Son of Former MBI President Joe Stowell Speaks of “Toxic,” “Unholy,” and “Dangerous” Culture at Harvest

By Julie Roys
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At one time, three members of the Stowell family worked at James MacDonald’s Chicago-area mega-church, Harvest Bible ChapelJoe Stowell, Sr., President of Cornerstone University and former President of the Moody Bible Institute, served as a teaching pastor there. His son, Joe Stowell, Jr., served as an executive pastor. And Matt Stowell served as a worship pastor. Then, during a six-month period in 2008, all three Stowells left Harvest quietly. None have ever spoken publicly about their experience at Harvest—until now. Today, Matt Stowell posted the following on Facebook, which I am reposting with his permission:

With all of the activity surrounding Julie Roys’ recent World Magazine article and subsequent blog posts, many people have been asking me what I think about it. Inspired by my friend Lindsay Mattingly‘s brave post (see below) and Scot X. McKnights recent blog post about pastoral power abuses, I feel compelled to share some of my personal thoughts and observations.

I served at Harvest Bible Chapel during very formative years of my life and ministry. I was 23 when I became the Junior High Youth Pastor. At that point, I believe the church had around 1800 people attending weekly services, and only one campus in Rolling Meadows. Over the next ten years, the church grew quickly and my role evolved into that of Worship Pastor. I began overseeing worship and production across the then four campuses. We started Harvest Songs (now Vertical Worship) in the hopes of capturing the stories of God at work in our church, spent countless hours planning services, and went on many trips for Walk In the Word, church events and the Downpour Lifeway tour.

I spent significant amounts of time personally with James in many different settings. Some of those hours were good and we had some amazing times serving together. I was always grateful that James chose to take a bet on this young punk that barely knew how to play guitar and helped me eventually become his main worship pastor and leader. However, as my time at Harvest went on, things began to become more toxic. I eventually found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the person who James was on the stage and the James I came to know in real life.

“I felt like the mental cost of reconciling all that was happening was bankrupting my soul, and that it was increasingly difficult for me to share the stage with James.”

During those days, I would often tell my wife, Debbie, that I felt like the mental cost of reconciling all that was happening was bankrupting my soul, and that it was increasingly difficult for me to share the stage with James. That might sound extreme or unfair to some, but I was routinely beginning to witness James engaging in off-stage behavior that included brutal outbursts of anger, an incessant need to “win” at all costs, berating and belittling people, cruelly joking about others, and deceptively spinning truth for his own gain. Over time, the pervasive “only one voice really matters” culture of Harvest became one in which fear – more than love, or humility, or any of the other fruits of the spirit– was a daily, palpable reality. Specifically, this fear manifested itself in the form of an ever-present anxiety over what James might think, say about you, or do if you disappointed him or were perceived to have gone against him in any way.

It may seem unfair of me to share about this now, but that’s kind of my point – I was part of the problem. Looking back, I’ve come to see how I helped, often through my silent deference, to build and normalize a culture of unholy pragmatism at Harvest in which the pervading attitude began to be one best summed up in rationalizing conversations among co-workers like ‘Sure, all of these terrible things are happening behind the scenes, but look what God is doing! The seats are filled! People are being baptized! Lives are being changed! Clearly, James is an anointed, gifted preacher!’

As a follower of Jesus, I certainly celebrated all of these good things as they were happening. Both personally and professionally, I very much wanted this version of Harvest Bible Chapel to be the only reality. The problem was, it wasn’t. In actuality, the reality was always rooted in a rationalization, where outcomes trumped character.

I think that most of us felt that Harvest was the biggest thing, humanly speaking, that we would all ever be a part of – traveling to cool places; being invited to speak at conferences full of people who actually wanted to really listen to you; hobnobbing with famous people; making six figures as a 32-year-old worship leader… these are all things that are understandably hard to want to give up. They’re the kinds of things that condition you to not rock the boat. Who would be crazy enough to purposely flush an incredibly prosperous career or dare to try and go against the powerful, unspoken Christian cultural ethic of never “speaking poorly” about your church or pastor? It was hard to envision a situation where I could actually confront James without fear of where it might lead. If there was ever a sense that you were out on James, you would soon find yourself literally out.

Nonetheless, the strain of trying to justify the dual realities of my experience eventually became more than I could bare. So I left in the spring of 2008. When I left, I said nothing publicly about what was really going on. I did my best to slip out with a smile. My thinking was that I didn’t want to hurt the church, cause division, or derail the good things that were happening.

