Cufflinks, Taxidermy, Ritzy Hotel Stays: James MacDonald and The Ethics of Gift Giving

By Barry Bowen
James MacDonald Harvest Bible Chapel
Disgraced former Harvest Bible Chapel pastor, James MacDonald.

“It has been said, ‘Show me a person’s checkbook and I can tell you what he cares about.’” – Social Action, 1964

James MacDonald, the controversial former pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC), is attempting to restore his reputation. In July, MacDonald posted on his website copies of checks as proof that he reimbursed HBC for personal expenses incurred during his time as pastor. One reimbursement check, dated December 28, 2018, was for $27,172.39!

The checks challenged a claim that MacDonald failed to reimburse the church.

MacDonald also provided monthly lists of church financial transactions revealing the cost of airline tickets, charter aircraft service, and gifts to pastors.

Concerned church donors and religion reporters rarely have access to this kind of financial information.

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Monthly statements disclosed that HBC and MacDonald’s media ministry Walk in the Word shared the cost of purchasing more than $1,000 of cufflinks for church employees. Other transactions included the purchase of more than $1,500 in gifts from Bloomingdales for a Greg Laurie marriage conference and $10,683.09 spent on taxidermy in the first half of 2016.

HBC sponsored a deer hunt as a fundraiser for a scholarship program. If taxidermy were included in the price for hunting, the donor would be required to deduct the taxidermy cost when reporting the donation on his tax return.

james macdonald gift giving
On his ministry website, James MacDonald has posted images of reimbursement checks signed by his executive assistant Sharon Kostal. (Image via JMM)

HBC paid $500 for another pastor’s stay at the Ritz Carlton which MacDonald described as a “blessing.”

When a church or ministry gives gifts to donors, employees and pastors of other churches, IRS rules come into play. Because the gift tax annual exclusion was $14,000 for the years 2013-2017 and $15,000 for 2018-2021, HBC was not required to report these gifts to the IRS.

James MacDonald preaches at Harvest Bible Chapel
James MacDonald preaching at Harvest Bible Chapel in 2015.

During his time as pastor, MacDonald gave motorcycles and a car to pastors, which would have been subject to the gift tax if their cost exceeded $15,000.

In 2019, Dee Parsons of The Wartburg Watch reported, “I’ve been informed by some reliable folks that James MacDonald gave Ed Stetzer a vintage Volkswagen Beetle convertible. I’ve even been given the vanity license plate but won’t post that. I was informed that the car was paid for by HBC funds. Given the recent reports out of HBC, I felt that this was worth investigating.”

Christopher Nudo, HBC’s attorney, told Julie Roys of The Roys Report the Beetle cost $13,000 and was bought by Walk in the Word. Stetzer later reimbursed the ministry for the cost of the car.

The Roys Report also noted, “MacDonald had used church funds to give six to eight Harley Davidson motorcycles to people inside and outside of the church.”

The Bigger Picture

MacDonald is not alone in practicing questionable gift giving. According to a confidential informant, the late Jan Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network showered her boyfriends with expensive gifts while she was married to Paul Crouch Sr.

Paula White gave fellow televangelist T. D. Jakes a Bentley for his 50th birthday. Furthermore, Paula’s church City of Destiny collects birthday gifts each year for her.

It is common for churches, especially proponents of the prosperity gospel, to collect love offerings for pastors and to give speaking honorariums to conference speakers that are not reported as taxable income.

In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, “A church spokesman said [Pastor Eddie] Long no longer takes a salary, but instead accepts ‘love offerings’ made by church members.”

Kenneth Copeland
Kenneth Copeland

In 2006, televangelist Kenneth Copeland celebrated his 70th birthday and 40th anniversary of being in ministry. To honor the occasion, Copeland’s church with assistance from Creflo Dollar, collected money from pastors attending Copeland’s birthday/anniversary party.

According to an informant present at the party, “Creflo’s goal was to raise 2 million dollars to present to the Copelands at the party. This money was for the Copeland’s personally. Creflo did not receive the 2 million from the invitees so he put in about 1 million of his own money (or money from his ministry) to meet his goal. I believe the amount ended up being 2.1 million.” The informant’s testimony and the church response were included in a 2011 Senate Finance Committee report.

The church disputed the $2.1 million amount when questioned by Senator Grassley: “The Copelands received personal gifts or payments of less than $2 million. In any case where it was unclear whether the gift was to the Copelands or the Church, the gift was treated as a donation to the Church.”

