The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has suspended Chicago-area megachurch Harvest Bible Church following the firing of its longtime pastor James MacDonald and amid ongoing revelations that the ministry had misappropriated funds.
In a statement from ECFA President Dan Busby Friday, the ministry watchdog group said the board of directors was suspending HBC's membership as of March 14.
"On November 28, 2018, ECFA opened a formal investigation of Harvest Bible Chapel to review their compliance of ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship. During a site visit to the church in December, we thoroughly examined the information made available to us and believed the church was in compliance with our standards," Busby said.
Yet in light of recent investigative reporting that documented several instances of financial malfeasance and unpacked how the church was structured in such a way to shield ministry resources from scrutiny, the organization has changed its tune.
"Given the emergence of new information, we have concerns the church may be in serious violation of ECFA Standards 2, 3, 4, and 6. During the indefinite suspension, the church may not represent that they are an ECFA member or display ECFA’s membership seal," Busby said.
"The investigation has been and will remain ongoing during the suspension as we work to determine whether Harvest Bible Chapel should be terminated, advised of the steps necessary to come into full compliance or whether they are in fact in compliance with our standards and should, therefore, be restored to full membership.”
The ECFA's standards require that each organization must be governed by no fewer than five people, a majority of whom are independent, and maintain accurate financial records and utilize proper management and controls. The Friday statement about HBC did not elaborate on the specifics of how the church may have violated their standards.
The change in stance comes as former members of the church are demanding that thousands of dollars in donations be returned as questions persist about the misuse of funds.
The local CBS affiliate reported Monday that former parishioners Scott and Marsha Thompson now want back the $72,000 they gave over the course of a few years when they were members because of the allegations of financial misappropriation.
Thompson told the outlet that he began questioning MacDonald's spending habits back in 2006 when he saw his $2 million home on a private lake, which was featured in a local magazine. He left the church in 2013
“All this is coming out that millions of dollars potentially has been mishandled,” he said regarding why he is now going public with his complaints.
The Christian Post reached out to the church for comment, inquiring specifically about the financial review the ministry says they are doing, but did not receive a response by press time.
An interim leadership team, however, has announced that the church "is opening a new bank account to handle members' tithes, and the money will be used only for ministry expenses, 'banking obligations' and staff salaries," according to the Daily Herald Monday. No funds are being directed to the senior pastor's office or to items in past budgets.
The church has also announced that donations recently have dropped by 40 percent and that they are significantly reducing their operating expenses.
Journalist Julie Roys, whose investigative journalism about the allegations of suspicious financial activity at HBC was published in December in World magazine, said Monday that it was "stunning" that it took as long as it did for the ECFA to act and suspend the Chicago-area church. This is especially the case, she stressed, particularly given her follow-up reporting from last month documenting additional instances of abuse of church funds.
"The fact that ECFA didn’t discover these violations itself is bad enough. But the fact that the group failed to act even after I reported these glaring violations is inexcusable. What it took to finally force the group’s hand was my report that MacDonald had funded African safaris, Florida vacations, and other luxury purchases with church funds," Roys explained on her blog Monday.
"I can’t imagine how anyone could put any trust in the group’s ability to hold any church or ministry 'accountable' as it claims," she said.
In a March 12 statement to CP, Busby said that the information Roys reported was "cause of significant concern" and that they would be addressing it in the coming days.