“Who would be crazy enough to purposely flush an incredibly prosperous career or dare to try and go against the powerful, unspoken Christian cultural ethic of never ‘speaking poorly’ about your church or pastor? It was hard to envision a situation where I could actually confront James without fear of where it might lead.”

I have wrestled with this decision for years. Should I have said something? Should I have sounded an alarm? Even four years ago, when I met with James in an attempt to discuss the past, I chose to say little. I think at the time of that meeting I genuinely thought I had healed and moved on; knowing the truth that Harvest wasn’t God’s only church, and James wasn’t Jesus. This might seem like a pretty obvious notion, but it can be a surprisingly difficult idea to sort out when you have been in a spiritually abusive situation that messes with your faith.

So here’s the deal: I haven’t worked at Harvest Bible Chapel for 10 years, so if you want to dismiss all of what I’ve said as the disgruntled ramblings of an old employee who just can’t seem to “let it go,” that’s your choice. But I have certainly found it hard over the years since to hear about the pain James’ past and present choices have caused to so many people that I care about. I am saddened that the patterns I experienced years ago seem to be consistent with the current lawsuits and accusations.

My only encouragement and advice for those that are in the middle of all of this is to consider Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit – the marks of a true follower of Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. (Gal 5:22-23) If you can’t honestly see a growing abundance in all of these things in James, yourself, or the current culture of the church… Speak up! Do something about it! Something is wrong. Resist the temptation to be afraid of of the outcomes. Start by doing what you can and be brave.

Of course, in all of this I suppose I’m telling myself what I wish I would have considered during my time at Harvest. As I look back on the arc of my faith walk and pastoral experience, I see I spent my formative years of learning “how to do ministry” from a set of values that were unhealthy and dangerous. I’m grieved to know that something I was a part of building as a young pastor, operating under those values, seems to still persist and I pray for the sake of the gospel that we can have thoughtful conversations about the power structures at work in our churches.

*Lindsay Mattingly’s Facebook post:

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35 thoughts on “Son of Former MBI President Joe Stowell Speaks of “Toxic,” “Unholy,” and “Dangerous” Culture at Harvest”

  1. “A culture of unholy pragmatism”… what a convicting description. I pray that if any church leader reading this sees a semblance of that in his or her church, that there would be repentance and response. We are seeing the fruits of making compromises in favor of church growth.

  2. Joe Stowell, president of Cornerstone is actually Joseph Stowell III. This would make his son Joseph Stowell IV.

  3. Twenty years ago I left a Christian non-profit where unholy pragmatism was beginning to take root-anything to keep the dollars coming. It wasn’t nearly as bad the situation at Harvest, but I couldn’t compromise anymore. It had turned into we’ll ignore sinful staff situations or questionable fund raising to keep afloat. Most people who reallwanted to know my reasons didn’t think it was that bad. A few years after I left major economic trauma forced the organization to retool and reform. It is now a smaller, much more humble organization. Sometimes God intervenes drastically before there is significant change.

  4. I appreciate your posting, but it’s all very vague. If you want to help people decide whether Pastor MacDonald is a good leader or not, you need to give examples of things you know that aren’t public knowledge, rather than just your bottom-line opinion. You make pretty serious general accusations, but with, I see on re-reading, zero evidence. If you told us a story of somebody getting fired for saying something negative, or the pastor behaving in an ungodly way when he was frustrated, or something like that, you’d be more convincing.

    1. Have you read Julie’s expose in World Magazine and her previous post here. Neither strike me as vague or unsubstantiated.

      1. I’m talking about Matt’s post above. If someone who hadn’t read anything else read it, he would conclude Matt is just a whining ex-employee. I don’t think he is, but to show it, he needs to give specifics. In addition, that would add to the case against James MacDonald, rather than just repeat the conclusions other people have drawn. A witness is useful for giving evidence more than for taking sides— and I say this even though I’m on his side.

        1. I agree with you, Eric. As compelling as the testimony is on its face, it’s specifics that would actually add to the case against James. There’s nothing new about Matt’s account for those of us who have lived and followed the HBC story, except maybe the detailed about roughly how much he was paid as worship leader.

        2. I started attending HBC shortly after they opened the Rolling Meadows campus in 1996. The first big blowout with James that I am aware of is with Phil Delray a pastor of the prison ministry at Harvest. Phil played guitar and had a jail ministry at Cook County jail. I recall Phil Delray locking horns with James and writing a letter after HBC terminated Phil Delray about how abusive James MacDonald was and how poorly James treated people at a restaurant. I am sure that some long time members of Harvest still have a copy of Phil Delray’s complaint letter against James.

