Difficult Days Lay Ahead for Harvest

[World Magazine] Five years ago, Harvest Bible Chapel, a Chicago-area megachurch with multiple campuses and an average weekly attendance exceeding 12,000, sent shock waves through the Christian community when it publicly excommunicated two former elders and indirectly censured a third.

The edict was news beyond Chicago because James MacDonald is Harvest’s pastor: His Walk in the Word radio and TV ministry reaches millions weekly. Harvest also is home to Vertical Worship, Vertical Church Films, Vertical Church Network, and Harvest Christian Academyin Elgin, Ill., and Camp Harvest in Newaygo, Mich.

What many didn’t know at the time was that the September 2013 surprise came just 24 hours after eight former elders—including longtime board chairman Dave Corning—sent a strongly worded letter to the remaining elder board. The letter stated that 2 Timothy 3:1-5 lists nearly 20 traits that disqualify a person from being a pastor or elder, and “it is our opinion that these apply substantially to James.”

The letter charged MacDonald with, among other things, “self-promotion … love of money … domineering and bullying … abusive speech … outbursts of anger … [and] making misleading statements,” adding, “We are prepared to bring forth a host of specific examples and witnesses.” (WORLD has published the entire letter here.)

Harvest officials quickly went on the offense. In a video shown on seven Harvest campuses the next day, four sitting elders accused the three former elders who had resigned most recently—Scott Phelps, Barry Slabaugh, and (without naming him) Dan Marquardt—of “great sin” for sending the letter to the elder board. Current elder Steve Huston warned members to avoid the three men, saying they were “defiling many people.”

WORLD covered the dispute briefly and reported the three censured men’s accusations that Harvest had a puppet elder board that did not even have access to financial details such as MacDonald’s salary. They also said the church fostered a “culture of fear and intimidation” and left a trail of broken relationships.

In September 2014, MacDonald said the church had reconciled “meaningfully and mutually” with the censured elders. He apologized for the harsh manner in which leadership had disciplined Phelps, Marquardt, and Slabaugh. The three former elders told WORLD they had accepted MacDonald’s apology—and WORLD happily relayed news of restoration.

“In exchange for an apology, we agreed to leave [Harvest] alone, and let the elder board bring about the necessary reforms,” the three former elders recently wrote in a joint statement.

But now the three elders believe they were misled: Marquardt told me he hasn’t seen evidence of reforms at Harvest, and instead has heard repeated stories of mistreatment. The five other signers of the 2013 letter likewise say they’ve seen no evidence that the character issues involving MacDonald have been resolved. I’ve also interviewed more than two dozen former staff, elders, and members of Harvest, including some who have left the church within the past two years. They similarly claim that MacDonald and other Harvest leaders have shown an ongoing pattern of relational and financial abuse, a lack of transparency, and outright deception.

In a November interview with WORLD, MacDonald and other Harvest elders and leaders disputed much of the criticism. MacDonald admitted he was sometimes “too intense,” but noted he has not been involved in staff management at Harvest for almost 10 years, and said, “We don’t belittle people.” Former elder board chairman Robert Jones, who said he has worked with MacDonald for over 20 years, said, “His character is not in question, his growth in grace is evident to all.”

What follows are WORLD’s look at major points of contention and responses from MacDonald and Harvest leadership.

MacDonald speaks at the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference.  (Bill Bangham/Baptist Press)

A RELATIVELY RECENT EXAMPLE of questionable practices involved the 2017 dissolution of Harvest Bible Fellowship(HBF), the church’s former church planting network of more than 150 independent churches. In a June 2017 email sent to HBF pastors, MacDonald notified them about “an important decision that I have come to over many months with my senior staff and Elders”—a decision to dissolve the church’s governance of the fellowship, effective immediately. However, in an elder updateposted to Harvest’s website months later, the church’s elders admitted that MacDonald had acted without their approval, violating church bylaws. (They added that MacDonald had “expressed regret” and been “appropriately reprimanded.”)

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Julie Roys and originally published at World Magazine]

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