Numerous televangelist and church jets flew various attendees to the party, but it is unclear as to who paid for these costly flights—the individual guests or their church ministries.

Adopting Higher Ethical Standards

To prevent improper political influence via gifts, state legislatures have passed laws limiting gift amounts for government employees along with reporting requirements.

State Ethics Commissions provide oversight. Government employees are required to watch training videos or receive other instruction on state ethics laws. Ethics officers advise employees on how to respond to unsolicited gifts that may be prohibited.

In Texas, the state with the most televangelists, government employees are restricted to accepting “non-cash items of less than $50 in value.”

Honorariums are banned in some states. The Texas Ethics Commission advises state employees, “You may not solicit, agree to accept, or accept an honorarium in consideration for services you would not have been asked to provide but for your official position.”

The Evangelical Press Association’s Code of Ethics is worth emulating: “Journalists should decline gifts that may unduly influence the performance of their work. Token courtesies, such as meals or media passes, should be accepted only in the normal course of editorial production.”

Perhaps church denominations and ministries should adopt similar limits for non-charitable gifts and require an ethics class for pastors and church bookkeepers.

This article was originally published by Trinity Foundation.

Barry Bowen is a staff member of Trinity Foundation, a public nonprofit based in Dallas, Texas that has been tracking religious fraud and helping victims for over 30 years. 

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21 thoughts on “Cufflinks, Taxidermy, Ritzy Hotel Stays: James MacDonald and The Ethics of Gift Giving”

  1. Um, no. This “proof” really goes to show the level of unsophistication he thinks people have.

    The scan of a front of a check does not proof make. I can write a check today made out to anyone, in any amount, with any memo line I make up, and dated anyway I choose and then scan it into as “proof”. But this only counts if HBC accepted (cashed) the check for the reason provided, and then JMac would have to provide the bank statement scan showing that the memo line was there when cashed AND that HBC applied it to the specific items he says it paid for. It certainly doesn’t prove that he paid back everything he let HBC cover for him over the years.

    I’m kind of surprised he would even take this route; it’s childish even by his standards.

  2. I’m sure that MacDonald didn’t reimburse Harvest for everything. He is too much in love with money to suddenly be that ethical. He and many of his cronies have landed unrepentant in other “churches” and only time will tell when their crimes will be exposed.

  3. I am rather amazed that anyone would have anything to do with a church where the Sr. pastor is in charge of the finances not to mention the hiring and firing decisions. Remember that with Harvest the complaints about James built up for years before the dam finally broke. The fact that guys like Copeland can still be fleecing his flock after all these years reminds me that a sucker is born every minute.

    1. True. 🙄

      As one pastor who doesn’t belong to the prosperity group said👉

      “I deplore prosperity preaching and would call it a false and insidious gospel that is both spiritually and materially harmful. It is not the Gospel of Jesus whose sole possession of any value was the robe that his executioners refused to divide and for which they cast lots. It is foolish to think that Jesus, who once compared the difficulty of a rich man getting into heaven to a camel going through the eye of a needle, would have all of his faithful followers be overflowing with material wealth. I do acknowledge, and with some sadness, that there is a sizable market for prosperity preaching.” —Reverend William Thornton

      https://yourtaxmatterspartner.com/pilot-to-black-panther-to-pastor-calls-for-financial-transparency-in-churches/

      Some states like Louisiana demand the transparency for churches apparently all states should!

      1. JW,

        “Some states like Louisiana demand the transparency for churches apparently all states should!”

        No, it is the responsibility of the congregation to hold their church leaders to scriptural accountability (10 commandments and the warnings from Jesus on false church leaders), plus it is our responsibility to check all preaching against scripture. If church leaders refuse to hold themselves to the same standard they are preaching (or use Romans 13 as a shield), then dust off your sandals and move on.

  4. Can someone tell me who is the person that signed this check? It appears her name is Sharon?
    This is such a mess.

      1. The check indicates that the account holders are James S. MacDonald and Kathy MacDonald, trying to show that this is a personal account? However, it’s signed by an assistant? Do individuals normally have their staff as signatories on their personal checking accounts? Do normal people even have staff? Is this how everyday people live? Why are people trusting this individual to speak into their lives as a so-called expert on spiritual matters?

        1. Amy, I was thinking the same thing. An assistant signs checks on your PERSONAL account? That’s odd.
          Even Oprah doesn’t do that.