    2. Eramuse please read the original article in World by Julie Roys. The evidence is there. Matt is only responding to that.

  5. Oh how sad. A graduate of MBI in 1973, it has been difficult to see the struggles and some of the results of the direction of leadership the school had. Not blaming MBI for Harvest Bible Church’s problem with its lead pastor by any means but like so much of today’s church, MBI did step to seeking more than its mission. It was “the thing to do” to attract a greater audience.

    Matt’s action to speak out needs to be followed not only n the context of Harvest Bible Church but in churches across this nation.

  6. Ummm…where was young mr Stowell when the elephants debt blog began several years ago? And where is the voice of mr Stowell senior?

    Sustaining The evangelical industrial complex is, sadly, the overriding motivator here, as he states in his Facebook post. He was motivated by his six figure salary, hobnobbing with evangelical elites, and speaking at conferences.

    Where is the plumb line of truth and righteousness as a motivator?

    Bringing problems to light has become the purview of the less powerful…and they are mocked and derided by leaders…until critical mass is reached.

    Thanks for jumping on when it’s clear the dominoes are falling. ?

    Jesus weeps for His Church. Our leaders have failed us.

  7. As they say better late than never but this is too little too late. We know why. We are told about author’s six figures salary as powerful glue that kept him in the smarmy pyramid of MacDonald and then we are lectured about fruits of the Spirit… How incredibly unreal and inconsistent and the best part is that author doesn’t even catch it. Now, you have to ask where were and are other known pastors in the Chicagoland. Why they are not speaking?

    1. The elephant debt website has been around over 6 years and nothing of substance has happened to JMac. Lighten up on the young man. He was drinking the kool-aid like everyone else on the payroll. If the truth is known everyone at the top of JMac’s leadership team is being grossly overpaid. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

      Mr. Stowell isn’t telling anything new and people wouldn’t listen before. Give him credit that he finally seen the truth and left for his own spiritual health.

  8. Nope.

    Don’t bite the hand that feeds you is not righteous nor worthy of a leader in the church.

    Old Testament prophets spoke truth and were castigated by the powerful. They still were called to speak truth. Doesn’t matter if the audience was receptive.

    10 years. Public criticism with a blog 6 years ago. Silence. Met one on one with James 4 years ago. Silence. That hand was no longer feeding, but the evangelical industrial complex was.

    Now a brave woman has spoken out via her article and is getting sued. Now it seems safe to side with critics.

    Our leaders are to be held to higher account. If we are openly expecting no leadership or courage from people in the church because they are paid…God help us.

    1. I don’t recall Jesus ever saying too little too late to any repentant person. Let’s extend grace and encourage others who need to clear their consciences to do likewise. And let’s leave the stone-throwing to those without sin.

  9. Too many do not understand just how incredibly against the grain it is to speak ill of a fellow minister/ former minister/ former pastor for those who truly love the Church. I can sympathize with his inability to rock the boat so many years ago. Joe IV was in an impossible position- reprimanding a mentor. Let us continue to pray for this situation.

  10. 10 years has past… It is not about rhis repentance nor is it about our human condition in sin. It is about 10 years of his safer silence where his testimony to the truth could help others and years ago. I remember Jesus saying something about not only possibly risking 120K job for his sake but in fact saying to another young and wealthy man to mandatorily getting rid of far, far, far more in wealth for his sake. Have we arrived at the point where calculated silence broken diplomatically when it is safe shines as as an act of selfless heroism? Wow.

    1. Exactly, the false prophets and ministers are supported by some who do not discern and others that operate in culture of cross promotion. This article does not absolve a family of failure through the years to discern the difference between good and evil ( read end of Hebrews 5 and 6) and helping promote and support. To half confess later why you did not see and YET were held up as a leader is a massive self indictment!

  11. Heroism No.

    Can we not be thankful? As someone who has been vocal and involved, I can tell you Matt’s Story and stories like his are important.

    Heroic? not exactly… Answered Prayer? Absolutely!

    I know men and women that have been praying that The Lord would shine light into to corners of HBC for many years.

    We can’t be picky. Matt Stowell’s account is a God send. I argue it’s less about Matt and more about God working in him and through him.

    Timing belongs to The Lord. We must forgive this man and lift him up in the name of Christ.

    Merry Christmas Everyone… Thank You Jesus!

  12. Susan Vonder Heide

    Without addressing any of the specifics of this situation (I never attended Harvest and never met its senior pastor), it seems obvious as a general matter that even nuanced criticism of a former employer or a former mentor is not easy (particularly when one can be pretty sure that the criticism will itself result in criticism) and those with the courage to do this may have been born for such a time as this.

