Willow Creek & Harvest Bible Chapel Receive Millions in COVID Relief Funds

By Julie Roys

Willow Creek Community Church and Harvest Bible Chapel—two churches rocked by recent scandals—have received millions in COVID relief funds.

According to a list released by the Small Business Administration (SBA), Willow Creek received between $5-$10 million as part of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Harvest Bible Chapel received at least $2.5 million from PPP.

The purpose of the paycheck protection program is to preserve jobs. And the SBA will forgive loans if certain criteria are met, like employees remaining on the payroll for eight weeks.

According to Willow Creek Executive Pastor Tim Stevens, the exact amount Willow Creek received in PPP money is less than $6 million. He added that the church has met the requirements of loan forgiveness by not reducing staff through June 30. (The church received the loan in April.)

Tim Stevens

However, Stevens confirmed a report I had received that Willow Creek plans to furlough some of its employees later this month. Stevens did not disclose how many employees will be laid off. But he said the church will lay off “everyone who’s not able to do their job because buildings are closed and services aren’t happening” due to COVID.

Stevens added that Willow has “every intention” of hiring back these employees once the church can resume in-person services.

When asked if the church had informed the congregation about receiving the PPP loan, Stevens said that the information had been shared “in several leadership circles,” including the “entire staff.” However, he said the church did not announce the loan publicly “as we weren’t gathering for in-person services or meetings at the time.”

I also reached out to Harvest Bible Chapel for details on its PPP loan and current staff situation, but no one responded.

However, an elder update in May stated that Harvest had been given a $2.55 million PPP loan. The update added that the majority of the loan should be forgiven, and that any amount not forgiven will be repaid at a one-percent interest rate.

Financial Woes Follow Scandals

Though the PPP loans cover losses due to COVID, both Willow Creek and Harvest have also suffered heavy losses due to recent scandals involving their senior pastors.

In 2018, Willow Creek’s senior pastor, Bill Hybels, retired early and the entire elder board stepped down, following allegations Hybels had sexually abused numerous women.

Similarly, Harvest Bible Chapel fired its senior pastor, James MacDonald, in 2019, after months of reports of spiritual and emotional abuse, as well as financial misconduct, and the airing of a vulgar “hot mic” recording.

In February, The Roys Report published an article, revealing that attendance at Willow Creek had dropped from 25,000 in 2015 to below 18,000.

Giving at Willow’s main, South Barrington campus is currently $2.1 million behind budget. Two weeks ago, South Barrington recorded a weekly total below $300,000—the lowest, weekly total at that campus in years.

When asked whether the drop in giving has motivated the staff furloughs, Stevens replied, “It plays into it, yes. There’s a shortfall and PPP funds have run out.”

But Stevens added that the furloughs are also a “stewardship issue” because people are being paid for jobs they can’t do since the church building is closed.

Harvest Bible Chapel Rolling Meadows

Giving is also down at Harvest Bible Chapel.

Donations were about $1.5 million below budget at the end of May. Then in June, giving fell about $300,000 below budget, bringing the total shortfall for the year to $1.8 million.

Current attendance for Harvest is not known. However, the church dropped from around 12,000 in attendance to 8,500 within months of MacDonald being fired in 2019.

Harvest also remains in arbitration with MacDonald over financial issues and rights to Walk in the Word, MacDonald’s former broadcast ministry. According to a June elder update, the church anticipates the arbitration to be completed by the end of the summer.

Other Ministries Plagued by Scandal Receive COVID Funds

Several other megachurches and religious nonprofits formerly embroiled in scandals have received millions in COVID funds, as well.

These include Joyce Meyer Ministries Inc., whose finances were investigated by a Senate committee in 2007-2011. Meyer’s ministry was approved for $5-$10 million.

Another ministry that received $2 million or more includes Kanakuk Ministries—a ministry whose former president, Pete Newman, was found guilty of sexually molesting children in the ministry. In 2019, a victim won a $20 million judgment against Newman and Kanakuk. Lawyers claimed Kanakuk’s management knew about Newman’s inappropriate behavior, but was slow to act.

Also receiving $2 million or more was Summit Church, where Southern Baptist Convention President J. D. Greear pastors. Greear recently has come under fire for hiring Bryan Loritts, a pastor accused of covering up sex crimes and touting a fake doctorate.

Another recipient of $2 million or more was Shadow Mountain Community Church where David Jeremiah pastors. Jeremiah lost his membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in 2010 for questionable financial dealings.

The Potter’s House, where popular prosperity preacher, T.D. Jakes, pastors, also received at least $2 million in PPP funds. Jakes lives in a multi-million-dollar mansion and has a net worth estimated at $18 million.   

Elevation Church, where Steven Furtick pastors, received more than $2 million in PPP funds, as well. Furtick has faced criticism for his posh lifestyle and undisclosed salary set by a board of other megachurch pastors.

In all, religious organizations with loans over $150,000 received at least $3.5 billion, and potentially as much as $7 billion, in forgivable, government loans.

In April, I recorded a podcast with Chuck Bentley, president of Crown Financial Ministries, who urged Christian ministries and churches to exercise extreme caution when considering taking government money.  

