Hard times at Harvest

By Julie Roys

This article first appeared in 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 Academy in 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.

Bill Bangham/Baptist Press

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 update posted 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.”)

MacDonald was vague in the 2017 email about the reason he was ending Harvest’s governance of HBF, but noted his attempt to “regionalize” the fellowship had placed him “under the weight of intolerable oppression.” But according to a leaked copy of a letter by David Wisen, a pastor at a former HBF church who participated in a July 2017 audit of HBF finances, the split occurred because HBF pastors believed Harvest had inappropriately used fellowship funds for its own purposes. (HBF was partly funded by member churches.) Wisen claimed Harvest owed HBF at least $1.8 million.

Bob Langdon, the former financial director of HBF who also participated in the audit, confirmed Wisen’s account. He said some of the items HBF paid for appeared to benefit Harvest Bible Chapel much more than the fellowship. For example, Langdon said HBF paid $500,000 for a church management systems upgrade that included new hardware for Harvest’s main campus in Elgin.

HBF also paid about $570,000 that Langdon said his boss, former Harvest Chief Financial Officer Fred Adams, had allocated for “overhead” and discretionary expenses. (Adams resigned at the end of 2017 and did not respond to a request for comment.) Langdon said those expenses included a percentage of the salaries for certain top Harvest Bible Chapel executives and a $50,000 donation to pastor Mark Driscoll’s Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Driscoll, a longtime friend of MacDonald’s, resigned from the former Mars Hill Church in Seattle in 2014 amid charges of domineering leadership.) Langdon said that during the audit, Wisen and auditors repeatedly asked Harvest executives to give justification for various HBF allocations “and there really wasn’t one.”

The audit resulted in an impasse between the two groups. According to Wisen, Harvest offered to pay the new entity of former HBF churches $2.5 million, but only if the group agreed to a “hush clause”—an agreement never to criticize Harvest publicly. Wisen, who was acting as the churches’ representative, said he rejected the offer. Most of the former HBF churches then formed an independent organization called the Great Commission Collective (GCC).

When asked about the situation, Harvest treasurer and elder Jeff Smith pointed WORLD to a late 2017 elder update where the elder board admitted HBF financial records were “incomplete” but said the church had made “appropriate changes.” The update asserted, “All monies given by HBF churches have been utilized solely for church-planting purposes and spent according to Elder-approved budgets.” It defended the church’s demand that GCC members not criticize the church, calling it a “reasonably requested commitment to ending hostility.” (Smith also said that a summer 2017 CapinCrouse audit of HBF spending found that all designated funds were “properly disbursed in accordance with the donor specification.”)

Over the years, Harvest has brought entities like HBF and Walk in the Word, both of which were formerly independent nonprofits, beneath the control of Harvest leadership, allowing the church to shift money between the different entities.

For example, an audit of 2017 finances shows that when HBF disbanded, Harvest took $1 million from Walk in the Word to pay for HBF’s liabilities. 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.

In a video currently posted to the Walk in the Word website, MacDonald tells monthly donors that “every dollar” they give to Walk in the Word “goes directly into buying the airtime to get out the good news of Jesus Christ.” Harvest told WORLD “Walk in the Word uses all outside donor gifts for the broadcast ministry exclusively,” and said the church has itself funded the ministry.

Langdon and Tsao spoke of a portion of the church’s budget the men said is hidden from all but the top church staffers and the church’s executive committee. (The executive committee is composed of MacDonald and a group of four to five elders.) According to the church’s bylaws, the committee has “sole responsibility” for approving the annual budget and salaries for MacDonald and senior staff.

Langdon said that during his time at Harvest, he paid 380 of the church’s 400 employees. The rest, including immediate members of the MacDonald family, were paid by former CFO Fred Adams. Similarly, Tsao said he could account for every dollar of about 80 percent of the church’s budget: Adams controlled the remaining 20 percent.

As a church, Harvest doesn’t have to file 990 tax forms with the IRS or report how its money is spent. Neither do any of its subministries now that they’re no longer independent nonprofits. Harvest notes that it submits to regular audits and is accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). Robert Jones told WORLD that CapinCrouse audits the church’s compensation committee minutes, and that “Pastor James is entirely uninvolved in this process, in setting his own compensation.”

Rusty Leonard, founder of the donor watchdog group Ministry Watch, said the existence of a budget visible only to a handful of top elders and staffers is very unusual at a church and a reflection of “hideous governance.” He also called the shifting of funds between ministries “immoral” because it violates donor intent, but said the practice is legal as long as any fundraising appeals disclose that donations may go toward a general fund.

