Harvest Bible Chapel, James MacDonald scrutinized for culture of fear, intimidation; church denies

Pastor James MacDonald speaking to his congregation about the need to welcome all without judgment.
Pastor James MacDonald speaking to his congregation about the need to welcome all without judgment. | (Screenshot: Harvest Bible Chapel)

A prominent Chigaco-area evangelical megachurch is under scrutiny for an alleged culture of intimidation, fear, and suspicious financial activities, allegations the church says amount to an unfair attack from a journalist with an "unhealthy fixation" on it.

Harvest Bible Chapel, which has several campuses across the Chicago area, was the subject of an eight-month-long investigation by former Moody Radio host and author Julie Roys, who published her findings in the most recent issue of World magazine.

Her report detailed the actions of former elders who believed that longtime pastor James MacDonald was unfit to serve any longer in light of the New Testament requirements for being an elder or pastor. In 2013, eight of them penned a letter describing how MacDonald loved and mismanaged money, bullied people, and was known for "abusive speech," "outbursts of anger" and making misleading statements.

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This set in motion a dispute that garnered some notable press coverage at the time. MacDonald ultimately apologized for the harsh way church leadership had disciplined three of those eight former elders and those three elders accepted his apology in exchange for leaving the church alone and allowing the current elders to reform the ministry. Yet now those three elders and others say that they think no reforms have been implemented and that the culture of abusive treatment and shady financial activity has continued.

Writing on her blog Tuesday, Roys elaborated further, quoting Randy Williams, a current HBC elder and former chairman of the church's executive committee — a group of a few elders and MacDonald that make financial and legal decisions for the church — who said in a November 2017 text message to a pastor at an independent Harvest Bible Chapel in Indianapolis that he was recusing himself from EC activities and the leadership team because MacDonald and the senior leaders conduct themselves with "deceitfulness and manipulation," and are trying "to run a cult and control the masses."

"I don’t see anything short of a public media exposé getting James [MacDonald] on his knees," Williams concludes.

Harvest's bylaws state that the executive committee has the "sole responsibility" for approving annual budget and salaries for MacDonald and senior staff.

Two other pastors once linked with HBC — David Wisen, teaching pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel Spring Lake, and Bill Borinstein, former pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel North Phoenix — likewise express in a separate text thread from July 2017 their concerns with how the church's affairs are being run and about MacDonald's ongoing patterns of behavior.

Roys obtained those words via a subpoena in defense of a lawsuit Harvest filed against her weeks before her investigative report was published.

She explains that in recent years the church brought under its authority formerly independent nonprofit entities like MacDonald's radio broadcast called "Walk in the Word" and the now disbanded church planting network, Harvest Bible Fellowship, enabling the shifting of funds between them.

A 2017 audit revealed that when HBF dissolved, the church used $1 million from Walk in the Word to cover its liabilities. Harvest also used money from Walk in the Word to pay for the creation of a "fenced trophy whitetail deer herd" at Camp Harvest, year-round church-owned facility in Newaygo, Michigan.

"According to a web page Harvest posted on Oct. 30, people may hunt at the camp for $6,000-$8,000 per deer, with proceeds going to a Camp Harvest scholarship fund," Roys reported.

The church acknowledged in a statement that Walk in the Word pays the camp “a small annual maintenance fee for food, etc.” for the herd “as a thank you gift to the church.”

Roys' reporting chronicled accounts of Harvest leadership expelling children from the church school when their father would not agree to sign a "noncompete" agreement — an agreement to not plant a church within 50 miles of the campus. She also highlighted how the church reportedly kept secret 20 percent of the budget, including paying MacDonald and his sons, and how he constructed a large new home with luxury elements, including a 10-car garage, while maintaining the house was under 5,000 square feet (not counting the garage and basement).

The exact value of the house is disputed. MacDonald says his home was appraised for $1.4 million, a 2017 Kane Co. tax bill (which reported the house size as 8,500 square feet) listed the market value at $2.1 million, and Borinstein estimated in the text thread that the house is worth $4-5 million.

The Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability, however, is defending Harvest. In a statement posted on HBC's website, it was noted that the council visited the church on Dec. 10 and examined the accusations against the church related to their broadcast and church planting entities.

“As part of its ongoing compliance review process, ECFA staff were on-site at Harvest Bible Chapel earlier this month. Of particular interest was the church’s compliance with ECFA’s Standard 6, Compensation-Setting and Related-Party Transactions. Harvest Bible Chapel is in full compliance with each of ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship and remains a member in good standing with ECFA,” the statement reads.

This week, it was announced on SBC Voices that MacDonald is withdrawing from the upcoming Southern Baptist Convention's Pastors' Conference and is also foregoing all outside speaking engagements.

In a statement, MacDonald maintained that the World story was a sordid re-hashing of opinions from a few "disgruntled former members."

"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," he said.

"We have chosen the high road and refused to engage in public assault on people we once served closely with who just can’t seem to 'let it go,' even after all these years. The Elders are privy to many grace-filled private attempts to reconcile, extended in hopes that these unhappy Christians would find peace."

CP reached out to MacDonald Tuesday, inquiring specifically about his decision to withdraw from the SBC pastors' conference and outside speaking engagements and about the comments in the text threads Roys posted Tuesday.

A church spokesman replied in an email Wednesday that MacDonald has "been praying for a while about limiting his travel and speaking outside of Harvest. He felt led of the Lord to go ahead and do so for a season. That prayer preceded recent events.”

The HBC elders issued statements Tuesday of their own, defending MacDonald, the elder board and their actions. They believe Roys is attacking the elder board, has an "unhealthy fixation" with Harvest, and is trying to show that MacDonald does not submit to Elder authority and has no accountability, something they insist is "false."

The Tuesday elder statement also asserts that Randy Williams is not the man they know who said what he did in the text threads Roys published and that he has not been available to them.

"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," the statement reads.

"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."

HBC filed an emergency motion in court, an entry of protective order Friday to seal all the documents Roys subpoenaed, which the judged denied Tuesday morning. They then filed a regular motion which will be heard in January.

Roys' lawyer, Charles L. Philbrick, confirmed in a brief phone interview with The Christian Post Wednesday that Roys was not legally obligated to keep the specific text messages she released confidential.

CP will update this story as more emerges.

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