Did Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC) steal money from Harvest Bible Fellowship (HBF)—its former church planting network of more than 150 independent churches?
This question has dogged the Chicago-area megachurch ever since Harvest pastor, and former president of HBF, James MacDonald, abruptly disbanded the fellowship in June 2017 amid accusations of self-dealing and financial mismanagement. Technically, the church couldn’t steal from the fellowship because even though HBF was a distinct 501c3, it was a subsidiary of Harvest and controlled by HBC’s elder board.
But to the independent HBF churches, which gave 5-percent of their annual contributions to the fellowship, there was an expectation that Harvest would use their money for church planting. The same went for two other groups that contributed to HBF. These included Harvest’s “40 Mighty Men,” a group of major donors who gave money to Harvest to accelerate church planting. Also contributing to HBF was the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Harvest is a cooperating church within the SBC, as were some of its church plants.
Yet according to David Wisen, a former HBF pastor who participated in a financial review of HBF in 2017, Harvest inappropriately took at least $1.8 million dollars from the fellowship, which it has never repaid. This claim also has been reiterated by the Great Commission Collective—the church planting network formed by former HBF churches after the fellowship disbanded.
Harvest denies this charge. In its October 2017 elder update, the church instead says it went “‘the second mile’ in absorbing . . . all financial impact” related to the fellowship and its closing. Similarly, in an interview with WORLD Magazine last November, MacDonald and HBC Treasurer Jeff Smith said the claim that Harvest owed HBF $1.8 million was “inaccurate.”
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Yet recently, I obtained a stunning text message from James MacDonald where he states the exact opposite.
“In the text, MacDonald admits that Harvest Bible Chapel charged HBF $300,000 – $350,000 more per year than was ‘reasonable’ for ‘shared services.’ . . . This means Harvest overcharged HBF between $1.5 million and $1.75 million for just ‘shared services.'”
In the text, MacDonald admits that Harvest Bible Chapel charged HBF $300,000 – $350,000 more per year than was “reasonable” for “shared services.” These services included things like shared office space, and a portion of the salaries for several Harvest executives who allegedly did work for the fellowship.
According to a leaked letter from Wisen, Harvest charged the fellowship for these “shared services” for at least five years (from 2012-2016). This means Harvest overcharged HBF between $1.5 million and $1.75 million for just “shared services.”
But MacDonald’s text includes another surprising admission.
In it, he also admits that a church management systems upgrade—for which Harvest charged HBF $500,000—was “over priced and under advantaging to HBF churches.” This contradicts the October 2017 elder update, as well. It stated that the systems project “would benefit many (HBF) churches through an app,” which would provide “better-performing websites, and tablet assimilation.”
In an interview with me several weeks ago, Wisen said he doesn’t know of any HBF churches that received the promised app from Harvest. He added that MacDonald told pastors at a pastor’s retreat in February 2017, that Harvest would offer the systems upgrade and new app to HBF churches for free. Charging HBF for an upgrade that HBF churches didn’t approve, nor did they use, was misleading and wrong, Wisen said.
But MacDonald’s text includes yet another disturbing revelation—one that flies in the face of something else Jeff Smith and MacDonald asserted during their interview with WORLD. In that interview, Smith claimed that “all of (HBF’s) designated funds were properly disbursed in accordance with donor specification,” and confirmed in an audit by the accounting firm Capin Crouse.
Yet in MacDonald’s text sent just weeks before that interview, MacDonald admits that Harvest “used HBF money that was designated to cash flow other things.” He also admits that monies from HBF, 40 Mighty Men, and the Southern Baptist Convention “were not properly separated.”
As Wisen explains, this essentially is an admission that Harvest took money that donors had designated for specific purposes, put them into a common pot, and then disbursed them as the church saw fit, sometimes violating donor intent.
I requested an interview with Capin Crouse to discuss how this could have happened without them noticing it, but the firm did not respond to my request.
Similarly, I reached out to Harvest for comment about the text thread. Spokesperson Sharon Kostal responded with a statement from Jeff Smith and Harvest’s Executive Committee of Elders. It said, “Pastor James was not involved with the decisions that led to this particular conflict. We are hopeful that in God’s time, the relationships between those on that text thread can be mended through the peacemaking process we are engaged in.”
“I do not acknowledge doing anything wrong . . .”
Harvest’s statement repeats what MacDonald claims in his text. That is, that MacDonald had no responsibility for the wrongdoing cited in his text, but instead, it was all the doing of former Harvest CFO Fred Adams and former Harvest COO Scott Milholland.