In addition to these issues, Harvest recently reported its chief information officer to authorities for allegedly embezzling at least $270,000. Harvest also is $42 million in debt and recently sued the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU) for refusing to refinance five of the church’s mortgages.

Some criticism of MacDonald has also centered on his salary, lifestyle, and large house. In February 2014, Harvest elders announced that MacDonald had made “several personal lifestyle adjustments,” including “downsizing” from his $1.8 million, 6,700-square-foot home in Inverness, Ill., to “a smaller home in Elgin.” Though MacDonald moved into a smaller, $650,000 home, he never purchased it, and lived there only temporarily while building another large home on 5 acres nearby.

MacDonald told WORLD that his new home, appraised at $1.4 million, is under 5,000 square feet when the new home’s garage and basement are subtracted from the total. But according to an appraisal that an attorney for MacDonald submitted to the Rutland Township tax assessor’s office, the home has 6,891 square feet of gross living area in addition to a 2,600 square-foot, 10-car garage and a more than 2,000-square-foot finished basement. (The appraisal also noted the home’s “vaulted and designer ceilings, high-end finishes, luxury bathrooms, [and] granite counter and vanity tops.”)

In written comments on the size of MacDonald’s home, Harvest told WORLD that “two second floor rooms were left unfinished with no utilities to meet his square footage goal.”

Jones said that ECFA President Dan Busby had, while reviewing Harvest finances during a previous visit, “called Pastor James’ salary unremarkable.” Busby declined my request for an interview, but in November sent a written statement announcing that “ECFA staff will be on-site at Harvest Bible Chapel in the coming weeks” as part of its “standards verification process.” [Update: On Dec. 12, after this story went to press, ECFA sent a statement from Busby saying the organization had completed its review and that “Harvest Bible Chapel is in full compliance with each of ECFA’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship and remains a member in good standing with ECFA.”]

Kane County Assessment Office

MacDonald’s house (Kane County Assessment Office)

FORMALLY, THE BOARD OF ELDERS leads Harvest Bible Chapel. But multiple former staff members and elders—including former elder and business pastor Jim Jodrey, former counseling pastor Rob Green, Phelps, Marquardt, Slabaugh, Corning, and former elder and original director of HBF Gordon Zwirkoski—told me that in practice, MacDonald exercises ultimate authority. (Church bylaws, amended in 2015, provide for the removal of the senior pastor, but only by a unanimous vote of the full elder board and the executive committee on which MacDonald sits. The bylaws also grant the senior pastor the power to “act in an emergency to suspend any elder board member … subject to earliest possible ratification by the executive committee.”)

Former elders, staff, and members also said Harvest has fostered an abusive and fear-based culture where those who question leadership are punished. Zwirkoski claimed MacDonald nurtures “a spirit of fear in the staff, almost like a dread.”

Dave Jones, a former Harvest employee who now pastors Village Church of Barrington near Harvest’s Rolling Meadows campus, said that over the past eight years 100-150 “Harvest refugees” have come to his church exhibiting signs of “spiritual abuse.” Many are “disillusioned about church,” he said, and some report having nightmares or feelings that they might “be harmed in some way.”

Mike Bryant, senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Grayslake, Ill., spent 23 years at Harvest. Bryant’s church belonged to Harvest Bible Fellowship until 2012, when Bryant and his elders objected to MacDonald’s decision to invite televangelist T.D. Jakes to speak at MacDonald’s Elephant Room II conference. Like many evangelicals, Bryant and his elders felt Jakes’ view of the Trinity and promotion of prosperity gospel was heretical.

Bryant said they expressed their concerns privately to MacDonald, who sent Harvest leaders to meet with Bryant twice. At the end of the second meeting, Bryant said he and the Harvest leaders agreed to meet again with Bryant and his elders to try to resolve the conflict. But to Bryant’s surprise, Rick Donald, Harvest’s assistant senior pastor, and Joel Anderson, an HBF pastor with whom Bryant had worked closely, visited Bryant days later to tell him that his church was being kicked out of Harvest Bible Fellowship.

The expulsion, Bryant said, was devastating. He immediately lost half of his 300-member congregation, and his church had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to change its name and signage. But Bryant said the spiritual impact of his experience with MacDonald and his associates was equally crushing. “They want loyalty above righteousness,” Bryant said, “and it really messed with me internally.”

Joel Anderson, who is no longer affiliated with Harvest in Chicago, last year contacted Bryant to confess “sinning” against him and his church by participating in the expulsion. In an open letter, Anderson wrote that “as a good soldier,” he had agreed to do what Harvest leaders asked him to do, but now sees “the need to abstain from such assignments.”

