James MacDonald used church funds for African safari, lavish vacations, says former staff

James MacDonald preaching from God's Word.
James MacDonald preaching from God's Word. | (Photo: Courtesy of James MacDonald)

The recently ousted pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel James MacDonald took a lavish African safari vacation on the church's dime, a move the elders supported, a letter from his former bodyguard says.

The pricey excursion is but one example of misappropriation of ministry resources, other similar letters from previous and present church staff say, which were submitted to the elders several weeks ago.

Such allegations are but the latest controversy at the Chicago-area multi-campus megachurch, which continues to navigate changes in leadership as more top officials step down amid the fallout. Over the weekend, elder Steve Huston, who formerly chaired the HBC executive committee, resigned from his leadership post and apologized at a Saturday service for "ungodly" spending.

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In a Saturday post on her blog, journalist and former Moody Radio host Julie Roys noted that in a January letter — which was leaked to Roys — Jacob Ross, MacDonald's former bodyguard, sent to church leadership it was explained that MacDonald was not satisfied with a $5,000 budget for a vacation the church had allotted for him to take after a missions trip the longtime pastor said was stressful.

The $5,000 vacation was for an African safari in 2015 and MacDonald reportedly thought the amount was too small as he wanted to shoot a high-value animal, “a sable to be specific, which cost $15,000 to $20,000,” Ross noted in the letter.

MacDonald, who was fired last month after profane comments he made on a hot mic were played on the air by local radio personality Mancow Muller, reportedly called the former chief financial officer of the church to wire him the extra funds. The letter explains that the church also footed the bill for MacDonald, Ross and HBC Executive Pastor Jeff Donaldson — who is still on staff — for a three- to four-day stay at a resort in the Dominican Republic, in addition to flying each of their wives out to join them. MacDonald justified these expenses because of the "extreme stress" he experienced during the trip.

Julie Roys
Julie Roys

Roys also noted that another church employee penned a letter alleging that MacDonald green-lighted a $40,000 expense for a fence for a deer herd at Camp Harvest in Michigan, as "austerity measures” such as removing the coffee and water dispensers, were being implemented at the church.

"These expenditures were in addition to MacDonald’s salary, which the church continues to keep private. However, Dave Corning, a founding elder who chaired the elder board for 21 years, told me that in 2009, MacDonald was making a combined $550,000 from both the church and Walk in the Word, MacDonald’s broadcast ministry," Roys reported Saturday.

Other letters by both current and former staff that were submitted to the elders five weeks ago also outlined various kinds of financial malfeasance and referenced numerous instances where MacDonald's temper exploded and how he mistreated church employees, contractors and other Christian leaders.

Former executive director of business operations at HBC Dean Butters explained in his letter that the church had paid $50,000 to help MacDonald move and store his personal belongings, that MacDonald used church funds to purchase over $500 worth of cigars, and gave a waitress a $400 tip with church funds. Butters also explained in his letter to the elders that MacDonald demanded his office be renovated in 2013, which cost $150,000, while all senior and middle management, and their direct reports, had their pay reduced by 10 percent.

Harvest Bible Chapel is currently accredited by ministry watchdog group the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. 

ECFA President Dan Busby told CP that they will be reviewing the allegations.

“The new information alleging financial impropriety at Harvest Bible Chapel is obviously a cause for significant concern," he said. "We will be addressing the implications of these allegations immediately and expect to have more information about ECFA’s response in the coming days.”

Ross told Roys he left his bodyguard position because MacDonald kept verbally abusing him; he was called “stupid,” “incompetent,” “worthless,” and “of no use to him” and he could not take it any longer. Until now, Ross said he had kept quiet about everything that has been transpiring out of both fear and a desire to not harm his church.

“Those who are seeking to make the correct decision regarding the future of Harvest Bible Chapel simply can’t without the correct information," he said of his decision to speak. Ross also indicated that he thinks most of the elders, staff and parishioners are not aware of the multiple situations he documented in his letter.

Likewise, Butters explained that he left the church because he could no longer trust the leadership, adding that the “things I was seeing with my eyes, hearing with my ears, and feeling in my soul became more convincing than the narrative that was continually being spun.”

Roys spent eight months investigating Harvest and published her findings in World magazine in December. Prior to publication, the church sued her as well as two bloggers, along with their wives, who were former members and had been writing critically of MacDonald and HBC for several years, alleging illegal activity. When a judge denied the church two motions in January, HBC ultimately dropped the lawsuit.

The Christian Post reached out to Harvest Bible Church for comment on this article but did not receive a response by press time.

A March 10 team update posted on the church's website states that the church is committed to providing up-to-date information. The church notes that in the past 25 days they have seen the firing of the founding pastor, seen many staff resign in addition to the entire HBC Elder board, a "significant strain" in their finances with tithes and offerings falling 40 percent, and uncertainty of church-affiliated ministries such as Walk in the Word, MacDonald's teaching ministry.

The church is at present reviewing past business and personnel practices, answering questions church members are asking, identifying interim speakers for weekend services and fielding media inquiries, among other things.

A group of independent advisors is working with Plante Moran, a certified CPA firm, "to conduct a thorough, comprehensive review of the past financial affairs of our church," the church said.

"As our Harvest 2020 team is charged with reviewing all finances within the church, we have found that there was a lack of financial control and oversight as well as questionable spending practices made by the Senior Pastor’s office. In addition, we have identified there was a separate budget for the Senior Pastor’s office over which there was not sufficient controls and oversight. This review will certainly include, but not be limited to, the Senior Pastor’s office. We expect the results to provide information to guide new leadership in policy improvements and greater financial accountability."

The church also said it will ensure that every dollar from tithes will go toward "existing ministry expenses, banking obligations, and staff salaries" and will not be used for the senior pastor's office or past budgets. It also plans to reduce weekly operating expenses (not including mortgages) from $409,000 to $289,000. Additionally, a new department is being created to control how money is spent.

"We know trust is earned over time, and we are working diligently to take actions and to communicate in ways that begin restoring trust. We hope all that we have shared above shows a step in that direction. We also face the reality of our expenses and declined giving. If you call Harvest your church home, if this is where God is calling you to be, yet you have stopped giving your tithes, we are asking you to seek the Lord about restarting your giving. Above all else though, we are trusting the Lord in all things," the team update reads.

MacDonald founded the church over 30 years ago, starting with 18 people.

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