  5. Kathleen M. Zielinski

    I have to wonder how many of these so-called pastors don’t even believe in God and are doing it as a complete con from top to bottom. I don’t see how someone who does believe in God, and a final day of judgment, can pull this stuff. What is he expecting to tell God when he stands before him?

      1. It makes no difference. Unless he takes full responsibility for the impropriety, he’s just doing image repair.

        He’s not trying to make anything right. He’s trying to be seen as acceptable enough to whatever publisher or conference organizer or pastor he needs to keep his grift going.

  6. Some of the gifts I understand, most I don’t. The Harley’s? Poor taste, why not Indians?. The VW…built on the back of past slave labour: stay away. Taxidermy…well, no. But $1000 for cufflinks for staff.!? I can understand $1000 for cufflinks for one person, but how cheap can you get, sharing $1000 amongst all the staff. They wouldn’t have even been cheapies in silver.

  7. Not that I’m disagreeing, but where is any credible evidence of this?

    Did an internet search and found nothing. If that is the case, then I’m not sure posting something from an unnamed and unchecked informant is wise.

    “According to a confidential informant, the late Jan Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network showered her boyfriends with expensive gifts while she was married to Paul Crouch Sr.”

    Does anyone have a link of any sort?

  8. Lots to sort through here.

    Personally, not a fan of James. That position dates back more than 2 decades of having interactions with him and HBC. Nothing in this article changes that.

    That said, while there are a lot of faults to be found in his personal practices, this isn’t one of them.

    Instead, guilt by association, innuendo, and facts out of context are utilized in a manner that is unbecoming, demonstrates bias, and paints a picture that shifts focus from more credible and serious issues.

    For example,

    “One reimbursement check, dated December 28, 2018, was for $27,172.39!”

    Why the exclamation point? Money was spent on what was deemed ministry expenses and he paid it back. So why balk at the number? Ministry costs money.

    Cuff links… Do we know how many pastors received them?

    $25 links times 40 pastors are not a big deal, are they?

    Did we expect that a gift should instead be purchased out of a gumball machine under the “we will keep you poor and God will keep you humble” mentality?

    Or the taxidermy. If the event raised even $110,000 (which is not unreasonable to think is low), then why is it an issue if he “donated” $10,000 to cover the cost of an expense?

    A gift to a church planter? Do we know how many nights it was? Did it help preserve a marriage for someone who probably was under extreme stress and was truly “blessed” by the action?

    I think it is important if we are to remain credible that the focus is on real issues. The man was and still bears fruit of being a unrepentant and a false teacher.

    But being upset about plane reimbursements, and ministry expenses are petty in comparison.

    1. The exclamation point is justified when you have familiarity with anti-corruption laws and practices, which Barry does.

      I work in a regulated industry and I cannot accept or give a gift to a third party in excess of $100 in the course of doing business. If I am selecting a vendor for a contract, and one bidding vendor offers to take me out to dinner to discuss their product, it must be less than $100. This extends to affiliated charities. If the vendor learns that my church has a building fund and donates $500 to it, I must report this to my employer’s internal audit/anti corruption department.

      This is ESPECIALLY an issue when you look at how fast and loose MacDonald was with his ministry funds. There is a very straightforward path from this kind of lavish gift giving to money laundering and tax avoidance:
      1. Wealthy person donates to Walk in the Word
      2. James MacDonald gives wealthy person a motorcycle
      3. Wealthy person now has a tax-free motorcycle

      Did this happen? Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. Honest Christians run their ministries with sufficient transparency you can answer with confidence.

      This shows how entirely unprepared most Christian organizations are to spot and avoid corruption and bribery. It’s the same issue with anti-harassment training. Secular organizations have been doing it for decades and churches just assume everyone loves Jesus and it couldn’t happen here.

    2. Julius Syore,

      Have you ever, once, considered that just maybe, these crooked celebrity pop star pastors could be guilty of what TRR accuses them of–that she’s done her homework?

      Do you have any posts up here, that don’t consist of you defending these guys?

  9. Cynthia Norbeck

    Ah, to be like Jesus…

    No place to lay his head at night, no place to call home on earth. And yet…The angels of heaven stood ready for his commands…The demons fled at his voice…The Father was well pleased with him…

    And he called us his friends.

    To be like him means to place little value on material wealth, fame, possessions, popularity.

    To be like him means to know that this earth is passing away, and so are we. He is our only hope.

    Who would dare disgrace the name of Jesus by stealing from others when even the birds, with their nests, were better equipped than he was?

    Who would dare?

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