  13. The Stowells were instrumental in getting James/Harvest “on the map” because of exposure on Moody. I attended Harvest when it first started and met at RM High School (no longer attend)- Stowells were very involved and for them to leave and write this letter is telling.

  14. I attended a church in the early 80s in which the pastor was hypercritical about believers saying negative comments about other believers. When the first Christianity Today expose came out about Jim and Tammy Bakker, he banned the magazine from the church office and library. Comments about Jerry Falwell and his political proclamations were also addressed as being anti-God and His people. Then, we found out the pastor was in an adulterous relationship with the relative of a staff member, and this wasn’t the first time this had happened in his ministry (it had actually happened on two previous occasions over a number of years). However, people were so afraid of being critical of him without all of the facts, and with the reinforcement from the pulpit, the deacons wouldn’t do anything.People began leaving the church in disgust. The pastor finally resigned, but he was also a given a clean record so that he could go on to another church out of state (where he did the same thing, but that time he was forced out of the ministry).

    All that to say that serious church problems need to be brought into the light, especially when they are as public and affect as many people as Harvest Bible Chapel’s do. HBC asks for money for its ministries, and it’s coming from people all over the world. They have the right to know what their money is going for. Truth doesn’t need to be shared in a rude way, but I do believe it needs to be shared. I have not found anything posted by Julie R. to be rude or humiliating to another entity. She has a way of stating the facts, interviewing the correct people, and politely saying “this doesn’t look right.” I am glad that she does this.

    1. Well I’m pretty sick of cowardly, wimpy Christians who didn’t or don’t have enough backbone to stand up when it matters. Pastor James is just a man so why all the fear? If you see wrong be bold and strong! Be a warrior for Christ and fess it up. All this fear about speaking truth when someone is doing wrong just sickens me. What are we as believers? Just a bunch of doormats to walk on? Absolutely Not! This is exactly why this world is so screwed up. People see or hear things and don’t speak up for fear or hurting other people’s feelings. Dog gone it if it’s wrong then it’s wrong! Can we just be a bit more bold for Christ. Julie, I’m so sorry to hear about your plight. You will remember me as the poem writer for many years at Moody’s SHARE. You were always an incredibly kind person to me and I despise what they have done to you. Thank you for your example of standing up for what’s right no matter the cost.

  15. I learned of this situation last night. I finally stopped reading sources at 4 am. I am completely heartbroken.

    I began following JMac in 2000. WITW, devotionals, and videos were how I knew his ministry.

    Late 2008, I was going through divorce. God used the WITW podcast and (then) WITW devotionals to minister to me. Even in recent weeks, He ministered through the devotionals and podcast in direct response to prayer.

    Now, this. I watched the HBC excommunication video. Hearing James voice was like hearing the sound of a beloved friend. I experienced great inner turmoil trying to reconcile those emotions with all I had read.

    At present, I remain shocked. The elder letter listed 20 character flaws. I will be praying James repents.

    My faith in God is absolutely UNCHANGED. Jesus is my Rock, my Lord, my Savior. That will always be! Salah.

    1. Mark, I can understand your plight and you have my sincere sympathy. Men who make excellent public speakers are often ill qualified to be true shepherds. I have seen this same issue with Robert Morris, head pastor of Gateway Church of Southlake, TX, the wealthiest church in the Western Hemisphere. People see him on television or YouTube and over months or years of listening to him, they start feeling this bond or kinship and start believing on some level that they know him. They do not.

      These men are performers and they engage in world class stagecraft. Robert Morris recycles his sermons every 2-3 years. When he re-enacts his rerun sermons he still has the same pauses, pretends to stumble into the same old joke he “didn’t know” he was going to make or makes a choking up noise and dabs his eyes even though they are completely tearless, during a dramatic pause. Their stage crafting is designed to create the illusion of sincerity, empathy and emotions.

      In reality, Robert doesn’t even attend his own church when he’s not speaking. He just bought a $1.5M home and it wasnt nice enough for him, so he tore it completely down to build a $4M far nicer mansion in its place. He doesn’t like people. At all. He’s never kept an office at Gateway. The staff annoy him. He refuses to give executive pastors his cell number. He blows up at them if they call him anyway. His family are no different. People on the inside see all of this, but people only listening to the great story tellers end up feeling a bond that in reality simply does not exist.

      Men like James and Robert use their world class verbal acting skills to make millions. If some of their words help people along the way, that is either happenstance or the power of God working despite the blasphemy.