In an interview, MacDonald and Rick Donald told WORLD they regretted how they handled the expulsion of Bryant’s church, and would like a “private opportunity to apologize” to him. “He’s really a gifted preacher. He was a great worship leader in our church,” said MacDonald. “Candidly, the things that we separated over seem really small to me now, and I wish we had found a way to persevere with him because I think it was a real loss.” (Bryant told me neither leader has contacted him over the past six years. The only exception was a few weeks after his church was expelled, when Donald called to tell him that his church could no longer use the Harvest name.)

Another incident of Harvest expulsion involved R.T. Maldaner, who served as a pastor at Harvest’s Elgin campus. In January 2018, Maldaner resigned his position and soon after planted a church within 10 miles of Harvest Bible Chapel’s Elgin campus. For this, Maldaner said he was kicked out of his daughter’s 8th-grade graduation and his other four children were expelled from Harvest Christian Academy (HCA).

Maldaner said that when he first announced his intentions to resign and plant a church, Harvest crafted a resignation letter and asked him to sign it. The letter included a noncompete clause pledging not to participate in a ministry “within a 50-mile radius of Chicago.” It also included an admission of misconduct (although the Harvest HR director told Maldaner no record of misconduct existed on his file).

Maldaner refused to sign the letter or a subsequent draft. From then on, he experienced a tense and deteriorating relationship with the church. Maldaner said that on his last Sunday at Harvest, James MacDonald’s son, Executive Ministry Pastor Luke MacDonald, approached him after the service and accused him of recruiting people for his church plant. Maldaner said that when he denied recruiting anybody, Luke called him a “liar” in front of Lilly, his 6-year-old daughter, and bystanders in the auditorium. Former Harvest member Mark Gagliardi witnessed the incident and confirmed Maldaner’s account, though he said he couldn’t hear the entire conversation. (WORLD asked Harvest for a comment from Luke MacDonald: The church responded that the details of the conversation with Maldaner “are not a matter of public discussion and are covered in love.”)

After that incident, Maldaner avoided Harvest’s campus, though he occasionally went to HCA to pick up his kids or attend a school function. But Maldaner says when he arrived at HCA for his daughter’s graduation in May, HCA Superintendent Talbott Behnken ordered him to leave. Maldaner obeyed and sat in the parking lot while the rest of his family attended the ceremony. That night at 11:00, Behnken texted Maldaner, informing him that his other four children were being expelled from the school. Maldaner said his kids were unable to say goodbye to their teachers or school friends.

Asked about Maldaner, James MacDonald and Harvest Executive Ministry Pastor Jeff Donaldson defended the church’s actions. Donaldson told WORLD that despite “many warnings,” Maldaner had been recruiting Harvest members for his new church, leading to a “small church split.” He added that most Harvest pastors sign a 50-mile noncompete agreement, and noted that Maldaner’s children completed their grades “without consequence, though they didn’t attend the last few days of school.”

Maldaner, though, denies accusations of recruiting and said that of the 125 people attending his church, only 20 came from Harvest. (I interviewed eight of these former Harvest members: All said they pursued Maldaner, not vice versa.)

Gilbert R. Boucher II/Daily Herald

Harvest’s Rolling Meadows campus (Gilbert R. Boucher II/Daily Herald)

OTHER FORMER HARVEST elders, staffers, and members declined to speak on the record, citing nondisclosure and nondisparagementagreements they said Harvest pressured them to sign when they left. In the past several weeks, Harvest also has sent letters to some former employees threatening “legal recourse” should they violate their “agreements with the church.”

In the course of my reporting on this story, Harvest filed a lawsuit against me and the owners of a blog that has chronicled Harvest problems. The lawsuit alleges defamation against the church and also mentions, but does not name, “three former elders” with “discordant” views and accuses them of having had “conflicts of interest” and “issues of self-dealing” while serving on Harvest’s board. Phelps, Marquardt, and Slabaugh, who believe this is a reference to them, strongly deny such charges (they are not defendants in the suit).

In his interview with WORLD, MacDonald said of Phelps, Marquardt, and Slabaugh, “The ‘three’ reference in the lawsuit is not to the three of them.” But the three told me there are no other “three former elders” who fit the description in the suit.

Phelps, Slabaugh, and Marquardt say they have no personal vendetta against MacDonald or Harvest. Like other former elders and staff I spoke to, they say they want repentance and reform. “We were wounded through all this, but that’s not my ultimate concern,” said Marquardt. “It’s about the sheep.”

