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Why is Christianity Today Running Interference for Pastor James MacDonald?

Cherie Vandermillen

[WARHORN] Pastor James MacDonald runs a pretty shady operation in Elgin’s Harvest Bible Chapel. The Elephant’s Debt blog and others have documented its financial shenanigans for years. Most recently Julie Roys of World magazine has written an article with stories of expelling kids from the church school when their pastor father refused to sign a noncompete agreement, revising church bylaws to move authority from the elders to a five-man committee, keeping secret 20% of the budget including the pay of the pastor and his sons, building a giant new house with a ten-car garage while claiming it was under 5,000 square feet in size, and repeatedly stabbing a photo of a rival pastor. Perhaps the most bizarre story is the one about the specially bred trophy deer herd.

The church also used Walk in the Word funds for an unusual project at Camp Harvest—the creation of a fenced trophy whitetail deer herd. 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. Harvest would not answer a question from WORLD about the overall cost of establishing, fencing, and maintaining the deer herd, but 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.”

However, according to Langdon and Alan Tsao, former comptroller at Harvest, proceeds from the herd were supposed to go toward church planting. Langdon said this was how Harvest leaders originally justified using HBF funds for the full-time salary of a Camp Harvest employee whose job included maintaining the deer herd.

Disturbing as these James MacDonald stories are, what is more disturbing is to see Christianity Today defending him. One day after the World article appeared, Christianity Today published a response. It doesn’t mention any of the stories I just listed, not even the deer herd. A quarter of it consists of printing MacDonald’s press release verbatim. But the the Christianity Todayarticle is worth reading. What it says doesn’t tell you much about James MacDonald, but what it doesn’t say tells you a lot about Christianity Today, a magazine evangelicals once held in high respect. You have to read between the lines, with discernment, because what makes the Christianity Todayarticle fascinating is the phrasing, who gets quoted, who they called for input, and, most important, what gets left out and who they didn’t call. So what I’ll do is go over the article line by line, giving it what bloggers call a “fisking.”

Here goes. The original CT content appears indented below.

Harvest Bible Chapel Disputes World Investigation of James MacDonald

Former staff and elders criticize shuffling of funds and 50-mile noncompete clauses for former pastors.


DECEMBER 14, 2018 10:06 AM

Start with

Harvest Bible Chapel Disputes World Investigation of James MacDonald

The title already shows this is a public relations job on behalf of James MacDonald. Rather than write a story about what World magazine writer Julie Roys found, Christianity Today writes about MacDonald saying her story is false— without telling us much about what her story said.

Former staff and elders criticize…

This, the title’s second sentence, is clever, and needs to be divided into parts, like a difficult Bible verse. Rather than say Worldmagazine criticizes, or Julie Roys criticizes, this says “former staff and elders” criticize, implying that the critics are biased and disgruntled, probably fired or excommunicated for personal immorality. Only nasty people criticize!

…criticize shuffling of funds…

It isn’t clear why any sane person would criticize someone for shuffling money, is it? “Shuffling” sounds so harmless. “Shuffling of funds” sounds downright boring. Who would want to read any further after that? What’s the big deal?

…and 50-mile noncompete clauses for former pastors.

If you did get past those boring “funds,” dear reader, you now see that life can get even more boring—obscure contract clauses. Accounting plus law: how exciting! We realize now, too, why the former staff and elders are complaining. They wanted to set up a new church right next to Harvest and steal away its members. Sort of like Harvest did when it opened up a new church in Orlando next to their first church plant (and emailed all the members to get them to switch) after the elders there fired the pastor, a friend of James MacDonald’s.

There’s something even more clever. Again, Christianity Today has chosen to make the story about the criticism of sin, not about sin. Nothing makes evangelicals as uncomfortable as criticizing others, and CT is making masterful use of this fact.

They could have written, “Shuffling of funds and noncompete clauses are criticized by former pastors and elders,” instead of “Former staff and elders criticize shuffling of funds and 50-mile noncompete clauses,” but that would shift the emphasis to the sin and away from the sin’s critics. See how what your high school English teacher’s lessons about writing come into practical use? Rhetoric is a useful tool, both for good and evil.

Here’s a more honest title:

James MacDonald’s Harvest Bible Chapel shuffles funds and requires 50-mile noncompete clauses for former pastors, World magazine finds

I deliberately used the same weak language for the allegations (which get a lot more dramatic than fund shuffling and noncompete clauses, if you read the Worldarticle) to show how phrasing makes a difference.

