Harvest Bible Chapel promises leadership purge after James MacDonald’s firing

Days after announcing they had fired their Founding Pastor James MacDonald on February 13, 2019, the multi-campus Harvest Bible Chapel in greater Chicago, Il., said they will be purging the church's executive leadership in coming months. This image reflects the church's executive committee as they appeared on Harvest Bible Chapel's website in March 2018.
Days after announcing they had fired their Founding Pastor James MacDonald on February 13, 2019, the multi-campus Harvest Bible Chapel in greater Chicago, Il., said they will be purging the church's executive leadership in coming months. This image reflects the church's executive committee as they appeared on Harvest Bible Chapel's website in March 2018. | Screenshot: Harvest Bible Chapel

Just days after announcing the firing of founding pastor James MacDonald last Wednesday, the multi-campus Harvest Bible Chapel in greater Chicago said it will also be purging the church's executive leadership in the coming months.

Bill Sperling, identified as an elder on the church’s executive committee, said in a video recording cited by the Chicago Tribune Sunday that the executive committee will be completely replaced in the coming months.

It’s been “without question one of the most difficult weeks in the history of the church,” Sperling said as he acknowledged how the church’s leadership “failed” in some areas to hold themselves accountable in MacDonald’s controversial saga that culminated with his firing.

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Sperling’s announcement of the purging of HBC’s executive committee comes after dozens of congregants protested with a walkout as Assistant Senior Pastor Rick Donald preached a sermon at the Rolling Meadows campus on Saturday night titled “How to Respond in a Storm.”

“If I had to choose a word that kind of describes where we’re at as a church right now, I would use the word storm,” Donald said in the recording cited by the Tribune.

Protesting congregants argue that Donald, seen as MacDonald’s right-hand man and a founding HBC member, should not have been chosen to address the church at such a delicate time. They also did not agree with the ongoing issues that led to MacDonald’s firing being characterized as a “storm.”

“I’m willing to stay, and I’m willing to rebuild,” Rene Cross, a member for more than seven years told the Tribune. “But I was really surprised that they chose Rick Donald to come in and preach, seeing as he’s been James MacDonald’s friend and they built the church up for 30-plus years.

“I just got up quietly and walked out because I felt like that’s the right thing to do,” Cross added. “We’re not in a storm. It was sin.”

Another longtime church member, Jen Thorman, agreed in an extended post on Facebook.

“Harvest Bible Chapel has been our church home for many years (2005 for Jen, 2009 for Phil). We (her husband Philip Thorman) were married in this church. This is the only church home our kids have ever known. We are leaders here. We LOVE our church. We see God working here,” she said.

“But there are problems. Systemic problems far beyond normal stuff you’d expect from a bunch of sinful people trying to do their best for the Lord. Character problems. Power problems. Financial problems. Transparency problems. James was the major offender but he did not act alone. Many others enabled James and perpetuated a power/fear culture which makes them complicit and part of the problem. This cannot continue in Christ’s church,” she continued.

“The issue many of us had was that the leaders of our church thought it would be wise to have Rick Donald get up and preach tonight. Rick - who has been James’ right hand man for roughly 30 years? This shows an extreme lack of understanding for what the congregation needs right now.

“We hoped to at least hear repentance from Rick, but instead he tried to relate to us saying he’s feeling confused like we are. Confused....after 30 years of being James’ closest friend and confidant? We’re not buying it."

Sperling explained, “We failed to identify opportunities to prevent new grievances and in addressing these matters privately we failed to communicate with the church in a timely manner and in a way that gave clarity and prevented confusion among the congregation.”

MacDonald was removed as senior pastor last week due to "highly inappropriate recorded comments" he made that were recently made public on a local radio program as well as "other conduct."

MacDonald was recorded talking about planting child pornography on Christianity Today CEO's Harold Smith's computer, and making crude remarks about independent journalist Julie Roys — including joking that she had an affair with CT Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli — and a vulgar reference to Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

"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," the elders said last week.

The current link to the executive committee on the church’s website no longer reflects any content. The cached page lists seven persons on Harvest Bible Chapel’s executive committee however, as recently as March 2018. They are: MacDonald; Rick Donald, assistant senior pastor and elder; Scott Milholland, senior executive pastor and chief operating officer; Luke MacDonald, executive ministry pastor; Jeff Donaldson, executive ministry pastor; Trei Tatum, executive pastor of stewardship; and Janine Nelson, executive director of Walk in the Word.

The church plans on moving ahead with a new team called Harvest 2020, which will consist of congregants, staff, professionals and elders, to complete a review of the church, the Tribune said.

Rick Korte, a church member, will lead the team.

“What we’re asking you is to give us some time,” he said in an appeal to congregants. “Give us time to look at the failures, to dig deeply into what we have done wrong, give us the chance to fix this. If we haven’t done anything in 30, 60, 90 days, if this team is not able to push us forward, then I will walk with you hand in hand and we can leave. But I want you to stay with us now.”

Some of the protesting members said they are encouraged by this initiative.

“I’m just doing lots of praying and asking God for wisdom,” Cross told the Tribune. “I don’t want to do anything that hurts the church. I love Harvest and have grown so much here. We just can’t keep going in the direction we are in.”

Addressing the new team in her post, Thorman noted: “We also appreciated hearing about the new Harvest 2020 committee that will be digging into all areas of concern and seeking to make changes where needed. We’re willing to wait and hoping to see good things from you. Show us what you can do!”

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