resignation from the BOAA in early June, so that he can more extensively serve our church as a consultant. We are excited to continue this work with him, and are thankful for his continued support of Mars Hill Church.

Similarly, Pastor James MacDonald informed the board at the July meeting of his decision to transition from his current role on the board pending his replacement. Pastor James has been a great help in forming the current board’s direction, and we are very grateful for his time and wisdom over the last several years. About this transition he commented, “I have great love and affection for Mars Hill Church and I want to make clear this change is not because I am unhappy with Mark’s response to board accountability. On the contrary, I have found him to be exemplary in his current readiness to live under the BOAA oversight. I am not resigning because I doubt Mark’s sincerity in any way. I believe in Mark Driscoll and his heart to leverage difficult lessons in service to Christ and his church in the years ahead. I am excited to continue to support that trajectory as Mark’s friend, as I focus my efforts on Harvest Bible Fellowship.”

About these transitions, Pastor Mark shared, “I am thankful for the service of both Paul and James, two men I admire and respect. Their service on our board has been a blessing to me and Mars Hill Church in countless ways. The amount of hours they have given as volunteers is extraordinary, especially in light of their other ministry demands.”

Candidates are currently being interviewed to replace these open board positions. They will be submitted before the Full Council of Elders for their approval as soon as possible.”

Taking together this message and another one which was sent today to the full council of elders, the timing of the resignations is confusing. According to the above communication, a joint decision was made “earlier this month” (although the email is dated August 1, I assume “this month” means July) “to open the opportunity for him [Tripp] to work with greater focus on issues directly related to his expertise, namely the continued development of our community and redemption ministries.” Then the email discloses that Tripp “graciously submitted his resignation from the BOAA in early June” so he could work as a consultant for the church. This email makes it sound like he resigned a month before a decision was made to retain him as a consultant. 
Tripp’s decision to resign sparked concern in several of the former pastors who requested mediation with Mars Hill. Currently, a mediation group is holding meetings with former pastors and others who desire reconciliation with the executive elders. That group of elders were not informed of Tripp’s June resignation until this week.
Another point of confusion was the timing of James MacDonald’s resignation. According to the email above, MacDonald informed the BOAA of his decision to resign at the July 6 BOAA meeting. However, the full council of elders were told today in an email from Sutton Turner that MacDonald informed the BOAA board chairman “late this week” that he would like to step off the board. See the email below:
BOAAFullCouncilMacD
The email to the full council of elders also says MacDonald’s announcement was a “surprise to the Executive Elders.” It is unclear which email is correct.
In addition to concern among former elders, the announcements today also upset at least two current elders who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear retaliation. One said, “Once again, just another sad example of trying to spin the truth into something more manageable, instead of just accepting reality.” Another current elder was more pointed, saying, “Time and time again I’ve seen Sutton lie to the church and not be willing to be transparent about what is going on. Our people deserve better. Sutton is a sad excuse for a pastor and should have never been put in this role.”  
While there may be an explanation for these discrepancies, these current elders believe they have been deceived about the reasons for the BOAA resignations.
 
 

Does Mars Hill Really Want to Mediate With the 20 Former Pastors?

According to sources in Mars Hill Church, Mars Hill leaders have floated a response to the twenty former pastors who in early March sought mediation with the church leadership. Those pastors were once employed by Mars Hill Church and are now represented by Dave Kraft and Kyle Firstenberg. The group has a number of grievances with Mars Hill leaders and in a March 17 letter asked for a impartial mediator to help resolve the concerns.
If the reports are accurate, the mediator may not fit the request for an independent person. According to my sources, the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) have proposed to bring in a person who works for James MacDonald. MacDonald is a friend and colleague of Mark Driscoll as well as one of the members of the BOAA. In this proposal, an employee of a BOAA member would be mediating a dispute between the BOAA and people with grievances. How could such a person be considered objective and unbiased?
There must be wise and objective people who do not have relationships with the people involved. The 20 pastors asked for a neutral party but this response, if pressed, does not appear to respond to their request. It will be hard to take the Mars Hill BOAA seriously if they push forward with this proposal.