At least Christianity Today didn’t go with:

Church disputes World investigation of Pastor James MacDonald:

Discharged employees criticize pastor’s bookkeeping and deer hunting 

Of course, a really honest title, the kind a magazine would usually use to get readers to look at an article, would be something like:

Pastor James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel accused of diverting contributions; keeping salary secret from elders; shooting a pellet gun at photos of elders’ wives; expelling children of ex-pastor from the church school 

Doesn’t that make it sound more interesting? Isn’t it more accurate as a description of what World magazine says? I didn’t get an M.A. in “reporting and on-line journalism” like Kate Shellnutt, the author of the CT article, but when I write an article, I try to choose a title that makes it sound worth reading. Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on Mrs. Shellnutt, though. Usually it’s the editor who decides the title, not the reporter.

Why, then, did the editor choose a boring title? The obvious answer is that he’s on MacDonald’s side, and wants to minimize the damage from the World article. The Christianity Today article is so biased in MacDonald’s favor, it could have been written by a public relations firm. Maybe it was; we don’t know. Christianity Today was certainly fast off the starting line. The Worldarticle appeared at 3 p.m. December 13th and the Christianity Today article is dated 10:06 a.m. the next day. Somebody stayed up all night. Even more intriguing, a Twitter commenter tells me he saw the church post a link to the article a few minutes before Christianity Today made it available to the general public. If anyone can verify that or show me it’s wrong, please let me know.

You may laugh when I suggest that MacDonald’s public relations firm wrote Christianity Today’s article, but let’s take a look. It’s four pages long. The last page is completely written by MacDonald, because it’s his press release, quoted in full. Four more paragraphs consist mostly of quotes from his supporters. Thus, about 50% of the words were written by MacDonald and his people, even before we get to the rest of it.

Christianity Today also published an article by James MacDonald a month ago in which he defended his decision to sue Julie Roys for defamation, under the odd theory that though she hadn’t published anything yet, he knew she was working on the World story and she was telling people bad things about him. I don’t object to CT publishing MacDonald’s article. It was clearly his opinion, and not necessarily theirs, though presumably they agreed with it. After all, they didn’t ask the people being sued or any third parties for a response to Macdonald’s revelation that the Bible allows Christians to sue each other. (For my own thoughts, see “Christians suing Christians? Examining James MacDonald’s reasoning.”) Also, allowing Pastor MacDonald to publish something isn’t always doing him a favor. I showed his official court filing suing Julie Roys for defamation to a lawyer friend of mine who said his own words made him look so bad it was like self-defamation. His Christianity Today article in defense of Christians suing each other had a similar flavor. He starts off by saying that Christians used to think divorce was sinful, thirty years ago, but we took a harder look at the Bible and realized we were wrong, and then he just digs himself deeper into the hole.

But let’s continue.

In an investigation published by World magazine yesterday, former Harvest Bible Chapel leaders raise concerns over the Chicago-area megachurch’s operations, including claims of shuffling funds between related ministries and efforts to restrict former staff through noncompete clauses and nondisclosure agreements.

This repeats the idea that this is bitter ex-leaders complaining about accounting. It ignores the two-thirds of the World article that is about MacDonald’s autocratic leadership, vindictiveness, and almost psychopathic hatred of those who defy him.

Harvest officials said in a statement to CT that the report “fails to uncover desired scandal” and represents “the opinions of a few disgruntled former members” rather than the views of the church’s current elders.

Does Christianity Today have to tell us that the underlings of someone accused of being a vindictive tyrant support him? I’m not surprised that the current elders’ don’t say publicly that Pastor MacDonald is greedy, power-hungry, and a liar. It would be nice if “the church’s current elders” spoke for themselves, though, instead of letting “Harvest officials” speak for them.

In October, Harvest along with lead pastor James MacDonald filed a defamation lawsuit against the author of the World article, Julie Roys, for “asserting false allegations” during her eight-month investigation.

This paragraph surprised me. Christianity Today could have skipped mentioning the lawsuit. But maybe they thought their readers wouldn’t remember I Corinthians 6and its prohibition on Christians suing each other. Mentioning the lawsuit does add, though, to the idea that Mrs. Roys is a liar—such a liar that she’s been sued for false allegations. Most people don’t know that it’s very easy to sue anyone for anything. The hard part about suing is winning, something James MacDonald won’t be able to do.