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8 thoughts on “Willow Creek & Harvest Bible Chapel Receive Millions in COVID Relief Funds”

  1. If James MacDonald and HBC did not properly report his compensation to the IRS, which I think is highly likely given the widely publicized lack of appropriate financial controls, how could HBC certify as part of the application that “neither the Applicant or any owner of the Applicant have within the past three years been: […] (d) delinquent on any amounts owed to the U.S. Government?”

    Are they not delinquent because the amounts have not yet been assessed by the IRS? My understanding with tax assessments is they would be considered delinquent from the date taxes were due each year with interest and penalties accordingly, but perhaps a CPA or attorney can opine, if there are any on here.

    I wonder if HBC had their own attorneys review this before submitting.

    1. Jessica Hockett

      Good question that applies not only to James MacDonald’s W-2s, but also the W-2s of other employees who enjoyed benefits bestowed from or alongside MacDonald.

      Here’s another question: In March 2020, Harvest purchased the Class B shares from investors in Harvest Bible Chapel North Shore LLC (which owns 1731 Deerfield Road), at par for $3,500,000, making the church the sole shareholder.

      So where did the $3.5 million come from? Profit from the sale of the Niles property? Shocking that Elders had the audacity to make the (unnecessary) share purchase in March, and then ask the government for $2.55 million in loans.

      Illinois’ most corrupt “church” business club plays on.

  2. When the Covid funds were being talked about, there were a few church consultants that were encouraging churches to hurry and sign up in order to be “at the front of the line.” Our church board talked about this and decided not to pursue the funds for the following reasons:

    1. Churches are non-profits and don’t pay taxes so why should we receive money from government which we had not contributed toward. We felt that was an ethical problem.

    2. “The power of the purse strings” – once money had been received there is always the potential for government interference. Some folks have argued that this is like a “contract” with the government. However the government has been known to “rewrite” contracts to their benefit at a future date.

    3. We have attempted to be good stewards of God’s financially. We have kept a 6 month reserve fund and by God’s grace and our church families’ generosity, the needs have been met to allow us to continue to serve in Jesus’ name at this point.

    I do see a significant ethical problem for churches to receive these funds, especially those who have allowed their leadership to live large. We are burdening the financial future of our children and grandchildren. There is no free money. Perhaps someone from a church that received funds can explain how it is ethical to receive this money.

    1. You make many interesting points, but your point that a church doesn’t pay taxes thus shouldn’t receive funds misconstrues the intention of the program – the church’s employees pay taxes, and the ‘free money’ is intended to be sure the church keeps them on the payroll. The authors of the legislation were well aware that there would be a lot of moral hazard in this, but the goal is to protect the livelihoods of a corporate entity’s workday employees.

  3. Wow! I generally do not leave comments, but my heart is breaking as I read this article.
    As a former Harvest member I am so distraught that churches mentioned in the article were allowed and opted to take these loans.
    Small business have had to permanently close including an amazing Christ centered store which also had a mission to give back I am personally connected with because the PPP ran out before they could receive the much needed funds to survive. However these megachurches who still receive tithes (and should NOT be considered “small businesses”) took this money which meant those who really needed it could not.

    1. Joleen Day- as of the date of your comment, PPP funds are still available for any size business that qualifies. PPP funds are for paying employees. Are church employees less deserving than any other employee?

      1. Christine, the PPP did run out of money on April 16, in the first round of applicants. (Afterwards, Congress added more funds that are currently still available.)
        From Forbes.com (byline April 16): ““All PPP funds are exhausted,” an SBA spokesperson wrote in an email to Forbes””.
        There were indeed numerous small businesses that did not receive loans during the first opportunity, and have closed permanently as a result.
        Further, I don’t believe Joleen is commenting on the “deserving” status of church employees, but rather on the ethical dilemma of the large enterprises of Willow and HBC quickly applying for PPP funds, and receiving them, effectively blocking out the small businesses who do not have dedicated financial officers to handle the applications. Adding to the frustration, Willow and HBC, in their respective business offices should have been maintaining a reserve fund to carry them through a temporary financial crisis, such as this pandemic.

  4. @Christine – I am truly sorry if you are impacted by financial failures of a church. I think there is a significant difference between small business and a church. A small business is a “for profit” organization which must pay taxes on their income/revenue. A church is a non-profit which does not pay taxes on income/giving. So I don’t believe that ethically there is the opportunity to ask for money when none has been contributed. It may be legal, but it isn’t ethical. Churches want to be considered non-profit when it fits, but receive money for which they have not contributed.

    As Merle posted above, the small business folks I have heard from indicate that PPP funds are no longer available. This does impact business which lost revenue because they were shuttered. Churches that allowed leadership to be paid exorbitant wages and are now significantly indebted should not be receiving funds that should be going to business that were significantly impacted due to the state mandates. PPP money should not going to churches that mismanaged funds. Side note: The whole PPP thing is broken as we have seen. When government attempts to help they only create more problems. Here we have an indebtedness on future generations and money has gone to wealthy organizations which you can read about.

    If you are suffering financially through loss of job, I do trust that church family will step up and be the church family to help provide support in these challenging times.

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