      James is now going digital and he’s smart to want to pursue a virtual flock. People who have no idea “how the sausage is made” can stay in their adoring fan cocoons. But once your eyes are open, it’s time to stop supporting the ravenous wolves. As you are now experiencing, our faith must be in Christ alone, but particularly never in those who seek to become multi-millionaires solely off the name of God. Their true god is Mammon. Leave them to it. Serve the one true King who reviles those who sell what they ought not to, for shameful gain.

  16. I left HBC RM/Elgin in 2012 after attending for nearly 9 years. Along the way I noticed a real change in the way things were run there. I sat upfront with several other women regularly. Around 2007 I began to realize that there were never any financial statements handed out! Then the Stowells left. I remember Joe Stowell Sr. giving his last sermon and telling us that he would be back from time to time. We were crushed because he was such a good teaching pastor, so elequent. Shortly there after there were no Stowells left there. Joe Sr. never returned and he was never mentioned again. It was like he never existed as far as the leaders of Harvest were concerned. I began to inquire about all of the above plus some other oddities and nobody could give good answers. When I would talk about the actions of James McD (usually his sermons consisted of a lot of yelling) the others in my group of church friends would turn a deaf ear. Then I remember asking them where were the gifts of the Spirit in James? People didn’t want to hear! They worshiped the messenger instead of the message. I didn’t need anybody to straight up tell me this was screwed up, the signs were everywhere! As Christians we need to pray for discernment, that is a gift that the Lord will give us. Listen to that still, small voice and ask questions. Harvest is a non-denominational church so maybe they make their own rules? The elders were aftaid of James so they let him run over them , they protected their saleries and families and now they will say they are sorry! What about those single mom’s who sat in the audience (not even going to call it pew’s) who not only gave 10% of their meager income but gave $3000.00 extra to the building fund for Elgin campus???? What about them? What about their kids who went without to give that money to Harvest? What about the folks who left in disgust and never were able to find a church home since? Or God forbid, those who left the church completely? Oh, I get it, everybody was making money so not to worry! God help us to be brave and to question and call out pastors like James McD. Thank God Almighty for Julie and the originators of the Elephants Debt for their courage! And, to God be the glory forever and ever, Amen!,

  17. “They took a chance on a young kid who could barely play a guitar.” Matt is a great guy, but he had a great last name.

    Long time elders who became “public” victims knew about mac and the environment for a long time. Put two and two together.

    Today, I barely call myself a Christian anymore. Virtually all church’s teaching on money is satanic. (Really, I won’t believe the blessings? A f****** third grader can see that doesn’t happen. And how can a Christian rob God of offerings? Start asking those questions, and see what a gutless coward the bold Bible teacher becomes.)

    In every church I have gone to, the pastor lives in a much nicer house than me.

    Since leaving Harvest in about 2005, I have given 0% of my income to any local church.

    And the blessings given me have been enormous.

    Oh, by the way, buy Julie’s new book.

  18. Matt’s comments are good. In his situation, Any normal guy will want to leave. Many Christian Believers push the “Reconcile” concept. But, without a solid understanding of James MacDonald’s Past and/or Current Behavior what is the best way to proceed? Why (mentally) tear yourself apart only to break down and become physically ill over this man? It’s not worth it.
    Many years ago I left Harvest Rolling Meadows. The reasons were simple, but, the anger wasn’t. We (wife) were Members. I listened and Watched James. His comments were off. At the last Service I turned to my wife and said “Let’s go, I’m not listening to his bull**** any more.” My wife said “Please do not do this.” We waited till the end of the Service. We never returned. We received a number of letters from Harvest/Rick Donald. They asked if there was a certain reason for us not attending Services etc. But my decision was to leave and leave it alone. Matt did it too. Much much harder than my decision. Harder for him and his entire family.

  19. Elizabeth Taylor Boyd

    This is heartbreaking and I’m sure grieves the Holy Spirit. I’m praying for our leaders.

  20. This article is not enough. You must serve God and not man. The description is no different than Sadducees and Pharisees. The corporate church, evangelical industrial complex is all corrupt and depraved…they are enemies of the Cross. God the Father, His Son, and Holy Spirit do not work this way.

    This was/is a culture of self, old nature ruling, and clearly does not meet qualifications of pastors and deacons according to the Word or even, more sobering, the test of believers in 1 John.

    Run away from churches like this…repent of your lack of decernment before it destroys you, your family, and others. What does Holy Word say about putting stumbling blocks in front of others?

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