In this week’s “Hard times at Harvest” article, Roys follows up with a trio of former Harvest elders who had a falling out with the church in 2013. MacDonald issued an apology over their “unbiblical discipline” in 2014.

“Falling out” makes it sound like the elders left because of policy disagreements about the color of the church rug or something like that Actually, they thought that as elders they should be entitled to see the church budget. Nope. For insisting, they were fired, excommunicated, and attacked as “Satanic” before the entire membership. It’s a nice touch to mention the apology, making the “former elders” appear to be small men, and the affair happily resolved.

Leaders stated today that Harvest “has owned its mistakes and endured to become a happier and healthier church” since.

Well if “leaders state it,” I guess it must be true. Harvest has lost a lot of members. Maybe that makes it a happier church, at least till the rest of the people get around to reading World magazine.

“Subsequent to the most vocal departures, the Elders of [Harvest] designed a system of Elder government filled with meaningful accountability for staff and active involvement of volunteer Elders that exceeds in every way the former system filled with conflicts of interest and poor decision making,” they stated.

It would have been easy for Christianity Today to check on how the system of elder government changed and see that what “they stated” is a lie, the exact opposite of the truth. All you need to do is look at the church bylaws, which make it clear the pastor can’t be fired and most of the elders have zero power, legal authority having been moved to a small executive committee dominated by MacDonald.

However, the former elders continue to critique the financial and organizational structures at Harvest, which numbers 13,000 attendees across seven locations.

True. The former elders critique them, but they are a small part of the critique. It comes mainly from bloggers and journalists, people like me who have had very little to do with the church. (I did attend once or twice while on vacation. Pastor MacDonald was an excellent preacher, with good theology and a real talent for teaching. I had no opportunity to find out whether he was also godly, a separate virtue which, alas, is missing from most of the talented teachers I’ve known in my university career.)

World reports that Harvest shifted significant funds from MacDonald’s popular radio program, Walk in the Word, and from its former church planting arm, Harvest Bible Fellowship (HBF), for Harvest Bible Chapel operations. In a letter obtained by the magazine, a pastor at a former HBF church plant indicated the 2017 split “occurred because HBF pastors believed Harvest had inappropriately used fellowship funds for its own purposes.”

Harvest previously stated that all of the funds from the fellowship were “utilized solely for church-planting purposes.”

“Harvest shifted significant funds”? You can tell from Christianity Today not mentioning the amount that the number is huge. Huge, like over $1 million. I agree with Christianity Today that that’s “significant funds.” I think I could fund quite a few church plants for that amount of money.

But what does “shifted” mean? It’s like in:  “I was mugged, and the guy shifted a hundred dollars.” “Stole significant funds”, while accurate and biblical, is a bit too dramatic, though, so I think Christianity Today should have said, “took significant funds.” They should also have noted that the objection to using Walk in the Word funds was that donors were told the funds would be used for the radio ministry, not for the radio preacher’s home church. Without that explanation, Christianity Today readers will wonder what’s wrong with a church using funds from its radio show.

The legality of transferring funds between projects within an umbrella organization depends if they were designated by donors for a particular project—like a building fund, for example—or are unrestricted contributions.

Here’s where Christianity Today gets to the point, or, rather, evades the point, since it doesn’t mention that the funds in the Worldarticle were designated by donors for particular purposes.

“Moving between restricted funds is a big no-no, and borrowing from restricted funds is a big no-no,” said Frank Sommerville, an attorney and CPA with expertise in church legal issues. “That is an area churches are very loose on generally.”

“A big no-no”? As in “criminal”? Or “unethical”? Or “deserving of damnation”? “Big no-no” makes it sound like taking money from charities you control and giving it to your own organization means Pastor MacDonald needs a time-out. Or maybe he shouldn’t be allowed to play videogames this week. Note also the equating of borrowing between funds and outright transfer. These are not the same things.

“That is an area churches are very loose on generally.”

Yes, the same as how they are very loose on reporting child sexual abuse, pastor adultery, and any number of scandalous things. Christianity Today includes this sentence to make it sound like churches commingle funds all the time and it’s no big deal, just an accounting lapse. It may be quite common for churches to borrow from their own building fund if cash gets tight. I’m fairly sure readers can see the difference between that and taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from your church planting fellowship—funded in part by member churches—to pay for equipment upgrades in your own well-funded church.