Handout

MacDonald preaches at Harvest’s Elgin campus. (Handout)


‘Passion and intensity’

Titus 1 says an elder must not be “quick-tempered” or “violent.” Yet Barb Peil, former director of communications for Walk in the Word, told me Harvest Senior Pastor James MacDonald regularly unloaded on staff members, yelling at them whenever there was an “accumulation of stress.” Others told specific accounts of what they described as MacDonald’s anger or vengeance. Here are three of those accounts, spanning nearly a decade and each corroborated by two to three witnesses.

One: Betsy Corning, the wife of former elder board chairman Dave Corning, said that in 2009, when her husband was opposing a plan by MacDonald to reorganize the elder board, she made a disturbing discovery at the lake house at Camp Harvest. This was a home she said MacDonald and his wife, Kathy, often used for family retreats.

On a wall in the garage, she found a target with a photo of her on it that had been shot with what appeared to be a pellet gun. The target included photos of other people, including James and Kathy MacDonald. But what shook Betsy was that she and another elder’s wife appeared to be prime targets: Hand-written beside their images were point values of 50 and 200 points respectively, while everyone else was assigned nominal point values.

In a phone interview with WORLD, MacDonald said there was no correlation between the point values and he and Kathy’s “value and appreciation for those people.” Though he admitted shooting at the target with a pellet pistol with his wife and kids, MacDonald said it was “all in good fun,” and said the target involved “a bunch of pictures of our closest friends and family off the kitchen bulletin board. … I should have seen the potential for that to be taken the wrong way. The fact that we didn’t even take the photos down indicates that we weren’t concerned about it being misinterpreted.” He added that he had vacationed with the family of the other woman in the picture as recently as 2016.

MacDonald said he apologized to the offended parties when he became aware of the offense. According to Dave and Betsy Corning, though, MacDonald did not apologize, but instead demanded an apology from Betsy for telling the other elder’s wife about the target.

Two: Former Camp Harvest groundskeeper Mike Hulburt told me that in 2010, he saw MacDonald use a butter knife to stab repeatedly a picture of a former Harvest pastor in front of 15 to 20 close associates. Another witness, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his livelihood, confirmed that MacDonald stabbed the picture multiple times “to get his point across.” Hulburt said the incident happened in the camp dining hall immediately after MacDonald yelled at the former camp director, Dan Plantz, asking why he had not gotten rid of the picture.

Miranda Johns/Baptist Press

MacDonald (Miranda Johns/Baptist Press)

Plantz declined to be interviewed. But former Camp Harvest employee Bill Pease said he saw Plantz “bawling, crying” about 30 minutes after the incident and that Plantz and Hulburt were deeply disturbed by what had happened.

MacDonald told WORLD, “I didn’t stab any pictures. … I may have put my knife up against it or into it.” He described the incident as a “performance issue” regarding “multiple pictures on the wall that were outdated.” He added that Harvest leaders had “only the best memories of Josh Weidmann,” the pastor in the picture.

Weidmann, though, who now pastors a church in Colorado, described his relationship with MacDonald as “strained” and a source of angst for years after his departure.

Three: In 2017, videographer Luke Helmer resigned from Harvest one day after witnessing MacDonald teach a Bible class to a roomful of teenage students at Harvest Christian Academy. Citing what he called MacDonald’s “pattern of uncontrolled anger,” Helmer in his Feb. 16, 2017, resignation letter said MacDonald had singled out two students, “berated them for minutes in front of the entire high school student body, mocked them, called them ‘morons,’ ‘fools,’ ‘stupid,’ and he threatened one of them physically.” The incident also upset several parents who later heard about it.

Asked about the incident, MacDonald told WORLD he had been responding to a student who yelled something “very coarse and troubling” aloud in class. “I for sure was too intense and did locate the student and did move them up to the front and did let them know what I thought of the behavior. … At the end of class, though, I did feel grieved in my heart that it was too intense.” MacDonald said he apologized to the student and his classmate the same day, recorded an apology video shown to the class, and talked to the offended parents.

MacDonald also sent WORLD a Feb. 16, 2017, email from Helmer in which Helmer says he forgives MacDonald and calls him a “man of character,” citing “many factors” behind his decision to resign. Helmer declined to comment to me about the email.

MacDonald said his books and public teaching over the years have both referred to “a confession of wanting to bring my passion and intensity and I think yes, at times anger … under the control of the Holy Spirit.” MacDonald said he has sought forgiveness from those at Harvest who have sometimes thought he was “too intense” in trying to change their perspective. “I’ll just say in checking with my family and the people that I work with, no, I do not have a problem with anger.” 

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