“I do not acknowledge doing anything wrong personally in the financial area—nothing,” MacDonald writes.
MacDonald asserts that Adams and Milholland expanded shared services “without my knowledge prior to Brian White (former HBF interim director) telling me in March 2017.” MacDonald adds that Adams and Milholland “justified (expanding shared services) based upon what we were bringing in from SBC—but it was not justifiable.”
“(MacDonald) is like a mob boss. A mob boss never talks to anybody but his two or three guys. But no one ever talks to him directly.”
I contacted Milholland for comment, but he said he couldn’t respond because of a non-disclosure agreement with Harvest. I also emailed Adams, but he did not respond.
However, when I asked Brian White, now executive director of GCC, about MacDonald’s claim, he said, “I can’t in my mind think of anything happening at Harvest Bible Chapel on that level without James knowing it. . . . This is James. ‘I don’t have any responsibility. I throw people under the bus.’”
Similarly, Bob Langdon, who served as finance director of HBF, said MacDonald controlled all the money for the fellowship, but did it indirectly through Fred Adams. “Fred was set up to be that insulator,” Langdon said. “(MacDonald) is like a mob boss. A mob boss never talks to anybody but his two or three guys. But no one ever talks to him directly.”
MacDonald’s assertion that two or three rogue employees spent HBF money independent of any oversight is yet another assertion that directly contradicts Harvest’s October 2017 elder update. The update claimed that “all monies given by HBF churches” were “spent according to Elder-approved budgets.”
Similarly, during the interview with WORLD, Smith said the finance committee, which Smith chairs, went over “every item in the budget,” which was then approved by the elder board.
However, Earl Seals, a former Harvest elder who participated in HBF’s financial review, said that’s not true. Seals said that during the financial review, he privately asked Smith how he could have allowed HBF money to be spent so irresponsibly. Seals said Smith responded that he didn’t know about the egregious expenditures. Seals said he was shocked by Smith’s response because the elders trusted Smith to oversee HBF spending.
Seals said he intended to report what he had discovered at the HBF financial review during the following elder board meeting. However, right before he walked into the meeting, Seals said Elder Steve Huston told him not to share anything about the financial review with the other elders—none of whom had participated in the review. (Seals said Smith was absent.)
Even so, Seals said he told the other elders that the review had shown that much of HBF’s spending was “unwise.” But before he could say anything more, Seals said he was shut down and then the elders then conveyed to the church that everything was okay. Seals resigned from the board shortly afterwards because to remain would require “endorsing falsehood.”
Donors Feel Betrayed
In his text, MacDonald confronted both Pierre and Wisen for not supporting him throughout the HBF financial debacle. He specifically blamed Wisen for appearing at the 2017 HBF financial review as “an interrogator antagonist when he promised to come as an advocate.”
MacDonald calls the silence of both men in the face of accusations against him “a betrayal so large as to dwarf all others over 35 years of ministry combined.”
However, Wisen said he came to the review as neither antagonist nor advocate. He came as a neutral investigator, trying to determine the facts. He added that he didn’t betray MacDonald; MacDonald and Harvest betrayed their donors.
In addition to the items already mentioned, Wisen said he learned during the review that Harvest had not been contributing five-percent of its contributions to HBF like all the other HBF churches did. Wisen said when he confronted MacDonald, MacDonald claimed that Harvest’s doesn’t have to give five-percent of its contributions to HBF, but instead could use money from 40 Mighty Men or SBC to satisfy its obligation.
“They say they’re being generous when they’re actually stealing . . . At least when you’re being mugged, there’s some integrity between you and the guy who’s robbing you that you’re being robbed.”
Similarly, Seals, another 40 Mighty Men donor, said he was offended by how Harvest spent his money too. He said he was stunned to learn that $500,000 he gave to build a pastoral retreat center at Camp Harvest in Michigan was actually used to build a “training center” that was hardly ever used.
Wisen said in total, Harvest spent about $2 million of HBF money on that training center, but did so without even informing HBF pastors. Harvest also obligated HBF to lease the training center to the church for $10 a year and was using HBF funds to pay all the building’s utilities. Yet, when Camp Harvest rented the building to outside groups, the rental income went to Harvest, not HBF.
“They say they’re being generous when they’re actually stealing,” Wisen said of Harvest. He compared his experience with the church to that of being mugged and added, “At least when you’re being mugged, there’s some integrity between you and the guy who’s robbing you that you’re being robbed. But at Harvest, they don’t even have that baseline integrity to admit that’s what they’re doing.”