This week, after visiting the church’s main campus in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) reported that Harvest “is in full compliance with each of ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship and remains a member in good standing with ECFA.”

This says a lot about ECFA. It sounds like they were called in to provide cover for Pastor MacDonald because he knew he’d need it once the World article came out.

ECFA officials specifically reviewed internal policies around transactions between the church and related ministries, as well as compensation-setting. The former chair of Harvest’s elder board, Robert Jones, told World that ECFA President Dan Busby previously called MacDonald’s salary “unremarkable.”

ECFA has put its reputation on the line here with that word “unremarkable”, though we may never know how big MacDonald’s salary really is. He’s keeping it secret, so presumably he’s embarrassed about one of two things: how big his salary is, or how small it is. Of course, it might turn out, too, that the salary is indeed unremarkable, but the bonus is gigantic.

Bob Langdon, former financial director for HBF, and Alan Tsao, former comptroller at Harvest Bible Chapel, told World that Harvest restricted access to about 20 percent of its budget to a small group of top leaders. According to church bylaws, MacDonald and four or five elders, who make up the executive committee, oversaw the portion of the budget with leaders’ salaries, which was controlled by the church’s chief financial officer.

The executive committee is the church’s legal governing body, with elders Bill Sperling, Jeff Smith, and Steve Huston listed on the HBC website as current members. The other “elders” are not the governing body, just a bunch of members on a committee who get a nice title.

“The reason you want to divide it up that way is because of privacy concerns,” “I will say it is unusual in that it’s not the majority [of churches], but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen that happen…. Typically that’s executive compensation shielded from everybody else because they want to protect that individual piece of data from being out and being misused.”

Of course it’s privacy concerns. The pastor wants privacy, because he’s embarrassed at how much he’s making off people with ordinary incomes who donate to the church. It’s true that many churches keep their pastors’ pay secret, but it’s a disgrace to the Church. All nonprofits except for churches have to make public the pay of their five highest paid employees. All corporations that sell their stock publicly have to do that too. The government requires this so the directors and staff can’t secretly profit at the expense of donors and shareholders. Unfortunately, church members have no such protection against greedy pastors. We have ourselves to blame, really. Nobody should attend a church which keeps its pastor’s pay a secret from members. There’s just no excuse. Reader, do you know your pastor’s salary? Whether it’s high or low, you should, because you’re paying for it, and you should be embarrassed either way, whether you’re letting him steal from you, or putting his family on food stamps.

Typically that’s executive compensation shielded from everybody else because they want to protect that individual piece of data from being out and being misused.”

As I said, only in the church world is executive compensation a secret; in the corporate world, it’s not. What lawyer Sommerville really means is “they want to protect that individual piece of data from making the congregation angry.” In his view, warning people that their pastor is making a gigantic salary is “misuse.” Note well that if a church hires a lawyer, it should hire one that sees his client as being the church and not the church’s pastor, since sometimes what is good for the pastor is not good for the church.

It’s also remarkable that Christianity Todaywas able to get an expert like Mr. Sommerville to give input when World published its article around 3 p.m. Thursday and Christianity Today saw it, assigned a writer, wrote an article, edited it, and posted it by 10:06 a.m. on Friday morning. Or did Christianity Today write its article in advance?

ECFA found Harvest to be in compliance with its requirement that churches with individual salaries over $150,000 authorize a committee to determine compensation “and those participating in the decision-making process may not have any conflict of interest in the decision, whether direct or indirect.”

That the pastor not set his own salary is a pretty minimal ethical requirement. If ECFA was really trying to rein in unethical behavior, they’d refuse to certify any church that kept the pastor’s salary secret from the congregation. Isn’t this a simple, clear, and obvious first step? ECFA’s failure to include it means we really don’t have to read any further in their lengthy description of all the administrative procedures they do require. It’s worth noting that if an executive wants to overpay himself, the safest way to do it, legally, is to make the board of directors (or elders, if it’s a church) go through lots of procedures and votes. Then the judge will apply the “business judgement rule,” which says that if the board seems to have thought carefully before it paid the executive double the market salary, the court isn’t going to interfere.

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Eric Rasmusen and originally published at WARHORN]